Desert Culture

Culture of Mali

The Culture of Mali derives from the shared experience as a colonial and post-colonial polity, and the interaction of the numerous cultures which make up the Malian people. What is today the nation of Mali was united first in the medieval period as the Mali Empire. While the current state does not include areas in the southwest, and is expanded far to the east and northeast, the dominant roles of the Mandé peoples is shared by the modern Mali and the empire from which it took its name. In the east, Songhai, Bozo and Dogon people predominate, while the Fula people, formerly nomadic, have settled in patches across the nation. Tuareg and Maure peoples continue a largely nomadic desert culture across the north of the nation. The interaction of these communities (along with dozens of other, smaller ethnicities) have created a Malian culture marked by heterogeneity as well as syntheses where these traditions intermix.

Ethnic patchwork and intermixing

Mande peoples share a caste system in which certain skills (metalworking, fishing, history-keeping) are passed down through families. The rituals and cultural associations of these activities have spread far beyond the Mande communities themselves.

While the Malinke, Soninke - Sarakole, Dyula and Bambara peoples form a Mande core (at around %50) of Malian culture in the heavily populated regions of the south and east, a mosaic of other cultures contribute to a uniquely Malian society. The Fulani, originally nomadic but now as likely village and city dwelling, are scattered in communities across the nation, as they are over much of West Africa. Fula peoples were amongst the first and most fervent believers in Islam, a religion which orders the lives of the vast majority of Malians. The Fula traditions of nomadic cattle herding has bequeathed values of mobility, independence, and at the same time created networks of mutual dependence between certain communities and cultures. The Fula transhumance cycle would mean that entire Fula tribes would spend seasons living in Bambara communities, creating formalised relationships called Cousinage. In Mali, the state of Macina, in the midst of the Niger Inland Delta was dominated by Fula people and culture. Dogon and Songhay peoples are dominant in the east of the country, with the Songhay Empire pushing traditionally animist Dogon deep into the isolating hill country of the southeast. Here the Dogon have maintained a unique culture, art, and lifestyle which has become a source of pride for all Malians. All along the edge of the Sahara, and far into the dry land of isolated oases live the nomadic Berber Tuareg and the (in the northwest) the Maures (or Moors), of Arabo-Berber origins. While making up only %10 of the population, these groups bring a distinct culture to modern Mali.


Malian musical traditions are often derived from the Mande griots or jalis The music of Mali is best known outside of Africa for the kora virtouso Toumani Diabaté, the late roots and blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré and his successors Afel Bocoum and Vieux Farka Touré, the Tuareg band Tinariwen, and several Afro-pop artists such as Salif Keita, the duo Amadou et Mariam, and Oumou Sangare.


Though Mali's literature is less famous than its music, Mali has always been one of Africa's liveliest intellectual centers. Mali's literary tradition is largely oral, with jalis reciting or singing histories and stories from memory. Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Mali's best-known historian, spent much of his life recording the oral traditions of his own Fula teachers, as well as those of Bambara and other Mande neighbors. The best-known novel by a Malian writer is Yambo Ouologuem's Le devoir de violence, which won the 1968 Prix Renaudot but whose legacy was marred by accusations of plagiarism. It is a dark history of a loosely disguised Bambara Empire, focused on slavery, injustice and suffering. Other well-known Malian writers include Baba Traoré, Ousmane Sembene, Modibo Sounkalo Keita, Maryse Condé (a native of the French Antillies, has made a career writing about the Bamabara people from whom she decends), Massa Makan Diabaté, Moussa Konaté, and Fily Dabo Sissoko.

Festivals, food, and clothing

The varied everyday culture of Malians reflects the country's ethnic and geographic diversity. Most Malians wear flowing, colorful robes called boubous that are typical of West Africa. Malians frequently participate in traditional festivals, dances, and ceremonies. Rice and millet are the staples of Malian cuisine, which is heavily based on cereal grains. Grains are generally prepared with sauces made from leaves such spinach or baobab leaves, with tomato, or with peanut sauce, and may be accompanied by pieces of grilled meat (typically chicken, mutton, beef, or goat). Malian cuisine varies regionally.


The most popular sport in Mali is football (soccer), which became more prominent after Mali hosted the 2002 African Cup of Nations. Most towns have regular games; the most popular national teams are Djoliba, Stad, and Real. Informal games are often played by youths using a bundle of rags as a ball. The country has produced several notable players for French teams, including Salif Keita and Jean Tigana. Basketball is another major sport; the Mali women's national basketball team is the only African basketball team competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Traditional wrestling (la lutte) is also somewhat common, though its popularity has declined in recent years. The game wari, a mancala variant, is a common pastime.


Works cited

  • DiPiazza, Francesca Davis. Mali in Pictures. Twenty-First Century Books (2007). ISBN 0822565919.
  • Hudgens, Jim, Richard Trillo, and Nathalie Calonnec. The Rough Guide to West Africa. Rough Guides (2003). ISBN 1843531186.
  • Milet, Eric & Jean-Luc Manaud. Mali. Editions Olizane (2007). ISBN 2880863511.
  • Pye-Smith, Charlie & Rhéal Drisdelle. Mali: A Prospect of Peace? Oxfam (1997). ISBN 0855983345.
  • Velton, Ross. Mali. Bradt Travel Guides (2004). ISBN 1841620777.

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