Mandinka is both a linguistic term and the name of the people who speak that language.
They inhabit a large area roughly the shape of a horseshoe, starting from their home in Gambia, extending through the southeastern region of Senegal, bending across the northern and southern sections of the republics of Guinea and Mali, extending through northern Sierra Leone, and descending into northwestern Ivory Coast.
Based on recent statistics, the Mandinka population is nearly two million. In July 2001, there were 592,706 Mandinka in Gambia (42 percent of the population), 308,547 in Senegal (3 percent of the population), and 171,056 in Guinea-Bissau (13 percent of the population). There are approximately 800,000 Mandinka in Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Burkina-Faso, and Sierra Leone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 Muslim clerics and scribes have traditionally been considered as a separate occupational caste called Jakhanke, with their Islamic roots traceable to about the 13th century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.