The Inhabitants of Mali

A Dogon village along the Bandiagara escarpment; photo credit TREEAID.

The Dogon villages stretch along the Bandiagara escarpment (cliffs) south of the Sahara desert in Mali. This is but one of many ethnic groups that exist in present-day Mali. The Dogon villages have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of their cultural, geological and ethnological significance.

The geographic situation of Mali, completely landlocked in the Sahel, is deceiving as it is a culturally rich nation at the crossroads of diverse civilizations. The French colonization of Mali however altered this society considerably.

By its lifestyle, nineteenth-century Malian society could be divided into sedentary and nomadic populations. Most of the ethnic groups of Mali were rural people engaged in subsistence agriculture. A minority specialized in trade and lived in urban areas at the convergence of commercial routes. Other ethnic groups, mainly the Peuls (or Fulani), Tuaregs and Moors were usually herders and sometimes involved in the caravan trade that flourished in the Sahara and Sahel regions.

Traditionally, African villages were organized in three concentric zones. In the center, the village and the gardens cultivated for the personal needs of each family unit. Around the village a first layer of fields was cultivated in permanence by the whole community. Finally, a third area included fields cultivated through a system of rotation of cultures. The older man of the village, was often time the master of the land whose role was to distribute the land among the heads of each family in the village. A family included all the descendants of the common ancestor of a group of men. Each family worked the fields together, the head of the family redistributing the wealth among each family unit. The heads of the families usually constituted a sort of council of elders whose task was to regulate life in the village. Within each family, the elder would oversee domestic and religious matters too. Polygyny was usually common among agricultural societies of Mali. Men and women also usually belonged to associations grouping men or women of a similar age. These associations would prepare the youth for their adult life and also create strong bonds between its members that would maintain through adulthood. Sedentary populations usually had turbulent relations with the nomadic peoples as between the Dogons and the Peuls, but most sought to develop peaceful relationships that would provide for the needs of each population.

Nomadic people, like the Peuls and the Tuaregs, were herders and traders but also fearsome warriors. Their lifestyle was based on the migrations necessary to the survival of their cattle or on the trade routes of trans-Saharan trade. Like the Peuls, the Tuaregs were/are Muslims but their interpretation of Islam differed from that of most Muslim societies. For instance, Tuareg do not usually observe Ramadan and other Muslim rituals. Also, in Tuareg society women, and not men, would transmit property and social status.

Sedentary or nomads, West African societies all had a social hierarchy that included nobles, vassals (usually tilling the land), merchants, artisan castes (metal and leather worker as well as musicians) and descendants of slaves. This social hierarchy and its associated economy and lifestyles would ultimately be altered by the European colonization.

After the Great War, West African colonies were seen as a reservoir of resources destined to serve the interests of France. French authorities thus forced the African farmers to switch from agriculture of subsistence to crop specialization. Through heavy taxation, Africans were compelled to produce more cash-crops and also often to provide cheap labor for the administration. Such policies changed the traditional roles in the African families since men were forced to undertake wage labor and women took to tending to the cultures and cattle. Nomadic societies also suffered from the French colonial regime. They resisted the operations of “pacification” lead by the French authorities, but most of the Tuareg aristocracy died at war. To make matters worse, nomadic societies also faced difficult times resulting from the progressive decline of trans-Saharan trade and the decimation of their herds during the famines of the 1970s and 1980s. On a larger scale, the economy of Mali was totally unbalanced and geared to the specific needs of France.

After the independence, Mali’s economy was mainly relying on specialized agriculture and cattle exportation as a source of revenue. Highly dependent on climatic conditions, its economy has not been able to develop and Mali is currently even more dependent on French subventions than at the time of its independence. The economic situation of Mali contributes to the concentration of populations around the cities and to the emigration in direction of the neighboring countries or France. 

The societies of West Africa had a pretty well-developed oral history tradition.   The French recorded some West African songs in the 1920s.  Here is a link to some from Mali, and there are three specific examples:

Some Links