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LOCATION: Republic of Mali
POPULATION: 4–5 million
LANGUAGE: Bamanankan
RELIGION: Islam; indigenous religion


The Bamana live in the Republic of Mali. The development of a Bamana ethnic identity dates back to the pre-colonial states of Segu and Kaarta. According to oral tradition, Biton (Mamari) Kulubali founded the Segu kingdom (named after its capital) in about 1712 when he was banned from his own village after a dispute. His age mates followed him, and together they organized raids on surrounding communities. Their ranks were swelled by men whose freedom they purchased (e.g., men who had committed crimes or fallen into debt bondage) and by others who joined voluntarily. Extending his raids over an ever-larger territory, Biton gradually came to control the entire Middle Niger region. Some members of the Kulubali clan resisted his authority and migrated westward into the area of Kaarta where they founded a second Bamana state.

Biton Kulubali died in 1755. His sons quarreled over his succession and ultimately lost the throne to the military commander Ngolo Jara. Ngolo brought back stability and expanded the boundaries of the kingdom. The state was at its largest and strongest during the reigns of Ngolo's son Monzon and his grandson Da Monzon. The Scottish explorer Mungo Park, the first European to travel in this part of West Africa, visited Segu during the reign of Monzon in 1796 and again in 1805. Internal strife began again after the death of Da Monzon in 1827, and central rule became weaker. Al Hajj Umar Tal, a Muslim cleric from the Futa Toro (now Senegal), took control of Kaarta in 1855 and conquered Segu in 1860 in the course of a jihad (military struggle). He was succeeded by his son Amadu, who retained power in Segu until the French conquest in 1890. Bamana villages in Kaarta and in the former Segu kingdom resisted the imposition of colonial rule but finally succumbed to superior military power. The French established an administrative center in Segu and reinstalled a descendent of the Jara dynasty as a local figurehead but soon accused him of fomenting a revolt and executed him. A French administrator then governed the territory until Mali gained its independence from France in 1960. Segu has been the capital of Mali's fourth region since then.


The Bamana compose the largest of Mali's ethnic groups, numbering more than 4 million. They predominate on both sides of the Niger River between Bamako and Kè-Macina, northwest of Bamako, and between the Niger and Bani rivers southeast of Segu. Bamana families and groups of families also live among other ethnic groups elsewhere in the country. Large numbers of rural men and women move to Mali's cities, especially to the capital Bamako, to earn money during the long dry season or to establish themselves permanently. Others seek work outside the country. Côte d'Ivoire was a favorite destination until the eruption of the civil war in 2002.


The Bamana language (Bamanankan) belongs to the Mande group of languages, which are a branch of the Niger-Congo family of African languages. A national orthography for Bamana was developed after independence but the spelling of most personal and place names still reflect French writing conventions; for example “Ségou” rather than “Segu.” The language is tonal so that the meaning of words changes depending on the tone of a particular syllable. (So with a low tone, for example, means “horse,” whereas so with a high tone means “house.”) Definite and indefinite articles are also marked by raising or lowering the tone. The language is semantically rich. Bamana convey this when they say “Bamankan kònò ka dun” (“The Bamana language is profound”).

Since Segu is considered the Bamana heartland, the dialect of Bamana spoken in and around Segu is said to be the most authentic form of the language.


The foremost Bamana heroes are the king Da Monzon Jara, the king's bard Tinyetigiba Dante, and his warrior chief Bakari Jan Koné, whose deeds are celebrated in the epic of Da Monzon. This epic telescopes certain historical figures and events before and after Da Monzon's reign. In recent memory, Da Monzon's popularity even overshadows that of the kingdom's founder Biton Kulubali, although the popular Segu band Super Biton, which has represented the region at the biennial National Arts Festival, is named after the latter.


Al Hajj Umar Tal (see Introduction ) and his successors tried to eliminate Bamana religious practices but they did not convert people by force. Bamana men and women embraced Islam of their own volition over the course of the 20th century. The vast majority are Muslims today.

Indigenous Bamana religion was anchored in respect for the ancestors, village protective spirits, and several secret societies. The abode (dasiri) of the village protective spirits is in a grove near the village where the villagers would collectively make annual sacrifices. Individuals and households could obtain blessings through sacrifices to ancestors at household shrines as well as to village protective spirits at the dasiri. Six major secret societies (ndòmò, kòmò, kònò, koré, ciwara, and nya) were instrumental in social and religious life. Only men could become members. Historical evidence suggests that there were also some female societies in the past. Not all of the six societies were represented in each village or area occupied by Bamana. All young boys were once initiated into the ndòmò society, where they participated in annual rituals and learned self-discipline. Once circumcised, a boy could join one or more of the other societies in his area. Members were required to participate in meetings and rituals and refrain from discussing the knowledge they acquired with non-members. Non-members were unable to approach the area where rituals were held; sometimes they even had to remain in their houses when rituals were taking place in the village. In such instances, a bell signaled the beginning and end of the curfew. Although the societies differed in the scope and content of their esoteric knowledge, rituals, symbols, and practices, they all upheld community values and sought to protect the community against misfortune and harm by individuals (e.g., through sorcery). Divination through procedures such as geomancy, throwing cowries, or animal sacrifice was used widely when important decisions had to be taken.


Traditionally, Bamana observed either Monday or Th ursday as a day of rest. During the agricultural season, they suspended work in the fields on that day and relaxed around pots of home-brewed beer. Very few observe these days any longer due to labor migration and widespread conversion to Islam. The Bamana New Year, the first day of the lunar month jominé, is still recognized by some, but everyone now celebrates the national holidays (see Malians ).


Ethnic differences in the celebration of rites of passage in Mali have diminished as a result of conversion to Islam and increased urbanization. Many Bamana women in rural areas still give birth at home with the assistance of a midwife. New mothers stay home and rest with the baby for seven days until a naming ceremony is held. The household elder chooses the name in consultation with the infant's father. If the family is Muslim and has no preference, the local imam (religious leader) will select a name and say prayers. In the rural areas outside Segu, village men assemble for the name-giving ceremony and make a small monetary contribution, but women do not bring gifts of cloth for the mother as in the city.

Village boys of roughly the same age are circumcised together and remain secluded until their wounds are healed. The same holds for girls who are excised (i.e., have part of their clitoris removed). Whether or not excision should continue is increasingly being debated. Excision is a pre-Islamic practice which many Bamana retained when they became Muslims. It was considered parallel to circumcision, and each was seen as playing a vital role in the unfolding of female and male sexuality respectively. Celebrations at the end of seclusion have also diminished considerably. In the past, when boys and girls were teenagers by the time of circumcision/excision, these rituals signaled the end of childhood and the “coming out” of the new adults was a joyous affair with much feasting, visiting, and dancing. Young women were considered marriageable thereafter and young men ready to court women. The future in-laws of girls who were already betrothed would come bearing gifts.

Weddings follow the transfer of gifts from the groom's to the bride's family (bride wealth) and are held in the home of the groom. In rural areas, entire villages or neighborhoods participate in the festivities and help the groom's family feed the guests by bringing cooked food. Friends and acquaintances of the groom come from near and far, offering their best wishes and monetary contributions. The bride is accompanied by a throng of female relatives, and her trousseau is opened and displayed for the village women. Some of the cloth she brings with her is distributed among her husband's female relatives. After the wedding, the bride spends only a few days with her husband and returns home for several weeks before joining him permanently. In the past weddings were held during the dry season, but they are now often celebrated during the rainy season when young people return from labor migration. Weddings are equally important social occasions in the cities. Since space is more limited than in the rural areas, some of the festivities take place in the street in front of the groom's home. Families block off part of the street and erect tents to accommodate guests and musicians.Muslim Bamana funerals are simple and differ little from others in Mali. Among non-Muslims, the death of an old woman or man gives rise to festivities celebrating the person's life, especially if (s)he has numerous children and grandchildren.


Learning the etiquette of greeting and hospitality is part of the socialization process of any Bamana child. The greeting ritual involves a rhythmic exchange of inquiries and responses concerning the interlocutors' well-being and establishes their membership in social groups. If the two people know each other, they inquire about family members and friends. If they are strangers, the host seeks to locate the guest socially through questions posed in greeting. During the greeting, the interlocutors lower their eyes. A younger person always shows respect by not looking an elder in the eye while greeting. Following the greeting, a visitor is offered a drink of water and a place to sit. Depending on the nature and length of the visit, a guest may also be offered food and a parting gift (e.g., a chicken or other local product). A visitor (relative, friend, neighbor, or stranger) who arrives at mealtime is always invited to join in the meal. One way to honor a guest is to offer him or her a kola nut. Most visiting takes place on the veranda or in the courtyard, but if a visitor is invited to enter someone's house, he or she traditionally removes his or her shoes.

Even among people who see each other daily, greetings are very important. There are greetings for virtually all occasions and activities. Someone returning from the market, for example, is hailed, “I ni dògò” (literally: “You and the market”).


As is the case with rural Malians of other ethnic groups, rural Bamana have few material comforts. Their houses are generally made of mud bricks and have no electricity or running water. Women and young girls carry all water for drinking, cooking, and bathing home from the nearest well. They cook over an open fire in the courtyard or, during the rainy season, in a kitchen house. Each married woman is entitled to her own house with an attached bathing area and toilet. If a man has more than one wife, he must provide this for each one. A man with multiple wives frequently also has a small house of his own where he keeps his personal belongings and entertains guests. The most prevalent consumer goods include clothing, emaille bowls, garden chairs, kerosene lamps, flashlights, transistor radios, bicycles, and motor bikes. Those who do not own or have access to a bicycle or motor bike generally travel by foot or donkey-cart between rural villages.

Health problems and treatment options are generally the same as for other Malians. Because the majority of rural Bamana engage in agriculture, they are prone to work-related injuries and infected wounds.


The households of Bamana cultivators are usually multi-generational, including a man and his wife or wives, and their sons with their respective wives and children. Social relations are governed by an age and gender hierarchy. Men are ranked according to their biological age and women on the basis of their marriage into the household. Those who are older have more authority than their juniors and men have more authority than women. This principle is mitigated by various factors including earning capacity and personal dynamism. Moreover, elder women are an important force within the household by virtue of having worked and born children for their husband's family. Decisions concerning the household are made by the eldest male in consultation with his brothers or grown sons. Women are now often consulted in decisions regarding the marriage of daughters and sons, and they are able to influence decisions even when they have no direct input.

Family members cooperate in the cultivation of household fields and the crops, and/or the proceeds from their sale, provide food for the household meals and resources for agricultural improvements, marriage expenses, and other household needs. The wives of the men in the family are responsible for meal preparation. They cooperate in pounding grain unless they are able to pay for having it ground by machine, and they take turns cooking. Elder women are freed of these duties once daughters-in-law can assume them. Family members eat together, usually in same-gender groups. Since meals are taken in the courtyard for most of the year women can often overhear conversation among men and vice versa. There may also be conversation and banter back and forth. Married women host friends, visiting relatives, or their husband and his guests at their own house.

In order to generate income that is under their personal control, both men and women can grow specialty crops, produce handicrafts, or engage in small trade during the off-season or during leisure hours. Individual women and men also have the right to own chickens, goats, sheep, or cattle in addition to any animals which all members of the household may own jointly. If conflict arises and cannot be managed, jointly owned land and animals are divided, and the household breaks up into smaller units.


Contemporary Bamana women and men dress like other Malians. Traditionally, women spun cotton and men wove it into strips that were sewn together into clothing for young and old of both genders. In the early part of the 20th century, adult male attire consisted of a tunic and ample knee-length pants that closed with a drawstring, both often dyed a rust brown by a man's wife or mother. Women traditionally wore a hand woven wrap skirt in multi-colored patterns or designs done in a mud-dye technique. They wore a piece of similar cloth around the upper part of their bodies. Basic jewelry included gold ear and nose rings for women and a single gold earring for men.


The basis of the diet in rural areas continues to be millet and, to a lesser extent, sorghum and fonio. Rice is increasingly popular but not eaten every day. Millet (or sorghum and fonio) is pounded by hand or machine-ground and then prepared as a gruel (for breakfast or as a light meal) or as a stiff porridge or couscous. Both porridge and couscous are eaten with various sauces made of hot pepper and ground baobab leaf or peanut paste. Dried fish is often used for flavoring the sauce because most people cannot afford meat or chicken every day. Smoked or fresh fish is more commonly eaten than either chicken or meat. Apart from okra and sorrel, vegetables are only gradually entering the rural Bamana diet. Ngòmi is a millet pancake fried in shea butter oil (from the shea tree) and eaten with sauce or sugar water. Finally, a traditional Bamana liquid food, often eaten between meals, is dègè, which is made of finely ground millet flour and cream that are allowed to sour. At the time of consumption, it is diluted with water and sweetened with sugar. Young women who have been on labor migration occasionally prepare foods they have learned to cook in the city (e.g. pasta) as special treats.


Educational statistics are not broken down by ethnic group. Bamana children and youths are represented in the secular schools as well as in the madrasas and Quranic schools prevalent in Mali. Many rural villages still do not have any school and children have to walk to the nearest village or town to attend. Secondary schools are located mainly in cities and in administrative centers such as county seats. This means that students from outlying areas must board if they want to continue their educations beyond elementary school.


The tomb of Biton Kulubali, founder of the Segu kingdom, is located on the banks of the Niger in Sikoro, a few kilometers from Segu. Nearby is the reconstructed room from where Biton is said to have conducted the affairs of state. The symbol of Segu is the balanzan tree (acacia albida), which loses its fine leaves during the rainy season. In 2005 Segu hotel owners joined with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and city representatives to organize the first Festival on the Niger in order to showcase regional cultural traditions and promote cultural tourism. The festival has been held every February since then and also brings national musical talent to the city.

Music is an integral part of all Bamana rituals and celebrations, with drums providing the major musical accompaniment. Young men who have the talent and interest learn drumming by working with accomplished drummers. Bands usually consist of three drummers who play in a neighborhood or village. Bands that gain a reputation have the opportunity to perform for a fee on special occasions. Women and men dance in same-sex groups. Hunters' associations have bards who make music with a lute (donso ngoni) that is accompanied by a scraper (a baton-like metal instrument). Another type of lute was used during secret society rituals. Women have their own musical instrument, the gita, used as an accompaniment to singing. The gita of married women consists of a calabash (gourd) turned upside down on a piece of heavy cloth and is struck with two wooden batons (similar to chopsticks). The gita used by unmarried girls is a calabash decorated with an incised pattern and cowry shells; it is tossed shoulder-high with both hands and turned at the same time to make a percussive sound.

Although Bamana figure among Mali's writers, oral literature has the widest audience and includes a variety of genres. Apart from the epic, there are tales, proverbs, and riddles. Children in particular exercise their intellect by telling riddles.

Puppet theater and mud cloth, discussed below, are part of the Bamana cultural heritage.


Agriculture continues to employ most Bamana but it is rarely the only source of income. Those who remain in the rural areas combine it with other income-generating activities, ranging from market gardening to craft production, small trade, and construction. Bamana women work in the fields alongside men, but households with enough male labor may free them from planting and weeding to pursue other activities. In the past, Bamana prided themselves on being accomplished cultivators. Young men could show prowess by excelling during collective work parties in the fields. When the village youth group worked in someone's field, it was accompanied by drummers and adolescent girls who sang to urge the men on in their work.

Seasonal or longer-term labor migration is a widespread means of supplementing rural incomes. The majority of male migrants pursue a variety of occupations in the urban informal sector while young women work as domestic servants in urban households. Like other Malians, Bamana also seek work outside the country. Women and men who complete their schooling enter a variety of occupations appropriate to their educational achievement.


Soccer is a popular sport introduced by Europeans. There are no traditional sports, although male dancing involves acrobatics such as somersaults.


Theater has long been popular among the Bamana, in small villages as well as in urban neighborhoods. In the rural areas, it is generally organized by the local youth association. One type of theater, known as kotèba, satirizes local practices and individuals. A favorite entertainment related to kotèba is comedy whereby a man or woman dressed outrageously acts the part of a buffoon known as koréduga. A second type of theater, sògòbò, may involve either puppetry or costumes made of reeds, cloth, and masks worn by men. The puppets represent animals, spirits, and human characters, including white colonial officials. They are commissioned from a blacksmith-carver. Performances involving reed costumes are generally held only at night at the beginning of the harvest season. Villages vie with each other for the best performances and some reach national acclaim. Both kotèba and sògòbò are done with live drumming and a male chorus.

The departure of young men and women during the long dry season has greatly diminished rural entertainment during this time of year. Weddings animate villages at the beginning of the rainy season with visitors and musical entertainment. Village youth groups invest in microphones and amplifiers since they are now considered a requirement for successful musical performances. In the absence of live performances, people of all ages listen to the radio or to music on cassettes. Socializing with friends, neighbors, and relatives remains a primary form of recreation.


Weaving was once a widespread dry season occupation for Bamana men but it has declined considerably since the 1990s. Some men still weave blankets of home- or machine-spun cotton in red and white or black and white checks and stripes. Mud cloth (bògòlan fini), a cotton textile for ritual purposes and everyday wear, was traditionally painted by and for women in black- or brown-white geometric patterns using vegetable dyes and fermented clay. Over a decade ago it was adapted for fashionable wear, bags, and wall hangings and marketed nationally and internationally. Malians embraced it as an emblem of national identity and African Americans began wearing it as a symbol of pride. Malian artists played an important role in this transformation. Since its production for the national and international market place, men have also become involved in painting mud cloth.

Blacksmiths have historically not only made iron objects but also carved masks used in rituals, including the famous antelope headdresses seen in many museums. Wives and mothers of blacksmiths are skilled potters.


There are no social problems that are unique to the Bamana as an ethnic group. The consumption of fermented drinks, especially millet beer, on ritual occasions was common in the past but is now limited to those who continue to practice their indigenous religion. As Malian citizens, the Bamana are covered by the human and civil rights observed at the national level.


The discussion of family life above provides a glimpse into Bamana gender relations and shows that they are cross-cut by age and other forms of social status. Gender ideology places men above women but daily life allows for considerable ambiguity and flexibility. Since family land is inherited through the male line, women have to integrate their husband's home upon marriage. Rural married men who work in Bamako for extended periods of time increasingly take their wives with them during the early years of marriage. Once they have children however, women generally have to stay in the village unless the husband decides to relocate permanently to the city. A man with two wives may have one accompany him to the city while leaving one behind in the village. In sum, couples are often separated for months at a time because families cannot earn an adequate income in the rural areas. The revision of the Malian family law code, once passed, will improve women's juridical status.


Arnoldi, Mary Jo. Playing with Time. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Ba, Adam Konaré. L'épopée de Segu. Da Monzon: Un Pouvoir guerrier. Lausanne, Switzerland: Pierre-Marcel Favre, 1987.

Festival Segou, Mali. (June 2008).

Hoffman, Barbara E., ed. “Gender in the Mande World.”Mande Studies 4, 2002.

McNaughton, Patrick. Secret Sculpture of Kòmò: Art and Power in Bamana (Bambara) Initiation Associations. Philadelphia: ISHI, 1979.

Rovine, Victoria L. Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Zahan, Dominique. The Bambara. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

—by M. Grosz-Ngaté