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Culture in Mali


Malian culture derives from the shared experience as a colonial and post-colonial polity, and the interaction of the numerous cultures which make up the Malian people. What is today the nation of Mali was united first in the medieval period as the Mali Empire. While the current state does not include areas in the southwest, and is expanded far to the east and northeast, the dominant roles of the Mandé peoples is shared by the modern Mali and the empire from which it took its name. In the east, Songhai, Bozo and Dogon people predominate, while the Fula people, formerly nomadic, have settled in patches across the nation. Tuareg and Maure peoples continue a largely nomadic desert culture across the north of the nation. The interaction of these communities (along with dozens of other, smaller ethnicities) have created a Malian culture marked by heterogeneity as well as syntheses where these traditions intermix.


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 pre-colonial past and the retrieval of pre-colonial cultural traditions; the second is involved in the critical analysis of Mali's contemporary social problems, including the long-term consequences of colonisation. 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 1968 for Le devoir de violence), 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.

Visual 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.

Performing Arts

Malian musical traditions are often derived from Mande griots, a family-based caste of performing poets. While today griots are often seen praise singers at local weddings or civic events, historically they served as court historians, advisors and diplomats.

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 is the (predominantly comic) theatre 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.

Events & Festivals

The varied everyday culture of Malians reflects the country's ethnic and geographic diversity. Most Malians wear flowing, colourful robes called boubous that are typical of West Africa. Malians frequently participate in traditional festivals, dances and ceremonies. Friday and Sunday are half days at most businesses, while Saturday in usually a day of rest. Friday afternoon is the time of Muslim weekly prayers, while the half day on the Christian sabbath is a tradition from the time of French colonial rule. Muslim, Christian and national celebrations are marked as public holidays in Mali.





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