POPULATION: 9 million

LANGUAGE: French (official), fifteen national languages: Bamana, Bobo, Bozo, Dogon, Juula, Fulfulde, Khassonke, Malinke, Maure, Minianka, Senufo, Soninke (or Sarakolle), Songhai (or Sonrai), Tuareg (or Tamacheq), and Tukulor

RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; indigenous beliefs


Mali, in west Africa, is among the world's poorest nations. Before European explorers arrived in 1795, the Malinke and Songhai empires developed and flourished in the region. The French conquered the region in the late 1800s. By 1900, the French had consolidated all the land they had conquered into the colony of Soudan Français (French Sudan).

The people of Mali struggled for independence. For a brief period, they joined with Senegal to form the Mali Federation. The combination was not successful, however. The Republic of Mali established its independence on September 22, 1960. At first, Mali was controlled by a socialist government, and then by a military government that lasted until 1991 when militant ruler Moussa Traoré was removed from office by forces hoping to establish democracy in Mali. Within a year, a democratically elected government under the leadership of Alpha Oumar Konaré took over for a five-year term. Konaré was elected to a second term in 1997.


Located in the interior of west Africa, the Republic of Mali shares borders with seven countries. Its territory extends over 465,000 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers). A large part of Mali is covered by the Sahara Desert and receives less than 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain a year. As a result, most of the population is concentrated in the southern half of the country. The Niger, one of the major African rivers, crosses Mali, forming a vast interior delta. Mali's population is about 9 million. Well over 1 million people live in the metropolitan area of Bamako, the capital city.


The official language of Mali is French. However, only about one-third of the total population is schooled in French. Local languages remain the preferred mode of communication. Approximately one-third of all Malians speak Bamana as their mother tongue, and many speak it as a second language. The Juula or Malinke languages are closely related to Bamana. People who speak these three languages can usually understand each other.

Most television programs are in French. The national radio also broadcasts news and other programs in the different national languages.


For many Malians, the ancestors who actively resisted French colonization are folk heroes. Otherwise, heroes and myths vary from one ethnic group to another. As the founder of an ancient empire, Sunjata Keita (c.1200–c.1260) has a special position in the region's folklore. His epic is recited to musical accompaniment in the south and west. Only specially trained griots (singers and oral historians) are permitted to perform the epic.


Between 70 and 80 percent of all Malians consider themselves Muslims (followers of Islam). Except for a small number of Muslims who belong to the Wahhabbiya sect, the majority of Malian women do not wear veils. Offices close at midday on Friday to allow the faithful to participate in Friday prayer at the mosque.

Christians constitute only about 2 percent of the population. The remainder of the population continues to follow native religious practices. These may involve sacrifices to the ancestors, prophecy, and membership in initiation societies.


Muslim holidays, as well as Christmas and Easter, are officially recognized. The two most important Islamic holidays are Eid al-Fitr , following the holy month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha (also known as Tabaski ), celebrated on the tenth day of the last month in the Muslim calendar. Each lasts for three days and is celebrated with public prayers, the slaughter of a ram, and new clothes for family members.

The only secular (nonreligious) holiday is September 22, the Malian day of independence. This holiday commemorates the birth of the independent nation of Mali, ending French colonial rule. The major festivities take place in the capital city and include parades, music, and dancing.


Special ceremonies mark birth, marriage, and death throughout the country. Details vary among different ethnic groups. In urban areas, women relatives and friends come to the name-giving ceremony for a new baby. They bring gifts of cloth or soap for the mother. In the past, males were circumcised during the teen years. Now, circumcision is commonly done between the ages of eight and ten, or even shortly after birth.

The mother of a bride also receives cloth from her relatives and friends on behalf of her daughter. Men give money to a bridegroom on his wedding day to help him meet expenses. (The husband and his family pay for the wedding festivities.) When someone dies, relatives, neighbors, and friends visit the bereaved family as soon as they can. Only men accompany the body to the cemetery when the deceased is a Muslim.


Upon entering a household, a visitor gives a short greeting to his or her host. If the visitor is a stranger or someone who visits only irregularly, the host responds with a longer greeting. He inquires about the person's well-being and that of his or her relatives. The visitor then does the same in turn. While these greetings are being exchanged, the host and guest may hold right hands, or they may talk without making any physical contact. Shaking hands is common among coworkers in offices.

Dating often takes place in groups, rather than by a couple alone. Many young people in urban areas now choose their spouses themselves. However, a young man must still send a family representative to the family of the woman he wishes to marry. The woman's family must give their consent and determine the gift exchanges that will take place.


Life is difficult for the majority of Malians. Wages in many jobs and businesses are low. Those with an income must support extended family members as well as their own nuclear families. All Malians have many obligations toward less fortunate relatives. Households rarely encompass only a nuclear family.

An increasing number of households with access to electricity own television sets and, to a lesser extent, VCRs. The interiors of most rural and urban homes are very modest. Few urban families have such furnishings as a couch, table, chairs, and a china cabinet. Given the climate, much of daily life takes place in the courtyard or in the shade of the veranda.


Malian law allows men to have more than one wife. A number of men have two wives. However, only a small percentage have the three or four permitted by Islam. Each wife is entitled to her own house or apartment. When a man has more than one wife, the wives share food preparation responsibilities. Many urban households with a regular income employ live-in domestic servants, generally young unmarried women from the rural areas.

Women work in all fields. Even women who call themselves "housewives" are likely to earn money through crafts, gardening, or selling home-cooked food.


Traditional dress varies for men is the boubou (an ample, full-length tunic). Women wear a pagne (wraparound skirt) and matching tunic and headdress. Unique colors are often achieved through hand dyeing.

Teenage girls and young women wear wraparound or narrow tailored skirts and matching cotton print tops. A small but growing number of teenage girls in urban areas wear pants.

At work, many men wear Western-style pants and shirts or short tunics. Women wear wraparound skirts and tunics. Imported second-hand clothing from Europe or North America is worn by many when doing manual labor.

12 • FOOD

Different regions have their own traditional foods. The two staples throughout most of the country are boiled rice and a stiff porridge made of millet. A typical breakfast food is gruel made with millet flour, tama-rind, and sugar. Small leavened pancakes made with millet are also eaten. Many people prefer rice to millet, and those who can afford it eat rice daily. Both rice and millet are served with a sauce that may include fresh vegetables, fish, meat, or chicken. In the city, a light meal may consist of boiled rice made creamy with milk and sweetened with sugar. Salad is also gaining in popularity among younger people. Typical snacks include fried plantain or shish kebab (meat on a skewer). A recipe for kyinkyinga (pronounced chin-CHIN-gah), meat kebabs, follows.


In the population fifteen years of age or older, general literacy was estimated at 32 percent during the early 1990s. Many students drop out of school during or after elementary school. Many never enter at all or go only to a Koranic school (where teaching is based on the Muslim holy scriptures, the Koran). There are also modernized Muslim schools (madrasas) that combine an Islamic education with education in French.

To promote literacy among rural adults, alphabets have been created for the Malinke, Bamana, Fulfulde, Songhai, and Tuareg languages.


Groups of musicians frequently tour rural areas during the dry season and perform on demand for a fee. A number of Malian musicians have achieved national and international acclaim. The singer Salif Keita is a national and international star. Since 1970 an arts festival for young people has been held every two years in the capital. Youths who have won local theater, music, and dance competitions compete against those from other regions.

Most of Mali's written literature is in French. Significant writers include Amadou Hampate Ba, Seydou Badian, Nagognime Urbain Dembélé, and Massa Makan Diabaté.


The majority of Malians are self-employed, making a living as farmers, herders, fishermen, traders, or artisans. Most of the salaried positions are in the civil service or with international organizations. Many Malians emigrate in search of better work opportunities on a short-or long-term basis.


(West African Kebabs)


  • 2 pounds lean beef stew meat (or liver), cubed
  • 3 green peppers, cut into 1-inch squares
  • 4 medium onions, chopped fine
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 Tablespoon flour
  • 1 can of crushed tomatoes (15 ounce size)
  • 1 Tablespoon garlic salt
  • ½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce (Malian cooks use 1 Tablespoon, but this is probably too "hot" for many people)
  • 3 ounces unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, ground to a powder in a food processor
  • Apple or grape juice (Malian cooks might use sweet wine)


  1. Set cubed meat in a bowl for marinating. Set the squares of green pepper, and about one-third of the peanut powder aside. Combine all other ingredients.
  2. Pour about half the seasoning mixture over the meat and allow to marinate for at least one hour.
  3. Skewer the meat alternating with the squares of green peppers on metal skewers.
  4. Grill the kebabs over hot coals (or under a preheated broiler), turning about every 4 minutes until cooked. Total cooking time will be about 15 minutes.
  5. Combine about ½ cup of apple or grape juice with the remaining half of seasoning sauce. Heat to boiling, and boil for a few minutes to thicken the sauce slightly.
  6. When kebabs are done, remove them from the grill and sprinkle with remaining peanut powder.

Serve with rice and ladle the sauce over the kebabs.


Soccer is by far the most popular sport. It is played for fun and in competitions. Basketball has been gaining in popularity and is played by both male and female teams.


Radios are widely owned throughout the country. People of all ages tune in for their favorite programs. An increasing number of households with access to electricity own television sets, and some even VCRs. People often move their television into the courtyard in the evening to view in the company of neighbors or friends.

Most young people enjoy listening to audio cassettes of folk and popular music, both African and international. Rural youths dance mostly at local festivals. In the city, young people go to discotheques and other dance events on weekends. Movie theaters in the cities attract mainly a young audience with Hollywood, Kung Fu, Indian, and some Malian films. The most popular pastime for young and old is still visiting friends, relatives, and neighbors.


Different regions and ethnic groups specialize and excel in particular products: Fulbe men in the Mopti region, for example, weave wool blankets. Tuareg women craft dyed leather goods (pillow covers, bags, knife sheaths). Most wool blankets and leather goods are now intended for the tourist market. However, other products are still made primarily for use in the home. These include gold and silver jewelry, pottery, and a variety of mats and basketry. Handwoven cotton cloth is sewn into wraps for women and tunics for men, as well as into blankets.


From 1960 to the overthrow of the Traoré government in 1991, political prisoners were frequently banished to the salt mines of the Sahara Desert. Drug use exists in some youth circles but is discouraged by the government and by Islam.


Carpenter, Allan, Thomas O'Toole, and Mark LaPointe. Mali. Chicago: Children's Press, 1975.

Imperato, Pascal James. Historical Dictionary of Mali. 3rd edition. London: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

O'Toole, Thomas. Mali in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1990.


Interknowledge Corporation. Mali. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998.

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