on the line - mali information
This virtual journey has been transferred to the Cool Planet website from On the Line. Much of the information here relates to the time when the millennium dawned.
The text below has been taken from the guide book and virtual journey through Mali and is in a form that can be printed out. Please note that this file does not contain photographs. Individual, printable pages with photos are contained in the main virtual journey.
Welcome to Mali
Mali is probably the only country that can boast two famous citizens with the same name: Salif Keita. Their talents, however, are very different. Find out more as you explore.
As you travel, youll discover whats happening in Mali in 2002 and why everyone there is so excited, and if you get hungry, dont worry, well tell you how to rustle up some sesame sticks as a sweet treat.
So go on, what are you waiting for? Start your journey now.
Click on the buttons on the left to find out about the subject of your choice, or go to the Guide Book to get the low down on Malis history and people.
Virtual journey through Mali:
arts and crafts
music and dance
Guide book to Mali:
facts + figures
Virtual Journey of Mali
The favourite sport in Mali is unquestionably football. In 2002, Mali will host the Africa Nations Cup.
The countrys most famous footballer is Salif Keita, who played for St Etienne in France in the 1970s; hes not the same person as the musician! He has since established a school for young footballers to nurture new talent. His nephew, Seydou Salif Keita, went to the school, and now plays for Marseilles Olympique.
The most popular national teams are Djoliba, Stad, and Real. But many people also support Manchester United and St Etienne. Football in Mali is not associated with hooliganism and violence; its just great fun.
Ismail Guito is football mad. Follow the link to find out why.
Basketball is also very popular in schools, and there are a number of national competitions.
Malian children play many of the same games as children in Europe, such as hide-and-seek and ball games.
Ismail Guito is 16. Hes a member of the École Fondamentale Fasso-Kanu football team in Bamako:
"Football is very, very popular in Mali. Its very good because you train, you get fit, and if you become a good player you can make a lot of money. Mali has some genius players who play for European teams, mainly in France and Italy. I have many football heroes, including Michael Owen. We play every day after school, from five oclock until sunset, and on Saturdays. Islam allows sport, but it does say that you have to pay attention so it doesnt create trouble."
Fati Wallet Idjiranta, age 9, lives in Tintihigrene. She describes a game that she likes to play with her friends: "If I dont have any jobs to do, and if I dont have to look after the little ones, and if I dont have any homework to do, then I go and play with my friends. We play a game called cache-cache (hide-and-seek). We make a ball out of rags. One person has the ball and then we all run away. The person with the ball throws it and, if it touches someone else, that person becomes it and has to take the ball and chase the others in turn."
Arts and crafts
Mali has a rich heritage of crafts, including textiles, wood-carving, hair decoration and mud architecture. Cinema and literature stand out among the countrys distinctive arts.
There are several artisan castes among the Fulani people, including the Maboube, hereditary weavers. Their most important traditional products are blankets, known as khasa, which are woven from hand-spun sheeps wool. They are six to eight feet long, made up of narrow strips sewn together, often with stripes and patterns in red and black on white. Khasa are woven to order and used by men who camp out in the desert with their herds of cattle.
Bogolan is the name of another Malian cloth which has recently become popular in the international fashion industry, since its production was revived by Chris Seydou, a Malian designer. Bogo means mud, and lan means traces of. Natural dyes are used to make the distinctive, bold patterns in shades of black, brown, and tan. The Bamanan people have been making the cloth for many hundreds of years, using locally grown cotton.
Masks and figures associated with initiation and funeral practices are widespread among the animist Bamana and Dogon cultures. In some Bamana communities, farmers dance with carved wooden head-dresses at planting time, in honour of the Chi-Wara. The Chi-Wara is a mythical animal, like an antelope, that is believed to have taught farming to the Bamana peoples ancestors.
The Diafarabé cattle crossing festival is the biggest Fulani festival of the year, and girls dress up to welcome their boyfriends when they return from months herding cattle in the desert. Most important to them are their hair decorations.
"It takes about four or five days to dress my hair for the festival," explains Aissata Diallo. "It depends on how busy the hairdresser is. It takes about two days to plait the braids, and then two or three more to weave in the coins and the amber.
"All the girls who have got married since the last crossing wear the amber arranged in a circle around their head. Girls often receive gifts of amber when they get married. Some unmarried girls also wear amber in their hair, but arranged in rows across the top of their heads rather than in a circle. It is just a tradition, a tradition that we continue without really knowing what it means."
Many Malian houses and even large buildings are built from mud bricks with mud-plastered walls. Larger structures, such as mosques have wooden supports built into them. The supports stick out, giving the appearance of spines.
The most famous mud building is the mosque at Djenné, a town built on an island in the Niger river. The current mosque was built on an old site in the early 1900s.
Mali has produced a number of important films. For example, the films directed by Cheik Oumar Sissoko and Soulemane Cisse, tell stories denouncing injustice and poverty. They have won awards in most of the international film festivals, including Cannes, where Yeelen was the first African film ever to do so, in 1987.
The French language was introduced into Mali when French troops invaded in the second half of the 19th century, but until the 1950s the only people who wrote in French were explorers and military people. Malian authors preferred to write in Arabic. In 1950, Amadou Hampaté Bâ published his Peul poetry in French, and La Passion de Djimé by Fily Dabo Sissoko, one of Malis first novels, was published in 1955.
There are many traditional Malian stories. This one features in South North East West, a book edited by Michael Rosen and published by Walker Books.
Music and dance
Mali is a great place if you like music. But you dont have to go there to sample Malian sounds: many Malian musicians are well-known around the world.
In the 13th century Sundyata Keita, a warrior prince, founded the Malinké Empire in western Mali. The Malinké culture, including music, dates back to that time.
There are three main Malinké musical styles, Maninka, Bamana, and Mandinka. The first two are found in Mali:
Maninka, which is the most classical, favoured by Salif Keita, is not very fast, with flowing ornamental melodies over slow-moving harmonies. The songs are usually sung by women.
Bamana, based on a five-note scale. Melodies are stark and often slow.
All musicians learn a number of core songs in the Malinké style, such as the epic song, Sundyata. Some melodies are used over and over again, with different words, and in different arrangements.
Musicians improvise on the main melody and are accompanied by the main way or big meeting, a two- or four-bar phrase.
Malinké music has, of course, changed and developed over the years, especially since Malis independence in the 1960s, as well as with the use of recordings, radio, and television. One such development was the use of dance bands to provide entertainment in clubs and restaurants.
Traditional musicians belong to a caste, known as the jali. They used to entertain the Malian nobility at Court, telling epic stories in song. Until relatively recently, historical knowledge was passed on from one generation to another by the jalis. See also praise singers in Burkina Faso.
Most Malian musicians are jalis. It has been very hard for people who are not jalis to be accepted into the profession. Salif Keita is a rare exception.
During the 1980s, music from the Wassoulou region, south of Bamako, became popular. The Wassoulou do not have jalis. Their music is based on ancient hunters songs, accompanied by traditional instruments such as a hunters harp and the fle. The most famous Wassoulou dance rhythm is the didadi.
A number of big bands were formed in Malis main towns in the 1950s and 1960s. After independence, the government subsidised bands in Kayes, Ségou, Sikasso, Gao, and Mopti, and set up the Orchestre Nationale A. The most famous bands are the Rail Band du Buffet Hotel de la Gare, sponsored by the national railway company, and Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, in Bamako. The bands feature famous singers such as Mory Kante and Salif Keita.
There are many famous Malian musicians and singers. Many singers are women, because that is the Malinké tradition. Even less famous musicians are dedicated to the art.
Salif Keita, is one of the best-known singers. Salif originally trained as a teacher, then defied his parents wishes by becoming a singer even though he is not from the jali caste. Salif performed with the Rail Band, before moving to the Ambassadeurs in the early 1970s, where he performed songs heavily influenced by foreign styles such as rumba, foxtrot, and Cuban pop. In 1982, Salif left the band and moved to Paris, where he has worked with musicians from France and elsewhere.
Oumou Sangaré, the "Songbird of Wassoulou", is Malis premier female singer. She comes from a family of Wassoulou singers: her mother still sings at baptisms and weddings. Sangare blends the traditional pentatonic Wassoulou music with more Western sounds, and writes powerful songs about womens rights. She is particularly against polygamy (the practice of being married to more than one person at a time) because her father had two wives and she saw the effect it had on her mother.
Ali Farka Touré is a guitarist from northern Mali who plays in a sort of blues style rooted in the music of the Songhay and Touareg cultures. He says his musical gifts come from the spirits.
Moulaye Diarra, age 24, founder of and singer in Kereketaba Band (The Snail Band) describes his life as a musician in Mali:
"When I was very young, I used to take my blind grandmother to ceremonies, because she was a singer. Thats how I learned to sing, listening to her when she sang at weddings and naming ceremonies. Later, when I sang in the classroom, all the teachers would gather and listen to me. Once, I started singing outside in a crowd, and it really cheered people up. At that moment I thought: Moulaye, you really can make it as a singer!
"I left school when I was 12. And when I was 14, I began to follow a well-known singer called Lobi Traoré. Then I started working for him, and all along I was listening to the way he was singing, and learning from him. He sings mainly blues, and I tried to pick things up bit-by-bit. Then I made plans to form my own band. I didnt want to work for someone else long-term: I wanted to make my own money with my own band. While I was looking for people to play with me, I sang at weddings and naming ceremonies.
"All my songs are traditional. We use traditional instruments and rhythms: tom-toms, drums, and xylophones. I used to go round to see all the other bands playing, and I would bribe them to let me sing so that more and more people would hear what a good singer I am. I also used to go to someone to learn more of the traditional songs and tunes. I kept looking for the best players, and gradually I called them together. The band began with me and two musicians, but by 1995 we had grown and become more popular and well-known.
"I called the band The Snail Band to be traditional: theres a childrens game where the kids flick snail shells and they spin like tops. When theyre spinning, they have great energy and dynamism. I wanted my band to have that kind of quality.
"Our work is traditional. This is my first love. I was born into traditional music, its what I learned from the very beginning. I just love my tradition and I want other people to know it and come to love it too. That is my aim and my hope.
"Many young people are into other forms of music -- reggae, rap, all sorts -- but when we rehearse, a huge crowd always gathers, so we know that what we do is popular.
"At the moment we get all our money from performing at weddings and naming ceremonies. We dont have other jobs, we all live by our music.
"If I want to work on a new song, I go up into the hills by myself and just spend time thinking, waiting to feel inspired. I take a small cassette recorder with me to record words and tunes if they come to me. I compose new songs, but they are always in the traditional style. I play the recordings to the band, and we develop the music together. I dont know how to write very well, so I always just sing it straight onto cassette.
"I sing about my own feelings and experiences. Its all linked to poverty and how it feels to be poor. I honestly feel that Ive been psychologically branded by poverty. I lost my mum when I was young, and then my father couldnt afford to pay my school fees so I didnt get much schooling, and that hurt me very much. So, now that Im beginning to get some recognition and beginning to be successful, I want all my listeners to know the pain I carry inside.
"In the year 2000 I would hope to be a star, in West Africa and all over the world."
Malian musicians use lots of fascinating instruments from drums to elaborate stringed lutes, as well as modern acoustic and electric guitars.
ngoni is a banjo-like lute made from hollowed-out wood with a dried animal skin stretched over it. It has three to five strings and the neck is made from a piece of dowelling. Because the ngoni is a quiet instrument it is now usually played with an electric pick-up. The ngoni was once played by West African slaves, and developed into the banjo.
djembe is a drum.
kora is a sort of harp made from a calabash (a large, hollow gourd) with up to 25 strings.
fle, is a kind of shaker made from a calabash with cowrie shells strung round it. It is shaken and thrown by Wassoulou women, to produce a sound like a maraca.
Dramane Oumar Samaké is 12 years old. He lives in Sogoniko, which means "the brook where the antelope comes to drink", in the south-eastern part of Malis capital, Bamako. His father teaches English in the High School, and his mother has just trained as a teacher too. Dramane has a sister, Amadou, who is 11, and a three-year-old brother, Fatoumata. Dramane is doing well at school. He is also learning carpentry so that he has a trade when he leaves.
"My nickname is Joe dAnton. Joe is a cartoon character, the shortest and cleverest in a group of prisoners, and seems to be their leader, so Im quite proud of the nickname my friends have given me.
"There are two rooms in my home. My mum, dad, and little sister sleep in one, and I sleep in the other with my younger brother and another boy who sometimes stays. Eight households share our compound: five families and three single men.
"I sleep on a mattress on the floor. Usually I have my own mattress, but at the moment Im sharing with my brother because we have a visitor staying. On schooldays, I get up at around seven oclock, but at weekends at around eight. I dont like wasting time in bed: if you spend all your time in bed, how are you going to make any money?
"I wake up when I hear my mum preparing breakfast. On weekdays its usually still dark. We do have an electric light in our room, but we often have power cuts. When I get up I wash my face and then feed my pigeons -- theyre my own pet birds.
"The pullover I have on today is really for weekdays, but this is the cold time of year, so as its the only one Ive got, Im wearing it on a Sunday. My favourite clothes are jeans, but unfortunately I dont have any. I dont know how much they cost, but I know that they are very expensive. To sleep in, I have an old shirt and some tracksuit bottoms. I dont have to wear school uniform.
"I eat various things for breakfast, it depends on the day. Mainly porridge, sometimes with beans and coffee, or milk and bread at weekends. My mum usually makes it. She buys millet and sugar for the porridge once a month. My dad buys powdered milk: we dont use fresh milk. My favourite food is beans, because they make you fart!
"We all eat breakfast together, in the passage outside our rooms. We eat in silence. There is a saying: The eating mouth does not speak.
"I leave the house at 7.30am, and it takes about ten minutes to walk to school. Its called the École Fondamentale Fasso-Kanu.
"I often walk to school alone, but sometimes meet up with friends on the way. The first thing we do is clean the classroom: dust always settles on the desks and chairs overnight. Then we go into the playground until the whole school gathers, to raise the national flag and sing the national anthem. Each class takes it in turn to raise the flag.
"I started school when I was five. Thats younger than most children in Mali; the normal age is about seven. Currently Im in eighth grade. I had to repeat sixth grade, but apart from that Ive moved up each year. School starts at eight and finishes at 12.00 every day except Tuesdays when we go for drawing classes in the afternoon.
"I like physics and chemistry, but my favourite subject is maths, because if youre good at maths, youre more likely to get a good job, but also because it is so accurate. Some other subjects are not really objective, but you know where you are with maths.
"There are 89 pupils in my class, many more boys than girls. All the classes are over-crowded. My classroom is quite big, but it isnt very well equipped. We have to keep the shutters closed on one side in order to keep the sun out, so its quite dark inside, barely light enough to see the blackboard and read our books. We share three pupils to one desk. Everything is scarce, especially textbooks. During reading lessons we have to share one book between three. We have to buy our own pens, pencils and notebooks.
"I come home for lunch at about 12.15, and eat right away: usually rice, with watermelons if they are in season. Then in the afternoon, I go to a friends house to do my homework. We spend about an hour studying each afternoon.
"Then I go to my bosss workshop. Im an apprentice carpenter. As a carpenter you can make money quite easily and quickly. Ive been going to the workshop for four years. I do whatever my boss asks me to -- mainly cutting wood to the right size and sanding it. My boss makes all sorts of things: beds, cupboards, shelves -- anything you might want. I usually spend about four hours there, and sometimes make some small tools to sell. From time to time my boss gives me a little pocket money, but not enough! My mum and dad also give me pocket money which I save. I only buy tea and sometimes peanuts and bananas.
"When Im not doing homework or carpentry, Im out playing with my friends. I like playing football, riding my bike, and making tea [link] best. We dont usually go very far on our bikes, just around the district. I usually come home at about 6.00 to watch cartoons on the TV outside the compound gate, under the tree. Then I go and wash before our evening meal.
"We all eat together at about eight oclock. My favourite sweet is chocolate. Most of the chocolate you can buy here is European. I go to bed at about nine oclock on weekdays, and ten oclock at weekends. Sometimes my mum gives me a special treat just before I go to bed: its a kind of sweet flavoured pea which she buys in the market. Some nights we are troubled by mosquitoes, but we dont sleep under nets, we just burn mosquito coils to stop them biting us.
"I really want to breed animals because I love all sorts: sheep, goats, big dogs like Dobermans, and my pigeons. I was given the first pigeons by a cousin. I love them because they never go far away.
"This is quite a new area of Bamako. People are building a lot, and a lot of people are moving into the area, which is a good thing because it means I will have a lot of new friends. Theres no serious crime, no murder or anything like that. The only real problem is that the place is very dirty. There is so much rubbish around, and there is no proper drainage for the sewage, which encourages mosquitoes.
"I imagine that children in England do karate, ride their bikes, and learn to play football, but I dont think they have the space just to wander from one place to another like we do here. I think they do a lot of the same things as we do, but dont have much room to play."
"I empty a sachet of tea into the teapot, and add three glasses of water -- five if theres a bigger group of us. I put the pot on the stove [which is a small metal brazier] until the water boils. Then I put fresh mint and sugar into a second teapot, and pour the hot tea onto them. I hold the pot so high that it creates foam and cools the tea so you can drink it quickly. I pour the brew into the glasses, and share them among the group. We take our time over the tea, chatting around the teapot on the stove.
"Making and drinking tea like this isnt just for old men. All over Mali, you will see young men making tea together. People start at different times. I like the taste of tea now, but when I first started, I found it a bit bitter."
Dramane Oumar Samaké, age 12, Sogoniko, Mali
Making and drinking tea is also an important part of life for people in the United Kingdom.
Malian cuisine varies from region to region, but does not offer a great deal of choice. Most meals are based on a kind of porridge with a sauce.
The main foods eaten by a moderately well-off family living in Malis capital, Bamako, are rice, millet, sorghum, and beans, cooked as a sort of porridge, served with a meat or fish sauce. A common meal in southern Mali is called tô, a pudding made from pounded millet, served with a sauce of meat or vegetables. In the north, the Songhay and Touareg make thick doughy pancakes served with wild leaves. Tô is also popular in Burkina Faso.
Girls learn to prepare food and cook from their mothers, from an early age. Find out how to make tasty Sesame seed and honey sticks, see what a Bamako family sits down to eat for Sunday lunch, and learn about Malis tea ceremony.
Kadidia Traoré spends the whole morning cooking Sunday lunch for her family in Bamako:
"First I put the oil in the pot, and while that is heating, I clean and salt the fish. I then peel the potato and fry it in the oil with the fish. Then I pound black pepper and garlic together and add it to the pot. I bought all the ingredients this morning. We go to the market each day. Theres also cabbage, aubergine, courgette, and okra, as well as rice in the finished dish.
"This is a typical Sunday lunch when you have the money, but it is much more expensive than an everyday meal. Normally we would just eat rice, with some kind of meat, vegetable, or fish sauce."
A great deal of ceremony surrounds the making and serving of tea in Mali, especially in the north. Every day, tea-drinking groups called grins meet to take part in the ceremony of the three teas. As the saying goes: "The first cup is strong like life; the second is sweet like love; and the third is bitter like death." The ceremony is very formal, and serving tea is an important way of welcoming someone: if strangers visit, they will always be offered tea and dates.
Even younger boys such as Dramane have taken up the ceremony.
Recipe: Sesame seed and honey sticks (Meni-meniyong)
Remember to ask an adult to help you with this recipe.
1 cup/100g sesame seeds
1 cup/350ml honey or 1 cup/175g sugar
1. Heat the sesame seeds in a shallow pan without any oil, until they begin to jump about and turn golden. Shake the pan so that they do not stick or burn. Allow to cool.
2. Using a heavy pan, heat the margarine or oil and then add the sugar or honey. Stir continuously until the mixture begins to caramelise (which is when it turns slightly brown, but without burning).
3. Pour the sesame seeds into the warm mixture and stir thoroughly.
4. Transfer the mixture into a flat tin. As the mixture cools, shape it into sticks either by cutting or rolling, and then coating it with more sesame seeds if required.
Dramane Oumar Samaké,
age 13, student in Bamako city
"My real dream is to be a soldier, but if I cant be a soldier I think Id like to be an accountant working in the Civil Service. I would have to study very hard to enter the army when Im 18. It is not easy to get into the army because you have to sit a special exam and most of the time its the well-off kids who get selected. So I think I probably have more chance of becoming an accountant than a soldier. I could train to be an accountant without paying any bribes."
"For me the year 2000 means a big change, like turning over a new page, and that is very important and exciting. I dont really know what the year 2000 is celebrating, but my friends say it is Jesus Christs anniversary."
age 14, a maid in Bamako city
"My hope is to get married: it doesnt matter if my husband is rich or poor as long as I love him and he loves me. Most girls marry from about 15 onwards; by 25 you are considered too old. All I want in life is a good husband and children."
Aminata Sylla, age 15, student in Bamako city
"Things are really changing in the relationship between men and women in Mali. For example, if there was a meeting in a village, the men would attend, and even if a woman wanted to, the husband wouldnt allow it, and the other men wouldnt accept it. But thats changing now, and women are beginning to have their voice.
"For me its not a question of domination: I dont want to dominate any man, but I want to be free and independent, and I can only achieve this by working. And yes, I am optimistic that I will get a good job and do what I want to do."
Yayé Farna NDiaya, age 13, student in Bamako city
"Were all optimistic for our futures. We want our freedom and one way of being free is to work."
Kadiatou Coulibaly, age 16, student in Bamako city
"In my district there is one woman doctor who has become very well known because she takes such good care of everybody. I admire her so much that I really want to be like her. I want to study. I want to be someone, so I wont get married too young. I really do want to work. I want first to know life, to understand life, and to be able to make a contribution.
"Mali is going to be a good place to be in the year 2000. If you travel through Mali today you will notice many, many changes, and these are going to go on accelerating, so by the year 2000 there will be great progress in the country."
Moulaye Diarra, age 24, Kereketaba
Bands founder/lead singer
"My dream is to become a very big star. I want to be as big as Salif Keita and the only way to do that is to work very hard, so that is what Im doing now. Working hard on research and rehearsals in order to develop my own style."
Alou Coulibaly, age 19, Bamako office cleaner and market trader
"As far as the future is concerned, I just want to become rich. Im saving money in order to set up in business myself as a trader. If I get enough money I would like to go abroad to buy clothes, TVs, things like that, and then bring them back here to sell. This is the way to make good money in Mali."
Fati Wallet Idjirinta, age 9, from
Tintihigrene, Gao region
"If someone came to me and asked if I have a wish I would say that my wish is to become an educated woman. If I have an education, I will get a good job and be self-sufficient."
Zikra Wallet Manaou, age 12, from Tintihigrene, Gao region
"When Im older I would like to travel, to see what life is like in the cities. I like my life in the village, but Ive never been anywhere else but here. When someone from a city like Gao comes to visit, I see that physically they look much better than people in the village: theyre always well-dressed and good-looking, and they look stronger and fatter because they eat well in the city.
"My biggest wish is to become a literate woman. I hope my life in the village will be better in the future. I hope I will grow much stronger so that I can work very hard and enjoy the benefits of my work. I will do the same work as my own mum does now: I will cultivate my field and my garden, and I will provide well for my family."
Alhousseyni Ag Midi, age 12, from Tintihigrene, Gao region
"When Im older, I want only to become a man of means, a man who has a lot of animals. Animals give us milk, which is our basic food, and also meat and hide and money. If I had one wish it would be to have many animals: cows, goats, camels, donkeys, and sheep."
Aboubacrine Ag Hamalek, age 12, souvenir seller, Timbuktu
"Im very proud of being one of the Tamachek people, because we are always the strongest. You might find some Tamacheks who are settling here in the town, but the true Tamacheks are always in the desert. When I grow up I would like to go back to the desert to help my people. Maybe I will be able to teach them things they dont know, or perhaps I could build a school for them. I want to be a teacher; to be able to teach my people in the desert. Ive never been anywhere else: only the desert and Timbuktu."
All the answers to the following questions can be found in the Mali virtual journey and guide book pages (see left hand menu).
1. Name three tribal groups that live in Mali ?
2. Which European Languge is spoken in Malian schools ?
3. What is Malis favourite sport ?
4. What is Dramane Oumar Samaké favourite food ?
5. In what year did Mali gain political independence from France ?
6. What is the name of the large river that passes through Mali ?
7. What proportion of Mali is desert or semi-desert ?
8. What are nomads ?
Mali quiz answers.
All the answers to the following
questions can be found in the Mali virtual journey and guide book pages (see
left hand menu).
1. the three main tribal groups in Mali are the Tuareg, Dogon and Bamana.
2. The european language used in Malian schools is French.
3. Malis favourite sport is football.
4. Dramane's favourite food is beans.
5. Mali gained political independence from France in 1960.
6. The name of the large river flowing through Mali is the River Niger.
7. Two-thirds of Mali's land area is desert or semi-desert.
8. Nomads are people who travel long distances to find pasture for their animals.
Guidebook to Mali
This guide book is packed with interesting information about Mali you can find out about what Malians do for fun, how they live, and what they care about, all at the click of a mouse. Click on the menu on the left to find out more about the subject of your choice.
Facts & Figures
|Official name||République de Mali|
|Size||1,240,192 sq. km|
|Average life expectancy||men: 47 years (1996); women 45 years (1994)|
|Infant deaths per 1,000 births||134 per thousand (1996)|
|Currency||West African CFA Franc|
|Major exports||cotton, gold|
|International debts||US$ 3,020 million|
|Communications||44 radios, 10 TV sets, and two telephone lines per 1,000 people (1994)|
|Climate||mostly hot and dry; semi-tropical in the far south|
|Time||GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)|
Source: The World Guide 1999-2000
The largest ethnic group in Mali is the Bambara. Other groups include the Dogons and Touareg people, who practise a traditional way of life.
The Touareg, dressed in distinctive indigo robes and turbans, are an ancient nomadic people who still live from what the desert provides. They are famous for their fighting abilities and for their artwork. However, drought and government policies now threaten their way of life.
The Dogons are farmers, living on the edges of the inland river delta. Their homeland, the Pays Dogon, has been designated a World Heritage site because of its cultural importance: the Dogon are famous for their artistic abilities and elaborate masks.
Tensions between the different ethnic groups have led to a number of civil conflicts in Mali. The present government is working to give local communities decision-making powers to try to avoid future conflicts.
Other groups include the Malinke, Bozo, Bobo, Songhay, and Fulani people. The Bozo are nomadic fisherpeople, while the Songhay are mostly farmers and traders, living along the edge of the Niger River. The Fulani are nomadic cattle herders.
Malis official language is French, but the most widely spoken is Bambara, which is used as a common language by people from different ethnic groups. Songhay, Touareg, and Arabic are spoken when people from one of those groups come together. The Dogon people have at least 48 dialects of their own.
Islam is the main religion in Mali, accounting for around 90 per cent of the population. Christians are the smallest group, making up around 10 per cent. Animist beliefs are also widely practised, often alongside other faiths.
Mali is old enough to have rock paintings dating back to a time when the Sahara desert was covered in lush forest. Islam arrived in about the seventh century AD, shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.
The first empire in the region was under Sundyata Keita whose influence, although at its height during the 13th to 15th centuries, is still obvious today. The best years of the first empire were under Mansa Moussa, from 1312 to 1337. He dominated the gold and salt trade, and the cities of Djenné and Timbuktu became important trading centres for the whole of West Africa.
By the 15th century, the first empire was ending. It was followed by the Songhay empire, created by Askia Mohammed on the edge of the Sahara and the Niger River in northern Mali. At its height the second empire saw Timbuktu with a population of around 100,000 people. This empire ended shortly after a Moroccan invasion in 1590.
Mali became a French colony after 20 years of resistance between 1880 and 1900. It gained its independence in 1960. Modibo Keita was the first president of the Mali Republic. Keita was well-known for his vision of a federal Africa and chose to ally himself with the Soviet Union. When Malis economy got into trouble, he was pushed out by Moussa Traoré, who came to power in 1968 through a military coup.
Moussa Traoré led Mali from 1968 to 1991, but he was a weak ruler with a corrupt government. The 1970s and 1980s were a time of terrible drought and famine. Moussa Traoré was eventually toppled in 1991 when the military took control. They went on to hold the countrys first ever democratic elections in 1992 when Alpha Konaré was elected President, a position he still holds today.
"Timbuktu is called the City of Mysteries. It's the city where salt comes from the north, gold comes from the south and money comes from the west. But real hospitality is only found in Timbuktu."
Ali Ould Sidi, Chief of Timbuktu Cultural Mission
The ancient city of Timbuktu is famous for being in the middle of nowhere which is not quite fair, because its in the middle of Mali. But it is remote, and surrounded by desert.
Six hundred years ago, Timbuktu was a mighty city. The city lay at the cross-roads of the main Saharan trade routes and its merchants grew rich from the transport of gold, ivory, salt and slaves from West Africa to the Mediterranean.
Great mosques, universities, schools and libraries were built. They were important centres of learning for much of the Muslim world, and people travelled from as far away as Saudi Arabia to study there. The 15th century Sankoré Mosque and university alone had 25,000 students. Some of the ancient buildings are still visible today. By the sixteenth century, Timbuktu had become legendary in the European imagination, representing all the wealth of Africa.
But Timbuktus fortunes changed. Around 400 years ago, European merchant ships began trading along the West African coast, and the old cross-Saharan trade routes lost their importance. Timbuktu went into decline, having lost the source of its wealth. It became known as a sort of lost city.
Nevertheless, Timbuktu is very much alive today. Around 40,000 people live there, the 150 Koranic schools attract many students, and the ancient salt trade, which made Timbuktu so wealthy, is still very important. Theres also a major conservation project under way to restore Timbuktus historic buildings and make the city a tourist destination.
January 2000 will see the city hosting Malis millennium celebrations.
Salt of the earth
There is a true story from Timbuktu about an old man who spent his life guiding camel trains, laden with salt, across hundreds of miles of desert. As he got older he began to lose his eyesight. Although he grew blind, he carried on doing his job. The young men with him on the journeys used to test him, and ask him where they were. Stopping, he would pick up a handful of sand, and sniff it: he always knew where they were from the sands smell.
The salt trade is a way of life in Timbuktu.
"The salt trade remains very important for all of us in Timbuktu. I would say about a third of the population of Timbuktu depends on it. The salt is carried on camels from Taoudenni [in the far north of Mali] to Timbuktu, a journey of about 700 miles.
In a salt train, each camel carries four slabs of salt, each weighing about 25 kilos. Each piece would fetch about 5000 CFAs in Timbuktu, and 5,500 CFAs in Mopti, depending on the quality. Before leaving, each trader marks each slab of salt with his family symbol."
Salt trader, Timbuktu
But where does the salt come from?
"To get to the salt you have first to dig to remove the soil and once about half a metre of soil has been removed you might reach the first layer of salt. This is not very good quality because there are lots of stones in it, but it's still useable. Then, if you dig down about two metres, you reach the second quality salt which is almost as good as the best quality but it still contains a bit of sand. Then, after another two metres you begin to reach the best quality salt. The salt is deposited in layers and the layers can extend for 5-10 metres and they are up to 10 centimetres thick. We remove the two layers together and employ other people to split the pieces to separate the first and second quality layers, and then to cut the slabs to the right size."
Sidy Ahmed Ould Faly, salt trader
At nearly twice the size of France, Mali is one of West Africas biggest countries.
The northern half of Mali is nearly all Saharan desert. By contrast, in the south there is usually enough rainfall to grow crops without irrigation. In between these two areas is a wide belt of semi-desert, called the Sahel, and growing food there depends on the flooding of the Niger River.
The Niger River, one of the great rivers of Africa, is Malis most prominent geographical feature. People depend on it for everything from food to transport.
The Niger River
"The river is very, very important in the life of the [capital] city. It gives us fish to eat and sell, water to drink, a place to wash and do laundry, and a means of transport. We could not live without the river."
Fish trader, Bamako
The Niger is one of the great rivers of Africa. It stretches over 2,500 miles in a long arc running from Guinea to Mali, right up to the edge of the Sahara, before turning south to the sea. Mali sits at the top of this arc, where the river opens into a massive, fertile, inland delta, where the water spreads out.
The Niger is Malis life blood. It provides food, drinking water, and water for farming. Its also one of the main means of getting around in Mali. In fact it is the only way of getting to some of the more remote places. The river is also vital to traders for transporting crops and goods. During the months when the water is high (between August and November), large boats can travel along the river. Smaller and slower vessels also offer river passage, including pirogues, a type of canoe.
The enormous length of the Niger means that journeys over land in Mali often involve a river crossing. In some areas, this event has become a part of tradition. For example, when their animals are brought back across the Niger from distant grazing lands, the Fulani people in Diafarabé celebrate with a cattle crossing festival.
Whole cities like Bamako, the capital, have sprung up alongside the river, reliant on what it provides. Ways of life also depend directly on the Niger. Fishing offers a livelihood to thousands of people, but it can be a hard way to make ends meet.
Find out more by reading A Fishermans Tale.
A Fishermans Tale
"I've been a fisherman for about 8 years. My father and grandfather were fishermen before me. I have never been to school.
Things have changed a lot since I first started. There used to be plenty of fish but now there are not so many. The nets were not that expensive to buy but now they are, and so are the canoes. If I had the choice I would be a clothes trader, or I would open a small shop selling everyday essentials.
The best thing about being a fisherman is being alone, out on the water, where it is so quiet and there's no-one else around to disturb you. And also, when you go back to your nets you hesitate for a moment. You're always thinking will I get a lot of fish or won't I?, and that moment is really exciting.
At 4 o'clock in the afternoon I go out onto the river to set my nets. We all have our own place to fish. Then I come back here, usually around sunset and at 4 o'clock in the morning I go out again to bring in the nets. We get back at about 6.00 and take the fish out of the net and sell it. People come to buy at around 7.00, and then after that we clean the nets, removing any crabs, or weeds that have got caught in them, and then hang them up to dry. Then we rest in the middle of the day, before going out again at 4.00 to start the whole process again. The best seasons for fishing are just before and just after the rainy season, in June and October/November.
The river is very important in the life of Mali. It benefits the whole population, even the farmers because when the river floods it spreads over the land and makes it very fertile and good for cultivation. There are so many benefits from the river, I can't name them all."
Lamine Coulibaly, age 25, a fisherman from Bamako, Malis capital city
The Cattle Crossing Festival
"The cattle are coming, so everybody is happy. We love this festival more than anything. The boys go to the bush to prove they are men. No girl here in Diafarabé would look at a boy who hadnt been to the bush. Never!"
Assitan Barry, age 17
The Niger River means many things to people in Mali. The Cattle Crossing Festival happens every year in Diafarabé, when the Fulani people celebrate the return of their young men and the cattle theyve been herding on grazing lands across the river. The boys cattle are then judged, and prizes are given.
Girls in Diafarabé look forward to the Festival for another reason. Its their chance to see their boyfriends again.
For the boys, the Crossing can be a nerve-wracking time.
"When the animals come back, they are driven into a large open space at one end of the town where there is a panel which judges them to decide whose animals are fat, in other words, whose animals have been best cared for. If your animals are judged the best-kept herd you're the winner, and the community gives you prizes: a special blanket, a robe, and many other gifts. The last word in the judging is always with the vet. The boy with the worst-kept herd is given a peanut, which is quite a shameful thing. Last year the boy who was given the peanut went back to the bush a week later and now, this year, his animals are very fat and his people have all been congratulating him instead of complaining about him like they did last year."
Amadou Barry, age 18
The girls spend a lot of time making sure they look their best for the boys, by creating elaborate hair decorations.
Although it cools down a bit towards the end of the year, the temperature in Mali can rise above 40°C (104°F). The humid rainy season is June to September, but they only get this in the south.
In the middle part of the country the semi-desert part called the Sahel rainfall can vary. In the north there is very little. Winds blowing off the desert between
December and February known as harmattan cover the cities with a fine layer of dust.
Sometimes it seems as if the weather and land are trying to bury Mali under a tonne of sand. Two thirds of the country is now desert or semi-desert. In the recent past, there has been terrible drought and famine. The growing desert is a great worry to people in Mali as once-fertile farmland disappears.
The spread of the desert happens because of lack of rain, over-grazing by cattle, and harsh desert winds which blow away the damaged soil. Its also caused by the loss of many trees, as people hunt for firewood. Without trees particularly their roots soil easily turns to dust.
Fortunately, there is still some good farmland. In the upper southern part of Mali the Niger and Bani rivers join to form a big area of rich land where crops grow well.
But rainfall in many places is not reliable. It is only in the far south of the country that rain can be depended on, and here Malis dryness gives way to small pockets of natural forest.
There are few of the lions, giraffes, buffalo and hippo that you might expect in this part of the world.
In a land where many people have very little, Malians use their skill and imagination to make the most of precious resources
Drought in the 1970s and 1980s caused terrible suffering in Mali. Many people have had to change the way they live so they can survive with less rain. Some nomadic cattle-herders, called pastoralists (people who travel with animals from one grazing land to another), have had to give up their big herds, because there isnt enough water or food for them anymore. Nowadays they grow crops instead.
"After the cattle died in 1973 we had about 20 sheep and goats which survived that drought. These were the only animals left. Between 1973 and 1988, when we settled, life was very, very hard. With only 20 animals it was not easy to survive. I had finished at the village school and had to go on to the second part of my primary education in the town. So I needed some money for school fees at the beginning of every school year and it was very, very hard for my father to find that money. When my father came to Intilit in 1988 he was one of the first pastoralists in the area to begin cultivating, at a place not far from Intilit called Akarawat. That first year he had a good harvest and he said to himself 'I can cultivate a field near where I live, and grow enough food to feed my family. Why should I travel hundreds of kilometres every year to look for grass and water for my animals when they can still die so easily. It's better to settle here and cultivate.' So in the end it wasn't painful for him to take the decision to settle."
Hassanat Ag Meinak, age 29
Recycling at Bamako Market
When people dont have very much, they try not to throw anything away. They use their imagination and skill to turn old, worn-out things into new objects.
The market at Bamako, Malis capital city, is famous for selling all sorts of scrap metal. They also sell loads of useful, ingenious things that have been made from scrap.
So, do you think you could turn a car into a plough?
"There is a large market area in Bamako. All sorts of scrap metal is collected from all over the city and brought here where it is sorted and sold to specialist dealers. Everything from car parts to railways, is brought here.
Some of the smaller scrap is sold simply as scrap but a lot of it goes directly for recycling. There are workshops everywhere in this area, all making different items out of recycled metal: trunks, wheelbarrows, braziers, and farming implements are just a few of the things they make.
The recycling market has been here for more than 20 years. Recycling began in the rural areas but now it has become more commercial.
For the rural people, all their ploughs and hoes, and other farming implements are made from scrap metal so through this recycling market a car from Europe, say a Renault or a Peugeot, could end up being used to make ploughs for a poor rural farmer in the smallest, most distant village in Mali. When a car is imported it is used for as long as possible and when it can no longer be driven it's dismantled and every last piece of it is used to make something else.
Most of the objects made from recycled metal are traditional items, but if someone has a good imagination and is very intelligent, he can come up with his own designs. For example, one boy from here designed an entire bicycle made from scrap metal."
Daouda Ballo, Bamako Market
"I like going to school
because I want to learn how to speak French. If I learn French it will be very
useful to my people. It will help me to bring them money and grain because when
I know French I will be able to get a good job, and when I work I will earn
money and I will either send some money to my people, or I will buy grain and
send it to them. If I'm working in the city I will ask my brother to look after
Alhousseyni Ag Midi, age 12
Most Malians are very poor and cant afford to send their children to school: government spending on education is low putting the burden onto parents. This has meant that only about 30 per cent of people can read and write.
The average child in Mali will be at school for only 3 years, compared to 11 years in the United Kingdom. And because families usually think its more important for boys to get an education than girls, more men than women are literate in Mali today: only 23 per cent of girls can read and write, compared to 39 per cent of men.
Malis government is now trying to put this right, by making primary school education more affordable for poor people. There are ambitious plans to increase education spending, but the task ahead is huge.
Teachers at village schools often come from the local community. The teachers sometimes feel bad if a family is too poor to afford the small school fee. Rather than see their friends and neighbours children going without an education, some teachers even pay the money for them ...
"I don't want to make
life difficult for any of these people because I am one of them. The school
has been open for two months and 15 days this year and some parents haven't
paid anything so far. I don't harass them for the money because I know they
would pay if they could. They are very willing to pay for the children's education
but they simply don't have the means sometimes. For example, last year, there
were parents who paid nothing from January until August. I once travelled 50
kilometres to collect the money from one family. They paid what they owed but
they were so poor that I ended up giving them 1000 CFAs of my own money, because
they are my people. They want very much for their children to go to school,
but life is very difficult for them."
Primary school teacher
Find out about a school day in Mali, by reading nine-year-old student, Fati Wallet Idjirintas diary
"When I wake up in the morning it's still a bit dark. One of the first things I do is make sour milk to help my mum. After I've finished I go to the well to fetch water. When I come back I either take my books and read, or I help my mum to pound the grain for the mid-day meal, either sorghum or millet.
I wear a black dress to go to school. I also wear a traditional Tamachek bracelet on my wrist. All Tamachek women wear these bracelets, and some wear them on their ankles as well.
I don't eat or drink anything before I go to school. I meet up with my friends beforehand and we wait for the bell to ring. The school is in the village so it's very close.
When we first go into the classroom we make a lot of noise before the teacher comes. When the teacher comes in he greets us, saying 'Good morning class', and then we answer him, and he starts writing on the board. This is my second year of school. I enjoy going to school because I like reading: reading is my favourite subject and we spend most of our time in the classroom reading. We also learn language and arithmetic. All our lessons are in French but the teacher often explains things to us in Tamachek.
There are 20 pupils in my class. In the middle of the morning we have a short break. During the break I run home to check if there is any water and if there isn't I go to the well to fetch some more.
When the bell sounds to tell us that break is over I go back to school and we stay in class until lunchtime. My classroom is made of grey mud. We have desks with benches attached. Sometimes three pupils share a desk, sometimes four. We use notebooks and slates, it depends on the lesson. As soon as I get out of the classroom at the end of the morning I go home to eat my meal. My lunch is ready waiting for me. My mum prepares sorghum cake and sour milk during the morning and leaves mine ready for me in the house when she goes to the field. I love my lunch. I'm always very hungry by the time I come home from school. Afterwards, I take my book to join my friend at her house, and there we start reading together.
After school in the afternoon I go to the well again with my friends, to fetch water, and then I go home to help my mum pound whatever grain we are going to eat in the evening, usually sorghum but sometimes millet. After that I light a fire in the house so that I can see to read my book. The reading I do isn't homework, I choose to do it, but I also get some homework. The homework the teacher sets is usually writing and I try to do it before I start doing my other jobs."
Fati Wallet Idjirinta, age 9
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