ALTERNATE NAMES: Mandinka; Maninka; Manding; Mandingo; Mandin; Mande
LOCATION: Territory covering The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
POPULATION: 1.5 million
LANGUAGE: Variations of Mande languages
Liberia's population of over 2 million steadily declined in the 1990s. During the 1989–96 civil war, as many as two hundred thousand people died and another seven hundred thousand became refugees. Liberia's population consists of over two dozen ethnic groups, which fall into three main language groups: Kru (east and southeast), Mel (northwest), and Mande (north and far west). The Malinke are a Mande-speaking group.
The Malinke are also commonly referred to as Mandinka, Maninka, Manding, Mandingo, Mandin, and Mande. They live in areas of sub-Saharan Africa that have a history of agricultural settlements dating as far back as 7,000 years.
The Malinke are heirs to the great Mali Empire, a medieval merchant empire that flourished from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century and greatly influenced the history of western Africa. Malinke territories in the northern region of Africa were brought under Muslim control in the eleventh century. The renowned city of Islamic teaching, Timbuctu, was also part of the vast and prosperous Mali Empire. The empire declined in the fifteenth century and was gradually absorbed by the Songhai Kingdom, which extended to the seventeenth century.
As early as 1444, Portuguese traders had enslaved the first Malinke people, and in the next three and a half centuries, thousands of Malinke and other peoples were transported by Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch merchants to the Caribbean and the Americas to work as slaves on plantations. During the nineteenth century the kingdoms of the Malinke peoples were subjugated by the British, French, and Portuguese and were incorporated into their colonial systems.
The Malinke people gained some popular attention when American author Alex Haley published his best-selling book, Roots (1974), later made into a television series. The story of Haley's ancestral family and the book's main character, Kunta Kinte of the Mandinka (Malinke) people, personalized the terrible plight of African slaves and their families who were sold into slavery.
The Malinke were not only victims of the slave trade, but they were also perpetrators of the institution, having had a long history of owning and maintaining slaves. There were two distinct kinds of slaves to be found: those who had been captured in battle or purchased; and those who had been born into the slave families of their village. The indigenous slave trade persisted into the nineteenth century.
Today there are more than 1.5 million Malinke distributed over several African nations within a wide arc that extends 800 miles (1,300 kilometers). The region starts at the mouth of the Gambia River in the northwest and circles around in a bow form, ending in the Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in the southeast. The territory includes areas in the nations of The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire. There are numerous other African ethnic groups sharing these areas.
The Malinke peoples speak slight variations of the broad Mande branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. The term "Mande" frequently refers to a group of closely related languages spoken by the Malinke and other west African peoples such as the Bambara, the Soninke, and the Dyula.
Details of the early days of the Mali Empire and the lifestyles of the people have been kept alive for centuries through the epic poem, Sonjara (or Sundiata ; also Sunjata ), which has been sung for generations by the griots , bards or praise-singers of West Africa. In over 3,000 lines of poetry in the oral tradition, the epic tells the story of Sonjara, a legendary leader who, after countless obstacles and trials, unites the Malinke clans and chiefdoms at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Sonjara is unable to walk as a child because of a spell put on him by his father's jealous second wife. Sonjara finally learns to walk and becomes a hunter, giving up his claim to the throne during a long exile with his mother and siblings. A delegation from Mali comes to him and begs him to return and save them from an evil sorcerer-king, Sumanguru. Sonjara organizes an army to regain his throne. With help from his sister, who seduces Sumanguru in order to learn his weaknesses, and after many bloody battles, Sonjara's army defeats the forces of Sumanguru.
The majority of the Malinke are Muslim (followers of Islam) and have adapted the teachings of Islam into their native beliefs. Most Malinke villages have a mosque. Women sit separate from the men, both in the mosque and during outside religious services. Those villagers who have made the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, or even descendants of those who have made the journey, are highly respected.
The principal religious leader is the elected imam, an elder who leads prayers at the mosques and has great religious knowledge. The other Islamic clerics who play major roles as healers and religious counselors are the marabouts . They are respected as preservers of morality through oral tradition and teachers of the Koran (sacred text of Islam). They are perceived to be experts at preventing and healing ailments or injuries inflicted by mortals or those that are believed to have been inflicted by evil spirits.
The favorite is Muslim holiday is Tabaski, which usually falls in the spring or summer, the day being determined according to the Islamic lunar calendar. Tabaski commemorates the moment when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God's command, when God interceded and provided a ram instead. It is prestigious to have a very large and fat ram to slaughter for the holiday. On this day people attend the mosque, and there is much eating (especially roasted mutton) and visiting of friends. Other religious holidays include the Feast of Ramadan celebrated at the end of the annual thirty-day Muslim fast, and Muhammad's birthday.
A week after the birth of an infant, the Malinke hold a name-giving ceremony. A marabout leads prayers during the ceremony, shaves the infant's head, and announces the name of the child for the first time.
Puberty rites and circumcision are very significant in the lives of the Malinke, both male and female. It is the most important rite of passage, for one cannot attain adulthood or marry without it. For boys the rite is held about once every five years and includes novices from six to thirteen years old, who may be in a group of thirty to forty-five boys. Boys are kept secluded for six to eight weeks of instruction before circumcision.
Girls are circumcised in smaller groups, and the ceremonies occur more frequently. The girls stay secluded for ten days to two weeks. During this time they are taught Malinke values and how to work together as a group. In recent years there has been pressure to conduct female circumcisions in clinics or to stop them altogether. In general, however, the older generation is very reluctant to let go of these traditional rituals.
Marriage for a Malinke girl may begin with her betrothal at birth to a boy who may be as old as twelve. The preferred marriage arrangement is for a betrothal between a boy and his mother's brother's daughter. Prior to marriage, the suitor makes several payments of a bride price (including money, kola nuts, salt, and some livestock) to the parents of the prospective bride. The typical Malinke wedding, called a "bride transfer," takes place on a Thursday or Friday—the two holiest days of the week.
For funerals, a corpse is ritually bathed and buried on its right side, head facing east, feet to the north. A fence is built around the grave to protect it from animals; sticks are put over the hole. During the next forty-five days, three mortuary ceremonies are held at which oil cakes and kola nuts are distributed to those attending.
When the Malinke encounter a family member or friend, an extensive ritual exchange of formal greeting questions can take up to a minute. They might say, "Peace be with you," "Is your life peaceful?", "How is everything going?", "Are your family members in good health?", "How is your father?", or "Is the weather treating your crops well?" The questions go back and forth and may end with, "Thanks be to Allah." Even if one is not feeling well or if things are not going well, the answers are usually positive. It is considered very bad manners not to engage in the lengthy greeting exchange.
If a guest drops by at mealtime, he or she will surely be invited to share the meal. Those who have been blessed by Allah (God) with wealth are expected to share some of theirs with others.
The Malinke who live in the cities have adapted to an urban lifestyle. Most, however, still live in traditional villages of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people. The villages are rather compact, consisting of groups of compounds enclosed by millet-stalk fences. A compound contains several cylindrical houses built of sun-baked bricks or wattle and daub, with a thatched roof; there will also be a granary and a separate cylindrical kitchen with low half-walls and a thatched roof. Houses are grouped around a center courtyard that may contain a well.
For transportation, a bicycle, an occasional motorbike, an ox cart, or a horse cart are used by those who can afford them. More frequently, villagers walk to catch a bus or perhaps share a taxi, or they simply walk to their destination. Women do not have much opportunity to leave their villages, and travel for women is discouraged by the Malinke culture.
The Malinke consider large families to be important. A large compound with brothers and their wives will always be bustling with family members of several generations and children of many ages. The Malinke practice polygyny (multiple wives), and Islam permits men to take up to four wives. The expensive bride price and the fact that society requires that all wives be provided for equally means that only prosperous men can afford several wives.
Women are always busy with some kind of work, while it is common to see men sitting under a tree in the village square, chatting with other men and having a smoke and some tea. The household heads have the authority to make all important decisions, although women wield significant power behind the scenes.
The social organization of the Malinke is based on an ancient caste (class) system into which members are born. A Malinke can never change the caste-status into which he or she is born. There is rarely marriage between individuals of different castes. In an average village, however, the differences in wealth or status among the castes is barely visible. The size of the family is often more of an indication of wealth; small families with few children and few extended family members are thought of as poor and unfortunate.
Today, Malinke who live in urban centers, especially the men, may have adopted Western-style clothes. Villagers, on the other hand, take pride in their traditional clothing, which is important to them. In fact, one of the obligations of a husband is to give each wife the cloth for at least two new outfits every year.
Women generally wear a loose, scoop-necked smock over a long skirt made by a wrap-around piece of cloth. They often tie a matching piece of cloth around their head in an informal turban, each woman's turban having its own special flair. They use brightly colored cotton prints with splashy, large designs; some also wear tie-dyed, wood-block, or batik prints. The traditional casual dress for men is made with the same bright prints fashioned in an outfit that resembles pajamas.
For formal occasions men and women may wear the grand boubou . For women this is a loose dress that extends to ground level and may be trimmed in lace or embroidery. For men it is a long robe-like garment covering long pants and a shirt. Many middle-aged or elder men wear knit caps. Shoes are leather or rubber thongs.
Traditional Malinke are cultivators who grow varieties of millet, sorghum, rice (in the swampy areas), and corn as staple crops. As cash crops they grow peanuts and cotton, and to supplement their diet and gain a bit of income, they grow diverse vegetables in garden plots. Some villages have a bakery where small loaves of French-style bread are baked.
The wealthier Malinke own some livestock—cattle, goats, chickens, and perhaps a horse for plowing. The cattle are used for milk and for the prestige of owning them; they are rarely slaughtered. There is little meat in the diet. Those who live near rivers or lakes may supplement their meals with fish.
A typical breakfast might consist of corn porridge eaten with a spoon made of a small, elongated calabash (gourd) split in half. The midday and evening meals may consist of rice or couscous with sauce (often peanut) and/or vegetables. Couscous can be made of pounded and steamed millet, sorghum, or cornmeal.
Tea-time is an important break for the Malinke. Tea is made by filling a small pot with dried tea leaves and covering these with boiling water. The brewed tea is extremely strong and is served with several small spoons of sugar in tiny glasses. After the first round of tea, the pot is filled with boiling water a second and third time, thus the second and third rounds of tea are a bit diminished in strength.
Many villages today have a government school as well aa a Koranic (Islamic) school for learning to recite verses from the Koran. The educational model of the government schools is based on those of the ex-colonial masters, either French or British. Since the nations where the Malinke are found today have many other tribal peoples, it is likely that the school teachers are of a different ethnic group and do not speak the Malinke language. Further, instruction is often in French of English, making it difficult for Malinke children.
Poor attendance and high drop-out rates are common in the village schools. Muslim parents often do not think it is as important for their daughters to get an education as it is for their sons, so the enrollment of boys is much higher than that of girls. Only a small percentage of the village pupils pass the state examination at the end of sixth grade in order to go on to high school. In the countries where the Malinke live, generally less than half the population is able to read and write.
Much of the cultural heritage of the Malinke is embedded in the great Mali merchant empire of the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries and the Islamic religion that was adopted by the chieftains. There was a flourishing trade in gold, and many ornate ornaments, jewelry, and staffs of gold date from that period. Additionally, the cultural heritage has been immortalized in the famous epic poem Sonjara , sung by minstrels since the thirteenth century ( see Folklore).
Farming is a respected occupation, and all members of society are given farming tasks. The children, too, guard the fields against wild boar, monkeys, and birds. The Malinke use natural fertilizer, allowing livestock to graze on the fields lying fallow; and children are often seen tending the livestock Men do the plowing, sowing, planting, and a major part of the harvesting work. Some also engage in hunting and fishing. Women do weeding and tend vegetable plots.
Boys might be seen playing soccer with a homemade ball. They enjoy listening to soccer matches, both national and international, on the radio, or watching matches on television in town; many Malinke men and boys can recite the names of international soccer stars.
In addition to the storytelling and music provided by the griots, the Malinke like to listen to the radio. For those living in villages with electricity, a television set is a prized item. It is common for large groups of villagers to gather at the home of the television's owner.
Woaley is a board game similar to back-gammon. It is a major pastime for the Malinke as well as for other West Africans. The board is in the form of a rectangle with twelve indentations to hold beans, and two larger indentations at the ends to hold the captured beans. Both spectators and players of all ages enjoy woaley matches. (The game is referred to by many other names—such as mancala , and is played all over the world in slight variations.)
Present-day hobbies of Malinke young men include such things as collecting cassette tapes of their favorite singers (such as reggae singers from Jamaica or American rock stars). Young women enjoy braiding each other's hair, making decorative rows or braiding in long strands of synthetic hair.
Since the Malinke are socialized with a strong sense of responsibility to their family and lineage, many of the social problems that are prevalent in industrialized society are not encountered. AIDS and the spread of venereal diseases by men who have brought these back from urban areas is a problem in some places. There is malnutrition and a lack of understanding of its causes. Some people view the situation of women as a social problem. Women have fewer opportunities for education, fewer rights, and share a husband with co-wives.
Haley, Alex. Roots. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.
McNaughton, Patrick R. The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Africans South of the Sahara . 1st ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Sallah, Tijan M. Wolof. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1996.
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World Travel Guide. Liberia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/lr/gen.html , 1998.