Mali - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Mali: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Mali (country), landlocked country in northwestern Africa. Desert covers much of Mali, and the country is thinly populated. The southern part of the country is well watered by the Niger River, and most of Mali’s people live in valleys along the Niger or the Sénégal rivers. The people in this largely rural country live primarily by farming and fishing. Drought is a recurrent problem, often bringing famine with it. The largest city is Bamako, Mali’s capital, which has about 1 million people.

Although Bamako is the capital, the town of Tombouctou, or Timbuktu, is far more famous. Founded in the 11th century, this trading post on the southern edge of the Sahara was celebrated for centuries for its splendor. Camel caravans, carrying gold and ivory, passed through it. So did slaves. Tombouctou linked the rest of West Africa with the Mediterranean Sea to the north. In time, to Westerners it came to stand for all that was remote, mysterious, and unimaginable.

From the 5th century through the 19th century, Mali was the core of a series of West African empires that sought control of Tombouctou’s lucrative caravan routes and the gold to its south. In the late 19th century Mali became a colony of France. Under French rule the territory was known as the French Sudan. In 1960 Mali gained independence, taking the name of one of the medieval empires that had formed in the region. Mali has struggled economically since independence. In 2007 the United Nations Development Program ranked Mali 175th out of 178 countries on the human development index, a measure of poverty, literacy, life expectancy, and other criteria of a nation’s well-being. The World Bank had previously classified Mali as one of the poorest countries in the world.

French remains the official language of Mali, and Islam is by far the major religion. However, the people of Mali belong to a number of ethnic groups and speak a variety of African languages.


Most of Mali consists of low plains broken occasionally by rocky hills. The country has three natural regions. The southern region is a tropical grassland, or savanna, with occasional scattered trees. The central region is a semiarid belt known as the Sahel. The vegetation here consists of thorny plants and shrubs. The northern region lies within the Sahara, a vast desert that extends over northern Africa.

Mali has two major rivers, the Niger and the Sénégal. Both of them flow through the southern part of the country. The Niger turns east in the Sahel and cuts a large arc through the region. Between the town of Mopti, where the Bani River flows into the Niger, and the city of Tombouktou is a large inland delta with river channels and many lakes. The Sénégal and its tributaries flow northward in the extreme west of Mali. High ground is found in the southwest, where sandstone plateaus ring the plains of the Niger and Bani river basins.

In the southeast are the Hombori Mountains, the highest peaks in Mali. Hombori Tondo, the highest point, rises to 1,155 m (3,789 ft) above sea level. The Bambouk and Mandingue mountains are in the southwest.

Mali is bounded by Algeria on the north; by Niger on the east; by Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea on the south; and by Senegal and Mauritania on the west. The area of the country is 1,240,192 sq km (478,841 sq mi), making it the largest country in West Africa.

Climate in Mali

The climate of the parts of Mali not in the Sahara is hot and dry with average temperatures ranging from about 24° to 32°C (about 75° to 90°F) in the south. Temperatures are higher in the north. The hottest weather comes just before the rainy season of June to September. Annual rainfall declines from about 1,400 mm (about 55 in) in the south to some 1,120 mm (some 44 in) at Bamako and less than 127 mm (5 in) in the Sahara of the north. Periodic droughts cause considerable hardship in this largely agricultural country. Because of the short rainy season, water shortage is a major problem.

Natural Resources of Mali

Mali is a predominantly agricultural country. The country’s most valuable resource is the Niger River, which abounds in fish; its waters are used for irrigation. Mali’s mineral resources include gold, salt, phosphate rock, iron ore, diamonds, and uranium. Gold is the most important mineral being mined.

Plants and Animals in Mali

In the southern Saharan zone of Mali are found mimosa and gum trees; in the central region, thorny plants; and in the south, kapok, baobab, and shea trees. Animals include cheetah, oryx, gazelle, warthog, lion, leopard, antelope, and jackal.

Environmental Issues in Mali

Mali’s environment suffers from an ongoing drought that has lasted for decades. Despite the drought, most of the population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. Traditional fuels, particularly wood and charcoal, provide the bulk of all energy used in the country. Drought, deforestation, and increased farming of marginal lands have caused soil degradation and dramatic desertification in Mali, and the Sahara has expanded southward at an alarming rate. The drought and loss of habitat, combined with poaching of threatened species, has helped drive animal species to the brink of extinction.

The country also suffers from water pollution due to poor sanitation. Only a small percentage of all Malians have access to adequate sanitation. As a result, water from rivers and wells is often contaminated with bacteria, and much of the population lacks access to safe drinking water.

The government of Mali has protected some areas as natural parks or preserves. It has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to biodiversity, climate change, desertification, endangered species, and ozone layer protection.


Many different ethnic groups live in Mali. About half of Mali’s people speak related Mande languages. The Bambara are the largest Mande-speaking group and make up about a quarter of Mali’s population. They are descended from the people who founded the Mali Empire in western Africa. Today, they live along the Niger River. According to the 1987 census, Mali had 7,696,348 people. The 2009 estimated population was 12,666,987.

Mali’s other major ethnic groups, besides the Bambara, are the Dogon, Fulani, Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinke), Senufo, Songhai, Soninke, and Tuareg. The Dogon and Senufo are cliff-dwelling people who live in south-central Mali. The Mandinka, like the Bambara, are Mande-speaking and live mainly by farming and fishing. The Songhai are farmers in southeastern Mali, and the Soninke are mainly traders in the northwestern region. The Fulani have traditionally been cattle herders; they speak a language called Fulfulde. Nomadic Tuaregs and other Berbers roam the Sahel and parts of the Sahara. The Tuaregs have kept Berber as their language.

Islam is the religion of about 80 percent of Mali’s population. Most of the remainder follow traditional African religions. Less than 2 percent of the people are Christians. French is the official language of the country, but African languages, such as Bambara and Songhai, are widely spoken.

Principal Cities of Mali

The largest city in Mali is Bamako (population, 2003 estimate, 1,264,000), the capital. Bamako is situated on the Niger River, in southwestern Mali. A large market fills the center of the city. Other cities include Ségou (107,000); Sikasso (90,000); Mopti (86,000); Gao (63,000), and Kayes (62,000). Ségou and Mopti, both located on the Niger, are important fishing centers. The port city of Mopti is at the point where the Bani River joins the Niger.

Djenné is a town of mud brick houses and a magnificent mosque, also built of mud brick. Although the current mosque dates from the early 20th century, it is based on the original 13th-century design. The mosque at Djenné has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Tombouctou was important for centuries as a trading post on the caravan routes that linked West Africa with the Mediterranean. Because of its situation in the African interior, near the southern edge of the Sahara, Tombouctou came to stand for everything distant and unreachable to Western people. Tombouctou is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most popular tourist destination in Mali.

Education in Mali

Education is free and officially compulsory between the ages of 7 and 16. However, only 61 percent of Malian children of primary school age attended schools in 2006. Only 31 percent of men and 16 percent of women in Mali are literate. Bamako has colleges of administration, medicine, law and economics, education, and engineering.

Art and Music in Mali

West Africa is the home of many of the sculptural traditions for which African art has become internationally known. Among these are the carvings of the Dogon and Bambara of Mali. Terra cotta sculptures have been uncovered from a large burial site at Djenné. These sculptures include images of people on horseback and standing and seated figures of both men and women, many with elaborate jewelry and decorative marks on the skin made by scarring. Since most of these sculptures were unearthed in the course of unauthorized digging, little is known about their context or original use.

Djenné is also known today for its immense mud-built Friday Mosque. Built in 1906-1907, it is the third of a series of grand mosques on this site dating back to the 13th century, and one of the most impressive achievements of African architecture.

Although Islam has been a constant presence in Mali for many centuries, many of the local peoples outside the towns resisted conversion, at least until recently. The Dogon fled to the isolated Bandiagara cliffs in south-central Mali sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries rather than convert to Islam. There they have held on to their ancient traditions, including masked religious dances and figural sculpture. A number of figures, together with fragments of textiles and other objects dating from the 11th century, have been found in burial caves above Dogon villages and are attributed by some scholars to a people known as the Tellem.

The Bambara live in the countryside around the Malian capital Bamako. Among their numerous art forms are large wooden sculptures, mostly of women, used in the initiation and annual ceremonies of associations called Jo and Gwan. Elegant carved wooden antelope headdresses, called chi wara, were used in dances by associations that honored the strongest farmers. The Bambara are also noted for their bogolanfini cloth, made by a unique method in which patterns are outlined in a dark mud dye on locally woven narrow-strip cloth.

The music of Mali, which stands at the cultural crossroads of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, merges Islamic influences of the north with the rhythmic complexity of music to the south. For thousands of years, professional musicians called griots played an important role as historians in the kingdoms that developed in Mali. Among the Mande people, professional bards still recount the histories of powerful lineages and offer counsel to contemporary rulers. Perhaps because of a strong female griot tradition, women have attained more success in popular music in Mali than in any other African country.

Contemporary musicians such as Salif Keita of Mali carry on the griot tradition. Keita is descended from 13th-century Malian ruler Sundiata Keita, and his music is suffused with the ancient traditions of the West African griots, as seen in his song “Mandjou,” written in praise of Guinean president Ahmed Sékou Touré. The melodic inflections of his singing also show the Malian inheritance of Islamic music, as well as the increasing influence of jazz and rock music.

Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré comes from the village of Niafounké, where life centers around the Niger River, and he sings predominantly traditional songs about village life. His adaptation to the guitar of West African vocal and instrumental music shows striking similarities to the early development of African American blues. He has toured internationally and collaborated on recordings with numerous Western musicians.

Drums are important in West African music, although many other types of percussion instruments are used as well. The West African hourglass-shaped tension drum is sometimes called a talking drum because it can be used to imitate the pitch contours of speech. The balo (or balaphon) is a xylophone constructed of a frame with 17-19 keys, each suspended over a hollowed-out gourd resonator, tuned to a seven-note scale. Found throughout the Mande cultures of West Africa, it is played only by male griots, usually as an accompaniment to poetry that is sung.


Mali is one of the poorer African countries. The economy’s largest sector is agriculture. Drought has hampered the country’s economic development, as have inadequate transportation facilities, especially rail and road links to the sea. The Niger River remains a major transportation route within Mali. Most of Mali’s energy comes from hydroelectric power but is insufficient to meet the country’s needs.

Agriculture and Fishing in Mali

The cultivation of food crops occupies 86 percent of the economically active population of Mali. Agriculture also contributes more to the gross domestic product than any other sector. Crops grown in Mali depend almost entirely on irrigation or flooding from the Niger River and its tributaries. The main crops are millet, rice, sorghum, corn, and sugarcane. Livestock raising, principally in the north, also makes a significant contribution to the food supply. Livestock are also exported. The country has millions of cattle, goats, and sheep, although herds were decimated in a drought of the mid-1980s. Mali is one of the major producers and exporters of cotton in Africa, and 414,965 tons of cotton were harvested in 2007.

Fish from the Niger are important to the diet of the people living along the river. The fishing industry produces a surplus, and these fish are dried and smoked for local use and for export.

Manufacturing and Mining in Mali

Industrial output in Mali is small and mainly based on local raw materials, including the processing of cotton and other crops. Consumer goods for local use are also produced. The manufacturing center is Bamako.

Mineral resources are being surveyed, and gold, salt, marble, and phosphate rock (used for fertilizer) have been exploited. Deposits of other minerals have been reported but are not extracted in significant amounts. They include bauxite, copper, iron ore, manganese, and uranium. Gold is by far the most import mining product.

Currency, Banking, and Trade in Mali

The monetary unit is the CFA franc, consisting of 100 centimes (479 francs equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Central Bank of the West African States assumes Mali’s central banking functions.

Most foreign trade operations are in the hands of the state. Principal exports include gold, cotton, livestock, processed foodstuffs, and mangoes. The value of exports in 2007 was $1,460 million. Imports, typically petroleum products, motor vehicles, food products, machinery, and chemicals, amounted to $2,021 million. Chief purchasers of Mali’s exports are Belgium, China, Spain, France, Côte d’Ivoire, and Germany; leading sources of imports are Côte d’Ivoire, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, China, Germany, and Spain.

Transportation and Communications in Mali

The Niger is the lifeline of Mali. During the rainy season (June to September) and for a few months afterward, most of the course of the Niger is navigable by larger ships, while canoes and small craft can use the river year-round. The Sénégal River is navigable from Kayes to Saint-Louis, in Senegal. A railroad links Koulikoro, Bamako, and Kayes with the port of Dakar in Senegal. Mali has 18,709 km (11,625 mi) of roads, of which 18 percent are paved. The country’s main road links Bamako with Gao at the edge of the Sahara. An international airport is located near Bamako. Air Mali, the state airline, offers international and domestic service. Telephone, telegraph, and radio services are publicly owned and operated.


A constitution approved by popular referendum in 1992 established Mali as a multiparty republic with a directly elected president. The president is elected to a five-year term and is limited to two terms in office. This official appoints the prime minister, who selects the other members of the council of ministers. The unicameral National Assembly consists of 147 deputies elected to five-year terms.

Until 1991, Mali was governed under a constitution drawn up in 1974 and made effective, with amendments, in 1979. Elected twice without opposition, President Moussa Traoré ruled as a dictator through the nation’s sole legal political party, the Democratic Union of the Malian People, founded in 1976. After a coup in March 1991, this party was dissolved.

For the purposes of regional government, Mali is divided into eight administrative regions plus the capital district of Bamako. The larger towns have elected mayors and council members.


The recorded history of the area now included in Mali goes back to writings, largely Arabic, of about the 4th century AD. Between then and the 19th century, Mali was the core area of the great empires of the western Sudan: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. Such cities as Djenné, Tombouctou, and Gao became centers of trade, learning, and culture.

The Early Empires

The kingdom of Ghana originated early in the Christian era and reached its apogee between 950 and 1050. For most of its history it was ruled by Mande-speaking Soninke people. By the 8th century it was known to the Muslim world as “the land of gold.” This metal was traded from the gold fields further south in Ghana proper and from there across the desert by Berber nomads in exchange for salt and other commodities from North Africa. Ghana declined after the 11th century. Its capital at Koumbi Saleh, north of modern Bamako, was captured in 1076 by Berber forces who owed allegiance to the Almoravid dynasty. After the Almoravid invasion many of the peoples of the kingdom of Ghana embraced Islam, but the empire itself disintegrated.

The Mali Empire originated in the 11th century, but its period of greatness began under Sundiata Keita, who ruled from around 1235 to 1255. By this time the empire stretched westward from Gao to Tekrur (in modern Senegal) and had become one of the world’s largest suppliers of gold.

The most famous king of Mali was Mansa Musa, who ruled in the early 14th century. His pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 with 500 slaves and some 50,000 ounces of gold to distribute along the way startled the Mediterranean world by its splendor. Mansa Musa brought back with him Muslim scholars and architects to enhance the reputation for learning and culture of cities such as Tombouctou and Goa. When he died, he left an empire extending across the southern Sahara and the grasslands fringing the Niger River. The Arab traveler Ibn Battūta, who visited the empire a few years later, found there a rule of law that might well have been envied in medieval Europe.

Mali declined in the later 14th and 15th centuries. Its decline was due less to internal instability than to pressures on its frontiers from the Mossi people in the south, the Wolof and Tekrur in the west, and the desert Tuareg in the north. In the 15th century its role in the area was slowly taken over by the Songhai kingdom of Gao.

The Songhai Empire, whose capital was at Gao, is believed to have begun around the 9th century. For a short time in the 14th century, it formed the easternmost province of Mali. It recovered its independence in 1335 but did not begin to expand until more than a century later, during the reign of King Sunni Ali, from 1464 to 1492. Timbouctou was taken from the Tuareg in 1468, and the whole area of the middle Niger delta was under Songhai control by about 1478. The reign of Sunni Ali was marked by the construction of a canal linking Tombouctou with the Niger. A second canal project had to be abandoned because of Mossi raiders. It would have extended some 400 km (250 mi) into the desert and linked the Niger with the commercial center of Oualâta (Walata, in what is now Mauretania).

After Sunni Ali died one of his leading counselors usurped the throne and was proclaimed Askia Muhammad. He ruled from 1493 to 1528. During his reign Songhai extended its authority eastward to the Hausa states (in what is now northern Nigeria), which were forced to pay tribute, and westward to the borders of Tekrur in Senegal. To the north, various trading centers were wrested from Tuareg control. In the south, however, Songhai arms were less successful, for although the Mossi capital was destroyed the Mossi kingdom was never subjugated.

At the end of the reign of Askia Muhammad, the Songhai were beset by a series of internal struggles for power. As a result of these struggles the empire was weakened and the sultan of Morocco, Ahmad al-Mansur, was encouraged to try to break Songhai power. The Songhai army was finally defeated near Gao in 1591 by Judar Pasha, a Spaniard in the service of the sultan, and the Songhai empire was absorbed into the Moroccan territory of Tombouctou.

Moroccan and French Rule

The Moroccans, however, never really controlled the sprawling empire. Most of the Moroccan soldiers married local women, and their sons came to constitute a military caste known as the Arma, which selected the pashas (local leaders). The countryside was fleeced by the pashas and army. But by 1780 these authorities were so weak that the area broke up into petty states. Only the Bambara states of Ségou and Kaarta were stable.

In the 19th century unifying tribal movements emerged ender the banner of Islam and the leadership of Umar Tal, a Muslim preacher, and military leader Samory Touré. Umar declared a holy war, armed his followers with guns, and formed a theocratic empire that extended from Tombouctou to the headwaters of the Niger and Sénégal. His son and successor, Ahmadu, was defeated by the French in 1893. South of Umar’s empire, Samory united Mandinke peoples into an Islamic state that provided stiff resistance to French troops as they advanced into the area.

By the 1890s, after the defeat of Ahmadu and Samory, French administration was installed in the area. In 1904 what is now Mali was made part of the French colony of Haut-Sénégal-Niger. In 1920 the name Sudan was restored, and as the French Sudan it was made a constituent territory of French West Africa.

African political activity was banned by the French in Mali until after World War II (1939-1945). Various parties that were then formed eventually merged to form the Sudanese Union, a militantly anticolonial party. It gained strength rapidly during the 1950s. In 1956 France passed a reform that gave autonomy to leaders from within its colonial territories. By the time the reforms took place in 1957, the union was the main party.

In 1958 a referendum was held. Instead of voting to separate itself completely from France, the Sudanese Union accepted the alternative of autonomy within the new French Community as the Sudanese Republic. It then sought to unite several French West African states in a new political federation. But only Senegal and Sudan agreed and in 1959 formed the Federation of Mali.


Mali proclaimed its independence in June 1960, with Modibo Keita as president. The federation broke up in September, the former French Sudan retaining the name Mali and Keita remaining president of the new Republic of Mali. Underlying the breakup was a conflict over economic gradualism and radicalism, between a broadly pro-French and a strongly pan-African orientation. Mali undertook the later course. After independence Mali pursued a policy of economic development along socialist lines.

Keita’s Presidency

President Modibo Keita committed the ruling political party, the Sudanese Union, to a policy of consolidating state power for the purpose of modernizing the country. Ideologically, the party was inspired by a combination of Marxist ideas, pride in the country’s political heritage, and a sense of mission derived from Islam. Organizationally, it was both a mass party and an alliance of major regional leaders. It absorbed all organized opposition parties and controlled most voluntary associations, such as labor unions, women’s organizations, youth groups, and veterans’ clubs, leaving no legitimate outside channels for the expression of political dissent. The party and the government had parallel structures.

The new Mali franc, with little foreign-exchange backing, could not be used for international payments. Adding to the country’s financial strain were inefficient state-owned firms, which Keita expanded. By mid-1967 he had to agree to broad French supervision of the economy so Mali could reenter the French franc zone. Opposition to his policies within the Sudanese Union caused Keita to suppress dissent, until he was overthrown in 1968 by a military committee of national liberation.

Military Rule

In 1969 the leader of the military junta, Lieutenant Moussa Traoré, emerged as president and premier. His government modified the economic policies of Keita, but not until 1976 did Traoré allow a political party to form, the Democratic Union of the Malian People. He then blocked the start of its activity for three years.

Traoré’s rule was marked by four coup attempts, numerous cabinet shuffles, and growing unrest among students and unemployed graduates. Searing droughts in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, coupled with low cotton prices and extremely bad economic management, left the Malian people among the world’s poorest. Many leading nations provided aid, but ties were slowly reduced with China and the Soviet Union. As the only candidate for the presidency, Traoré was returned to office in 1979 and 1985.

A border war with Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) was halted by a cease-fire in late 1985. Under pressure from its creditors, Mali restructured its economy in the late 1980s to privatize unprofitable government enterprises. Traoré was overthrown in 1991 by a group of army officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, who pledged to return the country to democratic rule. Swiss authorities later revealed that Traoré had transferred $1 billion to personal bank accounts over the years.

Recent Developments

A new constitution providing for a multiparty republic was approved in 1992. Alpha Oumar Konaré, leader of the Alliance for Democracy in Mali, became the country’s first democratically elected president later that year. Rioting students opposed to Konaré’s austerity measures damaged numerous government buildings in Bamako in April 1993. An attempted coup by supporters of Traoré collapsed in December of that year.

From 1990 on, strife in the north has become a focus of concern for Mali’s government. After the drought of the 1980s ended, Tuareg who had migrated to Algeria and Libya began to return to West Africa. Fighting broke out between the settled African population and the nomadic Tuareg. At the same time the region became involved in a general rebellion of Tuareg demanding greater autonomy from the governments of Mali, Niger, and Algeria, whose borders cross traditional Tuareg territory.

In 1992 a peace agreement, the Bamako Accord, was reached with the main Tuareg groups. Conflict between the army and smaller Tuareg groups continued into 1995. In 1996 more than 2,000 Tuareg former rebels were integrated into the regular army. Thousands of Malian Tuareg refugees were repatriated from Niger.

In addition to a troubled economy and the Tuareg rebellion, Konaré also had to deal with the trials of former president Moussa Traoré. In 1993 Traoré was sentenced to death for his role in the deaths of protesters a few years earlier. This sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Konaré, but in 1998, Traoré, his wife Mariam Cissoko, and his brother-in-law Abraham Cissoko, went on trial for embezzlement. All three were sentenced to death in 1999, but the death sentences were commuted in 1999 to life imprisonment and hard labor. Before leaving office in 2002, Konaré announced that he had pardoned them.

In the meantime, democracy was having a hard time. The constitutional court declared that legislative elections held in 1997 were invalid because of fraud and lack of organization. Opposition groups urged that presidential elections scheduled for May be postponed. The elections were held nonetheless, although all but one of the opposition groups boycotted them. Konaré was elected to a second five-year term. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited Mali in 1998 to mediate between the government and the opposition. Despite Carter’s recommendation, the opposition continued to call for Konaré’s resignation. For the 2002 presidential election, 24 candidates registered. Touré, the leader of the 1991 coup, was elected president, after two rounds of voting.

Touré was reelected in 2007. The constitutional court declared that he won the first round of voting with more than 70 percent of the vote, more than enough to avoid a runoff.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld