Mali #2: History and Statistics

Before the trip, I knew nothing about Mali except that the fabled Timbuktu fell within its borders. Here is some brief history and current statistics to set the background for the subsequent posts about my trip.


The city of Djenne in Mali is the oldest known city in Mali, founded in the third century before the common era. The first Malian empire under Sundyata Keita started in the 13th century with its pinnacle during the reign of Mansa Moussa (1312-1337). Moussa brought 8 tons of gold to Mecca on a pilgrimage and depressed the price of gold in North Africa for years as a result. Conversions to Islam at that time were confined mainly to lands north of the Niger River to the Moors and Tuareg peoples, descendants of Arabs and Berbers respectively.


The Songhay Empire started in the 15th century. Timbuktu grew to over 100,000 people and was recognized as Islam’s holiest site in North Africa. It held one of the leading universities in the known world with 15,000 students. This became short-lived as Timbuktu was pillaged in 1594 and most of the social capital (artisans, scholars) was sent to Marrakesh, Morocco.


Subsequent fighting plagued the lands until the Bambara kingdom was established in 1712 creating the backbone of 2 Malian livelihoods today: farming and herding. The French came along, colonized Mali, intending to make it the breadbasket of their empire. They built Bamako up as the capital, but did not make much headway up north in Tuareg lands. Unfortunately, their colonization destroyed the dina, a traditional code of conduct among the various groups of Mali for land disputes. They also forcibly conscripted Malians for the World Wars and destabilized Tuareg society.


Present Malian history cannot be summarized succinctly, but as in many other African nations, effective and corrupt, democratic and autocratic, leaders have dotted Mali’s political map. Today’s president is seen as a better leader with the most transparent government Mali has had in recent history.


Mali stats from The Africa Report December 2008-January 2009 issue:

Pop: 12.3 million

Illiteracy: 68.9%

Exports: Rice, onions, cotton (Mali’s ‘white gold’), gold, salt, other minerals (including uranium up north and within Niger)


Current CIA World Factbook statistics:

22nd poorest country by GDP (Uganda is 19th poorest by GDP) – Mali was formerly fourth poorest not too many years ago

8th highest infant mortality rate at 104 deaths/1000 live births

21st lowest life expectancy at birth at 49.94 years



Median age for marriage of Malian women: 16 years (18 years old for child birth)

32% of births are attended to by a trained person

65% pregnancies are associated with anemia

High maternal mortality rate

90%+ incidence of female genital mutilation (excision of clitoris and other parts of the female external genitalia) – it is technically illegal now but widely continues

30% of Bamako’s population lives in peripheral shantytowns


There are more ethnic groups than these but here are a few you will see mentioned or photographed in my posts. Tuaregs – who speak Tamasheq – are in the north, fairer-skinned Malians, who are mostly nomadic. Songhay – mainly in the north are farmers, highly educated by Malian standards and influential but only 10% of the total population. Peul – are herders, around the entire country and semi-nomadic. Dogon (more in subsequent post) – live in north central Mali along the Bandiagara falais (escarpment) between the Niger River and the border of Burkina Faso, living on the plateau, in the cliffs or the nearby plains. Bambara – live Southern Mali and comprise 1/3 of the population of Mali. Malinke­ – live in the southernmost part of Mali, are largely hunters, and have secret initiation rites. Bozo – are fishers on the Niger River between Bamako and Gao.

Peul woman near Tirely in Dogon country. Notice her ear piercing. Many women have a good bar passing through their nasal septum.

Peul woman near Tirely in Dogon country. Notice her ear piercing. Many women have a gold bar passing through their nasal septum. The distinctive feature for women is the indigo tatoo surrounding the mouth as seen here.

Cultural Tidbits:

Le cousinage – a unique social interchange of greetingàasking about one’s family and ancestral originàgeographical provenanceàinsulting each other (=safety for releasing ethnic tension)àgreetings. We witnessed this between Dogon and Peul people. Dogon have more prestige and can demand something from a Peul, technically, at any time. We witnessed it in jovial exchanges.


Griots – famed storytellers, musicians, who serve as living history of Mali. Largely an inherited position, though not exclusively.


Grins – one of my favorite intimate, aspects of Mali – men drink green tea traditionally in three cups. The first is “bitter like death”. The second is “sweet like life”. The third is “gentle like love” and the sweetest, most dilute cup.

Tea preparation has a defined method and is ritualized

Tea preparation has a defined method and is ritualized.



If you have means, exquisite French-influenced food at restaurants or supermarkets. For others, variations of couscous, millet-based grains, rice, onion sauces, mutton. Everyone has access to the best bread I have had in any African country I have visited, rivaling bread in the U.S.

Religion: 80% Muslim, majority from 2 strands of Sufi Islam. Remainder practices African Traditional Religion, Catholicism, or Protestantism. Syncretic blends of ATR and Islam are commonplace, and to a lesser extent with Christian traditions.

Information above taken from: Oxfam’s Mali: Prospect of Peace?, The Africa Report magazine, Bradt Guide to Mali, CIA World Factbook.


One Response to “Mali #2: History and Statistics”

  1. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    Hey, cool tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a glass of beer to that person from that forum who told me to go to your blog 🙂

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