Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Republique du Mali

"One people, one goal, one faith." This is the national motto of the Republic of Mali, a land-locked country in West Africa. When I was informed that I will be presenting on Mali during one of our classes I was very excited. When I think of Mali ancient towns rich in history and desert tribes with an enduring culture comes into mind. Being the self-proclaimed "culturalist" (if such a word ever exists) that I am, I set to researching as soon as possible.

Mali was once part of three West African empires that controlled the Trans-Saharan trade. In the Mali empire, the ancient cities of Djenne and Timbuktu were centers of trade and Islamic learning. Disciplines like Mathematics, Astronomy, Literature and Art were taught.
In 1960, Mali achieved independence from the French and established itself as a democratic and multi-party state in 1991. The country has a majority of Muslims with 55% of the population practicing Islam. Malians speak Bambara as their national language and the state's capital city is located in Bamako.

Ancient Sankore University in Timbuktu

People of Mali

Mali has a wide variety of ethnic groups. The major ethnic group is the Mande which is made up of the Bambara, Maninke and Soninke sub-groups. The Mande people make up 50% of the population. The other half of the population is made up of Fula, Gur-speakers, Songhai people, Tuaregs and Moors and lastly Europeans.

I found the Tuareg ethnic group most interesting as they dwell in the remote regions of the Sahara desert. They have an Afro-Arabic ancestry and live a nomadic lifestyle by traversing the desert on camel back. The Tuareg men traditionally wear a Tagelmust which is a cloth that serves as both a turban and a veil. The cloth is practical for the desert as it provides protection from the harsh desert conditions. It is usually dyed using indigo and this is known to stain the skin of the Tagelmust wearer permanently. As such the Tuareg are often reffered to as the "Blue men of the desert."

From left: Fulani man, Tuareg man and Maninke woman

"Dama Dance" of the Dogon people

In the south of Mali is the Dogon Village of Songha. The Dogon people practice a traditional religion that involves the beliefs of spirits. The people hold a traditional dance known as the "Dama Dance" every sixty years! The dance is carried out to create a bridge to the supernatural world.

Dama Dance

The Dogon community is popular among stargazers due to their advanced astronomical knowledge. French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, studied and interacted with the Dogon people. Marcel reported that the Dogon people have knowledge about Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. I found it amazing how the Dogon people possess such information yet they do not have access to star-gazing instruments. This shows the great power of oral tradition as this information is believed to have been passed down from generation to generation over the years. You can read more on the Dogon people here.


A griot or jeli is a West African story teller, historian, praise singer, poet or musician. The griot uses oral tradition to pass down information to his tribes people and he passes this down to his descendants to continue passing on the community's history to other generations. They tell tales of the community's past, sing songs of praise about certain individuals while playing a xhalam and even make political commentaries. Griots are celebrated in Mali and thus the Association of Bamako Griots was established in Mali.
 I think this is such a beautiful way of preserving culture and a community's history for years to come.  

A griot holding a xhalam

Fashion in Mali

Malian fashion is strongly influenced by traditional fashion and style. Traditional textiles include:


This means "made from mud" in Bambara. It is a West African textile that is dyed red or yellow. Mud from the River Niger is applied on the fabric and a rich black color is produced once the fabric is dry and washed off.

Bogolan textile

Indigo Clothing

This is a fabric that is dyed using the indigo-dyeing method which involves obtaining dye from local plant sources e.g. dried balls of crushed leaves of indigo bearing plants, and dipping the cloth in fermented dye, drying the fabric and then beating it to impart a shiny glaze.

Indigo cloths

 During my research on major players in the Mali fashion industry, I came across Aboubakar Fofana, a famous Malian designer well known for his expertise in indigo-dyeing. He resides in both Paris and Bamako, with his workshop based in Bamako. Aboubakar uses an environmentally-friendly process of producing organically dyed indigo cloths. More information about Aboubakar's unique fashion technique can be found here.

Aboubakar Fofana

Hawa Diawara, is the other personality that I came across in my research of Malian fashion. At the age of 17 she started modeling and she is now a popular fashion model in the United States.

Hawa Diawara

 Malian Music

Malian music is ethnically diverse with the Mandinka community having the greatest influence over the country's music.
The music's diversity depends on which ethnic group it hails from. Mande music, Tuareg music, Fula Music and Songhay music make up Malian music.

Popular Malian Musicians

Salif Keita

He is an afro-pop singer and song-writer from Mali. He descends from Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali empire. His music combines traditional West African styles with influences from both Europe and America. Salif suffers from albinism and one of his albums, "La Difference" is dedicated to the struggle of the world's albino community.

Salif Keita

Habib Koite

He is a solo singer, songwriter and guitarist based in Mali. Habib's vocal style is intimate and relaxed, emphasizing calm, moody singing. His first album, "Muso Ko" rose to number 3 on the European World Music charts.

Habib Koite



This Malian band has got to be my greatest new obsession in the African music scene. Tinariwen, meaning deserts in Tamasheq (Tuareg language) is a group of musicians from the Sahara desert. The band members are all of Tuareg descent and the band has received world wide acknowledgement for their unique rhythm influenced by Rai music. The band currently has nine active members with their lead singer being Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. In 2012, the band won the Grammy Award for Best World Music album for their album Tassili.

Tinariwen's album cover for Tassili

I gained so much knowledge as I learnt more and more about Mali's culture. Every day my eyes are opened and made more aware on how rich Africa's culture is and how we should take necessary measures to preserve it. In my opinion, establishing a griot school in Kenya would be a great start:)


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