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Title: Mandé  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Demographics of Burkina Faso, Mali, History of Mali, Veneration of the dead, Manding, World view, Mande languages, Songhai people, Mossi people, African-American history
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Mandé (Manding)
Total population
27 million
Regions with significant populations
West Africa
Mande languages
predominantly Sunni Islam. Traditional religions
Related ethnic groups
Bambara, Bissa, Busa, Dan, Dyula, Kpelle, Ligbi, Landogo, Malinké, Mandinka, Marka, Mende, Koniaka people, 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 large group of ethnic groups in West Africa who speak any of the many related Mande languages spread throughout 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 people, a branch of the Mandé, are credited with the founding of the largest ancient West African empires. Other large Mandé groups include the Soninke, Bambara and Dyula. Smaller known groups include the Ligbi, Vai and Bissa.

Mande peoples inhabit various environments, from coastal rainforests to the sparse Sahel and Sahara, and as such have a wide range of cultures and beliefs.

List of Mandé groups



Descended from ancient Central Saharan people, akin to the Bafour or Imraguen of Mauritania, the Mandé are an identifiable group of peoples spread throughout the West Africa. They are known as having been among the first on the continent to produce woven textiles (by a process known as strip-weaving), and as the founders of the Ghana Empire and Mali Empire, as well as being responsible for the expansion of the Songhai Empire across West Africa. However, archaeological testimony also supports that they were among the first peoples on the continent to produce 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, where hundreds of stone masonry settlements with clear street layouts have been found. Some settlements had massive surrounding walls while others were less fortified.

In a now arid environment where arable land and pasturage were once at a premium, the population grew and relatively large-scale political organizations which led to the ultimate military hierarchical aristocracies emerged. With a mixed farming economy—millet production combined with the rearing of livestock —this copper-based agro-pastoral society traded in jewelry and semi-precious stones from distant parts of the Sahara and Sahel. They are also believed to be the first to domesticate African rice. In the words of one archaeologist, these abandoned sites represent “a great wealth of rather spectacular prehistoric ruins” and “perhaps the most remarkable group of Neolithic settlements in the world” (Mauny 1971: 70).

Between 200 BC and 100 AD, the entire Sudan experienced significant dry episodes, which were part of the general drying trend that had been seriously underway since before 2000 BC. As the desert began to expand, the population headed South.

Ghâna kingdom

Main article: Ghana Empire

Since around (even prior to) 1500 BCE, a number of clans of proto-Soninke extraction, the oldest branch of the Mandé (Manding) peoples came together under the leadership of a man named Dinga Cisse. The nation comprised a confederation of 3 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, it was well placed to take advantage of trade with the surrounding cities, and also with the north by a coastal route leading to Morocco via Sidjilmasa.

Ghanaian society included large pastoral and agricultural communities. Its commercial class, however, was most prosperous. The Mandé merchants of Ghâna came to dominate the luxury trade and slave trade via Saharan trade routes connecting their great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara to the northern coast of Africa. They would enslave 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. The ruler was acclaimed as the "richest king in the world because of his gold" by Arab traveler Ibn Hawqal on his visit to the capital city of Kumbi Saleh in 950 AD.

In the 11th century, the kingdom began to weaken and decline. There were numerous reasons as to why. 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, and with the zeal of neophyte converts launched several campaigns against the "Sudanese", pagan black peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.[1] 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 passed over to the Ghana empire and the trans-Saharan routes were taken over by the Zenata Maghrawa of Sijilmassa.

Before to 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 came the Malinké people under a new dynamic ruler, Sundiata Kéita. By the mid-13th century, the once great empire of Ghâna had utterly disintegrated and soon became eclipsed by the Mali Empire of Sundiata.

Mali kingdom

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. The great ruler took 60,000 porters with him, each carrying 3 kilograms of pure gold - 180 tons in total, according to the UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume IV, pp. 197–200. He had so much gold with him 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 Ethiopian 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 appeared 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. Within a few generations, Mali itself was eclipsed by the Songhai empire of Askia Muhammad (Askia the Great)

Songhai kingdom

Main article: Songhai Empire

The successor of Sunni Ali Ber, Askia was much more astute and farsighted than his predecessor had ever been. He orchestrated a program of expansion and consolidation which extended 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 tempered and improved on the traditional model by instituting 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 also 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, produced 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. For all his efforts, Mali experienced a cultural revival it had never witnessed before, and the whole land flourished as a center of all things valuable in learning and trade.


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. There is really no room for doubt as to their origin, from the evidence of their dress and weapons (which were observed at the time by Europeans), their language, as well as from the evidence of Mane tradition, recorded in writing 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 and were really only halted when, in the north-west of what is now Sierra Leone, they came up against the Susu, like themselves a Mandé people, and possessing similar weapons, military organization and tactics.

French colonisation also greatly affected Mandé life. Constant wars with the Europeans cost the lives of thousands of their soldiers, led to the increased reliance on Atlantic trade, and the creation of artificial colonial boundaries which divided the population. Nevertheless, the Mandé people are still active West African politics and have often elected their own presidents in several states.

Unfortunately, their long-standing conflict with other African tribes has exacerbated in the last 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 are patrilineal and patriarchal, though ritual washing and daily prayers are usually observed and very few wear Arab dress, with virtually no women wearing a veil. The most famous Mandé practices are the sanankuya or "joking relationship" among clans, and their fraternal orders and sororities known as Poro and Sande or Bundu, respectively.

Traditionally, Mandé society is hierarchical or "caste"-based, with nobility and vassals; formerly, like most other Africans, they also held slaves ("Jonw"/"Jong(o)"), often war prisoners, usually from lands surrounding their territory. The descendants of former kings and generals had a higher status than 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, most today are either settled agriculturalists or nomadic fishermen; there are also still blacksmiths, cattle herders, and griots or bards.


Most of the Mandé groups in the westernmost part of West Africa have been predominately 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 like the Bobo and Bissa 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. As for Griots, they 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 and Kandia Kouyaté.

See also


  • Gillow, John. (2003), African Textiles. 29 p.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
  • UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume IV, pp. 197–200.
  • Mauny, R. (1971), “The Western Sudan” in Shinnie: 66-87.
  • Monteil, Charles (1953), “La Légende du Ouagadou et l’Origine des Soninke” in Mélanges Ethnologiques (Dakar: Bulletin del’Institut Francais del’Afrique Noir).
  • Fage, John D. (2001), History of Africa. Routledge; 4th edition.
  • Boone, Sylvia Ardyn. (1986), Radiance from the Waters.
  • Kouyaté, Dani (Director). (1995). Keïta: Heritage of a Griot [Motion picture]. Burkina Faso.


External links

  • African People Website
  • A website devoted to Mandé djembe drumminges:Mandinga

fr:Mandé it:Mandè pt:Mandê (povo) simple:Mandé th:ชนมันเด

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