Mandé peoples

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Mandé peoples are speakers of Mande languages. Various Mandé groups are found in every country in mainland West Africa. The Mandé languages are divided into two primary groups: East Mandé and West Mandé.

The Mandinka or Malinke people, a western branch of the Mandé, are credited with the founding of the largest ancient West African empires. Other large Mandé groups include the Soninke, Susu, Bambara, and Dyula. Smaller groups include the Ligbi, Vai, and Bissa.

Mandé people inhabit various environments, from coastal rainforests to the sparse Sahel. They have a wide range of cuisines, cultures, and beliefs, and are organized mainly by their language group. Today they are predominantly Muslim and follow a caste system.

Islam has played a central role in identifying the Mandé as a supranational ethnic group that transcended individual tribal affiliations[citation needed]. Mandé influence historically spread far beyond immediate areas to other neighboring Muslim West Africans groups who inhabited the sahel and savanna. The Mandé conducted increased trade down the River Niger or overland, and achieved military conquest with the expansion of the Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, and Kaabu and Wassoulou states.

The non-Mande-speaking Fula, Songhai, Wolof, Hausa, and Voltaic peoples maintain varying degrees of close alignment with the Mandé worldview, clothing and other cultural artefacts (a shared written script, architecture, cuisine, and social norms).



Descended from ancient central Saharan people, the Mandé constitute an identifiable language family, with associated peoples spread throughout West Africa.

Mande peoples are known as having been early producers of woven textiles, by a process known as strip-weaving. The Mandé have been credited with the independent development of agriculture by about 4,000–3,000 BC. This agricultural base stimulated the development of some of the earliest and most complex civilizations of Western Africa.[1][2]

They founded the Ghana and Mali empires, and led the expansion of the Songhai Empire across West Africa.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Mandé were early producers of stone settlement civilizations. These were initially built on the rocky promontories of Tichitt-Walata and Dhar Néma in the Tagant cliffs of Southern Mauritania beginning between around 2,000 BC and 1,500 BC by ancient Mande, likely early Soninke, peoples. Hundreds of stone masonry settlements, with clear street layouts, have been found in this area. Some settlements had massive defensive walls, while others were less fortified.

In a now arid environment where arable land and pasturage were once at a premium, the population grew. Relatively large-scale political organizations emerged, leading to the development of military hierarchical aristocracies. The agro-pastoral society had a mixed farming economy of millet production combined with the rearing of livestock. They had learned how to work with copper. They traded in jewelry and semi-precious stones from distant parts of the Sahara and Sahel. They are believed to be the first to domesticate African rice. An archaeologist described their ancient, abandoned sites as representing "a great wealth of rather spectacular prehistoric ruins".[3][4][5]

A series of early cities and towns were created by Mande peoples, also related to the Soninke, along the middle Niger River in Mali, including at Dia, beginning from around 900 BC, and reaching its peak around 600 BC,[6] and later at Djenné-Djenno, which was occupied from around 250 B.C to around 800 AD.[7] Djenné-Djenno comprised an urban complex consisting of 40 mounds within a 4 kilometer radius.[8] The site is believed to exceed 33 hectares (82 acres), and the town engaged in both local and long-distance trade[9] During Djenné-Djenno's second phase (during the first millennium AD) the borders of the site expanded during (possibly covering 100,000 square meters or more), also coinciding with the development at the site of a kind of permanent mud brick architecture, including a city wall, probably built during the latter half of the first millennium AD using the cylindrical brick technology, "which was 3.7 meters wide at its base and ran almost two kilometers around the town".[9][10]

Ghana Empire[edit]

Since around (even prior to) 1500 BCE, a number of clans of proto-Soninke descent, the oldest branch of the Mandé peoples, came together under the leadership of Dinga Cisse. The nation comprised a confederation of three independent, freely allied, states (Mali, Mema, and Wagadou) and 12 garrisoned provinces. Located midway between the desert, the main source of salt, and the gold fields of the upper Senegal River to the south, the confederation had a good location to take advantage of trade with the surrounding cities. They traded with the north by a coastal route leading to Morocco via Sijilmasa.

Ghanaian society included large pastoral and agricultural communities. Its commercial class was the most prosperous. The Mandé merchants of Ghâna came to dominate the luxury trade and slave trade; they had Saharan trade routes connecting their great cities of the Sahara to the northern coast of Africa. They enslaved neighboring Africans, either to sell them or to use them for domestic purposes; those who were not sold were usually assimilated into the Mandé community. Leather goods, ivory, salt, gold, and copper were also sold in exchange for various finished goods. By the 10th century, Ghâna was an immensely rich and prosperous empire, controlling an area the size of Texas, stretching across Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania. When visiting the capital city of Kumbi Saleh in 950 AD, Arab traveler Ibn Hawqal described the Ghanaian ruler as the "richest king in the world because of his gold."

In the 11th century, the kingdom began to weaken and decline for numerous reasons. The king lost his trading monopoly, a devastating drought damaged the cattle and cultivation industries, the clans were fractured, and the vassal states were rebelling. According to Arab tradition, Almoravid Muslims came from the North and invaded Ghâna.

The western Sanhaja was converted to Islam sometime in the 9th century. They were subsequently united in the 10th century. With the zeal of converts, they launched several campaigns against the "Sudanese", idolatrous Black peoples of West Africa and the Sahel.[11] Under their king Tinbarutan ibn Usfayshar, the Sanhaja Lamtuna erected or captured the citadel of Awdaghust, a critical stop on the trans-Saharan trade route. After the collapse of the Sanhaja union, Awdagust was taken by the Ghana empire. The trans-Saharan routes were taken over by the Zenata Maghrawa of Sijilmassa.

Before the Almoravids, the Islamic influence was gradual and did not involve any form of military takeover. In any event, following their subsequent withdrawal, new gold fields were mined further south and new trade routes were opening further east. Just as it appeared that Ghâna would reemerge, it became the target of attacks by the Susu (another Mandé people) and their leader Sumanguru. From this conflict in 1235, the Malinké (also known as Mandinka people) emerged under a new dynamic ruler, Sundiata Kéita. By the mid-13th century, the once great empire of Ghâna had utterly disintegrated. It soon became eclipsed by the Mali Empire of Sundiata.

Mali Empire[edit]

The most renowned Emperor of Mali was Sundiata's grandson, Mansa Musa (1307–1332), also known as “Kan Kan Mussa" or "The Lion of Mali". His pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 quite literally put Mali on the European map. He took 60,000 porters with him, each carrying 3 kg of pure gold (180 tons in total, according to the UNESCO General History of Africa).[12] He had so much gold that when he stopped in Egypt, the Egyptian currency lost some of its value. According to Cairo-born historian al-Maqurizi, "the members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and 'Ethiopian' slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams." Consequently, the names of Mali and Timbuktu were shown on the 14th-century world map.

The crown jewel of Africa, the Empire of Mali was the center of Islamic, legal, and scientific scholarship. The oldest formal universities in Africa: Sankore, Jingaray Ber, and Sidi Yahya, were founded there. In a few generations, Mali was eclipsed by the Songhai empire of Askia Muhammad I (Askia the Great).

Songhai Empire[edit]

The successor of Sunni Ali Ber, Askia Muhammad was judged by historians as more astute and farsighted than his predecessor. He orchestrated a program of expansion and consolidation that expanded the empire from Taghaza in the North to the borders of Yatenga in the South; and from Air in the Northeast to Futa Tooro in Senegambia. Instead of organizing the empire along Islamic lines, he instituted a system of bureaucratic government unparalleled in the Western Sudan. In addition, Askia established standardized trade measures and regulations, and initiated the policing of trade routes. He encouraged learning and literacy, ensuring that Mali's universities produced the most distinguished scholars, many of whom published significant books. The eminent scholar Ahmed Baba, for example, wrote books on Islamic law which are still in use today.

Mahmoud Kati published Tarikh al-fattash and Abdul-Rahman as-Sadi published Tarikh al-Sudan (Chronicle of the Sudan), two chronicles which are indispensable to present-day scholars reconstructing African history in the Middle Ages. Mali had an extraordinary flourishing of its culture.


Following the fall of the great kingdoms of the old Mandé homelands, thousands migrated toward the Atlantic coast. Among these were the Mane, former soldiers of the Mali empire, who invaded the western coast of Africa from the east during the first half of the 16th century. Their origin was apparent in their dress and weapons (which were observed at the time by Europeans), their language, as well as in Mane tradition, recorded about 1625. The Mane advanced parallel to the coastline of modern Liberia, fighting in turn with each tribal group that they came across. They were almost invariably successful. They did not slow until encountering the Susu, another Mande people, in the north-west of what is now Sierra Leone. The Susu had similar weapons, military organization and tactics.

French colonisation of West Africa greatly affected Mandé life. Constant wars with the French cost the lives of thousands of their soldiers. They relied increasingly on the Atlantic slave trade for revenues. The later creation of colonial boundaries by European powers divided the population. The Mandé people are still active in West African politics; ethnic Mandé have been elected as presidents in several states.

The Mande people's conflict with other African tribes has been exacerbated since the start of the 20th century. Because of desertification, they have been forced steadily south in search of work and other resources. Frequently, the competition has resulted in fighting between them and other indigenous populations along the coast.

Mandé people in Timbuktu


Mandé groups typically have a patrilineal kinship system and patriarchal society. Several Mande groups practice Islam (though often mixed with indigenous beliefs), and usually observe ritual washing and daily the prayers of Islam but few wear Arab dress. Their women wear veils. Some famous Mandé practices include the sanankuya or "joking relationship" among clans.

Secret societies[edit]

Their secret fraternal orders and sororities, known as Poro and Sande, or Bundu, respectively, are based on ancient traditions believed to have emerged about 1000 CE. These govern the internal order of their society, with important rites of passage and entry into the gender societies as boys and girls come of age in puberty.

Caste system[edit]

Traditionally, Mandé societies are hierarchical or "caste"-based, with nobility and vassals. There were also serfs (Jonw/Jong(o)), often prisoners or captives taken in warfare, and usually from competitors of their territory. The descendants of former kings and generals had a higher status than both their nomadic and more settled compatriots.

Many Mande cultures traditionally have castes of crafts people (including as blacksmiths, leatherworkers, potters, and woodworkers/woodcarvers) and bards (the latter being known in several European languages as griots). These craft and bardic castes are collectively called "nyamakala" among peoples of Manding branch of the Mande family (such as the Bambara and Mandinka people),[13][14] and "Nyaxamalo" among the Soninke people,[13][15]

Mande-influenced caste systems, and elements thereof, sometimes spread, due to Mande influences, to non-Mande-speaking groups (in and near regions where Mande cultures settled) and were adopted by certain non-Mande peoples of Senegal, parts of Burkina Faso, northern Ghana, and elsewhere the Western Sudan and Western Sahel regions of West Africa. Among the non-Mande Wolof people, craft and bardic castes were collectively termed "nyeno".[16]

With time, in many cases, status differences have eroded, corresponding to the economic fortunes of the groups. Although the Mandé arrived in many of their present locations as raiders or traders, they gradually adapted to their regions. In the 21st century, most work either as settled agriculturalists or nomadic fishermen. Some are skilled as blacksmiths, cattle herders, and griots or bards.


Fadenya or “father-childness” is a word used by Mandé peoples, particularly the Manding (e.g. Mandinka), originally to describe the tensions between half-brothers with the same father and different mothers.[17] The concept of fadenya has been stretched and is often used to describe the political and social dynamism of the Mandé world. Fadenya is often discussed in contrast to badenya, or mother-childness.[18]

Oral tradition[edit]

Mandé cultures are often carried by oral histories, one famous instance being the Epic of Sundiata of the Mandinka. Among the Mandinka, and some closely related grouos, teaching centers known as kumayoro teach the oral histories and techniques under keepers of tradition known as nyamankala. These nyamankala form an important part of Mandé cultures due to their role in preserving oral tradition.[19] Kela school, the most notable, is vital in perpetuating oral tradition. Because of their strong work, the versions of the Sundiata epic tend to be fairly similar. The Kela version is considered the official one, and the epic is performed every seven years. The Kela version includes a written document called a tariku. This intersection of written and oral history is unique to Mandé culture.[19]

The epic is typically performed in two ways: one is intended for teaching or rehearsing, and the other is more official, intended to convey the important information to a large audience. Part of the teaching performance involves the presentation of gifts from clans involved in the epic. The official version can use a musical instrument; it does not allow audience interruptions. Different Mandé clans play different instruments in their performances of the epic.

The Kandasi also started a school for oral history.[19]


Mandé literature includes the Epic of Sundiata, an epic poem of the Manding peoples (a branch of Mande family) recounting the rise of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire.[20] Ethnomusicologist Eric Charry notes that these tales "form a vast body of oral and written literature" ranging from Ibn Khaldun's 14th-century Arabic-language account to French colonial anthologies collecting local oral histories to modern recordings, transcriptions, translations, and performance.[20] Tarikh al-Fattash and Tarikh al-Sudan are two important Timbuktu chronicles.[21] By the late 1990s, there were reportedly 64 published versions of the Epic of Sunjata.[20] Although traditionally attributed to Mahmud Kati, Tarikh al-Fattash was written by at least three different authors.[21] Among the Mandé, griots are a group, traditionally a specialized caste[22][23] who are bards, storytellers, and oral historians.[24]


A 13th-century mosque in northern Ghana attributed to the Wangara.

Many of the Mandé groups in the westernmost part of West Africa have been predominantly Muslim since as early as the 13th century. Others, such as the Bambara, converted to Islam as late as the 19th century with some retaining their traditional beliefs. Muslim Manden also hold traditional beliefs, such as in the rituals of initiation groups like Chiwara, and Dwo, and beliefs in the power of nyama (a spiritual power existing in nature).[13] Many smaller Manden groups, such as the Bobo, retain pre-Islamic belief systems in their entirety. Many Mande-speaking groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia were also, for the most part, not islamized.

According to oral histories, the Mandé, in particular the Soninke, contributed through trade and settlement to the Islamization of non-Mandé Gur groups at the edge of the Sahel in West Africa.


Much Mandé art is in the form of jewelry and carvings. The masks associated with the fraternal and sorority associations of the Marka and the Mendé are probably the best-known, and finely crafted in the region. The Mandé also produce beautifully woven fabrics which are popular throughout western Africa. They also create gold and silver necklaces, bracelets, armlets, and earrings. The Bambara people and related groups also traditionally produce wooden sculpture. And sculpture in wood, metal, and terra-cotta, have been found, associated with ancient peoples related to the Soninke in Mali.

The bells on the necklaces are of the type believed to be heard by spirits, ringing in both worlds, that of the ancestors and the living. Mandé hunters often wear a single bell, which can be easily silenced when stealth is necessary. Women, on the other hand, often wear multiple bells, representative of concepts of community, since the bells ring harmoniously together.

Djenné-Djenno, an ancient city on the Niger River in central Mali built by Soninke-related peoples, is famous for its terracotta figurines which depict humans and animals including snakes and horses, some dating to the first millennium and early second millennium AD.[25][9] It is believed that these statuettes served a ritual function and hypothesized that some are the representations of household or ancestral spirits, as ancestral cults are known to have flourished in the area as late as the 20th century.[9]


The best known type of traditional Mandé music is played on the kora, a stringed instrument with 21 or more strings mainly associated with the Mandinka people. It is performed by families of musicians known in Mandinka as Jeliw (sing. Jeli), or in French as griots. The kora is a unique harp-lute with a notched wooden bridge. It is arguably the most complex chordophone of Africa.

The N'goni is the ancestor of the modern banjo, and is also played by jelis.

Griots are professional bards in northern West Africa, keepers of their great oral epic traditions and history. They are trusted and powerful advisors of Mandé leaders. Among the most celebrated of these today are Toumani Diabate, Mamadou Diabate, and Kandia Kouyaté.

See also[edit]

References and sources[edit]

  1. ^ "Mande | people | Britannica".
  2. ^ D.F. McCall, "The Cultural Map and Time Profile of the Mande Speaking Peoples," in C.T. Hodge (ed.). Papers on the Manding, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1971.
  3. ^ Mauny, R. (1971), “The Western Sudan” in Shinnie: p 70.
  4. ^ Holl, Augustin. "Coping with uncertainty: Neolithic life in the Dhar Tichitt-Walata, Mauritania, ( ca. 4000–2300 BP)". Research Gate. Comptes Rendus Geosciences.
  5. ^ Holl A (1985). "Background to the Ghana Empire: archaeological investigations on the transition to statehood in the Dhar Tichitt region (Mauritania)". Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 4 (2): 90–94. doi:10.1016/0278-4165(85)90005-4.
  6. ^ Arazi, Noemie. "Tracing History in Dia, in the Inland Niger Delta of Mali -Archaeology, Oral Traditions and Written Sources" (PDF). University College London. Institute of Archaeology.
  7. ^ Mcintosh, Susan Keech; Mcintosh, Roderick J. (Oct 1979). "Initial Perspectives on Prehistoric Subsistence in the Inland Niger Delta (Mail)". World Archaeology. 11 (2 Food and Nutrition): 227–243. doi:10.1080/00438243.1979.9979762. PMID 16470987.
  8. ^ McIntosh & McIntosh 2003.
  9. ^ a b c d Mcintosh, Susan Keech; Mcintosh, Roderick J. (February 1980). "Jenne-Jeno: An Ancient African City". Archaeology. 33 (1): 8–14.
  10. ^ Shaw, Thurstan. "The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns. Routledge, 1993, pp. 632.
  11. ^ Lewicki (1988:p.160-61; 1992: p.308-09)
  12. ^ UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume IV, pp. 197–200
  13. ^ a b c Leslie M Alexander; Walter C. Rucker Jr. (2010). Encyclopedia of African American History. ABC-CLIO. pp. 79–80. ISBN 978-1-85109-774-6.
  14. ^ Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. Oxford University Press. p. 532. ISBN 978-0-19-533770-9.
  15. ^ Tamari, Tal (1991). "The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa". The Journal of African History. Cambridge University Press (CUP). 32 (2): 221–250. doi:10.1017/s0021853700025718.
  16. ^ Charles Bird; Martha Kendall; Kalilou Tera (1995). David C. Conrad and Barbara E. Frank (ed.). Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande. Indiana University Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0253209290.
  17. ^ Jansen, Jan (1995). "Kinship as Political Discourse: The Representation of Harmony and Change in Mande". Younger Brother in Mande: Kinship and Politics in West Africa (1-7)
  18. ^ Bird, Charles S.; Martha B. Kendell (1980). "The Mande Hero: Text and Context". In Ivan Karp; Charles S. Bird (eds.). Explorations in African Systems of Thought. Indiana University Press. pp. 13–26. Reprinted as Ivan Karp; Charles S. Bird, eds. (1987). Explorations in African Systems of Thought. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 978-0-87474-591-7.
  19. ^ a b c Camara, Seydou. The Epic of Sunjata: Structure, Preservation, and Transmission, pp. 59-67
  20. ^ a b c Eric Charry, Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 40-41.
  21. ^ a b Christopher Wise, Sorcery, Totem, and Jihad in African Philosophy (2017), pp. 44-45.
  22. ^ Barbara G. Hoffman, Griots at War: Conflict, Conciliation, and Caste in Mande (Indiana University Press, 2001).
  23. ^ "Griot" in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (2d ed.; eds. Anthony Appiah & Henry Louis Gates: Vol. 3: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 78-79.
  24. ^ Osita Okagbue, African Theatres and Performances (Taylor & Francis, 2013), p. 100.
  25. ^ Cotter, Holland (2 Aug 2012). "Imperiled Legacy for African Art". New York Times. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
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