Mandé peoples

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The Mandé peoples are ethnic groups who are speakers of Mande languages. Various Mandé speaking ethnic groups are found particularly toward the west of West Africa. The Mandé Speaking languages are divided into two primary groups: East Mandé and West Mandé.

The Mandinka or Malinke, a western branch of the Mandé, are credited with the founding of the largest ancient West African empires. Other large Mandé speaking ethnicities include the Soninke and Susu as well as smaller ethnic groups such as the Ligbi, Vai, and Bissa.

Mandé speaking people inhabit 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 speaking people who originate and live in the Sahel regions the Mandinka and Soninke who have been described as transcending individual tribal affiliations[citation needed]. influences from Mandé speaking people have historically spread far beyond immediate areas to other neighboring Muslim West Africans groups who inhabited the sahel and savanna. The Mandé speaking people 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 speaking peoples worldview, clothing and other cultural artefacts (a shared written script, architecture, cuisine, and social norms).[citation needed]



Descended from ancient central Saharan people, the Mandé speaking peoples constitute an identifiable language family, with associated peoples spread throughout West Africa. The Mande speaking peoples are known as having been early producers of woven textiles, by a process known as strip-weaving. The Mandé speaking people 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]

Mande Speaking peoples founded the Ghana (Soninke) and Mali (Mandinka) empires.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Mandé Speaking people 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 speaking people, 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 speaking 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 Soninke 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 Soninke 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 people who were Mandinka (another Mandé speaking 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).[citation needed]


Following the fall of the great Empires of the Northern Mandé speaking people (The Mandinka and Soninke ethnic groups), the presence of other Mande speaking people came about. These were the Mane, Southern Mande speakers (The Mende, Gbandi, Kpelle, Loma ethnic groups) 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.[citation needed]

French colonisation of West Africa greatly affected the life of Mandé speaking people. 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 speaking people are still active in West African politics; Many individuals from Mandé speaking ethnic groups have been elected as presidents in several states.[citation needed]

Existence amongst Mande speaking peoples concerning conflict with other African peoples has been exacerbated since the start of the 20th century. Because of desertification, they have been forced steadily southward in search of work and other resources. Frequently, the competition has resulted in fighting between them and other indigenous populations along the coast.[citation needed]

Mandé speaking people in Timbuktu


Mandé Speaking ethnic groups typically have a patrilineal kinship system and patriarchal society. Several Speaking Mande speaking ethnic groups practice Islam like the Mandinka and Soninke (though often mixed with indigenous beliefs), and usually observe ritual washing and daily the prayers of Islam. Their women wear veils. A famous practise amongst the Mande Speaking people exists amongst the Mandinka, this is the concept of sanankuya or "joking relationship" among clans.

Secret societies[edit]

Amongst the Mende, kpelle, Gbandi and Loma Mande speaking ethnic groups of Sierra Leone and Liberia, there exists secret fraternal orders and sororities, known as Poro and Sande, or Bundu, respectively 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]

Amongst specific Mande speaking ethnic groups such as the Mandinka, Soninke and Susu exists traditionally a cased based system. Amongst these Mandé speaking ethnic groups societies are hierarchies or "caste"-based systems, 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 speaking ethnic groups 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 speaking family (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 ethnic 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 the Manding, a Mande speaking People (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 Speaking world. Fadenya is often discussed in contrast to badenya, or mother-childness.[18]

Oral tradition[edit]

Amongst the Mandinka, Soninke and Susu Mandé speaking ethnic groups cultures history is passed orally, one famous instance being the Epic of Sundiata of the Mandinka. Among the Mandinka, and some closely related groups, 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 Mandinka culture 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 Mandinka 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 Mande speaking ethnic groups such as the Mandinka, Soninke and Susu, 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 speaking ethnic groups in the westernmost part of West Africa have been predominantly Muslim since the 13th century. Others, such as the Bambara, a Mandinka group, converted to Islam as late as the 19th century with some retaining their traditional beliefs. Muslim Mandinka 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 Mande speaking ethnic 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, Mandé speaking people, in particular the Soninke ethnic group, 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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 music Amongst the Mande speaking people is played on the kora, a stringed instrument with 21 or more strings mainly associated by 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.[citation needed]

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

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

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.
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  9. ^ a b c d Mcintosh, Susan Keech; Mcintosh, Roderick J. (February 1980). "Jenne-Jeno: An Ancient African City". Archaeology. 33 (1): 8–14.
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  12. ^ UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume IV, pp. 197–200
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  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. S2CID 162509491.
  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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