Mandé peoples

Mandé (Manding)
Total population
about 40 million (2016)
Regions with significant populations
West Africa
Mande languages
Sunni Islam; Traditional religions
Related ethnic groups
Bambara, Bissa, Busa, Dan, Dyula, Kpelle, Ligbi, Landogo, Mandinka, Marka, Mende, Soninke, Susu, Vai, Yalunka, many others
Often misused to refer to the Mandinka people, who constitute a branch of the Mandé: Mandinka people

Mandé or Manden is a family of ethnic groups in West Africa who speak any of the many related Mande languages of the region. Various Mandé groups are found in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. The Mandé languages belong to a divergent branch of the Niger–Congo family, and are divided into two primary groups: East Mandé and West Mandé.

The Mandinka (also known as Malinke), a branch of the Mandé, are credited with the founding of the largest ancient West African empires. Other numerous Mandé groups include the Soninke, Bambara, and Dyula. Smaller groups include the Ligbi, Vai, and Bissa.

Mande people inhabit various environments, from coastal rainforests to the sparse Sahel and Sahara. They have a wide range of cultures and beliefs, and are organized by language groups.



Descended from ancient central Saharan people, the Mandé are an identifiable language family, with associated peoples spread throughout West Africa. They are known as having been early producers of woven textiles (by a process known as strip-weaving). The Mandé founded the Ghana and Mali empires and led the expansion of the Songhai Empire across West Africa.

Archaeological evidence supports that they were early producers of stone settlement civilizations. These were initially built on the rocky promontories of Tichit-Walata and the Tagant cliffs of Southern Mauritania between 2500 BC and 2000 BC by the sub-group known as the Soninke. Hundreds of stone masonry settlements with clear street layouts have been found in this area. Some settlements had massive defensive walls, while others were less fortified.

In a now arid environment where arable land and pasturage were once at a premium, the population grew. Relatively large-scale political organizations emerged, leading to the development of military hierarchical aristocracies. The agro-pastoral society had a mixed farming economy—millet production combined with the rearing of livestock. They had learned how to work with copper. They traded in jewelry and semi-precious stones from distant parts of the Sahara and Sahel. They are believed to be the first to domesticate African rice. An archaeologist described their ancient, abandoned sites as representing "a great wealth of rather spectacular prehistoric ruins".[1]

Ghana Empire

Main article: Ghana Empire

Since around (even prior to) 1500 BCE, a number of clans of proto-Soninke descent, the oldest branch of the Mandé (Manding) peoples, came together under the leadership of Dinga Cisse. The nation comprised a confederation of three independent, freely allied, states (Mali, Mema, and Wagadou) and 12 garrisoned provinces. Located midway between the desert, the main source of salt, and the gold fields of the upper Senegal River to the south, the confederation had a good location to take advantage of trade with the surrounding cities. They traded with the north by a coastal route leading to Morocco via Sidjilmasa.

Ghanaian society included large pastoral and agricultural communities. Its commercial class, was the most prosperous. The Mandé merchants of Ghâna came to dominate the luxury trade and slave trade; they had Saharan trade routes connecting their great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara to the northern coast of Africa. They enslaved neighboring Africans, either to sell them or to use them for domestic purposes; those who were not sold were usually assimilated into the Mandé community. Leather goods, ivory, salt, gold, and copper were also sold in exchange for various finished goods. By the 10th century, Ghâna was an immensely rich and prosperous empire, controlling an area the size of Texas, stretching across Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania. When visiting the capital city of Kumbi Saleh in 950 AD, Arab traveler Ibn Hawqal described the Ghanaian ruler as the "richest king in the world because of his gold."

In the 11th century, the kingdom began to weaken and decline for numerous reasons. The king lost his trading monopoly, a devastating drought damaged the cattle and cultivation industries, the clans were fractured, the vassal states were rebelling, and, according to Arab tradition, it is said that Almoravid Muslims came from the North and invaded Ghâna.

The western Sanhaja had been converted to Islam sometime in the 9th century. They were subsequently united in the 10th century. With the zeal of converts, they launched several campaigns against the "Sudanese", idolatrous Black peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa.[2] Under their king Tinbarutan ibn Usfayshar, the Sanhaja Lamtuna erected or captured the citadel of Awdaghust, a critical stop on the trans-Saharan trade route. After the collapse of the Sanhaja union, Awdagust was taken by the Ghana empire. The trans-Saharan routes were taken over by the Zenata Maghrawa of Sijilmassa.

Before the Almoravids, the Islamic influence was gradual and did not involve any form of military takeover. In any event, following their subsequent withdrawal, new gold fields were mined further south and new trade routes were opening further east. Just as it appeared that Ghâna would reemerge, it became the target of attacks by the Susu (another Mandé people) and their leader Sumanguru. From this conflict in 1235, the Malinké people emerged under a new dynamic ruler, Sundiata Kéita. By the mid-13th century, the once great empire of Ghâna had utterly disintegrated. It soon became eclipsed by the Mali Empire of Sundiata.

Mali Empire

Main article: Mali Empire

The most renowned Emperor of Mali was Sundiata's grandson, Mansa Musa (1307–1332), also known as “Kan Kan Mussa" or "The Lion of Mali". His pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 put Mali on the map — literally. He took 60,000 porters with him, each carrying 3 kg of pure gold (180 tons in total, according to the UNESCO General History of Africa).[3] He had so much gold that when he stopped in Egypt, the Egyptian currency lost its value. According to Cairo-born historian al-Maqurizi, "the members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and 'Ethiopia'n slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams." Consequently, the name of Mali and Timbuktu were shown on the 14th-century world map. The crown jewel of West Africa, the Empire of Mali was the center of Islamic, legal, and scientific scholarship. The oldest formal universities in West Africa — Sankore, Jingaray Ber, and Sidi Yahya — were founded there. In a few generations, Mali was eclipsed by the Songhai empire of Askia Muhammad (Askia the Great).The last historians have checked the mutual Kosia are the descendants of these rich rulers many still stuck in the land of Sierra Leone.

Songhai Empire

Main article: Songhai Empire

The successor of Sunni Ali Ber, Askia Muhammad was judged by historians as more astute and farsighted than his predecessor. He orchestrated a program of expansion and consolidation that expanded the empire from Taghaza in the North to the borders of Yatenga in the South; and from Air in the Northeast to Futa Tooro in Senegambia. Instead of organizing the empire along Islamic lines, he instituted a system of bureaucratic government unparalleled in the Western Sudan. In addition, Askia established standardized trade measures and regulations, and initiated the policing of trade routes. He encouraged learning and literacy, ensuring that Mali's universities produced the most distinguished scholars, many of whom published significant books. The eminent scholar Ahmed Baba, for example, wrote books on Islamic law which are still in use today.

Mahmoud Kati published Tarikh al-fattash and Abdul-Rahman as-Sadi published Tarikh al-Sudan (Chronicle of the Sudan), two chronicles which are indispensable to present-day scholars reconstructing African history in the Middle Ages. Mali had an extraordinary flourishing of its culture.


Following the fall of the great kingdoms of the old Mandé homelands, thousands migrated toward the Atlantic coast. Among these were the Mane, former soldiers of the Mali empire, who invaded the western coast of Africa from the east during the first half of the 16th century. Their origin was apparent in their dress and weapons (which were observed at the time by Europeans), their language, as well as in Mane tradition, recorded about 1625. The Mane advanced parallel to the coastline of modern Liberia, fighting in turn with each tribal group that they came across. They were almost invariably successful. They did not slow until encountering the Susu, another Mande people, in the north-west of what is now Sierra Leone. The Susu had similar weapons, military organization and tactics.

French colonisation of West Africa greatly affected Mandé life. Constant wars with the French cost the lives of thousands of their soldiers; it led to their increased reliance on Atlantic slave trade for revenues, and the creation of boundaries by European powers divided the population. The Mandé people are still active in West African politics; ethnic Mande have been elected as presidents in several states.

The Mande peoples' conflict with other African tribes has been exacerbated since the start of the 20th century, as desertification has forced them steadily south in search of work and other resources. Frequently, this has resulted in outbreaks of war with indigenous populations along the coast.


Predominantly Muslim, the Mandé have a patrilineal kinship system and patriarchal society. They usually observe ritual washing and daily prayers of Islam; few wear Arab dress, and virtually no women wear a veil. The most famous Mandé practices are the sanankuya or "joking relationship" among clans.

Secret societies

Their secret fraternal orders and sororities, known as Poro and Sande or Bundu, respectively, are based on ancient traditions believed to have emerged about 1000 CE. These govern the internal order of their society, with important rites of passage and entry into the gender societies as boys and girls come of age.

Caste system

Traditionally, Mandé society is hierarchical or "caste"-based, with nobility and vassals. Like most other Africans, they also held slaves (Jonw/Jong(o)), often prisoners or captives taken in warfare, and usually from competitors of their territory. The descendants of former kings and generals had a higher status than both their nomadic and more settled compatriots.

With time, that difference has eroded, corresponding to the economic fortunes of the groups. Although the Mandé arrived in many of their present locations as raiders or traders, they gradually adapted to their regions. In the 21st century, most work either as settled agriculturalists or nomadic fishermen. Some are skilled as blacksmiths, cattle herders, and griots or bards.


Further information: Fadenya

Fadenya or “father-childness” is a word used by Mande peoples, originally to describe the tensions between half-brothers with the same father and different mothers.[4] The concept of fadenya has been stretched and is often used to describe the political and social dynamism of the Mande world. Fadenya is often discussed in contrast to badenya, or mother-childness.[5]

Oral tradition

The Mande culture is carried by oral histories, particularly the Epic of Sundiata. Teaching centers known as kumayoro teach the oral histories and techniques under keepers of tradition known as nyamankala. These nyamankala form an important part of Mande culture due to their role in preserving oral tradition.[6] Kela school, the most notable, is vital in perpetuating oral tradition. Because of their strong work, the versions of the Sundiata epic tend to be fairly similar. The Kela version is considered the official one and the epic is performed every seven years. The Kela version includes a written document called a tariku. This intersection of written and oral history is unique to Mande culture.[6]

The epic is typically performed in two ways: one is intended for teaching or rehearsing, and the other is more official, intended to convey the important information to a large audience. Part of the teaching performance involves the presenting of gifts from clans involved in the epic. The official version can use a musical instrument; it does not allow audience interruptions. Different Mande clans play different instruments in their performances of the epic.

The Kandasi also started a school for oral history.[6]


A 13th-century mosque in northern Ghana attributed to the Wangara.

Most of the Mandé groups in the westernmost part of West Africa have been predominantly Muslim as early as the 13th century, with others like the Bambara being Islamized as late as the 19th century. Traditional beliefs such as initiation groups like Chiwara, Dwo, and beliefs in the power of Juju remain among Muslim Manden. Many smaller Manden groups such as the Bobo retain pre-Islamic belief systems in their entirety.

According to oral histories, the Mande, in particular the Soninke, contributed to the Islamization of non-Mande Gur groups at the edge of the Sahel in West Africa through trade and settlement.


Much Mandé art is in the form of jewelry and carvings. The masks associated with the fraternal and sorority associations of the Marka and the Mendé are probably the best-known, and finely crafted in the region. The Mandé also produce beautifully weaved fabrics which are popular throughout western Africa, and gold and silver necklaces, bracelets, armlets, and earrings.

The bells on the necklaces are of the type believed capable of being heard by spirits, ringing in both worlds, that of the ancestors and the living. Mandé hunters often wear a single bell that can be easily silenced when stealth is necessary. Women, on the other hand, often wear multiple bells, referring to concepts of community, since the bells ring harmoniously together.


The best known traditional Mandé music is played on the kora, a stringed instrument with 21 or more strings, and it is performed by families of musicians known as Jeliw (sing. Jeli) or in French as griots. The kora is a unique harp-lute with a notched wooden bridge. It is arguably the most complex chordophone of Africa.

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

See also

References and sources

  1. Mauny, R. (1971), “The Western Sudan” in Shinnie: p 70.
  2. Lewicki (1988:p.160-61; 1992: p.308-09)
  3. UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume IV, pp. 197–200
  4. Jansen, Jan (1995). "Kinship as Political Discourse: The Representation of Harmony and Change in Mande". Younger Brother in Mande: Kinship and Politics in West Africa (1-7)
  5. Bird, Charles S.; Martha B. Kendell (1980). "The Mande Hero: Text and Context". In Ivan Karp, Charles S. Bird. Explorations in African Systems of Thought. Indiana University Press. pp. 13–26. Reprinted as Ivan Karp, Charles S. Bird, eds. (1987). Explorations in African Systems of Thought. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 978-0-87474-591-7.
  6. 1 2 3 Camara, Seydou. The Epic of Sunjata: Structure, Preservation, and Transmission, pp. 59-67
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