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LOCATION: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
LANGUAGE: Mande; Arabic;French
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Burkinabe; Ivoirians; Malians


In many dialects of the Mande language, the word dyula means “trader.” Most Dyula people trace their origins back to the land of Manden, the heartland of the great medieval empire of Mali, along what is now the border of the modern nations of Guinea and Mali. Gold from Mali was transported across the Sahara Desert in exchange for rock salt mined in the Sahara. It was the search for new sources of gold that first led traders from Mali to what is now northern Ghana. Along with gold, they also began exporting kola nuts, which only grow in the rain forest region along the Atlantic Coast, but which became a prized item of luxury consumption in the interior of West Africa. Even after the decline of the Mali empire, these trade links between the desert, the grasslands, and the forest were maintained. Traders continued to move southwards towards the forest, settling in communities along the trade routes.

Some of these trading communities established themselves as minority groups among peoples such as the Senufo, the Kulango, and the Abron, with very different languages and cultures from their own. These minority groups came to call themselves, very simply, Dyula—“traders.” Here, they continued to participate in the long-distance trade between the forest and the desert. Indeed, their words for “north” and “south” are kogodugu, literally, “the land of salt,” and worodugu, “the land of kola nuts.” However, they also specialized in producing and selling various luxury items, especially woven cloths, to their neighbors. Even nowadays, a Dyula village or neighborhood is easily identified by the number of its looms.

For the most part, the Dyula lived peacefully under the rule of kings or chiefs from other groups. However, around AD 1700, a Dyula named Sekou Wattara seized power in the large trading town of Kong, in northern Ivory Coast. Under Sekou's rule, Kong became a major military power, sending out raiding parties as far north as the Niger River, and staving off the armies of the mighty empire of Asante to the southeast. Kong's military might was short-lived, but it continued to be a major trading center until its destruction at the end of the 19th century.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, most Dyula communities were incorporated into various parts of French West Africa. Many Dyula were active in the movement for independence, rallying to the Rassemblement Démocratique Africaine (RDA) party.


The Dyula homelands are now divided between several African nations: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast, between roughly 8° and 12° north latitudes and 2° and 7° west longitudes. This is an area of savanna, with one annual rainy season. Since this is in the southern stretches of the grasslands, towards the tropical rain forests to the south, rainfall is relatively plentiful compared to drier regions of the Sahel, to the north. In any case, from their arrival in their present homeland, migration has been a fundamental feature of the existence of this people of traders. Consequently, during the colonial period, Dyula readily migrated to the large towns and cities that sprang up in southern Ivory Coast, in search of better prospects. Nowadays, there are at least as many Dyula living in southern Ivory Coast as there are in their home communities. It is very diffi-cult to estimate their total population, not least because many migrants from other regions to the cities of Ivory Coast are also now called “Dyula.” The total Dyula population probably numbers about 300,000 people.


The Dyula speak a dialect of the Mande language, which is very widely spoken over much of West Africa, in Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso. The Dyula can easily understand many other dialects (Bamana, Malinke) of the language. Mande is a tone language, though there are only two tones. As traders, the Dyula are quite skillful at understanding others—Africans as well as Europeans—who mispronounce their language. Perhaps because this is a trade language, which many Africans speak as a second language, the grammar is relatively simple. There are no genders or noun classes, plurals are formed regularly, verbs are not conjugated, and verb tenses are easy to learn. However, the Dyula dialect has a rich and idiomatic vocabulary, augmented by numerous loan words, both from French (e.g., mobili for “automobile”; montoro for “watch”; and setadir, “that's to say”) and from Arabic (e.g., hakili, “intelligence”; wakati, “time”; and the days of the week).

Because the Dyula are Muslim, many given names (togo) are also of Arabic origin: Mammadou, Saidou, Khadija, Fatoumata. Dyula often give their first-born children the name of their own father or mother. Often a man will not, for example, call a son he has named after his own father by the child's proper name, just as many Americans hesitate to call their own parents by their first names; rather, he will call him ba, “father,” gbema, “grandfather,” cekoroba, “old man,” or some equivalent term.

Many Dyula clan or family names (jamu) —Coulibaly, Kone, Wattara, Cisse, Saganogo, Toure—are widespread throughout much of West Africa, linking Dyula families with distant “cousins” far away.


Women and children sometimes recite folk tales in the evening. Speakers will vie with one another to see who can recite stories the most dramatically and rapidly, without hesitating. Typically, such stories are about clever heroes who use their wits to escape danger, or about jealousy within the polygynous family between co-wives and between children of different mothers.

Dyula men will more likely tell religious stories; since they are Muslim, these are typically about prophets—not only Muhammad, but also Jesus as well as Old Testament prophets. They also have a deep concern for their own history and relate accounts of events in their communities or about the deeds of their family ancestors.


The Dyula are all Muslim and have been ever since their arrival in their present location. Indeed, Islam and trade were (and still are) closely associated throughout much of West Africa, especially in the savanna. However, in the past, Dyula communities included two different hereditary categories of Muslims: “Scholars” (mori) and “Warriors” (tun tigi, or sonongi in Kong). Members of “Scholar” clans were expected to conform fairly rigorously to Muslim codes of religious behavior: praying five times a day; fasting in the daytime during the month of Ramadan; and abstaining from alcoholic beverages. “Warriors,” on the other hand, might drink beer, and pray and fast irregularly. Adolescent “Warrior” boys were initiated into secret societies called lo. The initiation process took seven years, during which the boys underwent various ordeals and were taught the lo secrets, for example, about powerful spirits embodied in the lo masks, some of which were considered so dangerous that only initiates were allowed to see them. Certain “Scholar” families, on the other hand, were known far and wide for their Islamic learning. Kong, for example, was widely known as a center for scholarship as well as trade. About 50 years ago, the initiation societies were abolished, as many Dyula came to feel that such practices were not proper for Muslims.


Dyula holidays are all associated with the Muslim ritual calendar. Because the Muslim year is lunar and not solar, these holidays take place at a different time each year according to Western reckoning and cannot be associated with any particular season. Tabaski celebrates the annual time of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Everyone dresses in their best finery, and all men pray together at the mosque. When they come home, each family that can afford it sacrifices a ram and distributes part of its meat to friends and relatives. Sunkalo (the Dyula name for Ramadan) is a month of fasting, but only during the daytime. Throughout the month, at sundown, people prepare elaborate meals. While older men observe the month with additional prayer, young girls perform special dances (kurubi don) where they beat the rhythm on special long, thin gourds painted for the occasion. Donba (literally “big dance”) is the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, and, as its name suggests, is a particularly joyous occasion.


Seven days after the birth of a child, there is a relatively informal naming ceremony, where the infant is given its Muslim name. In the past, there were elaborate rituals to mark the passage into adolescence: initiation into lo societies for “Warrior” boys, excision (female circumcision) for girls. Both of these rituals have been abolished on the grounds that they are improper for Muslims.

Weddings are very elaborate affairs, involving several types of ceremonies. Older men formalize the marriage arrangements in the furu ceremony, in which a bundle of kola nuts previously wrapped in string is ceremonially untied, marriage gifts are officially presented, and all present witness the transaction and bless the marriage. During this time, in the konyo mina ceremony, the bride dances around the village, proud to be the center of attention but also sad to renounce the freedom of adolescence. The festivities often last a week, while the bride and groom remain secluded in a hut. Usually, in any year, all weddings in a single village take place on the same day, so that this is a festival for the entire community and not just the families of the bride and groom.

Funerals are more or less elaborate depending on the age and status of the deceased. The corpse is washed and buried as quickly as possible in an unmarked grave, after it has been prayed over, in accordance with strict Islamic rules. However, commemorative ceremonies may be held on the third, seventh, and fortieth days after burial, as well as one year afterwards. Such ceremonies may involve the reading of prayers, sermons delivered by local scholars, and the distribution of ritual gifts (saraka) to a wide variety of individuals and groups. Funerals of very old and important people may indeed be festive occasions, marked with singing and dancing, to commemorate the rich and full life of the deceased.


As traders, the Dyula were always accustomed to traveling far and wide. When visiting any community, an individual always needed an established host (diatigi), who was responsible for taking proper care of the “stranger” (lunan) for as long as he or she chose to stay. Indeed, a “stranger” might decide, or even be asked, to stay for life, settling down in the new community.

The Dyula, as also befits traders, are very sociable, and elaborate greetings are an important part of everyday life. People will routinely inquire about each others' health and about their family. Greetings also include Muslim blessings (duaw), which are usually fairly routine but, in some circumstances, can be quite elaborate.

In the past, young unmarried men and women were allowed to take official boy- or girlfriends (teri) with the knowledge and consent of their parents. Sex play, but not full sexual intercourse, was permitted for such lovers. Marriages, however, were arranged by parents, and it was very rare that boy- and girlfriends would marry one another. This practice of taking an official, publicly recognized lover before marriage has been discontinued.


Because of their involvement in trade, the Dyula have always enjoyed a relatively high standard of living compared to many of their neighbors. They enjoy dressing well, eating well, and, when they can afford them, owning luxuries such as radios, cassette recorders, televisions, and automobiles. Old-fashioned mud huts with thatched roofs have been almost everywhere replaced by concrete houses with corrugated iron roofing. These modern houses are less likely to burn down and are easier to maintain, though in fact they are less comfortable than thatched huts. In larger towns, modern houses often also have running water; electricity is available, not only in town, but in many villages nowadays.


All the families in any village who belong to one clan and who descend from a common ancestor live together in a neighborhood called a kabila. A large village can contain as many as 20 such neighborhoods. The group has a chief and resolves disputes in a meeting where all adult men in the clan can air their grievances. Traditionally, Dyula preferred to marry cousins within their own clan neighborhood. The proportion of such marriages is declining, but they are still common, especially in rural areas.

As Muslims, Dyula men are allowed up to four wives. Indeed, about half of all married men have more than one wife—a very high proportion, even for West Africa. However, some of these wives are widows who have remarried men their own age late in life. Islam dictates that husbands should treat all wives equally. Indeed, Dyula women enjoy considerable freedom. The stereotypical notion that Islam inevitably leads to the oppression of women certainly does not hold true with the Dyula. Women often actively earn money of their own outside the home, for example, by trading in the market.


As weavers and traders, the Dyula enjoy fine clothing. Cloths are traditionally woven in narrow strips, which are then sewn together to make a rectangular blanket. Elaborate patterns require great skill. For example, weavers have to be very careful when weaving a checkerboard pattern that the squares on each strip of cloth will match with those on the next strip. Women would tie one such blanket around their waist, and another over their shoulders, with a third used to carry a baby. Men would dress in elaborate robes, often delicately embroidered.

Nowadays, men usually wear Western-style clothing on ordinary occasions, reserving fine robes for special occasions. Women generally buy machine-produced cloths, which are much cheaper than the handwoven variety, and so the Dyula tradition of weaving is in decline.


Dyula usually eat three meals a day, supplemented by snacks, which can be obtained from street vendors. Breakfast consists of porridge made from corn, rice, or millet. The midday meal is usually the most elaborate. Rice or pounded yams are supplemented with a sauce or a stew, such as meat cooked in peanut sauce. These sauces are generally quite spicy. The evening meal often consists of a spongy pudding called to, made from corn or millet flour, typically accompanied by an okra sauce.

Eating is invariably a social activity. Any friend or relative, even a casual acquaintance, who happens to drop by when a person is eating will be asked to partake of the meal. It is extremely rude not to invite someone to share one's meal, although the invitation can be politely declined by saying, “I'm full.”


As Muslims, the Dyula have a long tradition of literacy in Arabic. Boys from “Scholar” families would begin from the age of seven to learn to read and write Arabic script. Initially, such education stressed the ability to be able to recite any written passage, without necessarily understanding its meaning. A special ceremony called Kurana jigi, “putting down the Quran,” was held when a boy was able to recite the entire Quran. Some boys, and indeed adult men, would decide to pursue their studies further, and most communities contained individuals with considerable skill at reading and writing Arabic. Large Dyula towns like Kong were great centers of learning, attracting students from far and wide.

Dyula parents were initially reluctant to allow their children to pursue a Western-style education, which they feared would undermine their religious values. Nowadays, however, most boys and girls are sent to school, where they learn to read and write French. Recently, modern Muslim schools have been established in larger towns, where Dyula children can follow a combined curriculum in Arabic and in French; however, such schools are not always officially recognized by the government.


Unlike some other Mande peoples, the Dyula have no professional “bards” or griots as they are sometimes called (jeli in Dyula). Singing and music-making are not in any way professional occupations. On holidays, at weddings, or on other special occasions, groups of young men and women, as well as older women, will sing (sometimes improvising as they go along) and dance through the community. Such activities, however, are generally considered improper for older men.


As traders, the Dyula have always valued occupations linked in one way or another to the marketplace. Even as farmers, they tend to treat agriculture as a business, growing cash crops like tobacco (in the past) or (nowadays) cotton, or planting coffee and cocoa in southern Ivory Coast, rather than simply growing food to feed their own family. Weaving was formerly the most widespread occupation. When sewing machines were introduced, many Dyula eagerly adopted the profession of tailor.

In the past, work was intimately tied to the family. Sons would work under the authority of their father, and younger brothers would work for their older brothers, at least until they were married and had families of their own. In this way, a group of weavers in the same family would be able to pool their work and sell it more profitably. Nowadays, work is more individualized. Parents, uncles, or older brothers no longer control the salaries of their younger relatives. Tailors, for example, rely on the labor of apprentices, rather than on family members.


Until about 40 years ago, wrestling was the most popular sport among Dyula boys. Individuals and teams from each clan neighborhood would regularly compete with one another. However, the sport has lapsed. Now, soccer is undoubtedly the favorite sport, as is true in much of Africa.


Radios are very common among the Dyula. Radio Mali regularly broadcasts in the Bamana language, which Dyula can understand effortlessly, although young people often listen to other stations that broadcast in French. Cassette recorders are also very popular. Young people listen to tapes of pop stars, sometimes from America but also from Africa: Alpha Blondy, a leading reggae musician from Ivory Coast, sings in English and French as well as Dyula. Homemade cassettes of traditional African music are also available in the marketplace, alongside cassettes of Muslim sermons, to which pious Muslims will listen for entertainment as well as for their religious content. In larger towns, televisions are commonplace, even in comparatively modest homes. In the evening, television is particularly popular with women and adolescents, who will cluster around the set of a relative, friend, or neighbor if they have none of their own.


Although the demand for elaborate, handwoven cloths has fallen off a great deal, there are still many Dyula weavers. A few Dyula villages have developed successful cooperatives, where they produce tablecloths and napkins and other items explicitly aimed at the tourist market.


Handwoven cloth, once the mainstay of the Dyula economy, can no longer compete with machine-produced textiles. It remains a luxury item, but its value and the size of the market have plummeted. Finding employment or a source of dependable income is a problem for the Dyula, as it is with all other peoples in the region. The recent devaluation of the CFA, the unit of currency in much of French-speaking West Africa, has made prospects for young people even bleaker, at least in the short run.

These economic strains have put increasing pressure on family units. Extended families no longer pool their resources, and fathers no longer can rely on the labor of their sons, or older brothers on their younger brothers. This increased independence expresses itself in other ways, too; young men and women now generally marry partners of their own choice, and women are not married off in early adolescence. However, such freedom has also led to rapidly rising rates of childbirth outside of wedlock.

During the colonial period and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many Dyula settled in the southern part of Côte d'Ivoire, one of the most prosperous regions in West Africa due to coffee and cocoa plantations. Beginning in the 1980s, the economic bubble began to burst, and immigrant Dyula became the targets of increasing xenophobic sentiments. The situation deteriorated after the death in 1993 of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had ruled the country for over thirty years. The political turmoil led to riots in which Dyula and other Muslims were often targeted. After a failed military coup, a rebel government established itself in the north of the country, in the heart of the Dyula homeland. By 2008, the two sides had come to an agreement, although the situation remains tense in much of the country.


In principle, Dyula women were supposed to remain under the authority of men—fathers, brothers, or husbands. However, they were never secluded, and in fact, enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy. In particular, women were often allowed (if not encouraged) to engage in independent economic activities, such as trading produce in the market. While wives had a claim on their husbands' income and could sue for divorce for lack of support, men had no right to any of their wives' earnings.

As Muslims, Dyula men could marry up to four wives, although it was unusual for men to have more than two wives. In the past, Dyula women were married in early adolescence while men married much later. Adolescent girls had little or no say in their choice of husbands. However, once they were widowed or divorced, they were relatively free to marry whom they pleased. As of the 21st century, young women are usually allowed to choose their husbands and are not pressured to marry so young. According to Islamic law, men do not have to specify their reasons for divorce, whereas women have to sue for divorce on specified grounds. In fact, women are far more likely than men to seek divorce.


Launay, Robert. Beyond the Stream: Islam and Society in a West African Town. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.

———. “The Power of Names: Illegitimacy in a Muslim Community in Côte d'Ivoire.” In Situating Fertility: Anthropology and Demographic Inquiry, edited by Susan Greenhalgh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

———. “Spirit Media: The Electronic Media and Islam among the Dyula of Northern Côte d'Ivoire,” Africa, 67, 3 (1997): 441–53.

———. Traders Without Trade: Responses to Change in Two Dyula Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Launay, Robert, and Marie Miran. “Beyond Mande Mory: Islam and Ethnicity in Côte d'Ivoire,” Paideuma, 46 (2000): 63–84.

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—by R. Launay