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ETHNONYMS: Mandika, Mandingo, Malinke (Mandinque-Manding)


Identification and Location. Mandinka is both a linguistic term and the name of the people who speak that language. The Mandinka constitute one of the larger groups of the well-known and wide-spread Mande-speaking peoples of ancient western Sudan. They inhabit a large area roughly the shape of a horseshoe, starting from their home in Gambia, extending through the southeastern region of Senegal, bending across the northern and southern sections of the republics of Guinea and Mali, extending through northern Sierra Leone, and descending into northwestern Cote d'Ivoire (formerly the Ivory Coast Republic). Ancient western Sudan is more commonly recognized as the area between the Sahara Desert and the tropical African forest stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea coasts.

Demography. Based on recent statistics, the Mandinka population is nearly two million. In July 2001, there were 592,706 Mandinka in Gambia (42 percent of the population), 308,547 in Senegal (3 percent of the population), and 171,056 in Guinea-Bissau (13 percent of the population). There are approximately 800,000 Mandinka in Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Burkina-Faso, and Sierra Leone.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mandinka language is in the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo language family and is spoken in Guinea, Mali, Burkina-Faso, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, the Senegambia region, and parts of Nigeria. It has several variations, but is most closely related to the Malinke language of West Africa. Its linguistic identity is connected with its ethnic identity. Mandinka is a tonal language in which changes in pitch are used to distinguish between words, phrases, and complete utterances that are otherwise identically constructed.

History and Cultural Relations

The Mandinka of Gambia and the surrounding areas, the Bambara of Mali, the Dyula-speaking people of Cote d'Ivoire and Upper Volta, the Kuranko, the Kono, and the Vail of Sierra Leone and Liberia are part of the Manding people, who believe that they originated from the area of Mande near the western border of Mali on the Upper Niger River. The ancestors of these people are associated with the great empire of Mali. There are indications that the main movements of many of these peoples occurred in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The first written account of the region came from the records of Arab traders in the ninth and tenth centuries c.e. Those traders established the trans-Sahara trade route for slaves, gold, and ivory. Between the tenth and fifteenth centuries a migration of Hamitic-Sudanese people from the Nile River Valley arrived and then settled and intermingled with the Mandinka. In 1235, Sundiata founded the Empire of Mali. Between 1312 and 1337, Mali reached its greatest prominence during the reign of Mansa Musa. By the end of the 1700s, the western savanna was colonized by the French, British, and Portuguese. It was the French who colonized the largest number of the Mandinka in Guinea, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, and Mali. In the mid-nineteenth century, a Dyula man called Samori Toure attempted to revive the medieval Empire of Mali. By 1881, Toure had established a huge empire in West Africa that covered many of the present-day nations. It took the French seven years to defeat Toure's empire; but by 1898 the Second Mandinka Empire had fallen. By 1900, European colonial powers controlled the whole region. It was not until the early 1960s that that region achieved independence.


Almost all the Mandinka maintains a rural existence, living in family-related compounds within villages. Each village is surround by a wall; the homes are either round or rectangular, and are made of sun-dried bricks or mud with a thatched or tin roof. These rural villages have neither electricity nor telephone services. Many villagers never travel more than five miles (eight kilometers) from their homes.


Subsistence. The Mandinka economy is based on subsistence agriculture. Rice, millet, sorghum, and maize are grown, but income from exports is largely dependent on peanuts. Although the Mandinka raise most of their own food, many products are obtained through trade and foodgathering expeditions in the surrounding forests. Much of their time is spent in the fields, particularly during the planting and harvesting seasons. Sometimes cattle are kept as a means of gaining prestige, for ritual sacrifices, or to use as a bride-price.

Commercial Activities. Men often take part-time jobs in various businesses to supplement their income. Others raise goats, sheep, bees, poultry, and dogs to earn additional income. Specialists make various craft products for trade or sale.

Industrial Arts. A traditional feature of Mandinka society is the "nyamakala" (craft groups), which often have religious and ritual responsibilities as well as their skilled occupations. The production of artistic and craft products is very important. The Mandinka are famous for wood-carving and leather and metal crafts. They are also known for weaving (men) and dyeing (women), including dresses made of mud cloth decorated with stylized patterns depicting symbolically important animals such as lizards, tortoises, and crocodiles. They also make domestic utensils from clay or calabashes to sell or trade.

Trade. The Mandinka produce a wide variety of clothing to sell. However, imitations of their clothing made by large European manufacturers have limited their profits. Historically, the Mandinka had mercantile clans for which trade was a full-time occupation that was pursued with such skill and determination that their name came to be synonymous with "trader" throughout West Africa. There is continuous exchange in the local and regional markets, and there is also limited access to major commercial routes. In addition to clothing they sell or trade locally grown foodstuffs. The Mandinka hope to add chickens, eggs, and surplus grain to their trade goods.

Division of Labor. Certain tasks are assigned specifically to men, women, or children. Men clear the undergrowth and prepare the land for the farming season and plant and manage particular crops. In addition, men are responsible for hunting, herding, leatherwork, blacksmithing for warfare, and the building of houses. Young boys are taught to take care of men's crops and herd cattle. They scare off birds and small rodents from the farms. Eventually they are initiated into the responsibilities of manhood. Most women's activities take place in the household. Children are cared for primarily by their mother, who often is assisted by other female family members. Women are also traders and artisans. Only men weave, but today many women sew with sewing machines yet continue to spin thread as they did in the past.

Land Tenure. The first patrilineal family thought to have settled in the area usually is granted the ritual chieftancy. The ritual chief has some authority in regard to land tenure. The authority of this office is based on the belief that an ancestor of the ritual chief was the first immigrant to the area and had to come to terms with the local spirits of the land. He maintains a special relationship with those spirits and is the most qualified to mediate with them for the rest of the immigrants and the inhabitants of the area.


Kin Groups and Descent. Mandinka society traditionally was organized in large patrilineal village units that were grouped together to form small state-like territorial units. Those units were remarkable for their continuity. 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 a household of relatives and their families, a group that ultimately creates a "clan." Clans can be recognized by their symbolic emblems, which can include animals and plants. If someone travels to another village, he or she is shown hospitality by the villagers who share his or her last name. Even larger kinship groups that unite the Mandinka with other Manding people are called "dyamu." Although this term refers to people who have the same name, those people are all believed to be descended from the same ancestor. People of the same dyamu claim hospitality and friendship all over the Manding area. One of the most famous dyamu names is Toure', which has been the name of leaders in many states, including ancient Ghana, ancient Mali, Songhai, and modern Guinea.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage does not happen on one day or even over a period of several years. It is a process that occurs throughout the lifetime of individuals and is accompanied by required gifts. Formerly in Mandinka society, parents arranged a daughter's marriage while the girl was an infant. Although marriages are still arranged, they are not arranged that early. The groom is required to work for the bride's family before and after the wedding. He also must pay the girl's family a bride-price. Unlimited polygamy is permitted, but men rarely have more than three wives.

Domestic Unit. Mandinka society is patrilineal and maledominated, and the family is the smallest social unit. In many ways, the nuclear family is the foundation for the Mandinka's social, religious, and political views of the world. Generally, the Mandinka believe that the sanctioned behavior of the family compound finds its way into the larger society. The behavior of the polygynous family is reflected in kinship terms. Rivalry is expected between half siblings; conversely, affection is expected between full siblings.

Inheritance. Among the Mandinka, status in society is determined through one's father's family. The first loyalty is to one's family, and it begins with the oldest man. Wealth passes from the oldest male child downward, but that is subject to change, depending on how the clan views that man's ability to run the family.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In the worldview of the Mandinka, humankind is divided into three categories. While social divisions are quite complex, a great deal of social behavior is influenced by this philosophy. At the bottom of this structure is the population considered to be the descendants of slaves (slavery was abolished in the late 1800s) or captives taken in time of war. The second division is made up of the caste members of society. Four groups of families fill this division: the Bards, the blacksmiths, the leatherworkers, and the Islamic praise poets. These families have a monopoly over one or more specialized professions, and the bards play an important role of verbal and social mediation between other groups in Mandinka society. The majority of the population makes up the third division, which is further subdivided into commoners and royalty. The "royalty" come from clans that trace their lineages back to ancient Mali. In other cases, the royal families established their claims to a "higher" status through ancestors they believed played an important role at some crucial time during the existence of the Mali Empire. The traditional hierarchy still exists in Mandinka society, but the royalty no longer has power beyond the surrounding villages. Their roles are symbolic reminders of the strong empires of past centuries. Modern government has taken over the powers the king once had. At the village level, political life traditionally was sustained by large initiation societies. Islam was omnipresent, and social stratification was highly developed.

Political Organization. Authority at the village level is shared by two officeholders, one with political credentials and one with a ritual commission. Both men are the elders of a sublineage tier of two dominant (royal lineage) families, and their offices are invested with the authority of the legendary charter of the founding of the village.

Perhaps the most important political organizations (cross-lineage associations) are the "age sets of youth" and the "young men." These units are made up of the youths of a village, roughly of the same age within a five-to-seven year range. Men join at the time of their circumcision and remain in the group until the age of thirty-five. Women join at the time of their circumcision and remain until marriage or the birth of the first child. Age-sets serve two main functions at the village level. They provide for much of the entertainment in the area and participate in collective charitable work. They also make their political and social views known and thus are able to wield varying degrees of power and pressure at the village level. Volunteer associations of a secular nature exist, along with religious associations that attempt to influence local affairs.

Social Control. There is a system of "secret" societies that helps regulate how people conduct their lives. Ntomos prepare young boys for circumcision and initiation into adult society. Joining such societies and obeying their rules and taboos help make people conform to what are considered acceptable forms of behavior.

In Mandinka cosmology, power is perceived not as a process, but as an entity to be stockpiled until enough is gained to enable the processor to exercise social and political control over others. The stockpiling process is accomplished religiously, among other ways, through occult practices, such as conjuring and the preparation and wearing of amulets and talismans. Both authority figures and individuals outside the authority structure compete for control by employing methods to gain this occult power. However this is only a back-drop to the struggle for social and political control based on social divisions.

Conflict. The village political chief usually is associated with a power struggle that is based on how the charter of the village is written. The authority inherent in a political position lies in the belief that an ancestor of the ritual chief was the first immigrant to the area and came to terms with the local spirits of the land. Thus, he maintains a special relationship with those spirits and is able to mediate between the spirits and the residents of the area. Sometimes the sublineage whose elder holds this office is thought to be the conqueror of the area or the sublineage whose ancestors prevented an external conquest in the past, giving the current elder the right to rule. As a consequence of these claims, there are always challenges to his authority.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Islam was established in the area many centuries before the arrival of Europeans. It is practiced faithfully among the Mandinka, although there are existing variations of the religion.

Ritual washings and daily prayers are usually observed as well. However, very few people wear the Arab dress and none of the women wears veils. Islam has been blended with indigenous beliefs that involve worshiping the spirits of the land. It is not uncommon for someone to pray in the village mosque and then sacrifice a chicken to the village spirits. The Mandinka view Allah as the one supreme god but see him as inaccessible and with little concern for the daily affairs of his creations.

Religious Practitioners. The most significant religious authority in Mandinka society is the marabout, the Muslim holy man. He is believed to be a miracle worker, a physician, and a mystic, who exercises both magical and moral influence. He is also respected as a dispenser of amulets that protect their wearers, Muslim and non-Muslim, against evil. The power of the marabouts has caused criticism among the educated classes, because the marabouts generally speak only on behalf of the downtrodden.

Ceremonies. The Mandinka officially observe the holidays of both major religions (Islam and Christianity) and practice tolerance. However, there is a conventional emphasis on indigenous forms of life, dress, and celebrations, which remain an integral part of everyday life. The Mandinka celebrate the end of Ramadan, Tabaski (the slaying of the ram), and the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. They also celebrate weddings and circumcisions and the arrival of special guests. Although all Mandinka are Muslims, they also celebrate the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas.

Arts. The Mandinka have a long established practice of oral history and literature. The practitioners of that tradition are known as griots (artisan-praise singers, the middle division of the caste system) who recapitulate their history and heritage through stories and songs passed down the generations. The Mandinka Epic, a compilation of songs and short stories that gives a brief chronological history of the Mali Empire when it was a ruling nation, is an important example of Mandinka oral literature.

Medicine. Although Western medical practices and values are becoming influential in Africa in general, the holy men of the Mandinka society are still consulted as medical healers.

Death and Afterlife. Mandinka Muslims see themselves as separate and distinct beings from their "pagan" neighbors, feeling that they are superior in intellectual and moral respects. They regard themselves as peoples to whom a revelation has been "sent down" from heaven to comfort them. The transition into the afterlife is orderly. At death, a Mandinka becomes a "transitional" corpse, one that is not entirely dead. The corpse is ritually washed, dressed in white burial clothes, and sewn into a white shroud. As part of the Muslim scripture, it is written, "Verily those who do not believe shall be cast into the fire of hell to remain there forever." The Mandinka believe that those who do good work are the best people and that their reward will be to remain with God in the "garden of perpetual life."

For other cultures in Sudan, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


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