When I was growing up, there were two main cities that were often used in cartoons to depict “someplace far”: Abu Dhabi and Timbuktu. The first one is in the United Arab Emirates, and the second one is in Mali. It makes me wonder how many Americans knew that. (Besides me, of course.) I won’t get to the UAE for a while, but we get to find out more about what Timbuktu and the land it’s in is all about.
The name Mali actually means “hippopotamus” in the Malinké and Bamana languages. It also used to be known as French Sudan, but that’s not quite as cool. At least Mali sounds like my niece’s name Molly.
Mali is a landlocked country located in northeastern Africa, surrounded by Algeria to the north; Niger to the east; Burkina Faso, Côte Ivoire, and Guinea to the south; and Senegal and Mauritania to the west. A large portion of the country lies within the Sahara Desert region, making it a very hot country and without a lot of rainfall. It does have a long, dry season, followed by a short, intense rainy season.
Mali was once part of several great empires. One of the earliest ones in the Ghana Empire (ruled by the Soninke) followed by the Mali Empire. The Mali Empire was centered in the city of Timbuktu, one of the great cities of culture, trade, and Islam. They later were taken over by the Songhai Empire, which subsequently fell to invading Moroccans. After coming under French rule during the late 19th century, it was known as French Sudan. When Senegal united with them in 1959, it became known as the Mali Federation, and they gained their independence from France a year later. It didn’t take long before Senegal broke off to be on its own, and Mali became known as the Republic of Mali. Their first president, Modibo Keïta, quickly established a one-party government. But that didn’t last too long before people got upset about it. Moussa Traoré led a bloodless coup and took over. Although there were some marginal attempts at fixing the economy and establishing democracy, it was countered by banning dissenters and a number of other repressive moves. The country suffered another coup in 1991, and a series of pro-democracy protests across the country led to the March Revolution. Tensions escalated into rioting, resulting in over 300 deaths in four days. Mali had its first democratic elections the following year, and since then has been considered one of the more politically and socially stable countries in Africa today. However, the country made the news again for the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012, one of the early clashes leading to the Northern Mali Conflict. Essentially, the Tuareg rebels fought against the Malian government for independence of the northern region known as Azawad. Historically, this was the home of the nomadic Tuareg tribes. This conflict and instability led to an opening where the Islamic group Ansar Dine entered, whose main goal is to spread sharia law across Mali.
The capital is Bamako, Mali’s largest city and one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Located on the Niger River, its name means “crocodile tail” in Bambara. Bamako is like many other African cities in that it has benefitted greatly from Chinese investment: many of the infrastructure projects, hospitals, and other needed facilities have been erected through this Chinese-African relationship. Although it’s not uncommon to still find cattle crossing the streets of Bamako, you’ll also find major international company headquarters, museums, music and arts festivals (including a famous photography fest), universities, and a number of parks and landmarks.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world; workers earn an average of only USD$1500 per year. In agreements with the World Bank and the IMF during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mali underwent changes in the privatization of certain businesses, which did yield some economic growth. The country is part of what’s known as the French Zone, meaning its banks are tied with the French Central Bank. Part of the reason Mali’s economy struggles is that its main economic driver is agriculture (rice, millet, cotton, tobacco), and in an area that is constantly plagued with environmental changes (deforestation, desertification), its crops struggle, too. They have a smaller yet significant energy industry and mining industry (especially in gold, salt, limestone, kaolin, and phosphate).
Roughly 90% of Malians are Muslim, with the remaining 10% split between Christianity and other indigenous belief systems. Because of the importance of religion being placed in their society, very few are atheist or agnostic (at least for those who admit it). In the past, the Islam practiced in Mali has historically been pretty moderate and tolerant, but the Islamic extremist-led 2012 Northern Mali Conflict has now created a hostile environment for religious minorities.
While the official language is French, most Malians can speak Bambara and use it as a lingua franca since there are over 40 languages spoken in Mali. Bambara is just one of 12 other languages that are considered national languages.
In reading about Mali, I came across Mansa Musa. I read about him years ago, but I had forgotten his name. (He’s actually known by many names, but Mansa Musa is the most common name used by Westerners.) He was a rich leader and devout Muslim, and as he made the traditional pilgrimage, he left so much gold in the cities he stayed in along the way, that it ruined their local economy. When he heard about this, he borrowed gold in each city as he returned to Mali, single-handedly affecting the regional economy in the Mediterranean and northern Africa. He also built a number of mosques, schools, and universities in Mali, bringing in architects, mathematicians, and other scholars from all over to help with the projects and to teach others. There is so much history, so much culture that is tied to this country. It’s hard to believe that at one time it was the center of African culture and run by great empires. And now, less than 10% of the people make more than $2 per day. I can’t wait to find out what this ancient cultural center is all about today.
Up next: art and literature