World Cultures

Women in rural communities often experience harsher living conditions than urban women.
Two Dogon people perform a divination ritual using the prints left in the sand by a jackal. An estimated 19 percent of Mali's population follows traditional religious practices.
An overview of the city of Bamako, in which a twin-spire mosque can be seen in the background.
A few Tuareg people outside Timbuktu during a dust storm. Conflicts between the Tuareg and the Malian government improved after the signing of a 1994 peace accord.
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Identification. Malian national culture can be best defined as a project that was developed with different emphasis and credibility by the governments that led Mali (formerly French Sudan) in the postindependence period (1960 to the present). It is undoubtedly a colonial legacy. As in most post-colonial nations, the territorial and administrative boundaries established by the colonial power, in this case France, remained essentially unchanged long after independence. Westernized Malian politicians and intellectuals reappropriated modern colonial institutions and adapted them to their reinterpretation of local aims and aspirations. For instance, the choice of Mali as the name for this country—harking back to one of the great medieval empires that blossomed in this area—is representative of a wider attempt by Malian politicians to validate a new political order, the postcolonial state, by claiming its derivation from African political formations already in existence prior to colonization. This reappropriation did not occur in a sociocultural vacuum. Indeed, it was affected by transnational economic and political forces as well as by local popular responses to the policies implemented by local governments.

Since independence, the Malian political leadership has pursued the syncretic integration at the national level of various elements deriving from ethnic and regional cultures. Yet this process of cultural syncretism has not been homogeneous. If most regional or ethnic cultures have been implicated, not all have contributed in the same measure. Indeed, a number of scholars of Mali have noted an imbalance in favor of the numerically dominant Mande (a branch of the Niger-Congo language family) people and their traditions in the formation of a national culture. For the most part, the process of national construction has been a relatively peaceful one, given the long traditions of coexistence, cultural exchange, and mutual tolerance between the populations living in this area.

The ongoing project of Malian national construction can also be viewed as a site of contestation insofar as it is viewed and experienced differently by different strata of the Malian population. In other words, the dominant or hegemonic construct of the Malian nation is based on the reflections of the Westernized Malian elite and does not necessarily coincide with the view of peasants or disenfranchised urban populations. A number of studies of rural communities have highlighted both peasants' hope of receiving benefits from the policies implemented by the Malian governments and their periodic disaffection from and resistance to those policies. Even the democratic government's effort in the late twentieth century to decentralize state institutions, that is to give more power and greater economic means to local communities, met with some skepticism and occasional resistance at the level of some local bodies. Nevertheless, this policy of decentralization, however negotiated at the local level, has begun to dramatically transform local geographies of power.


Location and Geography. Mali is 478,764 square miles (1,241,278 square kilometers). It is a land-locked country approximately twice the size of Texas. According to late twentieth century estimates, less than 2 percent of the land is arable; 24.6 percent consists of permanent pasture; 5.7 percent of forests and woodlands; and 68 percent of mostly desert land. Ninety percent of Mali's population is concentrated in the southern regions—Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso, Ségou, and Mopti. The climate is hot and dry, with some semitropical zones in the far south. The north is semi-desert or desert. Most cities—many of which already existed well before



colonization—are located along Mali's rivers: the Niger, the Bani (a tributary of the Niger), and the Senegal. Bamako, the capital, is a colonial city. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, prior to the coming of the French, Bamako was only a village at the center of a semi-independent polity on the periphery of the Ségou state. By 1920, Bamako had become the capital and commercial center of the French Sudan (today's Mali). After independence, Bamako's population grew exponentially, from 100,000 in 1960 to approximately 1,000,000 in 1998 (59 percent of Mali's total urban population). This was partly the outcome of the fall in 1960 of the short-lived Mali Federation (uniting Mali and Senegal) and the subsequent forced return of many Malian citizens living in Senegal. Most of all, Malians were drawn to the city because of its greater job opportunities—indeed, most administrative headquarters and more than half of all Malian factories and enterprises are concentrated in Bamako.


Demography. Mali's population is approximately 10 million (1998 census). Most Malians live in rural areas, with only 18 percent residing in urban centers. Major ethnic groups in Mali are the Mande (e.g., Bamana, Jula, Malinke), who comprise 50 percent of the population; Peul or Fulbe, 17 percent; Voltaic, 12 percent (e.g. Bobo, Senufo, Minyanka); Tuareg and Moor, 10 percent; Songhai, 6 percent; and other, 5 percent. It should be mentioned that the rigidity of such ethnic categories dates back to colonization. In other words, the classification of local populations into neatly defined ethnic groups is the product of the interaction and misunderstandings between locals and colonial administrators as well as some ethnographers. Indeed, the boundaries between these groups are highly permeable and context-related, and their meanings are subject to renegotiation.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most Malians speak several languages and live in a truly multilingual context. The official language of Mali is French. An educated elite speaks French, and it is the dominant language of the administration, formal education, and the media. Bamana has progressively become the lingua franca of Mali and is spoken by 80 percent of the Malian people, although it is the mother tongue of only 38 percent of the population. Various factors have contributed to the spread of the Bamana language in Mali. Under colonization Bamana became the vernacular of the French colonial army, but it was also used in other institutional contexts such as schooling by the White Sisters, a Catholic women's missionary organization. The development of a written literature in Bamana (e.g., Bamana-French dictionaries, collections of proverbs and stories) and, after independence, the creation of newspapers and television and radio programs in Bamana further contributed to the hegemony of Bamana. The national organization in charge of promoting applied linguistic research, literacy, and education in national languages is the Direction nationale de l'alphabetisation fonctionnelle et de la linguistique appliquée (DNAFLA); created in 1975, it also enforced Bamana as a national language. Other national languages promoted by the DNAFLA include Fulfuldé, Songhai, Senufo, Dogon, Soninké, and Tamasheq.

Symbolism. A number of symbols reinforce and elaborate such central aspects of Malian national culture as the struggle against colonization, the celebration of Mali's rich history, and its long multicultural tradition. The text of Mali's national anthem was composed by an influential politician and novelist, Seydou Badian Kouyaté, at the request of Mali's first president, Modibo Keita. It celebrates the Malian struggle for independence and its newly achieved unity as well as urges Malians to channel their efforts into the process of nation building. Mali's flag uses the color symbolism of the pan-African unity movement—green (hope), gold (a reference to one of Mali's natural resources), and red (the blood sacrificed in the struggle against colonization).

In the late twentieth century the Malian government launched a series of public works, including a remarkable number of monuments (approximately twenty) and a women's museum (Musée Muso Kunda) with an attached research center focusing on women's development. Of these monuments—mostly concentrated in the capital—many have a historical theme and celebrate local and/or regional heroes in the struggle for independence as well as the Malians fallen in the 1991 struggle for democracy. Other monuments celebrate Mali's long multicultural tradition (e.g., the Obelisk) and the tentative peace with the Tuareg population (e.g., the Peace Monument). The Bamana term for "nation" is faso , which literally means "the father's house" and by extension refers to one's nation of origin. This reflects the patrilineal skewing of the local kinship system and its impact on the national imagination.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Although this geographic area has been occupied by large empires and states throughout its history (the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai; the Ségou state; and the Omarian state, among others), Mali's current geographic boundaries and, to a large extent, its politico-administrative organization are the result of French colonization (c.1880–1960). The conquest of this area was not without resistance on the part of local populations, such as the fierce resistance to the French by Samory Touré and his troops, and the Tuareg.

After World War II, Africans' growing political demands, the spreading anticolonialist stance at the international level, and the recognition of Africans' participation and sacrifice in the two world wars were all factors that led French colonial subjects to finally gain important political rights. They could create their own political parties and, via their elected representatives, increasingly participate in the political institutions of French West Africa. In 1946 the Rassemblement démocratique africain (RDA)—an inter-territorial party coordinating the pro-independence efforts of most French West African political activists—was created in Bamako. After some uncertain beginnings, the political representatives of the Sudanese branch of the RDA, the US-RDA, were able to win over all opponents and successfully lead Mali to independence. After the dramatic fall of the short-lived Mali Federation (which included Senegal), the French Sudan, under the name of Mali, achieved independence from France on 22 September 1960.


A Peul woman wears large gold earrings and a ring through her nose. Her lips are tattooed in the traditional style.


From 1960 to 1991 Malian politics was primarily organized on the basis of a one-party system. The charismatic Modibo Keita, leader of the single-party, the US-RDA, became Mali's first president. In the aftermath of independence, the Keita government launched an extensive program of national development based on socialist ideas. This included the formation of African cadres, the implementation of a five-year plan of economic development, the politicization of the masses, and the reevaluation of the historical and cultural heritage of the country in light of its socialist option. In particular, the reinterpretation of local traditions was a key step in the effort to legitimize the Malian leadership and justify its political platform. For instance, a number of local griots (a semi-endogamous group of professional bards) composed celebratory songs in honor of Modibo Keita, in which the political leader was depicted as the direct descendent of Sunjata Keita, the founder of the Mali empire. The government's political and economic measures had significant repercussions on the social structure of the Malian society. In particular they favored the transformation of the civil servants into an economic class. The Keita government lost progressively its popularity among various strata of the population. An alliance between the dissatisfied segments of the Malian population—the peasants, the merchants, and the army (threatened by the growing influence of the party militia)—led to the success of the military coup d'état of 1968.

The first ten years after the coup were characterized by the despotic rule of the Comité militaire de libération nationale (CMLN) under the leadership of Lieutenant Moussa Traoré. The most unpopular of Keita's political measures, such as the obligation of peasants to cultivate collective fields, were removed, and some freedom of trade was established. In the late 1970s Moussa Traoré, after having eliminated all possible rivals, founded Mali's second single party—the Union démocratique du peuple malien (UDPM)—and a number of horizontal organizations (for youth, women, and workers) that granted him and his clique control of the country until 1991. The Traoré period was characterized by a slow liberalization of the economy, progressive political disenchantment, galloping corruption at the administrative level, and a lack of political expression outside the party boundaries.

In 1991, after a series of popular uprisings demanding democratic elections, a military coup led by Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré (popularly known as ATT) brought the Traoré era to an end. An insurgence of grassroots organizations, the opening of new radio stations, and the founding of a large number of newspapers accompanied the advent of democracy. An intermediary government composed of army officials and civilians under the leadership of ATT followed the coup. ATT kept his initial commitment and led the country to its first multiparty elections in 1992. The presidential elections were won by Alpha Oumar Konaré, a distinguished archaeologist and leader of the party ADEMA (Alliance pour la démocratie au Mali).

National Identity. Malian national culture is first and foremost the product of the Malian educated elite and their interpretation of the needs of the general population, which is non-literate to a large extent. Indeed, many postindependence political and economic efforts were geared toward the strengthening of the elite position via the solidification of their economic basis and the broadening of their ranks. People's involvement in state institutions was further expanded by the creation of state-owned enterprises and the recruitment of an increasing number of wage workers, as well as by the predation and redistribution of state resources from the bureaucracy to its clients.

Malian elite have not acted in a vacuum, however, and oftentimes have had to modify their strategies and objectives in accordance with people's responses. This was the case for educated women, who very early on had to postpone the realization of many of their objectives—for instance, the abolition of polygyny—because of a lack of support from their constituencies. In addition, Malian elites have been able to build on established local traditions to foster a sense of a shared nation. Indeed, perhaps one of the secrets of Malian pluralism is the so-called sinankuya, or cousinage, a pact establishing a joking relationship between certain families, neighboring groups, and ethnic groups. It allows for the free venting of tensions and peaceful overcoming of conflicts.

More generally, the celebration of local cultures and local histories, and their appropriation in national contexts, has been one of the most successful avenues for the construction of the idea of a nation. Consider the organization of the Biennale artistique et culturelle des jeunes du Mali (1962–1988), when artistic troupes that won competitions at the regional level were invited to Bamako to compete at a national level. National holidays and politicians' visits have also been occasion for performances by local troupes. Most of all, theater plays (such as by the Groupe dramatique du Mali), musical events (in particular, griots' performances); radio programs (including the much listened-to stories of Jeli Baba Sissoko), and, in more recent times, television programs, cultural festivals, and the construction of an impressive number of monuments and cultural centers, have constituted important vehicles for the development of a Malian national culture.

Ethnic Relations. Building upon Mali's cultural and linguistic diversity, Malian governments have been able to foster, for the most part, a truly pluralistic society. Complicating this picture somewhat is the history of the difficult relationships between the Tuareg (or Kel Tamasheq), a Berber population living in the north, and the Malian government. Different cultural traditions, issues of race (and in particular Tuareg xenophobia toward the surrounding black populations), the Malian army's cruel retaliations against Tuareg attacks, and the marginality of the Tuareg within state institutions are some of the reasons behind the periodic conflict in the north. In 1994, and after the failure of the Pacte National of April 1992, the Malian government signed a new peace accord with the Tuareg, one that commits the government to the development of all northern populations. The situation in the north continues to be characterized by some instability, but external observers have expressed some confidence in the capacity of the government and the local people to overcome this crisis.

Urbanism Architecture, and the Use of Space

Typical of this area is the so-called West Sudanese architecture, characterized by the use of sun-baked clay bricks of various shapes. Majestic artistic expressions of this architecture are the beautiful mosques of the northern cities of Djenné and Mopti. The Sudanese style also decorates the facades of many traditional compounds in cities and historic villages. Many rural and urban Malians live in compounds, an enclosed space encompassing a number of two-room houses occupied by an extended family and/or, mostly in the cities, by renters. The first room is typically used for sleeping and receiving guests, while the back room is a more private space and is used for storage and/or sleeping. The use of Western materials, such as tin roofs and cement, is associated with higher social status, and in the cities such materials tend to replace traditional materials. Western materials require less maintenance, but they are more expensive and make for a much hotter space than traditional clay architecture.

The structure of the family is often reflected in the organization of living space. For instance, in the practice of polygyny, each wife is typically allotted her own house, most often within the same compound as the other wives but sometimes elsewhere. The husband either sleeps in his wives' houses on a rotating basis or, if means permit, may build his own individual house, where he receives his wives.

There are significant variations in architecture not only between regions but also within a single region according to people's main source of livelihood. For instance, pastoral groups such as the Fulbe may live not in compounds but in more temporary constructions. From the Mopti region northward, houses are most often two stories, with beautiful terra-cotta pipes for water drainage. In the northern regions people often entertain visitors on their roofs, where they spread colored blankets to take advantage of the occasional breeze. French colonial architecture was inspired by the much-admired local Sudanese style, with French housing and public buildings in Bamako and Ségou showing an interesting mixture of Western, Moroccan, and Sudanese styles. In recent years both local and foreign architects as well as intellectuals, recognizing the aesthetic and functional qualities of baked clay, have been experimenting by mixing it with cement to enhance its durability.


Two Dogon people perform a divination ritual using the prints left in the sand by a jackal. An estimated 19 percent of Mali's population follows traditional religious practices.


Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Malian families invest more than half of their household income in food expenditures. In the cities, rice is the preferred dish (40 percent of the daily food intake), followed by cereals (sorghum and millet, 35 percent), peanuts, sugar, and oil (20 percent). In the rural areas where rice is produced, farmers tend to consider rice a luxury item and they sell it. Their basic staples are millet, sorghum, and fonio (a West African cereal) that are consumed in a variety of ways: served with sauces with fish or meat and various vegetables, or in the form of porridge (mixed with water, sugar, and fresh or powdered milk).

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Malian cuisine varies from region to region, but some dishes and drinks have acquired a national dimension, such as nsaamè or riz au gras (a rice dish with meat and vegetables), jinjinbere (a drink made of water, sugar, lemon, and ginger), and dabileni (a drink made of water, sugar, and sorrel).These dishes are often prepared for the celebration of life-cycle rituals (e.g., naming ceremonies, weddings) and other ceremonial events.

Basic Economy. The Malian economy is principally based on the cultivation of cotton (Mali is the second largest producer of cotton in Africa), food crops (rice, millet, sorghum, fonio, peanuts, and corn), and livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats). The primary sector accounts for approximately 46 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and is mostly run by small-scale family-run enterprises. Industry, including manufacturing, contributes 20 percent to the GDP, and services approximately 33 percent. According to official statistics, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. Solidarity links among family members, neighbors, and coworkers; entrepreneurial skills; and redistributive practices, however, go a long way to ease difficult economic conditions.

Land Tenure and Property. Prior to colonization, land was not a commodity. Among the Bamana agriculturists, access to the land (that is, the right to cultivate a piece of land, not individual ownership) was often mediated by the so-called "land chief" who was often a respected elder from the first family to settle in the area. The land chief was in charge of distributing the land among the various lineages of the village. He was also responsible for the celebration of various sacrifices, in particular to the shrine of the spirits in charge of protecting the village, the so-called dasiri (a cluster of trees and shrubs). Lineage members would collectively cultivate the land and the lineage chief would be in charge of the redistribution of resources among individual households according to their perceived needs. However, conflicts among households of the same lineage would periodically erupt and often lead to further fissions within the lineage. Besides collective farming, individuals of both genders could cultivate smaller fields on the side and independently manage their revenues. The colonial conquest has greatly complicated the issue of property. At the present, local systems for the allocation of property, Islamic law, and colonially derived property rules (mostly affecting parcels in urban areas) coexist, but not without conflict, side by side.

Major Industries. The Malian economy is scarcely industrialized despite massive efforts in this direction by the Keita government after independence. Locally operated industries mostly concentrate on processing farm commodities (such as food and fish), construction (e.g. the production of cement), and the production of minor consumer goods such as cigarettes, matches, and batteries. The strict programs of structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since the late 1980s have forced the Malian government to reduce dramatically the number of state employees, progressively privatize state-owned enterprises, and devalue the local currency (the franc de la Communauté Financière d'Afrique , the CFA) by 50 percent. The consequences of these programs have been mixed. Even though official economic indexes show some economic growth, there has also been a neocolonial return of foreign capital. This has been the case for COMATEX, the largest textile factory in Mali, built with Chinese cooperation in the late 1960s. In October 1993 an accord between China and Mali paved the way for the privatization of COMATEX by a Chinese group (the COVEX), despite efforts by a group of Malian entrepreneurs to purchase the enterprise (the Malian state retains 20 percent of the capital).

Similarly, new gold mines have opened, but they remain mostly foreign operated. Given the advanced technology and large amount of capital resources gold mines require, the business is for the most part in the hands of companies such as the South African Randgold Resources and the Canadian IAMGOLD. As a result the revenues of the Malian state have been estimated, at best, to equal 10 percent of the total value of the gold extracted.


A few Tuareg people outside Timbuktu during a dust storm. Conflicts between the Tuareg and the Malian government improved after the signing of a 1994 peace accord.


Trade. Mali's major exports are cotton (50 percent of foreign exchange earnings), gold (17 percent), and livestock products. In 1998, main destinations for exports were Thailand, Italy, Brazil, and Portugal. In the same year, Mail purchased most of its imports (in particular, machinery and petroleum products) from Cte d'Ivoire, France, Belgium and Luxembourg, and Senegal. In general, the Malian economy is extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in prices on international markets. It is also heavily dependent on foreign aid, and in this context benefits from its positive international image as a model African democracy progressing steadily toward the privatization and diversification of its national economy.

Division of Labor. Although the available statistical data are often not reliable, they do give a general picture of labor distribution in Mali. Employment in the formal economy, at best, approximates 6 percent of the total economically active population (the latter estimated at 44.7 percent of the total population). The large majority of the population is involved in the so-called informal sectors of the economy or are unemployed. Unemployment is much higher among the educated elites because of the lack of employment opportunities in the modern sector, and amounts to 13.2 percent of those employed in this sector. Agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, and fishing employ the large majority (83 percent) of the total active population. Other occupational sectors include the craft industry (5.4 percent) and trade (4.7 percent). In order for Malians to provide for their families, they are often forced to take on several jobs at the same time, a situation rarely expressed by official statistics.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. In the late 1960s French anthropologist Claude Meillassoux remarked on the complexity of the relations between new and old social milieus in Mali, and his observations still capture an important component of social stratification. Border crossing and mélanges of cultural elements still characterize Malian social distinctions. Some scholars have observed how for many years the Malian bureaucracy did not properly constitute a class; indeed, it established a series of practices modeled after the traditional code of behavior of the Malian aristocracy. For instance, the Malian bureaucracy did not reinvest monetary capital into productive enterprises, but engaged in the predation and redistribution of state resources. Other scholars have highlighted the huge gap between the elites and the mass of the population and have essentially presented Malian post-colonial history as the history of alliances and conflicts between Malian elites, that is, the bureaucracy and the merchants.

Prior to colonization, Mali was a highly stratified and complex society. Most ethnic groups distinguished among horonw (free people or nobles), nyamankalaw (semiendogamous professional groups such as leather workers, griots, and smiths), and jonw/wolosow (first-generation slaves or slaves born in the family). Recent studies have shown a certain flexibility among these social groups, one that allowed for movements and permutations across the different groups. Along the same lines, local people have renegotiated the boundaries of traditional professions. In fact, especially in the cities, the exercise of a given profession is no longer limited to people with the appropriate family background. The Institut national des arts in Bamako has played a major role in this direction, opening nyamakala professions (such as sculpture and music) to the rest of the Malian population.

In addition to this fuzziness between group boundaries, individuals are redefining their traditional professions in new directions. This is the case with very entrepreneurial jelimusow (women jeliw, or griots) who, from a position of relative marginality vis-à-vis male singers, have come to dominate the cassette market and musical radio programs in today's Mali. Their success is partly linked to people's searches for social recognition in the context of the dislocation brought about by transformations of the political economy since colonization.

At the level of practices, the aristocratic code of behavior translates into the display of modest and controlled manners. On the other hand, nyamakalaw and jonw have traditionally enjoyed a broader freedom of expression. In particular jeliw or griots can afford to voice their opinions openly; that is, according to the occasion they can praise, criticize, or fire up their patrons.

Political Life

Government. Mali is a democratic republic. The democratization of state institutions started under the transition period (1991–1993) with the organization of a national assembly during which a new constitution was drafted and was formally adopted via popular referendum in 1992, and the organization of free and democratic elections (1993). The constitution follows the French model and sanctions the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers.

Leadership and Political Officials. Alpha Oumar Konaré, of the party ADEMA, was the first democratically elected president in the history of post-independence Mali. Konaré was re-elected in 1997, in much discussed elections, and will end his second and last term in 2002. The ruling government coalition includes ADEMA and a few other, minor parties such as the Parti de la renaissance national (Parena). The main opposition alliance is represented by the Collectif des partis politiques de l'opposition (COPPO), which is extremely critical of the Konaré government, accusing it of political monopoly, corruption, and insufficiently integrating dissenting voices into the democratic process. Since 1997, however, COPPO leaders have refused to participate in all elections, thus further marginalizing themselves politically.

Social Problems and Control. Information is scarce on crime in Mali. However, crime is considered to be low compared to other countries in the region. The crime situation in Mali's northern regions is more complex. Due to this area's intermittent political instability, some tourists have occasionally

While architectural styles in Mali vary, most buildings are made of sun-baked clay.

experienced banditry and carjackings. The Gendarmerie and local police forces are in charge of internal security. The Malian judiciary system (made independent by the 1992 Constitution) is complicated by the coexistence of traditional, Islamic, judiciary traditions that are often syncretically used by the Malian population.


Military Activity. Military expenditures total approximately 5.5 percent of the national budget. Beside a dispute over the boundaries with Burkina Faso, which led to five days' fighting (25-29 December 1985) and was quickly resolved by dividing up the disputed land between the two countries (in December 1986), Mali has not been involved in any foreign conflicts.

The army has been a major player in domestic politics, for instance via the organization of coups d'état (many of which were unsuccessful) and/or via the participation of military officials in various governments. Military forces have been extensively deployed in the North to control the Tuareg rebellion. According to Amnesty International, the Malian Army has infringed fundamental humanitarian norms. To Tuareg attacks, the Army has responded with reprisal killings of civilians—a situation that generated a spiral of violence from both sides in the mid 1990s, but since then seems relatively under control. Noteworthy is Mali's more recent peacekeeping efforts, of which president Konaré is a major proponent, in the Western African region. In particular, Mali is involved in trying to reestablish peace along the borders between Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Mali, at least on paper, provides an extensive welfare system. Workers are entitled to retirement benefits, health care, sick leave, maternity leave, and other forms of compensation. The actual realization of the welfare program is often significantly hampered by the state's limited resources. Furthermore, many aspects of the social welfare system, even if it were fully operational, would affect only wage workers, who constitute a minority of the overall Malian worker population. However social welfare remains at the center of the government agenda. The Malian government, with the backing of the World Bank and the IMF, is planning to increase spending in health and education. Most Malians work in the so-called informal sector and rely on alternative welfare strategies, such as the development of reliable social networks among kin, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are the expression of a development approach that takes into account the needs and aspirations of the local people and ideally involves them at all stages in the development project. The blossoming of foreign and local NGOs in recent years is in part the result of the implementation of structural adjustment programs and the privatization of the Malian economy. The state was the largest employer in Mali until the mid-1980s, but many people have since lost their jobs or future employment opportunities. NGOs, coordinated by the Comité de coordination des ONG du Mali, have thus become a major provider of employment for the many educated yet unemployed Malians. Funding is provided by the state and foreign partners. NGO projects include literacy programs, health training programs, initiatives to alleviate rural women's work burdens, reforestation programs, and initiatives to support the decentralization of state institutions.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. In many Malian farming communities both women and men are actively involved in agricultural activities. Among the Bamana, women, in addition to taking care of many household chores, work most of their lives in the collective fields of their husband's extended family. Once women reach menopause they retire from work in the collective fields and often redirect their efforts in the cultivation of their own fields. Women are also very active in trade activities. Post-menopausal women, as in many other parts in Africa, are freer to engage more extensively in trade activities than are women of child-bearing age. However, women sell mainly food items, both raw and processed, and a few manufactured goods (e.g. cloth), while men engage more often in the sale of manufactured goods. In other words, women's access to market participation tends to be limited to a series of economic activities which are scarcely lucrative, or at least less so if compared to the business in which men engage.

In the cities women continue to take care of most of the household chores as well as to be actively involved in petty trade. Rural girls prior to their marriage are often employed as maids in the cities in order to accumulate goods for the constitution of their own dowry ( konyon minén ). Women are underemployed in the formal economy, although some studies have recently shown that women are well represented in certain professions such as law.

From a political standpoint, under the single-party system, women's associations have experienced some of the same limitations that affected other groups (such as youth associations and workers' associations) and have often had to promote the party's interest over women's own agenda. After the coup of 1991, an impressive number of women's associations were created. They are coordinated by the Ministère pour la Promotion des Femmes, des Enfants, et de la Famille. In a political reshuffling that took place on 21 February 2000, women's representation achieved a historical high—out of twenty-one newly appointed ministers, seven were women.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. In general, women are less represented than men in the more lucrative sectors of the economy; that is state employment, private enterprises, and long-distance trade. However, there are significant differences among women. For instance, women's living conditions in the rural areas often differ from those of urban women. In general, rural women have a much heavier workload and reduced access to health care than city women. Furthermore, there are significant class differences, especially in the cities. There certainly are some common issues that most women are confronted with, such as women's circumcision (practiced by most ethnic groups, with the exception of the Tuareg), a strong emphasis on women's role in the socialization and education of children, and discriminatory inheritance practices (in the absence of state legislation on this issue), to mention only a few. The ways in which a woman is affected by these issues vary significantly, however, depending upon her location, her education, her class, and her relationship with her husband. Studies of urban women show women's entrepreneurial efforts in establishing broad networks of family, friends, and neighbors upon whom they can rely for companionship and mutual help. In addition, some local and foreign aid agencies have increasingly been involved in helping individual women as well as women's groups in setting up small enterprises (e.g. small enterprises of food processing) but much is still to be done in this direction.

Marriage, family, and Kinship

Marriage. Marriage is the most important ritual of the life cycle and entails numerous celebrations that are spread throughout a period of variable length, up to ten years. It involves major expenses on the part of the bride's and groom's extended families and friends, although the practice of bride-wealth (the transfer of gifts or money from the groom's family to the bride's family) puts more financial pressure on the groom and his family. Three different forms of marriage can be distinguished in Mali today: traditional (which varies greatly from region to region and across ethnic groups), civil, and religious (mostly Muslim). In the cities, many couples see the ideal marriage as one that has been legitimized traditionally, civilly, and religiously. Civil marriage is especially popular among wage workers, for without official sanction by the state, wives and children will not be entitled to social welfare benefits such as pensions. In the rural areas and to some extent in the urban areas, marriages are arranged. This practice reflects the importance of establishing alliances between families over individual preferences.

Although the first years of marriage are frequently quite difficult for women, a woman's position within the household tends to improve over time. Age and children tend to increase a woman's status. Old women are better off, and take up managerial responsibilities in directing other women's work. Noteworthy is the fact that husbands and

Women in rural communities often experience harsher living conditions than urban women.

wives manage their revenues independently. It follows that the management of a household is the outcome of a negotiation between husband and wives as to who is going to assume which responsibilities. However some underlining patterns can be detected—for instance, women tend to take care of the sauce that flavors the meal and men tend to provide the cereals that are the staple for the daily meals, at least in the cities.


Domestic Unit. Most Malian ethnic groups are patrilineal, and residence tends to be patrilocal. In rural areas and to a large extent in the cities, domestic units are rarely limited to the nuclear family. Indeed, most often they consist of an extended patrilineal family (that is, they consist of a father, his wife(ves), his sons, their wives and children, and unmarried daughters). Polygyny is legal, and couples have the option of choosing between monogamy and polygyny when they enter into a civil marriage (although this is not necessarily binding). Among the Mande, relationships between mothers and their children are very intense and affectionate, and children of the same mother tend to rely on each other for help over the years. Traditionally, relationships between half-siblings with different mothers are more tense and competitive. Another area of potential conflict is the relationship between co-wives, which varies considerably from compound to compound. Yet it is not rare to find cowives who get along with each other and establish relationships of mutual support—a situation often feared by the husband, who is clearly put in a minority position in the household. In the cities it is not rare to find couples who live independently from their extended families—this typically reflects a higher social standing and Western education. Even in these cases household members are not limited to the nuclear family and may include children from previous marriages, nephews, nieces, or other family members, and clients.

Kin Groups. Many Malian ethnic groups are further divided in several lineages and clans, which are represented at the village level by clusters of households sharing a common section of a village under the leadership of a respected family elder. Traditionally certain clans entertain joking relationships with one another (e.g. the Diarra and the Traoré). Despite the fact that residence is predominantly patrilocal, recent studies show that women maintain close bonds with their family of origin. Women continue to be involved in the lives of their natal family members via periodic visits, and via the exchange of gifts and services throughout their lives. Kinship bonds continue to be important despite geographical dislocation. Malian migrants, both to the city and to foreign destinations, maintain strong links with their extended families and contribute substantially to the local economies by sending home a constant flux of money and gifts. Despite the poverty of the majority of the population, real or fictitious kinship links provide support and comfort for many Malians in times of need.


Infant Care. Babies are kept in close contact with their mothers and accompany them in most of their activities, usually carried on the mother's back and secured by a tightly wrapped cloth. In the cities, the complex male and female initiation practices found in the rural areas are often reduced to simple circumcision (the removal of the foreskin for boys) and clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris for girls)—usually performed on the eighth day of the baby's birth. Traditionally male and female initiation marked the passage from childhood to adulthood (it was a requirement for women to marry, and in some areas it was incorporated within the marriage process) and entailed the passing of traditional and religious knowledge from the old to the new generations. On the other hand urban circumcision tends to be incorporated into another set of rituals, those performed on the occasion of the naming of a child.

Child Rearing and Education. Children's informal education is to a great extent a collective endeavor, with people other than the children's parents participating in their rearing. Small children, up to two or three years, receive much affectionate attention from both family and nonfamily members and are rarely disciplined.

Education is free and compulsory for the first nine years, although private schools, which draw their students from the better-off strata of the population, are expanding. In general, the attitude toward western-style schooling is ambivalent—both because it is viewed as a colonial legacy and also because it is often disconnected from the rural populations' complex realities. In addition, scarce opportunities for employment in the formal sector of the economy, especially in rural areas, may demotivate families and pupils from investing resources and time in formal schooling.

Traditionally, children learned about their future economic responsibilities by observing and helping older same-sex kin, but in the cities boys increasingly have fewer responsibilities, while girls are still expected to help at home.

Higher Education. Since independence the government has devoted more resources to secondary education than to mass primary schooling. Secondary schools are concentrated in urban areas, Bamako in particular. Until very recently the most important objective for the Malian school was the production of administrative cadres, and until 1983 the state guaranteed employment for students with a secondary-school or university diploma. At that time, however, the state had to confront the fact that it could no longer assume this responsibility, and since then, enrollment in state schools has dropped. The numerous student strikes that have occurred in the late twentieth century were an expression of students' anxiety about their uncertain professional future as well as dissatisfaction with the form and quality of education. Statistics from the 1990s suggest a literacy rate of about 38 percent. Students' success rate is also extremely low. In the 1980s only 50 percent of the students who began primary education were likely to complete six years of schooling and go on to secondary education. Female students are underrepresented at all levels of education, and their presence decreases from one educational level to the next; for instance, in 1998 there were 2,737 female students out of a total of 13,824 at the university level.


Malians are very proud of their traditions of hospitality toward local and international visitors, and indeed, hospitality has been raised to the level of a national value. Greetings and salutations for special occasions (births, marriages, deaths, etc.) are the subject of much social regulation. They symbolize an individual's education and his or her concern and respect for others, with younger people typically expected to initiate the greeting as a sign of respect for their elders. Foreign travelers who learn at least a few greetings in Bamana or other local languages have their efforts warmly acknowledged by the local people. The majority of the Malian population is Muslim, and foreign travelers, both men and women, are encouraged to be sensitive to the local dress code (e.g. the wearing of shorts is discouraged for both women and men). Gift-giving and sharing of resources are some of the axioms upon which Malian society is based. Consequently, one's integration in the Malian society requires the learning of the complex grammar of gift-giving. A different set of rules govern people's behavior in market places, where initial prices are typically inflated and bartering is an expected ritual.


Religious Beliefs. An estimated 80 percent of the Malian population is Muslim, with the others practicing Christianity (1 percent) or following traditional religious practices (19 percent). Islam has been present in this area since the eighth century, but until the coming of the French its practice was mostly restricted to merchants, clerics, and the rulers and the elites of the great West African empires that blossomed in this area. Under French colonization Islam's influence greatly expanded in the region. For instance, during the first phases of French colonization, colonial administrators relied upon Islamic representatives to extend their control over the local populations. The French also aided in the establishment of new Islamic tribunals in the region. Finally, transformations of the local economy and people's increased mobility contributed to the spreading of Islam.

Today Mali is a secular state, but religion and in particular national Islamic religious organizations play an important role in the life of the country. Moussa Traoré, Mali's second president, increasingly relied on the display of Islamic devotion and intervened in Islamic affairs to further legitimize his power. President Alpha Oumar Konaré has alternated public displays of faith and expressions

An overview of the city of Bamako, in which a twin-spire mosque can be seen in the background.

of Islamic piety with cautions about religious extremism.


Rituals and Holy Places. There are a number of celebrations that are performed on the occasion of major Islamic events, such as the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed and of his baptism. Ramadan (in Bamana, sunkalo , literally "the fasting month") is concluded by a religious feast called in Bamana selijinin , or "small feast." Forty days after this feast is the time of seliba (tabaski), or "big feast," in commemoration of Abraham's sacrifice. This is a time when most families sacrifice a sheep, people wear their best outfits, and everyone busily exchanges gifts of meat and prepared foods as a sign of solidarity. All these Islamic holidays as well as Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas are officially recognized.

Medicine and Health Care

Western health care is limited, with one doctor per 18,376 persons. Medical facilities are insufficient, under equipped, and mostly concentrated in urban areas, especially Bamako. In most cases patients need to provide nearly all supplies necessary for their treatment, including medicines, disposable medical equipment, and food. Given both the under funding of the health sector and some corruption among underpaid and under trained health-care personnel, patients must rely on their social network for financial help and to ensure that they receive proper care. This process obviously delays medical treatment and discriminates against the poor. Statistics show that one out of five children in rural areas will die before the age of five; the child mortality rate decreases significantly in urban areas and in Bamako in particular. Average life expectancy increased slightly in the late twentieth century, reaching forty-nine years (however, the increasing spread of AIDS in this region will have a dramatic impact on this figure). Most people utilize both Western and traditional systems of medicine.

An emerging sector of research is the so-called ethnopharmacopeia, which involves the production on a larger scale of traditional medicines of proven efficacy. These medicines are less expensive and stem from medical knowledge already in the hands of the majority of Malians. This sector would offer the possibility of local industrial expansion if training and funding were provided to cooperatives of traditional healers and local researchers.

Secular Celebrations

A major public holiday in Mali, and the occasion of parades, political speeches, and other celebrations, is 22 September, Independence Day. Other public holidays include the commemoration of the overthrow of Moussa Traoré (25 March), Armed Forces Day (20 January), Labor Day (1 May), and Africa Day (25 May).

In addition to the celebrations of the public calendar there are a number of well-known regional festivities, such as the sogobo of the Ségou region, the reroofing of the sacred hut in Kangaba, and the sigui , a Dogon festival celebrated every sixty years. These celebrations, which attract tourists, often become the occasion of visits by politicians and are thus often reappropriated into a nationalistic rhetoric.

The Arts and Humanities

Literature. Malian oral literature is extremely rich, varied (proverbs, stories, epic poetry), and well researched. The Malian epic tradition (the story of Sunjata) is the most relevant to a discussion of national culture. Since independence, the jeliw (griots), masters of words and the holders of the epic tradition, have been essential in the process of nation building, becoming heavily involved in the process of rewriting Mali's history and of conveying political messages to the general population. Some Malian scholars are extremely critical of these recent developments and see the griots' art as having lost its critical wit as it moved into the service of politics and the powerful. But the issue is open to debate, as other studies show the resilience of some of the jeliw's prerogatives of social critique.

In very schematic terms, two underlying trends can be distinguished in Mali's literary tradition. The first is represented by a traditionalist literature oriented toward the reconstruction of the precolonial past and the retrieval of precolonial cultural traditions; the second is involved in the critical analysis of Mali's contemporary social problems, including the long-term consequences of colonization. Representative of the first current are the writings of Amadou Hampaté Bâ and some of the writings of Massa Makan Diabaté. The second perspective is represented by writers such as Yambo Ouologuem (winner of the Renaudot Prize in 1969), Pascal Baba F. Couloubaly, Seydou Badian Kouyaté, Moussa Konaté, Ibrahima Ly, and Ismaila Samba Traoré, just to mention a few. Few well-known Malian writers are women; noteworthy is the political autobiography of Aoua Kéita, Femme d'Afrique: la Vie d'Aoua Kéita Racontée par elle-même , an influential political representative. There is also an emerging literature in national languages, predominantly in Bamana.

Graphic Arts. Malian pottery, sculpture, and textile traditions—in particular bogolanfini, hand-woven cotton bands decorated with dyes and mud and sewn together to make cloths—are extremely diverse and have been the subject of numerous studies. A visit to the Musée national du Mali, in Bamako, provides visitors with an appreciation of the richness of Malian artistic traditions.

Performance Arts. In terms of the quality and success of Malian music, it suffices to mention stars of international reputation such as Salif Keita, Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangare, and Ami Koita. Extremely active—and with significant implication for development—is the (predominantly comic) theater tradition in Mali known as koteba. Finally, Malians artists have also distinguished themselves as film directors, including Souleymane Cissé, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Adama Drabo, and Kadiatou Konaté.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The institution in charge of coordinating research in Mali is the Centre national de la recherche scientifique et technologique. It is not directly involved in research activities but coordinates other existing research institutes (such as the Institut des sciences humaines and the Institut national de recherche en santé publique), distributes resources, and sees to the publication of research results. Most research projects in Mali are development-oriented and are concentrated in the areas of agriculture and health. In addition, in the absence of sufficient state funding, Malian researchers are heavily dependent on external aid for training, research, and publication. Assuming it is properly funded, the creation of the Université du Mali, constituted in 1993, has the potential to open up important opportunities for the development of local research.


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