ALTERNATE NAMES: Mandinka, Maninka, Manding, Mandingo, Mandin, Mande
LOCATION: Territory covering The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
POPULATION: 7.75 million
LANGUAGE: Variations of Mande languages
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Gambians; Guineans; Ivoirians; Malians; Senegalese
The name Malinke is just one of many similar names used for a large group of closely related peoples in West Africa. They are also commonly referred to as Mandinka, Maninka, Manding, Mandingo, Mandin, and Mande. The areas that they occupy are among the earliest places of Neolithic agricultural settlements in sub-Saharan Africa, dating as far back as 7,000 years.
The Malinke have the distinction of being heirs to the great Mali Empire, a medieval merchant empire that flourished from the 13th to the 16th centuries and greatly influenced the course of West African history. Much of the northern region of Africa, of which the Malinke territories were a part, was incorporated into the world of Islam in the 11th century, and most of the West African chieftains adopted the Islamic religion. One of the famous kings of the Mali Empire, Kankan Musa (r.1312–37), made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 with a tremendous entourage of camels laden with gold, and some 60,000 men, including 500 slaves carrying golden staffs. The renowned city of Islamic teaching, Timbuctu, was also part of the vast and prosperous Mali Empire. The empire declined in the 15th century and was gradually absorbed and usurped by the Songhai Kingdom, which extended to the 17th century.
As early as 1444, Portuguese traders had enslaved the first Malinke people, and in the next three and a half centuries, thousands of Malinke and other peoples were transported by Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch merchants to the Caribbean and the Americas to work as slaves on plantations.
Interesting descriptions of the areas inhabited by the Malinke were gathered in the late 18th century by Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who led two expeditions exploring the Gambia and Niger Rivers. During the first expedition, between 1795 and 1797, he was imprisoned by an Arab chieftain for four months before escaping, and later lay ill in a Malinke town for seven months. Park wrote a book about this expedition, called Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1797). Park was drowned during an attack by natives on the Niger River in 1806.
During the 19th century the kingdoms of the Malinke peoples were subjugated by the British, French, and Portuguese and were incorporated into their colonial systems. It would take over a century for them to gradually gain autonomy in independent African nations whose boundaries crossed their tribal territories.
The Malinke people gained some popular attention when Alex Haley published his best-selling book, Roots (1974), later made into a television series. The story of Haley's ancestral family and the book's main character, Kunta Kinte of the Mandinka (Malinke) people, personalized the terrible plight of African slaves and their families who were sold into slavery. Indeed, a great many slaves were taken from the areas around the present countries of The Gambia and Senegal, particularly in the 16th century. By the mid-18th century, when Kunta Kinte was captured into slavery, regions to the south mostly supplied the slave trade.
The Malinke were not only victims of the slave trade, but they were also perpetrators of the trade themselves, having had a long history of owning and maintaining slaves. The explorer Mungo Park, during his first journey through the area of Senegal and The Gambia, estimated that three-quarters of the population were hereditary slaves. There were two distinct kinds of slaves to be found: those that had been captured in battle or purchased; and those that had been born into the slave families of their village. The first had no rights and were treated like objects to be bought and sold. The second kind had a number of rights and privileges and could sometimes even buy their freedom. These hereditary slaves might be sold out of the village as punishment for a crime. Mungo Park documented how some free people, during a severe drought, would voluntarily give themselves as slaves to relatively wealthy Malinke farmers in order to save themselves from starvation.
The indigenous slave trade persisted into the 19th century, somewhat beyond the time that the British, French, and American slave trade had been declared illegal. Even today the lowest caste in the Malinke system of social structure comprises descendants of former slaves.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Today there are more than 7.75 million Malinke distributed over several African nations within a wide arc that extends 1,300 km (800 mi). It starts at the mouth of the Gambia River in the northwest and circles around in a bow form, ending in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in the southeast. The territory includes areas in the nations of The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Côte d'Ivoire. There are numerous other African ethnic groups sharing these areas. Of the 7.75 million Malinke scattered throughout West Africa, there are 2.8 million in Guinea; 1.1 million in Mali; 1 million in the Ivory Coast; 1 million in Senegal; 600,000 in The Gambia; 400,000 in Sierra Leone; 400,000 in Burkina Faso; 200,000 in Guinea-Bissau; 100,000 in Liberia; and 100,000 in Ghana. They do not form a majority group in any of the above countries. In The Gambia they represent approximately 39% of the country's total population, in Guinea 32%, and in Guinea-Bissau 14%.
The Malinke peoples speak slight variations of the broad Mande branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. The term “Mande” frequently refers to a group of closely related languages spoken by the Malinke and other West African peoples, such as the Bambara, the Soninke, and the Dyula. The Mandinka language, sometimes referred to as Mandingo, is a Mande language spoken by millions of Mandinka people in Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Chad; it is the main language of The Gambia. It belongs to the Manding branch of Mande, and is thus fairly similar to Bambara and Maninka or Malinke. It is a tonal language with two tones: low and high.
Details of the early days of the Mali Empire and the lifestyles of the people have been kept alive for centuries through the epic poem, “Sonjara” (or “Sundiata”; also “Sunjata”), which has been sung and resung through many generations by the griots, bards or praise-singers of West Africa. In over 3,000 lines of poetry in the oral tradition, it tells the story of Sonjara, a legendary leader who, after countless obstacles and trials, unites the Malinke clans and chiefdoms at the beginning of the 13th century. As a young child he was hexed and made into a cripple by his father's jealous second wife, who wanted her own son to be king. He finally learns to walk and decides to become a hunter, giving up his claim to the throne and starting on a long exile with his mother and siblings. After many adventures, a delegation from Mali pleads with him to come back and save them from an evil sorcerer-king, Sumanguru, who has put cal-abashes (gourds) over the mouths of their heroes. Sonjara organizes an army to return and regain his rightful throne. With help from his sister, who seduces the evil sorcerer-king to discover his vulnerable points and, after long and bloody battles, he triumphs over Sumanguru, liberating and uniting the surrounding chiefdoms. “Sonjara” is now considered one of the famous epics of world history, and it is still being performed by griots for the Malinke.
The majority of the Malinke are Muslim and have adapted the tenets of Islam into their native beliefs, resulting in a wide range of syncretic variations. Most Malinke villages have a mosque, often a large cylindrical structure with a thatched roof that contains a hole through which the call to prayer can be shouted; some village mosques have a minaret, and most mosques are enclosed by a palisade fence. Women sit separate from the men, both in the mosque and during outside religious services. Those villagers who have made a pilgrimage to Mecca, or even descendants of those who have made the journey, are highly respected. They may have the word for the sacred pilgrimage, Hadj, as part of their name.
The principal religious leader is the elected imam, an elder who leads prayers at the mosques and has great religious knowledge. The other Islamic clerics who play a major role as healers and religious counselors are the marabouts. They are respected as preservers of morality through oral tradition and as teachers of the Quran. These specialists have many talents, being able to foretell the future, interpret natural signs, and make herbal concoctions for curing illnesses. They are experts at preventing and healing ailments or injuries inflicted by evil spirits or by mortals.
Prevention and cure is frequently done by means of gri-gris, or charms. The most common ones are written charms. The marabout copies selected lines in Arabic script from a master copy—either from the Quran or from a book with medicinal messages. These lines written on a piece of paper comprise a charm that can be folded in any shape—rectangle, triangle, square—and taken to the leatherworker to be covered in a leather pouch with a string and worn around the neck, waist, or arm. Charms can be obtained for protection from illness, from bullets or weapons, for help in finding employment, or even for making oneself attractive to the opposite sex. Another type of charm is the water charm, in which some lines from the master copy are written in washable ink onto a writing board. The ink is washed into a bowl. The recipient can drink a bit of the solution every day or rinse the body with it, for example, to help gain success in school.
A marabout can also provide a blessed string to be placed on the wrist of an infant hours after birth to protect it from evil spirits, or on the tails of cattle if there is fear of an epidemic caused by evil spirits. A personal blessing of the marabout is considered helpful for healing: he will spit lightly on the forehead of a patient and press the area with the palm of his hand. Children in particular may be seen with several charms around their neck, waist, or wrist. The common use of charms is an indication that the Malinke are fearful of many evil spirits, which can bring death or misfortune.
The Malinke look forward to the important Islamic holidays. The favorite is Tabaski, which usually falls in the spring or summer, the day being determined according to the Islamic lunar calendar. Tabaski commemorates the moment when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God's command, when God interceded and a ram was substituted. The Malinke start saving months ahead of time for the celebration to purchase new clothes and to have an abundant supply of food. The most expensive item is the ram or sheep to be slaughtered at the precise moment determined by the lunar calendar. It is prestigious to have a very large and fat ram to slaughter. Households that can only afford a goat or chicken are rather embarrassed. On this day people attend the mosque, and there is much eating (especially roasted mutton) and visiting of friends. Other religious holidays include the Feast of Ramadan celebrated at the end of the annual 30-day Muslim fast, and Muhammad's birthday.
RITES OF PASSAGE
A week after the birth of an infant, the Malinke hold a name-giving ceremony. A marabout leads prayers during a ceremony, shaves the infant's head, and announces the name of the child for the first time. If the parents can afford it, a goat or sheep will be killed, and the meat will be served along with balls of dough blessed by the marabout.
Puberty rites and circumcision are very significant in the lives of the Malinke, both male and female. Children are teased about the status of being uncircumcised, and from an early age they are curious as well as fearful. It is the most important rite of passage, for one cannot attain adulthood or marry without it. For boys the rite is held about once every five years and includes novices from 6 to 13 years old, who may be in a group of 30 to 45 boys. There are variations in the ceremony, but the following is typical. A circumcision lodge is built with millet stalks after the harvest in December or January. At dawn the novice is carried to the place of circumcision on the shoulders of an “older brother” or guardian who has already been circumcised. The village men proceed to the lodge. Each boy is circumcised, after waiting reflectively, by a circumciser or elder; the boy sits at the edge of a hole with his legs around it, and the foreskin is buried in the hole. Either indigenous herbs or Western ointment may be used to help heal the wound. Just after the circumcision the guardians race back to the village to spread the news, waving branches in the leaf dance.
In the evening the novices, draped in white clothing with hoods, enter the lodge to begin a period of six to eight weeks of seclusion. They carry large square charms to ward off evil spirits. They undergo an education in a fearful atmosphere by the lodge chief and guardians who teach them to act as a collective group. The frightening sounds of a bull-roarer (a flat board whirled around on a string) are heard, and they are threatened that evil demons will be called in. They learn circumcision songs that reflect the values of society, for example, respect for elders. The novices undergo four stages of education, including a feast prepared by their mothers. When they return home with a new status there will be a polite distance between mother and son. The boys who were circumcised in one ceremony form an age-set, which is given a name; they will have a close bond for life.
The girls' circumcision is organized and convened by the “circumcision queen,” a village woman leader who is a respected midwife and supervises rituals concerning women. Girls are circumcised in smaller groups, and the ceremonies occur more frequently. The girls are carried on the backs of their “older sisters,” their guardians, just as mothers carry infants on their backs. They are blindfolded and taken to a symbolic women's tree used to make women's tools or mortars and pestles. Each novice in turn sits on the edge of a hole, supported by an elder woman behind her. The clitoridectomy is done by an elder woman specialist. Boiled bandages and ointments are applied, and the girls stay secluded for ten days to two weeks. During this time they are taught Malinke values and how to work together as a group. The stages of seclusion are similar to those of the boys. In recent years there is pressure to have circumcision in clinics. In general, however, the older generation is very reluctant to let go of these traditional rituals, and circumcision is still an important prerequisite to marriage.
Marriage ties are important for creating and cementing bonds between families. Marriage for a Malinke girl may begin with her betrothal at birth to a boy who may be 12 years old or less. The preferred marriage partner is the matrilateral cross-cousin: the boy is betrothed to his mother's brother's daughter. Prior to marriage, several steps in the payment of a bride-price by the suitor to the parents of the prospective bride are made, taking from three to seven years. The installments include money, kola nuts (bitter, mildly hallucinogenic nuts), salt, and some livestock. Although the girl can sleep intermittently with her future husband, she cannot go to live in his compound until the full payment is made, amounting to what is a large sum in Malinke economy. Additional gifts are made to the bride's mother-in-law before the actual marriage ceremony can take place.
The typical Malinke wedding, called a “bride transfer,” takes place on a Thursday or Friday—the two holiest days of the week. The bride is dressed in dark blue with a white smock, a blue turban, and a dark blue shawl over her head with just the eyes showing. She wears anklets and bracelets of silver beads and ties a silver coin in her hair. The “circumcision queen” comes to the bride's house and performs a dance. The bride walks behind the queen with her hands on the queen's hips; this is called “carrying the bride.” The two are followed by a throng of women, symbolically weeping because the bride will be leaving her parents' home. The bride goes to her husband's house and sits on his bed. A period of seclusion lasting up to three days begins, a period in which the bride is considered very vulnerable to an evil spirit. The seclusion ends when the husband unveils the wife. The village women give gifts of cooking utensils and hold a dance.
The Malinke practice polygyny (plural wives), and Islam permits men to take up to four wives. Only prosperous men can afford several wives due to the expensive bride-price and the fact that all wives should be provided for equally.
The final rite of passage, death, is not seen as a natural event for the Malinke. Their word “to die” also means “to kill,” and death is seen to be caused by some evil force. At the same time, the person is believed to rise again to one of three regions in an afterlife: heaven, hell, or purgatory (somewhere in between). The corpse is ritually bathed and the water collected so it cannot cause sickness. The men conduct the funeral while the women gather nearby. A senior marabout gives the eulogy and the imam says the final prayers. Men carry the body on a mat to the burial place with the women wailing. It is buried on its right side, head facing east, feet to the north. A fence is built around the grave to protect it from animals; sticks are put over the hole to provide a “breathing space.” The corpse is said to be interviewed by the angel Malika during a 45-day judgment period. In that time three mortuary ceremonies are held at which oil cakes and kola nuts are distributed to those attending.
When the Malinke encounter a family member or friend, the greetings they have for one another are very important, as they are for other West Africans. An extensive ritual exchange of rather formal greeting questions ensues, that can take up to a minute. They might say, “Peace be with you.,” “Is your life peaceful?,” “How is everything going?,” “Are your family members in good health?,” “How is your father?,” or “Is the weather treating your crops well?” The questions go back and forth and may end with, “Thanks be to Allah.” Even if one is not feeling well or if things are not going well, the answers are usually positive. It is considered very bad manners not to engage in the lengthy greeting exchange.
The Malinke people in general are very warm and hospitable. If a guest drops by at mealtime, he or she will surely be invited to share the meal. Giving gifts and sharing are very important values in the Malinke culture. Richer people especially are expected to be generous. The idea is that those who have been blessed by Allah should be willing to share some of their wealth. If not forthcoming with generosity, a person might be asked outright to give something.
The Malinke who live in the cities have adapted to an urban lifestyle. Most, however, still live in traditional villages of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people. The villages are rather compact, consisting of groups of compounds enclosed by millet-stalk fences. A compound contains several cylindrical houses built of sun-baked bricks or wattle and daub, with a thatched roof; there will also be a granary and a separate cylindrical kitchen with low half-walls and a thatched roof. Behind each house in a traditional compound is a small enclosure containing a pit latrine. This enclosure is also used as a private place for bathing with a bucket of water.
As the residence pattern after marriage is patrilocal, those living in the compound will be the brothers of a family with their wives and unmarried children. If a man has more than one wife, each will have her own house in the compound. The houses are grouped around a center courtyard that may contain a well. Much activity will be going on in the courtyard: children playing, women engaged in activities, such as washing clothes, shelling peanuts, or cooking (a very lengthy and laborious task). The houses, which may have a couple of small windows, are very sparsely furnished; they may just have a bed consisting of a frame with thin poles across the width, covered by a mat; a small table; and a chair or two. Possessions may include a transistor radio and a suitcase with diverse mementos and valuables. Most of the living and socializing goes on outside in the courtyard, where the beds may be placed to sit on, or to sleep on when it is too warm inside.
An average village may have a small shop selling a few items. The most popular local consumer goods are refined sugar, tea, kola nuts, salt, cooking oil, tobacco, cigarettes, matches, and batteries. For transportation, a bicycle, an occasional motor-bike, an ox cart, or a horse cart are the means used by those who can afford these items. More frequently, villagers walk to a road where there is a bus or perhaps a “collective taxi,” or they simply walk to their destination. Women do not have much opportunity to leave their villages because travel for women is discouraged by the Malinke culture.
The Malinke consider large families to be important. Children are one's wealth in an agrarian society. A large compound with brothers and their plural wives will always be bustling with family members of several generations and children of many ages. Young girls who are old enough to carry an infant will usually be seen with one strapped to their back or carrying one on their hip. Infants are coddled and indulged, never lacking attention. Mothers carry their infants on their backs wherever they go and breastfeed them whenever they cry. Young children have certain chores to do, but in general they lead a wholesome and carefree life with plenty of playmates around.
For men and women there is a division of agricultural labor. The men do the plowing, sowing, planting, and a major part of the harvesting work. Some also engage in hunting and fishing. Women do weeding and tend vegetable plots. Women are always busy with some kind of work, while it is common to see men sitting under a tree in the village square, chatting with other men and having a smoke and some tea that the women have brought them. The women are responsible for cooking, which involves many labor-intensive steps. They gather the firewood and bring it back on their heads in large bundles. They draw water at the well. They pound the millet, sorghum, or corn for hours with a mortar and pestle and then sift it to prepare the staple food of couscous. Cooking the meal involves hours of squatting in intense heat, tending earthenware pots propped on three stones around an open wood fire. Usually the women of a compound share the many tasks of cooking and take turns being responsible for meals. The women also wash the clothes and do much maintenance and cleaning work in the compound. While tending the children they are usually doing some income-generating activity, such as shelling peanuts.
The male head of the household is responsible for food procurement for his family, for buying clothes, and for providing agricultural tools and seeds for planting. The household heads have the authority to make all important decisions, although women wield a significant amount of power behind the scenes.
The social organization of the Malinke is based on an ancient caste system into which members are born. A Malinke can never change the caste-status into which he or she is born. There is rarely intercaste marriage. In an average village, however, the difference in wealth or status among the castes is barely visible. There is more of a feeling of egalitarianism, and all people have an agrarian lifestyle, cultivating crops and tending small herds of livestock. The size of the family is often more of an indication of wealth; small families with few children and few extended family members are thought of as poor and unfortunate. The caste system is comprised of nobles at the top, artisans and griots in the middle, and the descendants of slaves at the bottom. It is an elder from among the nobles who serves as headman or chief. All castes may provide marabouts, but certain other functions are caste-specific.
The artisans are divided into two main occupations: blacksmiths and leatherworkers. The blacksmiths are considered to be the most important of the middle caste. They make iron tools and implements, such as plow points and axe heads, as well as wooden furniture, mortars, and pestles. Some Malinke smiths have gained excellent reputations as sculptors and artists in iron objects or woodcarvings. They are usually the bicycle repairmen of the village as well. Smiths have a reputation for truthfulness and hospitality. They have the important function of male circumciser and chief of the lodge in circumcision ceremonies. There are many leatherworkers who are just farmers and do not do much work in leather. Some, however, have a good additional income from making the leather pouches or cases to cover the gri-gri charms.
The griots are the traditional bards or storytellers, providing entertainment and singing songs that keep alive the oral tradition of the people. Some just chant praise and recite honorific names and parables from the Quran. Others recite rhymed phrases accompanied by a drummer. They are paid for their skills at various ceremonies. Many griots are musicians who know how to play the kora, a stringed instrument made from half a large gourd covered with leather as a resonator. Some griots play the balaphon, a wooden xylophone with a row of gourd resonators. They teach all these skills to their children from an early age. Often the musicians will migrate from village to village to market their talents.
In addition to the castes, the Malinke have groupings in age-sets consisting of men or women who were circumcised at the same time and who maintain a strong egalitarian bond throughout life. Sometimes particular age-sets are called on to perform community tasks. The male age-sets pass through three age-grades, which are an important aspect of social control. The “boys” are those from about 10 to 20 years of age, who are the focus of enculturation, learning the proper norms and values of the Malinke culture. The “young men” include those from about 20 to 40 years old who are either unmarried or who have just formed their own nuclear family unit; they are responsible for carrying out decisions made in village meetings. The “elders” are those over 40 years old who are heads of extended family household units; they are the most influential in making decisions and settling disputes.
Malinke villages have secular leaders and religious leaders, whose roles sometimes overlap. The secular leader is the chief, who is typically a descendant of the noble caste and the village founders. The chief presides over a council of elder men who may convene to settle disputes, for example, if there is a theft or a question of someone's livestock damaging crops, or if a decision must be made about the return of the bride-price if an abused wife goes back to live in her father's compound.
The imam is the principal religious leader who may serve several small villages. Unlike the chief, the imam is elected; the position is open to elders with Quranic wisdom, who are not descendants of slaves. His main duty is to lead prayers at the mosque. Sometimes the chief is also a marabout, an Islamic healer and counselor, who can rival the imam in performing religious duties.
Many Malinke villages have an additional influential person who could be said to be a leader: the kanda. A kanda is a self-made man, who with his large family, strong personality, organizational abilities, and hard work has amassed considerable wealth. He has no formal power, and he does not refer to himself as a kanda for fear of jealousy and alienation. He wields a great deal of authority at meetings and when important decisions must be made. Because of the deep respect for elders, both men and women, it can be said that they are also village leaders. Their status grows as they age, and younger people are instilled with the value of respecting their elders.
In addition to the council of elder men who settle disputes, the Malinke have a fascinating means of social control—through the powerful demon-spirit called a kangkurao, portrayed by a mask-wearer who covers his body with blood-red bark, making an awesome and frightful figure. The kangkurao must be summoned by the chief, the imam, or the circumcision lodge chief, who gives the demon-spirit a benevolent mission to carry out. The spirit figure can demand that people participate in public works, such as digging a well or weeding for fire prevention; he can enforce taboos against eating fruit until it is ripe; and he can discipline novices at circumcision ceremonies. Moreover, he can exact fines for those who do not obey. Even though the Islamic religion prohibits graven images, the kangkurao has survived as part of the Malinke tradition.
Malinke who live today in urban centers, especially the men, may have adopted Western-style clothes. Villagers, on the other hand, take pride in their traditional clothing, which is important to them. In fact, one of the obligations of a husband is to give each wife the cloth for at least two new outfits every year.
Women generally wear a loose, scoop-necked smock over a long skirt made by a wrap-around piece of cloth. They often tie a matching piece of cloth around their head in an informal turban, each woman's turban having its own special flair. They use brightly colored cotton prints with splashy, large designs; some also wear tie-dyed, wood-block, or batik prints. The traditional casual dress for men is made with the same bright prints fashioned in an outfit that resembles pajamas.
For formal occasions men and women may wear the grand boubou. For women this is a loose dress that extends to ground level and may be trimmed in lace or embroidery. For men it is a long robe-like garment covering long pants and a shirt. Many middle-aged or elder men wear knit caps. Shoes are leather or rubber thongs.
Traditional Malinke are cultivators who grow varieties of millet, sorghum, rice (in the swampy areas), and corn as staple crops. As cash crops they grow peanuts and cotton and, to supplement their diet and gain a bit of income at weekly markets, grow diverse vegetables in garden plots. Some villages have a bakery where small loaves of French-style bread are baked.
The wealthier Malinke own some livestock—cattle, goats, chickens, and perhaps a horse for plowing. The cattle are used for milk and for the prestige of owning them; they are rarely slaughtered. There is little meat in the diet. Those who live near rivers or lakes may supplement their meals with fish.
A typical breakfast might consist of corn porridge eaten with a spoon made of a small, elongated calabash (gourd) split in half. The midday and evening meals may consist of rice or couscous with sauce and/or vegetables. Couscous can be made of pounded and steamed millet, sorghum, or cornmeal. A substantial quantity of rice or couscous is placed in a plastic or enamel basin around which those sharing the meal sit. Small bowls of sauce—often peanut sauce—or vegetable mixtures are distributed over the rice or couscous. Those sharing the meal take portions of it with the right hand, forming a bite-sized ball.
Tea-time is an important break for the Malinke. Tea is made by filling a small pot with dried tea leaves and covering these with boiling water. The brewed tea is extremely strong and is served with several small spoons of sugar in tiny glasses. After the first round of tea, the pot is filled with boiling water a second and third time, thus the second and third rounds of tea are a bit diminished in strength.
Many villages today have a government school and a Quranic school for learning to recite verses from the Quran. The educational models of the government schools, as well as the medium of instruction, are based on those of the ex-colonial masters, either French or British. As the nations where the Malinke are found today have many tribal peoples in addition to the Malinke, it is likely that the teachers posted to the school will be of a different ethnic group and will not speak the Malinke language.
It is difficult for a child to start first grade in a school that teaches only in French or English, languages totally different from his or her native Malinke. Poor attendance and high drop-out rates are common in the village schools. There are few instructional materials, and the teaching methods are very formal: rote recitation, “chalk and talk,” and copying exercises. As the Islamic parents do not think it is as important for their daughters to get an education as it is for their sons, the enrollment of boys is much higher than that of girls. Only a small percentage of the village pupils can pass the state examination at the end of sixth grade in order to go on to high school. The countries in which the Malinke are found have generally low literacy rates, around 40%, with literacy for males much higher than for females.
Much of the cultural heritage of the Malinke is embedded in the great Mali merchant empire of the 13th to the 16th centuries and the Islamic religion that was adopted by the chieftains. There was a flourishing trade in gold, and many ornate ornaments, jewelry, and staffs of gold date from that period, documenting a wealthy and proud past. Additionally, the cultural heritage has been immortalized in the famous epic poem “Sonjara,” sung by griots (minstrels) since the 13th century (see Folklore).
Farming is a respected occupation, and all members of society are given farming tasks. The children, too, guard the fields against wild boar, monkeys, and birds. The Malinke use natural fertilizer, allowing livestock to graze on the fields lying fallow. Children are often seen tending the livestock.
The Malinke of today have some traditional sports in their school curriculum that were introduced with the French model of education. Many of the village schools are too poor to have good quality balls or much sports equipment. Boys might be seen playing soccer with a homemade ball. They enjoy listening to soccer matches, both national and international, on the radio or watching these on television in town; many Malinke men and boys can recite the names of international soccer stars.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
In addition to the storytelling and music provided by the griots, the Malinke like to listen to the radio, a typical possession in most households. If they live in a village with electricity, a television set is a prized item. It is common for large groups of villagers to gather in the compound of the television's owner, who will position his set on a high platform outside so large numbers of people can watch.
“Woaley” is a board game similar to backgammon. It is a major pastime for the Malinke as well as other West Africans. The board is in the form of a rectangle with twelve indentations to hold beans and two larger indentations at the ends to hold the captured beans. Both spectators and players of all ages enjoy woaley matches. (The game is referred to by many other names as well.)
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Some of the most important art of the Malinke is the oral art, songs, and epic poems sung by the griots playing a kora musical instrument. In former times it was common for the blacksmiths to forge ornamental oil lamps from iron and large iron door locks, as well as fanciful iron figures of spirits or animals to crown the staffs; the blacksmiths also carved wooden figures and masks. These artistic endeavors are less common today.
Present day hobbies of Malinke young men may include collecting cassette tapes of their favorite singers, which could be reggae singers from Jamaica or American rock stars. Something that young women enjoy doing and might consider a hobby is braiding each other's hair, making decorative rows or braiding in long strands of synthetic hair.
As the Malinke people are socialized with a strong sense of responsibility to their family and lineage, many of the kinds of social problems that might be prevalent in an industrialized society are not encountered. AIDS and the spread of venereal diseases by men who have brought these back from urban areas is a problem in some places. Since the society is Muslim, alcoholism is not found. At the same time, malnutrition and a lack of understanding of its causes is a subject that needs attention. From a Western perspective, the situation of women, including fewer opportunities for education, fewer rights, and having to share a husband with co-wives, may be seen as a social problem.
Malinke society is patrilineal (male-dominated) and the smallest social unit is the family. The oldest male serves as the head of the lineage. A “minor lineage” consists of a man and his immediate family. A “major lineage” consists of households of relatives and their families. The majority of the Malinke men are farmers. The men do all of the fieldwork by hand with no help from machinery or fertilizers. The staple crops native to this area are rice, millet, sorghum, and peanuts. There are also many men who raise livestock. Cattle are rare and are used mainly to show prestige or used as a bridal dowry. Only men are allowed to hold positions of high respect in a Malinke village. Among the Malinke, men do the heavy farm work, hunt, and fish. They also hold leadership positions, such as village elders and imams. The women help with the farming, as well as cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children.
Traditionally, parents arranged their daughters' marriages while the girls were still infants. Today, marriages are still arranged, but not as early. The groom is required to work for the bride's family both before and after the wedding. He must also pay the girl's family a “bride price.” Polygamy is commonly practiced, but the men rarely have more than three wives.
Malinke believe the crowning glory of any woman is the ability to produce children, especially sons. The first wife has authority over any subsequent wives. The husband has complete control over his wives and is responsible for feeding and clothing them. He also helps the wives' parents when necessary. Wives are expected to live together in harmony, at least superficially. They share work responsibilities of the compound, cooking, laundry, etc.
While farming is the predominant profession among the Malinke, men also work as tailors, butchers, taxi drivers, woodworkers, metal workers, soldiers, nurses, and extension workers for aid agencies. However, most women, probably 95%, remain in the home as wives and mothers.
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———. “The Masked Figure and Social Control: The Mandinka Case.” Africa 41, no. 4 (1971): 279—293.
—revised by M. Njoroge