Malinke people

Malinke - Mandinka

Malinke / Mandinka / Maninka / Mandingo / Mandika / Manding

Malinke, also called Maninka, Mandinka, Mandingo, or Manding, a West African people occupying parts of:

Malinke People

They speak a Mandekan language of the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo family.

The Malinke are divided into numerous independent groups dominated by a hereditary nobility, a feature that distinguishes them from most of their more egalitarian neighbours. One group, the Kangaba, has one of the world’s most ancient dynasties; its rule has been virtually uninterrupted for 13 centuries. Beginning in the 7th century ad as the centre of a small state, Kangaba became the capital of the great Malinke empire known as Mali (q.v.). This was the most powerful and most renowned of all the empires of the western Sudan, now memorialized in the name of the Republic of Mali.

The contemporary Malinke are an agricultural people, cultivating such staples as millet and sorghum and tending small herds of cattle, kept primarily for trade, bride-price payments, and prestige. Houses are predominantly cylindrical, with thatched straw roofs, and are often grouped in substantial numbers and surrounded by a palisade. Descent, inheritance, and succession are patrilineal. Since about the 12th century they have mostly been Muslim.



Today there are more than 7.75 million Malinke distributed over several African nations within a wide arc that extends 1,300 km (800 mi). It starts at the mouth of the Gambia River in the northwest and circles around in a bow form, ending in Ivory Coast in the southeast. The territory includes areas in the nations of The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Côte d'Ivoire. There are numerous other African ethnic groups sharing these areas. Of the 7.75 million Malinke scattered throughout West Africa, there are 2.8 million in Guinea; 1.1 million in Mali; 1 million in the Ivory Coast; 1 million in Senegal; 600,000 in The Gambia; 400,000 in Sierra Leone; 400,000 in Burkina Faso; 200,000 in Guinea-Bissau; 100,000 in Liberia; and 100,000 in Ghana. They do not form a majority group in any of the above countries. In The Gambia they represent approximately 39% of the country's total population, in Guinea 32%, and in Guinea-Bissau 14%.

Malinke People

Linguistic Affiliation

The Mandinka language is in the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo language family and is spoken in Guinea, Mali, Burkina-Faso, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, the Senegambia region, and parts of Nigeria. It has several variations, but is most closely related to the Malinke language of West Africa. Its linguistic identity is connected with its ethnic identity. Mandinka is a tonal language in which changes in pitch are used to distinguish between words, phrases, and complete utterances that are otherwise identically constructed.


History and Cultural Relations

The Mandinka of Gambia and the surrounding areas, the Bambara of Mali, the Dyula-speaking people of Cote d'Ivoire and Upper Volta, the Kuranko, the Kono, and the Vail of Sierra Leone and Liberia are part of the Manding people, who believe that they originated from the area of Mande near the western border of Mali on the Upper Niger River. The ancestors of these people are associated with the great empire of Mali. There are indications that the main movements of many of these peoples occurred in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The first written account of the region came from the records of Arab traders in the ninth and tenth centuries c.e. Those traders established the trans-Sahara trade route for slaves, gold, and ivory. Between the tenth and fifteenth centuries a migration of Hamitic-Sudanese people from the Nile River Valley arrived and then settled and intermingled with the Mandinka. In 1235, Sundiata founded the Empire of Mali. Between 1312 and 1337, Mali reached its greatest prominence during the reign of Mansa Musa. By the end of the 1700s, the western savanna was colonized by the French, British, and Portuguese. It was the French who colonized the largest number of the Mandinka in Guinea, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, and Mali. In the mid-nineteenth century, a Dyula man called Samori Toure attempted to revive the medieval Empire of Mali. By 1881, Toure had established a huge empire in West Africa that covered many of the present-day nations. It took the French seven years to defeat Toure's empire; but by 1898 the Second Mandinka Empire had fallen. By 1900, European colonial powers controlled the whole region. It was not until the early 1960s that that region achieved independence.

Malinke People


Almost all the Mandinka maintains a rural existence, living in family-related compounds within villages. Each village is surround by a wall; the homes are either round or rectangular, and are made of sun-dried bricks or mud with a thatched or tin roof. These rural villages have neither electricity nor telephone services. Many villagers never travel more than five miles (eight kilometers) from their homes.



Mandinka are rural subsistence farmers who rely on peanuts, rice, millet, maize, and small-scale husbandry for their livelihood. During the wet season, men plant peanuts as their main cash crop. Men also grow millet and women grow rice (traditionally, African rice), tending the plants by hand. This is extremely labour-intensive and physically demanding work. Only about 50% of the rice consumption needs are met by local planting; the rest is imported from Asia and the United States.

The oldest male is the head of the family and marriages are commonly arranged. Small mud houses with conical thatch or tin roofs make up their villages, which are organised on the basis of the clan groups. While farming is the predominant profession among the Mandinka, men also work as tailors, butchers, taxi drivers, woodworkers, metalworkers, soldiers, nurses, and extension workers for aid agencies. However, most women, probably 95%, tend to the home, children, and animals as well as work alongside the men in the fields.

Division of Labor

Certain tasks are assigned specifically to men, women, or children. Men clear the undergrowth and prepare the land for the farming season and plant and manage particular crops. In addition, men are responsible for hunting, herding, leatherwork, blacksmithing for warfare, and the building of houses. Young boys are taught to take care of men's crops and herd cattle. They scare off birds and small rodents from the farms. Eventually they are initiated into the responsibilities of manhood. Most women's activities take place in the household. Children are cared for primarily by their mother, who often is assisted by other female family members. Women are also traders and artisans. Only men weave, but today many women sew with sewing machines yet continue to spin thread as they did in the past.


Land Tenure

The first patrilineal family thought to have settled in the area usually is granted the ritual chieftancy. The ritual chief has some authority in regard to land tenure. The authority of this office is based on the belief that an ancestor of the ritual chief was the first immigrant to the area and had to come to terms with the local spirits of the land. He maintains a special relationship with those spirits and is the most qualified to mediate with them for the rest of the immigrants and the inhabitants of the area.

Malinke People

Kin Groups and Descent

Mandinka society traditionally was organized in large patrilineal village units that were grouped together to form small state-like territorial units. Those units were remarkable for their continuity. The oldest male serves as the head of the lineage. A "minor lineage" consists of a man and his immediate family. A "major lineage" consists of a household of relatives and their families, a group that ultimately creates a "clan." Clans can be recognized by their symbolic emblems, which can include animals and plants. If someone travels to another village, he or she is shown hospitality by the villagers who share his or her last name. Even larger kinship groups that unite the Mandinka with other Manding people are called "dyamu." Although this term refers to people who have the same name, those people are all believed to be descended from the same ancestor. People of the same dyamu claim hospitality and friendship all over the Manding area. One of the most famous dyamu names is Toure', which has been the name of leaders in many states, including ancient Ghana, ancient Mali, Songhai, and modern Guinea.



Today, over 99% of Mandinka are Muslim. Mandinkas recite chapters of the Qur'an in Arabic. Some Mandinka syncretise Islam and traditional African religions. Among these syncretists spirits can be controlled mainly through the power of a marabout, who knows the protective formulas. In most cases, no important decision is made without first consulting a marabout. Marabouts, who have Islamic training, write Qur'anic verses on slips of paper and sew them into leather pouches (talisman); these are worn as protective amulets.

The conversion to Islam took place over many centuries. According to Robert Wyndham Nicholls, Mandinka in Senegambia started converting to Islam as early as the 17th century, and most of Mandinka leatherworkers there converted to Islam before the 19th century. The Mandinka musicians, however were last, converting to Islam mostly in the first half of the 20th century. Like elsewhere, these Muslims have continued their pre-Islamic religious practices such as their annual rain ceremony and "sacrifice of the black bull" to their past deities.

Malinke People


The Mandinka officially observe the holidays of both major religions (Islam and Christianity) and practice tolerance. However, there is a conventional emphasis on indigenous forms of life, dress, and celebrations, which remain an integral part of everyday life. The Mandinka celebrate the end of Ramadan, Tabaski (the slaying of the ram), and the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. They also celebrate weddings and circumcisions and the arrival of special guests. Although all Mandinka are Muslims, they also celebrate the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas.


Death and Afterlife

Mandinka Muslims see themselves as separate and distinct beings from their "pagan" neighbors, feeling that they are superior in intellectual and moral respects. They regard themselves as peoples to whom a revelation has been "sent down" from heaven to comfort them. The transition into the afterlife is orderly. At death, a Mandinka becomes a "transitional" corpse, one that is not entirely dead. The corpse is ritually washed, dressed in white burial clothes, and sewn into a white shroud. As part of the Muslim scripture, it is written, "Verily those who do not believe shall be cast into the fire of hell to remain there forever." The Mandinka believe that those who do good work are the best people and that their reward will be to remain with God in the "garden of perpetual life."

The final rite of passage, death, is not seen as a natural event for the Malinke. Their word “to die” also means “to kill,” and death is seen to be caused by some evil force. At the same time, the person is believed to rise again to one of three regions in an afterlife: heaven, hell, or purgatory (somewhere in between). The corpse is ritually bathed and the water collected so it cannot cause sickness. The men conduct the funeral while the women gather nearby. A senior marabout gives the eulogy and the imam says the final prayers. Men carry the body on a mat to the burial place with the women wailing. It is buried on its right side, head facing east, feet to the north. A fence is built around the grave to protect it from animals; sticks are put over the hole to provide a “breathing space.” The corpse is said to be interviewed by the angel Malika during a 45-day judgment period. In that time three mortuary ceremonies are held at which oil cakes and kola nuts are distributed to those attending.

Malinke People

Society and culture

Most Mandinkas live in family-related compounds in traditional rural villages. Mandinka villages are fairly autonomous and self-ruled, being led by a council of upper class elders and a chief who functions as a first among equals.


Social stratification

The Mandinka people have traditionally been a socially stratified society, like many West African ethnic groups with castes. The Mandinka society, states Arnold Hughes – a professor of West African Studies and African Politics, has been "divided into three endogamous castes – the freeborn (foro), slaves (jongo), and artisans and praise singers (nyamolo). The freeborn castes are primarily farmers, while the slave strata included labor providers to the farmers, as well as leather workers, pottery makers, metal smiths, griots, and others.

The Mandinka castes are hereditary, and marriages outside the caste was forbidden. Their caste system is similar to those of other ethnic groups of the African Sahel region, and found across the Mandinka communities such as those in Gambia, Mali, Guinea and other countries.

Malinke people

Rites of passage

The Mandinka practice a rite of passage, kuyangwoo, which marks the beginning of adulthood for their children. At an age between four and fourteen, the youngsters have their genitalia ritually cut (see articles on male and female genital cutting), in separate groups according to their sex. In years past, the children spent up to a year in the bush, but that has been reduced now to coincide with their physical healing time, between three and four weeks.

During this time, they learn about their adult social responsibilities and rules of behaviour. Preparation is made in the village or compound for the return of the children. A celebration marks the return of these new adults to their families. As a result of these traditional teachings, in marriage a woman's loyalty remains to her parents and her family; a man's to his.

Malinke People


A week after the birth of an infant, the Malinke hold a name-giving ceremony. A marabout leads prayers during a ceremony, shaves the infant's head, and announces the name of the child for the first time. If the parents can afford it, a goat or sheep will be killed, and the meat will be served along with balls of dough blessed by the marabout.


Puberty rites and circumcision

Puberty rites and circumcision are very significant in the lives of the Malinke, both male and female. Children are teased about the status of being uncircumcised, and from an early age they are curious as well as fearful. It is the most important rite of passage, for one cannot attain adulthood or marry without it. For boys the rite is held about once every five years and includes novices from 6 to 13 years old, who may be in a group of 30 to 45 boys. There are variations in the ceremony, but the following is typical. A circumcision lodge is built with millet stalks after the harvest in December or January. At dawn the novice is carried to the place of circumcision on the shoulders of an “older brother” or guardian who has already been circumcised. The village men proceed to the lodge. Each boy is circumcised, after waiting reflectively, by a circumciser or elder; the boy sits at the edge of a hole with his legs around it, and the foreskin is buried in the hole. Either indigenous herbs or Western ointment may be used to help heal the wound. Just after the circumcision the guardians race back to the village to spread the news, waving branches in the leaf dance.

In the evening the novices, draped in white clothing with hoods, enter the lodge to begin a period of six to eight weeks of seclusion. They carry large square charms to ward off evil spirits. They undergo an education in a fearful atmosphere by the lodge chief and guardians who teach them to act as a collective group. The frightening sounds of a bull-roarer (a flat board whirled around on a string) are heard, and they are threatened that evil demons will be called in. They learn circumcision songs that reflect the values of society, for example, respect for elders. The novices undergo four stages of education, including a feast prepared by their mothers. When they return home with a new status there will be a polite distance between mother and son. The boys who were circumcised in one ceremony form an age-set, which is given a name; they will have a close bond for life.

Malinke People

The girls' circumcision

The girls' circumcision is organized and convened by the “circumcision queen,” a village woman leader who is a respected midwife and supervises rituals concerning women. Girls are circumcised in smaller groups, and the ceremonies occur more frequently. The girls are carried on the backs of their “older sisters,” their guardians, just as mothers carry infants on their backs. They are blindfolded and taken to a symbolic women's tree used to make women's tools or mortars and pestles. Each novice in turn sits on the edge of a hole, supported by an elder woman behind her. The clitoridectomy is done by an elder woman specialist. Boiled bandages and ointments are applied, and the girls stay secluded for ten days to two weeks. During this time they are taught Malinke values and how to work together as a group. The stages of seclusion are similar to those of the boys. In recent years there is pressure to have circumcision in clinics. In general, however, the older generation is very reluctant to let go of these traditional rituals, and circumcision is still an important prerequisite to marriage.


Female genital mutilation

The women among the Mandinka people, like other ethnic groups near them, have traditionally practiced female genital mutilation (FGM), traditionally referred to as "female circumcision." According to UNICEF, the female genital mutilation prevalence rates among the Mandinkas of the Gambia is the highest at over 96%, followed by FGM among the women of the Jola people's at 91% and Fula people at 88%. Among the Mandinka women of some other countries of West Africa, the FGM prevalence rates are lower, but range between 40% to 90%. This cultural practice, locally called Niaka or Kuyungo or Musolula Karoola or Bondo, involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, or alternatively, the partial or total removal of the labia minora with the clitoris.

Some surveys, such as those by the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), estimate FGM is prevalent among 100% of the Mandinkas in Gambia. In 2010, after community efforts of UNICEF and the local government bodies, several Mandinka women's organization pledged to abandon the female genital mutilation practices.

Malinke People


Marriages are traditionally arranged by family members rather than either the bride or groom. This practice is particularly prevalent in the rural areas. Kola nuts, a bitter nut from a tree, are formally sent by the suitor's family to the male elders of the bride-to-be, and if accepted, the courtship begins.

Polygamy has been practiced among the Mandinka since pre-Islamic days. A Mandinka man is legally allowed to have up to four wives, as long as he is able to care for each of them equally. Mandinka believe the crowning glory of any woman is the ability to produce children, especially sons. The first wife has authority over any subsequent wives. The husband has complete control over his wives and is responsible for feeding and clothing them. He also helps the wives' parents when necessary. Wives are expected to live together in harmony, at least superficially. They share work responsibilities of the compound, such as cooking, laundry, and other tasks.

Marriage does not happen on one day or even over a period of several years. It is a process that occurs throughout the lifetime of individuals and is accompanied by required gifts. Formerly in Mandinka society, parents arranged a daughter's marriage while the girl was an infant. Although marriages are still arranged, they are not arranged that early. The groom is required to work for the bride's family before and after the wedding. He also must pay the girl's family a bride-price. Unlimited polygamy is permitted, but men rarely have more than three wives.

Marriage ties are important for creating and cementing bonds between families. Marriage for a Malinke girl may begin with her betrothal at birth to a boy who may be 12 years old or less. The preferred marriage partner is the matrilateral cross-cousin: the boy is betrothed to his mother's brother's daughter. Prior to marriage, several steps in the payment of a bride-price by the suitor to the parents of the prospective bride are made, taking from three to seven years. The installments include money, kola nuts (bitter, mildly hallucinogenic nuts), salt, and some livestock. Although the girl can sleep intermittently with her future husband, she cannot go to live in his compound until the full payment is made, amounting to what is a large sum in Malinke economy. Additional gifts are made to the bride's mother-in-law before the actual marriage ceremony can take place.

The typical Malinke wedding, called a “bride transfer,” takes place on a Thursday or Friday—the two holiest days of the week. The bride is dressed in dark blue with a white smock, a blue turban, and a dark blue shawl over her head with just the eyes showing. She wears anklets and bracelets of silver beads and ties a silver coin in her hair. The “circumcision queen” comes to the bride's house and performs a dance. The bride walks behind the queen with her hands on the queen's hips; this is called “carrying the bride.” The two are followed by a throng of women, symbolically weeping because the bride will be leaving her parents' home. The bride goes to her husband's house and sits on his bed. A period of seclusion lasting up to three days begins, a period in which the bride is considered very vulnerable to an evil spirit. The seclusion ends when the husband unveils the wife. The village women give gifts of cooking utensils and hold a dance.


Domestic Unit

Mandinka society is patrilineal and maledominated, and the family is the smallest social unit. In many ways, the nuclear family is the foundation for the Mandinka's social, religious, and political views of the world. Generally, the Mandinka believe that the sanctioned behavior of the family compound finds its way into the larger society. The behavior of the polygynous family is reflected in kinship terms. Rivalry is expected between half siblings; conversely, affection is expected between full siblings.

Malinke People

Family Life

The Malinke consider large families to be important. Children are one's wealth in an agrarian society. A large compound with brothers and their plural wives will always be bustling with family members of several generations and children of many ages. Young girls who are old enough to carry an infant will usually be seen with one strapped to their back or carrying one on their hip. Infants are coddled and indulged, never lacking attention. Mothers carry their infants on their backs wherever they go and breastfeed them whenever they cry. Young children have certain chores to do, but in general they lead a wholesome and carefree life with plenty of playmates around.

For men and women there is a division of agricultural labor. The men do the plowing, sowing, planting, and a major part of the harvesting work. Some also engage in hunting and fishing. Women do weeding and tend vegetable plots. Women are always busy with some kind of work, while it is common to see men sitting under a tree in the village square, chatting with other men and having a smoke and some tea that the women have brought them. The women are responsible for cooking, which involves many labor-intensive steps. They gather the firewood and bring it back on their heads in large bundles. They draw water at the well. They pound the millet, sorghum, or corn for hours with a mortar and pestle and then sift it to prepare the staple food of couscous. Cooking the meal involves hours of squatting in intense heat, tending earthenware pots propped on three stones around an open wood fire. Usually the women of a compound share the many tasks of cooking and take turns being responsible for meals. The women also wash the clothes and do much maintenance and cleaning work in the compound. While tending the children they are usually doing some income-generating activity, such as shelling peanuts.

The male head of the household is responsible for food procurement for his family, for buying clothes, and for providing agricultural tools and seeds for planting. The household heads have the authority to make all important decisions, although women wield a significant amount of power behind the scenes.

The social organization of the Malinke is based on an ancient caste system into which members are born. A Malinke can never change the caste-status into which he or she is born. There is rarely intercaste marriage. In an average village, however, the difference in wealth or status among the castes is barely visible. There is more of a feeling of egalitarianism, and all people have an agrarian lifestyle, cultivating crops and tending small herds of livestock. The size of the family is often more of an indication of wealth; small families with few children and few extended family members are thought of as poor and unfortunate. The caste system is comprised of nobles at the top, artisans and griots in the middle, and the descendants of slaves at the bottom. It is an elder from among the nobles who serves as headman or chief. All castes may provide marabouts, but certain other functions are caste-specific.

The artisans are divided into two main occupations: blacksmiths and leatherworkers. The blacksmiths are considered to be the most important of the middle caste. They make iron tools and implements, such as plow points and axe heads, as well as wooden furniture, mortars, and pestles. Some Malinke smiths have gained excellent reputations as sculptors and artists in iron objects or woodcarvings. They are usually the bicycle repairmen of the village as well. Smiths have a reputation for truthfulness and hospitality. They have the important function of male circumciser and chief of the lodge in circumcision ceremonies. There are many leatherworkers who are just farmers and do not do much work in leather. Some, however, have a good additional income from making the leather pouches or cases to cover the gri-gri charms.

The griots are the traditional bards or storytellers, providing entertainment and singing songs that keep alive the oral tradition of the people. Some just chant praise and recite honorific names and parables from the Quran. Others recite rhymed phrases accompanied by a drummer. They are paid for their skills at various ceremonies. Many griots are musicians who know how to play the kora, a stringed instrument made from half a large gourd covered with leather as a resonator. Some griots play the balaphon, a wooden xylophone with a row of gourd resonators. They teach all these skills to their children from an early age. Often the musicians will migrate from village to village to market their talents.

In addition to the castes, the Malinke have groupings in age-sets consisting of men or women who were circumcised at the same time and who maintain a strong egalitarian bond throughout life. Sometimes particular age-sets are called on to perform community tasks. The male age-sets pass through three age-grades, which are an important aspect of social control. The “boys” are those from about 10 to 20 years of age, who are the focus of enculturation, learning the proper norms and values of the Malinke culture. The “young men” include those from about 20 to 40 years old who are either unmarried or who have just formed their own nuclear family unit; they are responsible for carrying out decisions made in village meetings. The “elders” are those over 40 years old who are heads of extended family household units; they are the most influential in making decisions and settling disputes.

Malinke villages have secular leaders and religious leaders, whose roles sometimes overlap. The secular leader is the chief, who is typically a descendant of the noble caste and the village founders. The chief presides over a council of elder men who may convene to settle disputes, for example, if there is a theft or a question of someone's livestock damaging crops, or if a decision must be made about the return of the bride-price if an abused wife goes back to live in her father's compound.

The imam is the principal religious leader who may serve several small villages. Unlike the chief, the imam is elected; the position is open to elders with Quranic wisdom, who are not descendants of slaves. His main duty is to lead prayers at the mosque. Sometimes the chief is also a marabout, an Islamic healer and counselor, who can rival the imam in performing religious duties.

Many Malinke villages have an additional influential person who could be said to be a leader: the kanda. A kanda is a self-made man, who with his large family, strong personality, organizational abilities, and hard work has amassed considerable wealth. He has no formal power, and he does not refer to himself as a kanda for fear of jealousy and alienation. He wields a great deal of authority at meetings and when important decisions must be made. Because of the deep respect for elders, both men and women, it can be said that they are also village leaders. Their status grows as they age, and younger people are instilled with the value of respecting their elders.

In addition to the council of elder men who settle disputes, the Malinke have a fascinating means of social control—through the powerful demon-spirit called a kangkurao, portrayed by a mask-wearer who covers his body with blood-red bark, making an awesome and frightful figure. The kangkurao must be summoned by the chief, the imam, or the circumcision lodge chief, who gives the demon-spirit a benevolent mission to carry out. The spirit figure can demand that people participate in public works, such as digging a well or weeding for fire prevention; he can enforce taboos against eating fruit until it is ripe; and he can discipline novices at circumcision ceremonies. Moreover, he can exact fines for those who do not obey. Even though the Islamic religion prohibits graven images, the kangkurao has survived as part of the Malinke tradition.



Among the Mandinka, status in society is determined through one's father's family. The first loyalty is to one's family, and it begins with the oldest man. Wealth passes from the oldest male child downward, but that is subject to change, depending on how the clan views that man's ability to run the family.



Mandinka culture is rich in tradition, music, and spiritual ritual. Mandinkas continue a long oral history tradition through stories, songs, and proverbs. In rural areas, western education's impact is minimal; the literacy rate in Latin script among these Mandinka is quite low. However, more than half the adult population can read the local Arabic script (including Mandinka Ajami); small Qur'anic schools for children where this is taught are quite common. Mandinka children are given their name on the eighth day after their birth, and their children are almost always named after a very important person in their family.

The Mandinka have a rich oral history that is passed down through griots. This passing down of oral history through music has made music one of the most distinctive traits of the Mandinka. They have long been known for their drumming and also for their unique musical instrument, the kora. The kora is a twenty-one-stringed West-African harp made out of a halved, dried, hollowed-out gourd covered with cow or goat skin. The strings are made of fishing line (these were traditionally made from a cow's tendons). It is played to accompany a griot's singing or simply on its own.

A Mandinka religious and cultural site under consideration for World Heritage status is located in Guinea at Gberedou/Hamana

The kora

The kora has become the hallmark of traditional Mandinka musicians". The kora with its 21 strings is made from half a calabash, covered with cow's hide fastened on by decorative tacks. The kora has sound holes in the side which are used to store coins offered to the praise singers, in appreciation of their performance. The praise singers are called "jalibaas" or "jalis" in Mandinka



The Mandinka have a long established practice of oral history and literature. The practitioners of that tradition are known as griots (artisan-praise singers, the middle division of the caste system) who recapitulate their history and heritage through stories and songs passed down the generations. The Mandinka Epic, a compilation of songs and short stories that gives a brief chronological history of the Mali Empire when it was a ruling nation, is an important example of Mandinka oral literature.


Major Holidays

The Malinke look forward to the important Islamic holidays. The favorite is Tabaski, which usually falls in the spring or summer, the day being determined according to the Islamic lunar calendar. Tabaski commemorates the moment when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God's command, when God interceded and a ram was substituted. The Malinke start saving months ahead of time for the celebration to purchase new clothes and to have an abundant supply of food. The most expensive item is the ram or sheep to be slaughtered at the precise moment determined by the lunar calendar. It is prestigious to have a very large and fat ram to slaughter. Households that can only afford a goat or chicken are rather embarrassed. On this day people attend the mosque, and there is much eating (especially roasted mutton) and visiting of friends. Other religious holidays include the Feast of Ramadan celebrated at the end of the annual 30-day Muslim fast, and Muhammad's birthday.



Malinke who live today in urban centers, especially the men, may have adopted Western-style clothes. Villagers, on the other hand, take pride in their traditional clothing, which is important to them. In fact, one of the obligations of a husband is to give each wife the cloth for at least two new outfits every year.

Women generally wear a loose, scoop-necked smock over a long skirt made by a wrap-around piece of cloth. They often tie a matching piece of cloth around their head in an informal turban, each woman's turban having its own special flair. They use brightly colored cotton prints with splashy, large designs; some also wear tie-dyed, wood-block, or batik prints. The traditional casual dress for men is made with the same bright prints fashioned in an outfit that resembles pajamas.

For formal occasions men and women may wear the grand boubou. For women this is a loose dress that extends to ground level and may be trimmed in lace or embroidery. For men it is a long robe-like garment covering long pants and a shirt. Many middle-aged or elder men wear knit caps. Shoes are leather or rubber thongs.



Traditional Malinke are cultivators who grow varieties of millet, sorghum, rice (in the swampy areas), and corn as staple crops. As cash crops they grow peanuts and cotton and, to supplement their diet and gain a bit of income at weekly markets, grow diverse vegetables in garden plots. Some villages have a bakery where small loaves of French-style bread are baked.

The wealthier Malinke own some livestock—cattle, goats, chickens, and perhaps a horse for plowing. The cattle are used for milk and for the prestige of owning them; they are rarely slaughtered. There is little meat in the diet. Those who live near rivers or lakes may supplement their meals with fish.

A typical breakfast might consist of corn porridge eaten with a spoon made of a small, elongated calabash (gourd) split in half. The midday and evening meals may consist of rice or couscous with sauce and/or vegetables. Couscous can be made of pounded and steamed millet, sorghum, or cornmeal. A substantial quantity of rice or couscous is placed in a plastic or enamel basin around which those sharing the meal sit. Small bowls of sauce—often peanut sauce—or vegetable mixtures are distributed over the rice or couscous. Those sharing the meal take portions of it with the right hand, forming a bite-sized ball.

Tea-time is an important break for the Malinke. Tea is made by filling a small pot with dried tea leaves and covering these with boiling water. The brewed tea is extremely strong and is served with several small spoons of sugar in tiny glasses. After the first round of tea, the pot is filled with boiling water a second and third time, thus the second and third rounds of tea are a bit diminished in strength.


Gender Issues

Malinke society is patrilineal (male-dominated) and the smallest social unit is the family. The oldest male serves as the head of the lineage. A “minor lineage” consists of a man and his immediate family. A “major lineage” consists of households of relatives and their families. The majority of the Malinke men are farmers. The men do all of the fieldwork by hand with no help from machinery or fertilizers. The staple crops native to this area are rice, millet, sorghum, and peanuts. There are also many men who raise livestock. Cattle are rare and are used mainly to show prestige or used as a bridal dowry. Only men are allowed to hold positions of high respect in a Malinke village. Among the Malinke, men do the heavy farm work, hunt, and fish. They also hold leadership positions, such as village elders and imams. The women help with the farming, as well as cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children.

Traditionally, parents arranged their daughters' marriages while the girls were still infants. Today, marriages are still arranged, but not as early. The groom is required to work for the bride's family both before and after the wedding. He must also pay the girl's family a “bride price.” Polygamy is commonly practiced, but the men rarely have more than three wives.

Malinke believe the crowning glory of any woman is the ability to produce children, especially sons. The first wife has authority over any subsequent wives. The husband has complete control over his wives and is responsible for feeding and clothing them. He also helps the wives' parents when necessary. Wives are expected to live together in harmony, at least superficially. They share work responsibilities of the compound, cooking, laundry, etc.

While farming is the predominant profession among the Malinke, men also work as tailors, butchers, taxi drivers, woodworkers, metal workers, soldiers, nurses, and extension workers for aid agencies. However, most women, probably 95%, remain in the home as wives and mothers.