Culture, History and People: Mali

Culture, History and People: Mali

Known as the largest landlocked country of Africa by area, the beautiful country of Mali, formerly known as French Sudan, is known for its salt and gold mines, and the Niger River that runs through its capital, Bamako.  The country of Mali was once ruled by King Sundiata Keita.  Sundiata united several smaller Malinke kingdoms near the upper region of the Niger River, and continued to expand the empire of Mali by conquering the former capital of Ghana in 1240.  Various kings, called Mansa, ruled the empire after the Sundiata reign.  Sundiata’s grandson, Mansa Musa, came to become the most legendary ruler of the Mali Empire.  Mansa Musa doubled the nation’s territories with the help of Mali’s army and utilized the location of Mali to make it one of the top trade centers of the continent.  Also known for his large riches, Mansa Musa spread his wealth through Mali by undertaking a pilgrimage to spread all his gold and riches throughout the country.  To this day, Musa’s contributions to the country are still recognized and cherished, as he made Timbuktu and Gao cultural centers of the country, brought art and beautiful architecture within the cities of Mali, and made Mali a kingdom for the learning of Islamic culture and faith.  

The history of Mali is conceptualized in its flag, which uses the pan-African colors of West Africa to symbolize fertility (green), mineral riches (gold), and the bloodshed from the independence from France (red).  The major ethnic group of Mali are Mande, which comprise about 50% of the population, with the remaining percentage consisting of Peul/Fulbe, Voltaic, Tuareg and Moor, and Songhai groups. Mande is broken down into 3 groups, Bamana, Jula, and Malinke.  The Bamana people, also known as Bambara, occupy the majority of the central part of the country, in the savannah region.  The language, Bamana, is the official inter-ethnic language of Mali, and is one of the official languages of Mali, alongside French.  

Mali values its traditions through holidays and ritual ceremonies.  Being that majority of the Malian population is Muslim, Ramadan is a major Islamic event that is celebrated, referred to as sunkalo in Bamana.  The conclusion of Ramadan is signified by a feast called selijinin, translated to ‘small feast’, and 40 days after is seliba, which is directly translated to ‘big feast.’  During these festivities, the families will sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, and people exchange gifts of meat and prepared meals as a sign of solidarity.  Along with the Islamic holidays, major holidays like Easter and Christmas are recognized.  During these holidays and festivities, the people of Mali don their finest clothing in celebration.  A traditional fabric you will see amongst the clothing is called bogolan.  Bogolan is a cloth made from fermented mud, using an ancestral technique of spinning, weaving and dyeing to create its signature print.  Originally, the cloth was reserved as a marking for hunters, warriors, and healers.  However, the modern take of the bogolan fabric has now found itself in haute couture and everyday clothing, making it a West African closet staple.

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