Mande is a large language group spread throughout much of West Africa from the NigerRiverandtheSaharaintheeast to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. There are several related peoples who speak varieties of Mande, numbering 5–6 million and living in Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
The Mande language belongs to the West Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo family, and its original home most likely is in the area near the border between modern Mali and Guinea. Most of the Mande-speaking peo-ples call themselves “people of Mali,” for example, Malinke, Maninka,andMan-dinka-nka/nke being the word for “people.” Other Mande speakers include the Bambara, the Soninke, the Dyula meaning “trader” (who are not the same as the Diola of the Casamance region of Senegal), and the Mende.
Mande origins are in the ancient chief-dom called Manden. The Mande founded some of the most powerful and important states in West African history. In the sixth century, the Soninke founded the ﬁrst of these great kingdoms, Wagadu or Wag-dugu, which the Arab geographers called Ghana, located in the southeast of today’s Mauritania. They most likely took their group name from the title of the king or Maghan. The Soninke had established large settlements based on intensive agri-culture by 1000 BCE, which emerged into chiefdoms by 600 BCE.
Wagadu emerged as the most important of these and estab-lished control over the region between the Dhahr Tishit in Mauritania to the north to the upper Senegal River in the south, basing its capital at al-Ghabah or the ruins at Kumbi Saleh in southeastern Mauritania under the Cisseclan. Al-Ghabah means “forest” in Arabic and refers to the sacred forest where the sacred rock python lived, according to Arab geographers such as al-Bakri, writing in 1067–1068.
The Kingdom of Ghana expanded and gained control over Berber clients in the southern Sahara, such as the city state of Awdaghust. Trans-Saharan trade with newly Islamicized North Africa became important as gold from the ﬁelds near Bambuk was traded for salt and goods from the Islamic world, such as cloth and ﬁne pottery.
The writings of Arab geogra-phers such as ibn Hawqal in 988 provide important information about the eco-nomic, political, and social organization of the kingdom. It is most likely that the ruling elite converted to Islam, but to the Kharaji form of their main trading part-ners in Sijilmassa in Morocco. The Berber al-Murabatin (Almoravids) gained control over the trans-Saharan trade in the 11th century, which greatly weakened Wagadu.
With the weakening of Wagadu in the early12thcentury,anumber of small, inde-pendent Soninke states emerged to the south of the old capital. Soso, ruled by the black-smith Kante lineage, emerged as the most powerful. The Malian Epic of Sundiata portrays King Sumaworo Kante/Sumanguru as a cruel sorcerer (sorcery has a common connection to blacksmiths who turn metal ore into tools and weapons) and an “enemy of God.” The epic of Sundiata Keita has become the national epic of Mali, and it claims that the ruling family, the Keita, descend from Bilal, the Ethiopian companion of the Prophet Muhammad.
Around 1230, Sundiata was able to defeat Sumaworo and established the Kingdom of Mali. His general Taramakan Traore conquered much of West Africa to the Atlantic coast, beginning the wide-spread presence of Mande peoples. In gen-eral, Malian rule took the form of vassalage, and the original ruling elite maintained local power, but paid taxes and recognized the authority of the Malian king. Thus, Sundiata took the title of Mansa, meaning “King of Kings,” which his descendants continued to use.
The Keita rulers moved the capital from its original spot in Kangaba (Kaba) south of Bamako to Timbuktu on the Saharan side of the Niger River in order to better con-trol the trans-Saharan trade. The height of power of Mali was during the rule of Mansa Musa (1312–1337), when 24 king-doms were under his authority. Mansa Musa made the pilgrimage to Makkah, and though he was not the ﬁrst king of Mali to do so, his pilgrimage became legendary. He spent so much gold in Cairo that its market price fell and remained low for several years after he departed.
Mali remained rich and powerful into the 15th century, when the Songhay king broke Mali’s control and was able to take the province of Mema. The Songhay were based in their capital of Goa further east along the Niger River, and in 1469, their king Sii or Soni ‘Ali Beeri conquered Tim-buktu. The Kingdom of Mali broke up into numerous small states centered on major cities such as Segu and Nioro. The Mende of Sierra Leone were expelled from the Kingdom of Mali sometime shortly before its fall and, by 1540, had established an in-dependent state in the Cape Mount area of present-day Liberia.
The Mande peoples are mainly Mus-lims belonging to the Maliki Sunni school of jurisprudence. Islam seems to have been introduced by Arab and Berber trad-ers from North Africa and Andalusia in the eighth or ninth centuries ﬁrst to Wagadu. Some speculate that the ﬁrst con-versions among the ruling elite of Wagadu were to Kharaji Islam, which was the most dominant type of Islam in Sijilmassa, the main trading partner in the trans-Saharan trade.
The rise of the Maliki Sunni al-Murabatin (Almoravids) among the San-haja Berbers brought an end to Kharaji domination. The al-Murabatin took Waga-du’s Berber dependency of Awdaghust in 1054 and captured Sijilmasa in 1053, thus gaining control over both sides of the trans-Saharan trade. In 1076, they were able to sack Wagadu’s capital city and greatly weakened the state. With the suc-cess of the al-Murabatin, Maliki Sunni IslamspreadinbothNorthandWest Africa as the only form of Islam.
Traditional religion remained the reli-gion of the masses for several centuries following the conversions of the ruling elite. The capital of Wagadu was called al-Ghabah or forest, for the sacred forest presided over by priests where the sacred serpent Bida lived. Sacred objects were stored in the grove as well, some of them perhaps masks meant to produce fear and awe among the population. In the tradi-tional religion, blacksmiths held an impor-tant place due to their ability to change matter into other forms (rock or ore into tools and weapons).
The conﬂict between the sorcerer, blacksmith Sumaworo Kante, and Sundiata Keita can be seen as the con-ﬂict between the pre-Islamic belief system and the emerging more Islamicized soci-ety. It was important for Sundiata to be connected to Bilal, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, to reinforce his posi-tion as the champion of Islamic Mande society. Many pre-Islamic customs and beliefs remained widespread in all levels of society until the rise of the Jihadist states in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Mande have a rich cultural life with strong class divisions similar to castes that exist yet today The basis for class division is landownership and farming, landowners (Horonw) being “free”; and those who were not allowed to own land, such as spe-cialized craftsmen (nyamakala), who form a second class in society. The craftsmen are able to change one substance into another form, and thus were assumed to use magic. The bottom of society was the class of slaves (jon).
At the heart of pre-Islamic Mande society were the hunters, who had a mystical connection to natural forces and pre-Islamic concepts of family totems (tana). Hunters formed a second type of social organization not based on lineage, but on secret societies (ntomo) that require initiation for a chosen mem-bership. Among the recently Islamized Bamana, ntomo masks are still made and worn in various celebrations—marking a boy’s circumcision, for example—and youth associations.
Ntomo masks of the Komo society have the power to destroy sorcerers and protect communities. In some instances, these are mixed with IslamicﬁguressuchasSidiBallo,whose masqueraders wear bird masks. Some theorize that hunters, once the warriors, lost political control to horse riders, the ancestors of the horon, thus establishing the Mande class division and the domina-tion by the horon. An important aspect of this social division among the Mande is the senankuya or joking relationship between particular families that allows joking and ridicule from a social inferior. In the epic of Sundiata, Sundiata himself gives his jeli Balla Fasseke and his descen-dants of the Kouyate family the right to joke with and ridicule the Keita.
Important to the horon were the jeli, who served as praise singers but also as oral historians and genealogists. The jeli Balla Fasseke plays an important role in the epic of Sundiata Keita, and his descen-dants, the Kouyate, remain connected to the Keita today as their musicians. The jeli developed a rich corpus of music as well as musical instruments including the bala or balafon (xylophone), the kora (21-string harp), donso ngoni (hunter’s harp), nkoni (lute), and a wide variety of drums.
The long tradition of court music has made countries such as Mali major pro-ducers of music for centuries. New forms of music based on older traditions such as Wassalu have wide followings not only among the Mande peoples in West Africa, but worldwide. Names such as Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Amy Koite, Kandia Kouyate, Oumou Sangare, and Toumani Diabate are nearly as familiar to Europeans and North Americans as they are in Mali or Guinea. Moray Kante’s song “Yeke Yeke”remains the single largest African hit both inside and outside of Africa.
Following the collapse of Mali in the 15th century, a number of states emerged and Mande often formed the ruling elite over other ethnic groups such as the Gel-waar rulers of the Sereer kingdoms of Siin and Saalum in Senegal. In Liberia, the Mende spread from their base around Cape Mount in the 17th century and came into conﬂict with the Temne and eventu-ally gained control over much of what is today Sierra Leone. Mande or Mande-controlled states in West Africa were slowly conquered by the British or the French starting in the second half of the 19th century.
In 1881, Samori Toure estab-lished a state in northern Guinea and Coˆte d’Ivoire in an attempt to revive the power of the Kingdom of Mali, which was called the Second Mandinka Empire. It ﬁnally fell to the French in 1889. The Mende in Sierra Leon were defeated by the British in 1898. The European conquest of West Africa was complete by 1900. Samori’s descendant, Sekou Toure, led the indepen-dence movement in much of West Africa and, in 1958, Guinea (Conakry) became the ﬁrst colonial possession to become an independent West African state.
Keen to revive the cultural legacy of the Kingdom of Mali, he launched a government-sponsored program that brought large numbers of leading jeli to Guinea.Toure became a dictator imposing a one-party state system and closing Guinea to much of the outside world. His economic policies caused massive poverty, and any political opposition was crushed. When he died in 1984, the military stepped in and Colonel Lansana Conte took power. Conte remained in power until 2009, when another military coup ousted him.
Mali became independent in 1960, and its ﬁrst president, Modibo Keita, claimed to descend from Sundiata Keita. Modibo Keita followed a similar political program to Toure’s and was ousted in a military coup in 1968 by General Mousa Troure. Troure was removed in a coup in 1991, and civilian government returned in 1992. Since then, Mali has been run by elected governments that have had to deal with severe droughts, a rebellion by Tuareg in the north (1990–1996), and extreme pov-erty. Mali has had peaceful elections and handover of government by popular, democratic means since 1992.
John A. Shoup
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