ETHNONYMS: Manding, Mandingue
"Mande" is a term that has been used to identify the culture that embraces the western third of Africa's great northern savanna and coastal forests. In a narrow sense, "Mande" identifies a geographic homeland, with boundaries that vary according to regional beliefs and politics. This homeland is centered along the common border between Mali and Guinea. From this core area, the Mali Empire coalesced and spread eastward into Burkina Faso; westward into Guinea and Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea Bissau; and southward into Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Ghana. The Mali Empire was the source of the Mande diaspora; therefore, in a broad sense, "Mande" refers to the areas of these countries that are occupied by Mande language speakers.
The Mande are comprised of a number of different ethnic groups including—but not limited to—the Bamana (or Bambara), Maninka (or Malinke), and Dyula, who constitute the linguistic and cultural nucleus; the Somono, Bozo, and Wasuluka, who are close to the nucleus; the Kagoro, Khasonke, Mandinko, Marka, and Soninke, who are savanna groups; and the Kuranko, Kono, Vai, Susu, and Yalunka, who are forest groups. The largest group, numbering more than 1.6 million, is that of the Bamana. Some of the smaller groups, such as the Bozo and the Yalunka, have fewer than 50,000 members each.
There is tremendous regional variation among the Mande, both in dialect and in culture. There are many different dialects of Mande, and some, such as Maninka and Mandinko, are mutually unintelligible. Some aspects of culture, such as the practice of Islam, also vary greatly from area to area and even from community to community.
All Mande are primarily agriculturists, and most are full-time subsistence farmers. Many towns are surrounded by women's garden plots and by much larger family fields. Rice is an important staple crop. During planting and harvesting, much time is spent in the fields. During other seasons, there is time for other activities, and some farmers have part-time businesses to supplement their harvests.
All of the Mande groups have similar social systems. Until the advent of colonialism in the nineteenth century, the Mande were divided into three main groups: farmers and nobles, specialized professionals, and slaves. This social structure probably developed with the founding of the Mali Empire in the thirteenth century. The ways in which membership in and interaction among these groups were defined varied between ethnic groups and changed rapidly over time. After the turn of the twentieth century, European colonialists drastically changed the social structure of the Mande by outlawing slavery; however, the position of slave still persists within a castelike system in Mande society.
The Mande are a patrilineal group, with the oldest male acting as lineage head. A minor lineage is often defined territorially as the houses of a man and his immediate family. A major lineage includes the houses of genealogical brothers and their families. A hamlet is the next larger unit, containing the houses of men of the same clan name. The men of a hamlet attend ritual meetings together and are arranged roughly according to seniority based on age. The hamlet also defines an exogamous group, wherein the men of one hamlet give their daughters in marriage to the men of other hamlets.
Heavy farmwork is done by men; women have both farm and domestic duties. Women perform much of the time-consuming work, such as cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. Whereas men usually occupy the village-based leaderhip positions, such as headman and imam, or religious leader, the women of a village often have their own organization, with a leader who corresponds to the male religious leader. This "circumcision queen," as she is sometimes known, is responsible for the girls' circumcision ceremonies and is acknowledged as an expert on health, medicine, and the raising of children.
McNaughton, Patrick R. (1988). The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Schaffer, Matt (1980). Mandinko: The Ethnography of a West African Holy Land. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.