Dyula people


Dyula / Dioula / Juula

The Dyula (Dioula or Juula) are a Mande ethnic group inhabiting several West African countries, including the Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Burkina Faso.

Characterized as a highly successful merchant caste, Dyula migrants began establishing trading communities across the region in the fourteenth century. Since business was often conducted under non-Muslim rulers, the Dyula developed a set of theological principles for Muslim minorities in non-Muslim societies.

Their unique contribution of long-distance commerce, Islamic scholarship and religious tolerance were significant factors in the peaceful expansion of Islam in West Africa.

Location. The Dyula are an ethnic minority in north-central and northeastern Ivory Coast, in southeastern Mali, and southwestern Burkina Faso, roughly from 8° to 12° N and from 3° to 6° W, along the southern fringes of the savanna. Nowadays many Dyula are also to be found in major towns and cities of all three countries.

Demography. The Dyula account for about 10 to 20 percent of the population of the areas they occupy. They number between 200,000 and 300,000. Since the term "dyula" is also used as a socioprofessional category, it is difficult to rely on census data for estimates, especially as many Dyula have migrated to large urban areas.

Duyla people map

Dyula people map

Identification. "Dyula" is a Manding word typically referring to "traders" as a socioprofessional category, particularly to Muslim long-distance traders who speak one or another dialect of Manding. The name is used as an ethnic label by Manding-speaking minorities, particularly those living amid various Gur-speaking groups, such as the Senufo and Kulango.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Dyula speak dialects of Manding, a northern Mande language of the Niger-Congo Family. The Dyula dialects are very closely related to certain dialects of Bamana (or Bambara) and Maninka (or Malinke), all of which are mutually comprehensible.


History and Cultural Relations

Traders from the middle Niger were drawn toward the southern reaches of the savanna and beyond toward the forest because of the presence of gold in Lobi and Akan gold fields and because of kola nuts in the forest. Particularly after the foundation of the trading town of Begho, in northwestern Ghana, around 1400, Manding-speaking traders began to settle amid various local populations, forming the southern edge of the network of a vast trading diaspora linking the West African forest and ultimately the coast with the Sahara and the Mediterranean. By the eighteenth century, there were Dyula communities along all the trade routes in the region, and these communities continued to assimilate fellow traders from elsewhere until the mid-twentieth century, by which time colonial rule had radically altered patterns of trade and migration. One of these towns, Kong, became an independent state as well as a major center of trade; it was a major power in the region, particularly during its apogee in the eighteenth century. Most Dyula communities, however, remained politically subservient to kings and chiefs of other ethnic and linguistic communities. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the region was torn by war: three empires—the state of Kenedugu, centered at Sikasso in Mali; the domain of Samory Toure, initially in Guinea to the west; and France—struggled for control. The great Dyula trading towns of Kong and Buna were razed by Samory, who suspected them of negotiating with the French. Following Samory's capture, France annexed the region. By and large, the Dyula submitted peacefully to the French, although, in the mid-twentieth century, many of them were active militants in the independence movement.

The Dyula recognize their cultural affinities with other Manding-speaking peoples, including the Bamana and the Maninka, and especially with trading groups such as the Maraka of the middle Niger. As an ethnic minority and part of a trading diaspora, the Dyula stress their cultural differences with their immediate neighbors—for example, the Senufo, the Kulango, or the Abron. Many Dyula are nevertheless fluent in other local languages and have usually had a vested interest in remaining on good terms with their neighbors and political overlords. Their neighbors, in turn, have relied on the Dyula as agents for buying and reselling locally produced goods and as a source for commodities produced elsewhere.



The Dyula settled primarily, although not exclusively, along the trade routes passing through the region. The largest towns in the region—Kong (with an estimated population of 15,000 in the late nineteenth century), Buna, Bondoukou, and Bobo-Dioulasso—were major market centers inhabited mainly by Dyula. On the whole, the Dyula preferred to settle in larger villages if not towns, where there were greater commercial opportunities. Some of these communities were entirely or almost all peopled by Dyula; however, the Dyula frequently settled in multiethnic communities of various sizes, often in a spatially separate quarter. Dyula towns, villages, and quarters were in turn divided into different neighborhoods and clan wards.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most Dyula were involved in trade or the production of commodities for the market on at least a part-time basis. Yams, maize, sorghum, or millet were staple crops, depending on the location, supplemented by groundnuts, tomatoes, okra, and other vegetables. Tobacco, processed as snuff, was grown as a cash crop. The Dyula were extensively involved in weaving; they enjoyed a complete monopoly over the production of cloth among the Senufo. The town of Kong, in particular, produced luxury cloths for export to other regions. The Dyula were also involved in long- and medium-distance caravan trade, as well as peddling to their neighbors imported commodities and the goods produced from them. Wealthier Dyula possessed slaves to grow their food, which afforded the traders the leisure to pursue commercial or other activities year-round. Dyula living in larger, more active commercial centers might also trade or weave all year, purchasing foodstuffs in the marketplace. Many Dyula, however, particularly those in smaller communities off major trade axes, were seasonally involved in subsistence horticulture.

Industrial Arts. The Dyula were heavily involved in the production of cloth and clothing. Spinning was a common household activity for women; in some Dyula communities, women also were involved in dyeing thread with indigo. Men wove the cloth in narrow bands, often with complex and intricate patterns, and sewed the sections into blankets or items of clothing. In the twentieth century, the Dyula were among the first in the region to purchase sewing machines. Dyula tailors are noted for their elaborate embroidery.

Trade. As specialized traders, the Dyula were involved in the buying and selling of whatever commodities were marketable. This included goods they produced themselves, principally cloth but also snuff. They were involved in the long-distance trade between the middle Niger and the forest: salt and horses were traded southward and gold and kola nuts northward, along with a variety of other commodities, including luxury cloths, shea butter, peppers, and slaves.

Division of Labor. The Dyula were part of a regional and interregional system of hereditary specialization. Broadly speaking, weaving, trade, and Islamic scholarship were the hereditary preserves of the Dyula, who were themselves divided into two hereditary categories: tun tigi ("warrior") and mory ("scholar"). These broad categories corresponded very loosely if at all with the specific occupations of individuals. Instead, specific local kin groups tended to specialize in one activity or another: a specific kind of weaving, advanced Islamic scholarship, a particular sector of trade. This system of specialization was not rigid, however, and individuals had a good deal of freedom in choosing their occupations. Weaving, warfare, and Islamic learning were specifically male activities; spinning, cooking, and child rearing specifically female. Both males and females engaged in trade. Individuals who possessed slaves assigned the relatively onerous or less remunerative tasks, but slaves did not perform any tasks that could not be or were not undertaken by free individuals.

Land Tenure. Resident members of any clan ward ( kabila ; pl. kabilaw ) of a village had a traditional right to obtain land for cultivation. Outsiders could also obtain such rights, even permanently, by attaching themselves to a clan ward as guests ( lunanw ; sing. lunan ). Rights over specific fields could be highly individuated, however, particularly if those fields were highly suitable for cash-crop production. Nowadays building plots in towns and, increasingly, in villages, are privately owned and registered and constitute a valuable form of landed property.



Kin Groups and Descent. Descent groups are identified by patronyms ( dyamuw; sing. dyamu ), many of which are common to other Mande-speaking peoples. In any community, individuals sharing a patronym who consider themselves agnatically related together form a kabila, with a designated head, the kabila tigi, A large kabila is divided into segments called so, lu, or gba. The precise meanings attached to these latter terms vary from place to place. Many kabilaw are too small to be segmented, and a village or town can include quite a number of unrelated clan wards, some of which might bear the same patronym. Kabilaw—and even segments of them— can be economically specialized. Internal disputes are settled by a council of the clan ward or segment as a whole.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is bifurcate merging in parents' generation, with Iroquois cousin terms in Ego s generation. Relative age is consistently stressed in Ego's and, to a lesser extent, in parents' generation.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. The most highly favored form of marriage is within the clan ward, that is, for all intents and purposes, between classificatory patrilateral parallel cousins. Marriages between relatives from different clan wards, especially matrilateral cross cousins, are also encouraged. Marriage is virilocal, except for the remarriages of older widows, who usually prefer to live with their sons. Divorce, following Islamic law, is easily obtained in principle, but couples are often pressured by their families to reconcile their differences.

Domestic Unit. The Dyula have a high incidence of polygyny. In the past, sons, even those who were married, tended to live with their father. The families of full brothers frequently remained together for some time after the father's death.

Inheritance. In principle, inheritance follows the dictates of Muslim law: all sons inherit an equal share and daughters half as much as sons. In the past, the extent to which these rules were strictly followed varied, and daughters did not necessarily receive their share. To the extent that any property was considered to be corporately rather than individually owned, it passed instead from elder to younger brother.

Socialization. In day-to-day matters, mothers and older siblings were most responsible for monitoring a child's behavior; fathers intervened more occasionally or for more serious questions. Boys from mory families were usually sent to a teacher to acquire the rudiments of Arabic literacy, if not a full-fledged religious education, whereas tun tigi boys, at adolescence, were inducted into secret low (initiation societies; sing. io). Boys were also expected to learn specialized economic skills, such as weaving, from older kinsmen. Nowadays many children, especially in towns, attend modern schools.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. An individual's seniority is determined by generation, relative age, gender, and free or slave status. Juniors are expected to display consistent deference toward their elders, appealing to individuals even more senior or to a council of the descent group as a whole if they feel they are being unjustly treated. Rules of seniority are, in principle, applied inflexibly to designate the eldest free male of the senior generation to succeed to office within the descent group or to political office. Nevertheless, the Dyula accord considerable respect and de facto authority to any individual successful in commerce, politics, or Islamic scholarship. A distinction was drawn between slaves who were purchased ( san jon ) and slaves who were "born in the house" ( worosso ). The latter might joke obscenely at the expense of all free individuals ( horon ). Milder reciprocal-joking relationships exist between linked patronymic groups ( senanku ), between grandparents and grandchildren, between cross cousins, and between certain categories of affines ( nimogo ), specifically elder siblings' spouses and spouses' younger siblings.

Political Organization. Most Dyula communities owed political allegiance to rulers from other ethnic groups, such as the Senufo or Abron. The most notable exception was the state of Kong, where the Dyula staged a coup d'état around 1700. The Dyula who enjoyed political authority as chiefs—whether of the state of Kong, a chiefdom, or simply a village—were drawn in principle from the ranks of hereditary "warriors," called tun tigiw, or, in Kong, sonongui. In the late nineteenth century, many Dyula communities were annexed by the empire of Samory. Some Dyula chiefs were deposed in favor of more loyal supporters with no claims to authority. The authority of traditional chiefs was further eroded by the French and, later, by the postcolonial authorities; it is now essentially symbolic.

Social Control. The control that elders enjoyed over access to wealth and to women helped them maintain effective authority over their junior dependents. Conflicts were mediated by chiefs or adjudicated by a council of the descent group as a whole. Geographical mobility was high: malcontents could simply leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Conflict. At its apogee in the eighteenth century, the state of Kong enjoyed considerable power, raiding as far as the Niger to the north and staving off the armies of Ashanti to the south. With the military decline of Kong, the Dyula there and elsewhere tended to concentrate on commercial rather than military ventures. As traders, the Dyula often had a stake in maintaining good relations with their neighbors. They were not pacifists, however; their individual or collective participation in local warfare depended on their assessment of circumstances.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Dyula have always been Muslim. In the past, however, the tun tigiw were not expected to conform rigorously to the same standards of Islamic practice as the mory. Instead, the tun tigiw, as members of low, participated in animal sacrifices to spirits. They might drink alcoholic beverages and observe prescribed prayer and fasting only irregularly. By about 1950, such practices were perceived as lax, as compared to other Muslim communities. The initiation societies were abolished, and a single standard of proper Muslim behavior was applied to everyone. As Muslims, the Dyula worship Allah and acknowledge the existence of angels and devils. They also acknowledge the existence of jinn, which may be Muslim or pagan and are potentially dangerous; prankish little kongo denniw ("bush children"); and spirits that were associated with specific initiation societies.

Religious Practitioners. Those older men learned in Arabic and Islamic theology and law were known as karamogow and were authorities in Islamic matters. Formerly, there also existed lo tigiw, elders in charge of initiation societies.

Ceremonies. Various ceremonies mark the Islamic lunar calendar year, particularly Donba, the Prophet's birthday; Tabaski, marking the season of pilgrimage and the sacrifice of Isaac; and Sunkalo, the annual fast of the month of Ramadan. Increasingly, Islamic literati decry the festivities associated with these periods, although to little avail. Weddings and funerals of important elders are also occasions for elaborate festivities.

Arts. Weaving of elaborately patterned cloths, as well as the embroidery of intricate arabesque designs on clothing, are the most highly developed Dyula art forms. The Dyula sometimes use elaborately sculpted objects—masks, loom pulleys—produced by specialists of neighboring ethnic groups.

Medicine. The Dyula resort to various herbal remedies ( fla ; lit., "leaves"), as well as to written magic formulas in Arabic. Nowadays the Dyula are quite willing to seek Western medical treatment when it is available and affordable.

Death and Afterlife. Most Dyula believe in the reality of witchcraft, of nefarious magic written in Arabic, of the deadly power of initiation-society spirits controlled by their senior members, and of dangerous local spirits, all of which may cause illness or death. These dangers are now considered remote, however, and they do not preoccupy most Dyula as they did, it would seem, in the past. As Muslims, the Dyula affirm the existence of heaven and hell in the afterlife, as a reward or punishment for behavior on earth.