Mali may be one of the world’s poorest countries today, but was one of Africa’s mightiest empires in its glory days. The Malian people are justifiably proud of their country’s history and diverse cultures able to peacefully interact with each other. The nomadic desert lifestyle of Northern Mali’s Maure and Tuareg tribes has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
Mali’s recorded history began with the Ghana Empire, which extended across the borders of present-day Mali and Mauritania during the 4th and 11th centuries. The Ghana Empire’s golden age began after camels were domesticated and able to transport salt, gold and ivory as far as the Middle East, North Africa and even Europe. Bamako’s National Museum of Mali (Kati) provides the most detailed displays of the country’s rich history.
It is unclear exactly when the Ghana Empire became part of the much larger Mali Empire, but by the early 14th century, Mali was one of Africa’s largest gold suppliers and most powerful states. Timbuktu became the leading center of Islamic education, with no fewer than 180 religious schools, three universities and countless private libraries. The largest library on Earth was once housed inside the Djinguereber Mosque (Askia Mohamed Boulevard, Timbuktu), one of Timbuktu’s few surviving landmarks from the golden era.
Timbuktu’s prominence and prosperity increased even further after Emperor Mansa Musa I brought a slew of gold and slaves to Mecca in 1324, but the Songhai Empire from present-day Nigeria eventually displaced them by the late 15th century. The Moroccan army, who defeated the Songhai by 1590, could not hold the area for very long, and Mali eventually split into several smaller states.
European sea routes to the New World further diminished the importance of trans-Saharan trade. By the time Mali became part of French West Africa in 1895, the region experienced several Fulani and Tuareg invasions. Between WWI and WWII, trade unions and student groups led an independence movement which eventually resulted in the Federation of Mali becoming an independent nation in 1960. Senegal, originally part of the Federation of Mali, became a separate country shortly afterward.
Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, a descendant of the country’s powerful empires, imposed his own one-party state which a bloodless military coup overthrew in 1968. Drought and political protests brought further poverty and instability during the 1970's and 80's. Mali finally became a multiparty democracy in 1992, the year Alpha Oumar Konaré became the country’s first fairly elected president.
Years of conflict between Mali’s military and the country’s Tuareg nomads came to a head in 2012, when Tuareg and Islamist forces led an uprising against President Touré. The Islamist groups seized control of northern Mali including Timbuktu and imposed Sharia law. The country once again faces an uncertain future following one of the most unstable decades in recent history.
From the nomadic Tuareg, Fulani, Bozo fishers, Bambara, and Dogon farmers, each of Mali’s dozens of ethnic groups have their own unique languages and history, yet generally interact amicably with each other. Each of these has passed down their own traditions, history and occupations over the centuries. Malian music and literature have both been heavily influenced by longtime oral storytelling. Traditional storytellers called griots often perform at weddings and other special events.
The colorful flowing robes many locals wear are called boubout, but handmade cotton mud cloth fabric also plays an important role in Mali’s culture and economy. Although most of the population is Muslim, Christian holidays are also observed and businesses close for half days on Friday and Sunday, as well as all day on Saturday's. Most Malians are respectful to visitors who give equal respect to their religious and cultural beliefs.