The Mandinka, Malinke, Maninka, Mandingo or Manding, are a West African ethnic group primarily found in southern Mali, eastern Guinea and northern Ivory Coast. Also in Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso. Numbering about 11 million, they are the largest subgroup of the Mandé peoples and one of the largest ethnic-linguistic groups in Africa. They speak the Manding languages in the Mande language family and a lingua franca in much of West Africa. Over 99% of Mandinka adhere to Islam. They are predominantly subsistence farmers and live in rural villages. Their largest urban center is Bamako, the capital of Mali, which is also inhabited by the closely related Bambara.
The Mandinka are the descendants of the Mali Empire, which rose to power in the 13th century under the rule of king Sundiata Keita, who founded an empire that would go on to span a large part of West Africa. They migrated west from the Niger River in search of better agricultural lands and more opportunities for conquest. Nowadays, the Mandinka inhabit the West sudanian savanna region extending from The Gambia and the Casamance region in Senegal to Ivory Coast. Although widespread, the Mandinka constitute the largest ethnic group only in the countries of Mali, Guinea and The Gambia. Most Mandinka live in family-related compounds in traditional rural villages. Their traditional society has featured socially stratified castes. Mandinka communities have been fairly autonomous and self-ruled, being led by a chief and group of elders. Mandinka has been an oral society, where mythologies, history and knowledge are verbally transmitted from one generation to the next. Their music and literary traditions are preserved by a caste of griots, known locally as jelis, as well as guilds and brotherhoods like the donso (hunters).
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, many Muslim and non-Muslim Mandinka people, along with numerous other African ethnic groups, were captured, enslaved and shipped to the Americas. They intermixed with slaves and workers of other ethnicities, creating a Creole culture. The Mandinka people significantly influenced the African heritage of descended peoples now found in Brazil, the Southern United States and, to a lesser extent
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.
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.
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.
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