This week we celebrate Mali, the largest country in West Africa. It is surrounded by land on all sides, with Niger to the east, Burkina Faso and the Côte d'Ivoire to the south, Guinea to the south-west, Senegal and Mauritania to the west, and Algeria to the north.
The land that is now Mali was once part of three empires from the precolonial era: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. The Ghana empire was the first great medieval trading empire of West Africa. The empire’s main purpose was the control the gold trade, which eventually led to the development of the trans-Saharan caravan road. In the 11th century, Ghana began its decline due to holy wars in the surrounding area. Other groups dominated Ghana and upset the trading system, which the empire’s livelihood depended on. In 1240, what was left of Ghana was incorporated into a new empire of Mali under emperor Sundiata. In the 14th century, Mali flourished and expanded its control over other gold-bearing countries. In the 15th and 16th centuries, while the nearby Songhai empire was flourishing, Mali declined due to rebellions and political instability.
Mali has around 19 million residents, and the official language is French (a product of 68 years of European rule. However, French is only mastered by 5-10 percent of the population! There are a number of ethnic groups and tribes, each of which speak an indigenous or tribal language. The Mali government recognizes 13 national languages, each of which linguistically dominate various regions of the country. 80% of Malians speak Bamba, the tribal language of the Bambara people, the predominant ethnic group in Mali. The Tuareg people dominate the desert north, and speak the Tamajaq and Tamasheq languages.
Each of Mali’s ethnic groups have their own unique language and history. These groups vary from the nomadic Tuareg to the Bozo fishers and the Dogon farmers. Malian music and literature have been heavily influenced by oral storytelling across generations. Traditional storytellers called griots often performed at weddings and other special events. Many local Malians also wear handmade cotton mud cloth fabric, known as bogolanfini. Traditionally, bogolanfini is made by weaving narrow strips of plain fabric to make a large rectangular cloth. The cloth is then dyed in baths of tree leaves and branches, which would give it a yellow color. The cloth is then sun-dried, and painted with mud to create beautiful patterns. The mud is usually collected from ponds and left to ferment. After the cloth dries, it’s washed to remove excess mud. This process is repeated several times to ensure that mud-painted areas are dark enough. The yellow areas are then bleached to produce characteristic white and dark patterns.