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POPULATION: 12–13 million
LANGUAGE: French (official); national languages: Bamana, Bobo,Bozo,Dogon,Fulfulde,Hassaniyya,Khassonke, Maninka, Minyanka, Senufo, Soninke (or Sarakolle), Songhai (or Sonrhai), and Tamasheq.
RELIGION: Islam, Christianity, indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Bamana; Dyula; Malinke; Songhay; Tuaregs


Mali has a very long and rich history. Although economic indicators place the country among the poorest in the world today, the empires of Ghana, Mali (seeMalinke ), and Songhai (seeSonghay ) developed and flourished in different parts of its territory long before the arrival of Europeans. The Mali Empire had the most enduring influence on various peoples of the region and has given the country its name. In addition to the early empires, other states of variable size existed at different points in time.

The area of contemporary Mali captured the European imagination ever since the medieval trans-Saharan gold trade and Emperor Musa I's famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324–25. Europeans began to explore the territory in 1795 in search of new markets and raw materials, followed by territorial conquest in the latter part of the 19th century. Advancing from their colony of Senegal in the west, French troops created a post at Bamako in 1883 and from there pushed north and eastward. In spite of resistance from the leaders of then-existing states and from autonomous villages and nomads, the French had consolidated their conquest into the colony of “Soudan Français” by the turn of the century. Administered from Bamako, the name was changed to Haut-Sénégal-Niger from 1900–1920 and the boundaries were altered several times during the period of French colonial rule. Following the struggle for independence and a short-lived federation with Senegal (known as the Mali Federation), the colony became the Republic of Mali on 22 September 1960.

The first government under President Modibo Keita had a socialist orientation. It was overthrown by a group of military officers in 1968 that made Moussa Traoré the new president. Traoré was able to maintain himself in power until 1991 when he was removed by some of his officers after ordering the army to put down demonstrations with brutal force. A transitional government was formed and elections were held within a year. Alpha Oumar Konaré became the new president in 1992. He was reelected for a second five-year term in 1997. His successor Amadou Toumani Touré also was elected for a second term (2007–2012).


Located in the interior of West Africa, the Republic of Mali shares borders with seven countries: Algeria in the north; Mauritania and Senegal in the west; Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire in the south; and Burkina Faso and Niger in the east. In 2008 the country's population was estimated at more than 12 million with over one million living in the Bamako metropolitan area. Over 2 million Malians are said to live and work elsewhere in Africa, Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. Although the territory of the republic extends over 1.24 million sq km (478,767 sq mi), a large part of it is covered by the Sahara Desert and receives less than 30 cm (12 in) of rain a year. As a result, most of the population is concentrated in the southern half of the country. The Niger, one of the major rivers in Africa, traverses Mali for 1,700 km (1,050 mi) of its course. It flows in a northeasterly direction, joined by the Bani River in the city of Mopti to form a vast interior delta before making a wide bend to continue southeastward into the neighboring Republic of Niger. Mali is divided into eight administrative regions, each headed by a governor, with capitals at Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso, Segou, Mopti, Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, respectively. The national capital of Bamako is a separate administrative district. In early 1991 groups of Tuareg people in the northern desert regions began a rebellion to protest their marginalization in the national power structure and the distribution of resources. Following extended negotiations, the Konaré government brought about a political solution but isolated incidents of violence continue to occur from time to time.


The official language of Mali is French but national languages remain the preferred mode of communication. The Bamana language has become the lingua franca and is mutually intelligible with Maninka. Bobo, Bozo, Dogon (several dialects), Fulfulde, Hassaniyya, Khassonke, Minyanka, Senufo, Soninke, Songhai, and Tamasheq have variable numbers of speakers and dominate in different parts of the country. Most television programs are in French, but many radio stations broadcast news and other programs in the different national languages.

Tamasheq has a script (tifinagh) dating back to the early centuries of the common era. A Guinean Maninka speaker created N'ko, an alphabet for Bamana/Maninka, in the late 1940s. Starting in 1967 a newly created national linguistic institute began developing writing conventions for Maninka/Bamana, Fulfulde, Songhai, and Tamasheq. By 1972 the first newspaper was published in the Bamana language. N'ko has gained some proponents but most Malians who are literate in any of the national languages use the orthographies developed by the national linguistic institute.


For many Malians, the ancestors who actively resisted French colonization (e.g., Babemba Traoré of Sikasso) hold the status of national heroes. Otherwise, heroes and myths vary from one ethnic group to another. Sunjata Keita occupies a special place as the founder of the empire that gave the country its name; the recitation of his epic to musical accompaniment can arouse strong emotions among the Maninka people in the southern parts of the country. Only specially trained griots (praise-singers and oral historians) from certain families are permitted to perform the epic. All of Mali's ethnic groups have a rich store of proverbs, riddles, and tales that communicate and transmit cultural norms and moral values.


About 90% of Malians identify as Muslims. Trans-Saharan traders first introduced Islam to their local hosts and members of the political elite. Islam spread gradually among different populations beginning in the 11th century but it did not become a majority religion until the 20th century. The ways in which Islam is practiced across Mali today reflects the historical legacy of different Muslim leaders and movements, trans-regional connections, the recent influx of funds from Arab countries as well as the use of broadcast media in the dissemination of Islamic knowledge.

Christians constitute less than 2% of the population. The overwhelming majority are Catholics because Christianity was introduced by Catholic missionaries during French colonialism. Protestant Christian churches have thus far had only limited success in their search for converts. The remainder of the population continues to follow indigenous religious practices which may involve sacrifices to the ancestors and to community spirits, divination, spirit possession, and membership in initiation societies.


Public offices and some private businesses (e.g., banks) are closed on Sundays. Offices close at midday on Friday to allow the faithful to participate in Friday prayer at the mosque. Muslim holidays, as well as Christmas and Easter, are officially recognized. The two most important Islamic holidays are 'Id alfitr, at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and 'Id al-adha (also known as Tabaski), on the tenth day of the last month in the Muslim calendar. Each lasts three days and is celebrated with public prayers, new clothes for family members, festive meals and visiting with family and friends. Families commemorate Abraham's sacrifice by slaughtering a sheep on Tabaski.

Secular holidays include September 22, Independence Day (see above), and March 26, Democracy Day. The latter memorializes the end of the three-day uprising that brought down the Traoré regime.


Special ceremonies mark birth, marriage, and death throughout the country. The way they are celebrated varies somewhat between ethnic groups, urban and rural areas, and according to religious affiliation and economic status. However, they commonly bring together the extended family and larger social networks, with men and women congregating in different parts of the home. In urban areas, women relatives and friends come to the name giving ceremony with a gift of cloth or soap for the mother of the baby. The mother of a bride also receives cloth from her relatives and friends on behalf of her daughter. Men give money to a bridegroom on his wedding day to help him defray expenses, since it is the husband and his family who are responsible for the wedding festivities. When someone dies, male and female relatives, neighbors, and friends visit the bereaved family to offer condolences as soon as they receive the news. Among Muslims, only men accompany the body to the cemetery.

Most of Mali's ethnic groups practiced circumcision for boys and excision for girls. In the past, the highly ritualized procedure took place during the teenage years, but it is now often done much earlier. Many urban parents currently have their infant boys circumcised in the hospital shortly after birth, and an increasing number no longer excise girls. Women's groups have been engaging in educational campaigns to discourage excision nationwide.


Maintaining personal dignity, one's own and that of others, is extremely important and requires proper greeting and hospitality. Upon entering a household, a visitor initiates a short greeting. If the visitor is a stranger or someone who visits only irregularly, the host responds with a longer greeting, inquiring about the person's well-being and that of his or her relatives; the visitor then does the same in turn. Young people visiting a friend show their respect by greeting the head of household and/or the friend's mother. A visitor who arrives at meal time is invited to share the food. Greetings may be exchanged without physical contact, or by taking the interlocutor's right hand. Shaking hands is common among coworkers in offices. Late afternoon, before sundown, is the preferred time for paying social calls.

Young women and men usually socialize in groups, either same- or mixed-sex. Dating occurs more often in the company of others than as a couple. Although many young people in urban areas now choose their spouses themselves, a young man must still send a family representative to the family of the woman he wishes to marry. The woman's family must give their consent and stipulate the gift exchanges to take place before the wedding can be celebrated.


Successive governments elected since 1992 have sought to improve the basic infrastructure of the country. Nonetheless, life remains difficult for the majority of Malians. Th ose with an income must support not only their nuclear families, but also aged relatives and members of the extended family who are unemployed. Households rarely encompass only a nuclear family, and even well-to-do Malians have numerous obligations toward less fortunate relatives. The most commonly owned consumer goods are transistor radios, cell phones, and motor bikes or bicycles. In Bamako, car ownership has increased significantly since the 1990s. A growing number of households with access to electricity own television sets and, to a lesser extent, VCRs. Many urban families aspire to a living room furnished with a couch, table, chairs, and a china cabinet, but the interiors of most rural and urban homes are more modest. Given the climate, much of daily life takes place in the courtyard or in the shade of the veranda. A substantial part of income is spent on food, clothing, and health care. The majority of physicians practice in urban areas while nurses and midwives are the primary healthcare providers in rural areas. Aspirin and malaria medication are readily available and relatively inexpensive, but the cost of prescription drugs is high. For this reason, and because some herbal remedies are very effective, people may resort to indigenous pharmacopeia or seek out a healer before going to a clinic.


Malian law allows men to have more than one wife. A substantial number have two wives but only a small percentage has three or four, as permitted by Islam. Each wife is entitled to her own house or apartment. Women in polygamous households take turns preparing family meals. Many urban households with a regular income employ live-in domestic servants, generally young unmarried women from the rural areas. Household size and composition vary between rural and urban areas and, though more restricted in the latter, are usually not limited to a man and his wife (or wives) and their children. Visitors are also common for varying lengths of time.

Women work in all sectors of the rural and urban economy; only a minority is not involved in income-generating activities. Even women designated as “housewife” in the national census frequently engage in activities that range from small trade in cooked food to craft production, market gardening, and rain-fed agriculture. Women, like men, dispose of their own income, though spouses have different responsibilities for the maintenance of the family.


Traditional dress varies for Mali's different ethnic groups, though what is considered “traditional” has also changed over time. Conversion to Islam and integration into a commodity economy has brought about greater uniformity in clothing styles throughout the country. For married women to be well-dressed means wearing an ample, full-length tunic (called boubou) combined with a matching wraparound skirt (pagne) and headdress. Men wear the boubou over matching pants and a loose-fitting shirt. Type and quality of material, design details, and embroidery create distinctions and signal a person's means. Unique colors are often achieved through hand dyeing. Women complement their attire with gold jewelry, especially on festive occasions. Some men wear the jellabiya common in the Middle East. A minority of Malian women cover themselves in a black burka when they leave the home and a growing number express their piety by wearing a thin veil over their clothing since the end of the 1990s, particularly in the urban areas.

Teenage girls and young women in their twenties dress in wraparound or narrow tailored skirts and matching tops made of colorful cotton prints. The tops are done in a variety of styles with innovative details which change with the fashions. A small number of teenage girls in urban areas wear pants, mainly when they go out in the evening.

When working, many men wear Western-style pants and shirts or short (waist- or hip-length) tunics. Women put on wraparound skirts and tunics or tailored tops made of less expensive cottons while working at home. Imported secondhand clothing from Europe or North America, especially blouses, shirts, T-shirts, and (for men) pants, is also common during manual labor. Young people often have good secondhand clothing refitted and restyled for regular everyday wear.


Traditional foods are regionally specific. The food and eating habits discussed here are those of the capital city. They show some uniformity in spite of the population's ethnic diversity. The two staples throughout most of the country are boiled rice and a stiff porridge or a couscous made of millet. Millet is the more traditional food, but rice is preferred and has almost replaced millet for those who can afford it daily. Both are served with a sauce which may include fresh vegetables, fish, meat, or chicken. Those who are able return home at midday for their main meal and then eat something lighter, or some leftover food, in the evening. Others make do with a snack (e.g., some fried plantain or a skewer of beef with French bread) until the early evening. A light meal may be a cream of rice, liquid enough to be eaten like a soup. Salad is also gaining in popularity among those born since the mid-1950s. A typical breakfast food is gruel made with millet flour, tamarind, and sugar or, for variety, small leavened pancakes made with millet. French bread and coffee with milk and sugar are popular with many in the cities, but too expensive for the vast majority.

Western-style kitchens are rare, and most cooking is done on a brazier in the courtyard or in a detached kitchen house. Food is served in bowls, and family members gather around a common bowl and eat with their hands or with a spoon. Children are taught at an early age to wash their hands before eating, to eat with their right hand, and to wash again after eating. In large families, women and men generally eat separately.


Estimates of the percentage of children enrolled in formal education range from 30–50%. This includes children in madrasas but not in Quranic schools because the Malian state does not recognize Quranic schools as formal education. Created in the 1940s, madrasas are private Islamic schools where Arabic is the primary language of instruction for religious and secular subjects and French is taught for several hours a week beginning in the third grade. About 30-40% of all school-going children today are said to be in madrasas.

Public schools consist of two main types: schools whose entire curriculum is in French and bi-lingual schools where a national language is the medium of instruction during the first four years. Mother tongue instruction in the Bamana language began on an experimental basis in a few schools in 1979. It was expanded gradually and other languages were added over time. By 2006, 2550 schools across Mali hosted bi-lingual programs in one of eleven national languages. In spite of this increase, the percentage of children in bi-lingual programs compared to the classical French programs has actually declined (less than 10% in 2005) due to demographic growth and the expansion of schooling.

Many new madrasas and secular schools (funded by the state or by local communities) were created after the democratic opening in 1991. Universal primary education however remains a challenge since about 50% of Mali's population is under the age of 15. Many parents cannot afford to send or keep their children in school even where schools exist. Enrollment varies across regions. Bamako has the highest enrollment rates in primary and secondary education. The national university, created in 1996, is located in Bamako. Numerous private institutions provide professional and some university-level education.


The old towns of Djenne and Timbuktu and the tomb of Askia Mohamed in Gao are world heritage sites. The Ahmed Baba Center and the Kati Foundation in Timbuktu house rich collections of Arabic manuscripts from the period when the city was a flourishing center of Islamic scholarship (13th to 16th centuries).

Music, theater, dance, and oral literature particular to the different cultural traditions of the country continue to be practiced in rural villages as well as in urban neighborhoods. They also evolve as they address new themes and incorporate new technologies. Musical performances are a regular feature on Malian television. Successive governments have made the promotion and development of Mali's cultural heritage an integral aspect of national politics since independence. Beginning in the 1960s, youths in the various regions were encouraged to develop theater, music, or dance performances and the best groups were selected to represent their region at a biennial festival in Bamako. Since the late 1990s, regional festivals (e.g. in the north of Mali) are also organized through local initiatives. The National Institute of Arts, a professional secondary school in Bamako, has long promoted the cultural heritage through training in several artistic genres and professions (e.g. music, theatre, jewelry making, etc.). A Conservatory of the Arts and Media was recently created to provide advanced training in the plastic arts, theater, dance, and multi-media. It is directed by the internationally acclaimed painter Abdoulaye Konaté. The National Museum has a permanent arts and crafts collection from different periods and cultural traditions and also hosts excellent temporary exhibits.

The male and female Malian musicians who have become household names on the world music scene are too numerous to mention. The films of Souleymane Cissé and Cheik Oumar Cissoko and the photography of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé are internationally recognized. Mali has also produced a number of literary figures writing in French such as Amadou Hampaté Ba, Massa Makan Diabaté, Moussa Konaté, Ibrahima Ly, Yambo Ouologuem, and Fily Dabo Sissoko, to name only a few.


The majority of Malians are self-employed, making a living in agriculture, herding, fishing, trade, craft production, small-scale enterprises, and services. Profit margins are generally small. Most of the salaried positions are in the civil service or in international organizations. Beginning in the 1980s, structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund compelled the government to reduce the civil service and thus to hire fewer secondary school and higher-education graduates. This has resulted in greater unemployment and underemployment because the private formal sector, though growing, is still limited. Many Malians, single men as well as entire families, emigrate in search of work and better opportunities on a short- or long-term basis.


Soccer is by far the most popular sport and is played recreationally as well as in national and international competitions. Mali hosted the Africa Cup in 2002. Basketball is played by some male and female teams. Athletics has gained wider attention through the Grand Prix de Bamako since Mali began hosting the Pan African Athletics meeting in 2000.


Private radio stations have mushroomed since the 1990s and people of all ages tune in for their favorite programs. Many urban residents relax in the evening by watching Brazilian or North American soap operas or other programs on television, often in the company of neighbors or friends. Young people enjoy listening to Malian, other African, and international popular music. Concerts by well-known performers draw large crowds. While rural youths dance mostly at local festivals, urban youths also frequent discotheques and other dance events on weekends. Socializing with relatives, friends, and neighbors remains the most popular pastime for young and old, men and women, in urban and rural areas. In the cities, many men belong to a grin, a circle of friends with whom they meet regularly to talk or play cards while brewing a strong sweet tea. The importance of movies as a form of entertainment has diminished in recent years and a number of theaters have closed.


Folk arts and crafts are alive, and some flourish, as a stroll through the open-air markets of Bamako will reveal. Different regions and ethnic groups specialize and excel in particular products: Fulbe men in the Mopti region, for example, weave wool blankets with a variety of geometric designs, Tuareg women in the north of Mali make dyed leather goods (pillow covers, bags, knife sheaths, etc.), and women from Kayes are known for their indigo dyed cloth. Although the bulk of wool blankets and leather goods are now intended for the tourist market, they and other products are also made for home consumption. These include gold and silver jewelry, pottery (e.g., water jars), spoons and ladles made of squashes, and a range of mats and basketry. Hand woven cotton cloth in various colors and patterns is still sewn into blankets for use during the winter months but its production for women's wrappers and men's tunics has declined considerably. The tie-dyed damask cloth produced by urban women in innovative designs and colors, especially in Bamako, is prized for elegant wear not only in Mali but also in neighboring countries.


From 1960 to the overthrow of the Traoré government in 1991, political prisoners were frequently banished to the salt mines of the Sahara desert. Since the democratic opening of 1991, local human rights activists and the dynamic press keep the spotlight on the government and don't hesitate to discuss social, political, and economic problems openly. Most social problems result from the inability of many Malians to find employment and/or to earn an adequate income. Theft, prostitution, and homelessness are most prevalent in the cities. Drug use exists in some youth circles but is discouraged by the government and by Islam. Alcoholism is not widespread.

Malaria diminishes the quality of life and economic productivity of many individuals during the rainy season and, in the south of the country, at other times of the year as well. Lack of refrigeration often leads to gastrointestinal problems. Respiratory illnesses, parasites, and infections of various kinds are also common among children and adults. In 2003 HIV/AIDS prevalence in adults was estimated at 1.9%. Internationally funded initiatives seek to mobilize youths in the fight against HIV/AIDS and sexually transmissible diseases.


Women's and men's rights and responsibilities within the family, and their contributions to the household economy, vary in accordance with age, marital status, position within the household, as well as between ethnic groups and between urban and rural areas. Male and female legislators have worked for years to revise the national family law code to bring about greater equality between men and women in the areas of marital status, parental rights, ownership of land and inheritance, wages and pensions, employment laws, and education. Opposition from conservative groups has led to repeated compromises and has delayed passage.

In several regions of the country a majority of girls are married before the age of eighteen. As with excision, women's associations carry out educational campaigns with strong financial support from international donors.

Awa Keita (b. 1912), a trained midwife who lived and worked in different parts of the country, was active in the struggle for independence and in the organization of the women's branch of the USRDA nationalist party. In spite of this example, only small numbers of women have sought political office. The major political parties have attempted to change this pattern by setting quotas for female representation to encourage women to run for elective office.


Agence de coopération culturelle et technique. L'artisanat créateur au Mali. Paris: Dessain et Tolra, 1977.

Bouwman, Dinie and Anneke Breedveld, eds. “Education in the Mande World.” Mande Studies 8, 2006.

Konaré, Alpha Oumar, and Adam Ba. Grandes Dates du Mali. Bamako: Editions Imprimeries du Mali, 1983.

Maliweb. (June 2008).

—by M. Grosz-Ngaté