People & Culture

A mix of people

The population of Mali is composed of many ethnic groups, such as the Bambara, Tuareg, Dogon, Songhai, Senufo, and Fulani. Each group has its own customs and ways. But Malians are relaxed about their different cultures.

That doesn't stop a certain amount of joking though. So for example, in Britain, the Irish, Welsh, Scots and English often make jokes about each other. In the same way, Malians love to rib each other about their different national identities. This kind of teasing is known as ‘plaisanterie’.

  • A family from the SOS village
  • Children getting ready to perform

Though French is the official language of Mali, over 30 local African languages (e.g. Bambara, Songhai and Tuareg) are used across the country.

Bambara is the most common language, spoken by around 80% of people.

Tolerant Islam

In Mali, there are Christian minorities and those who follow traditional African beliefs. However, over 90% of people are Muslim and mosques form an important part of cultural and social life.

What is Sufism?

This is a mystical movement within the Islamic faith, where believers try to achieve an understanding of the Divine beyond normal human experience. To do this, Sufis use special types of prayers and practices.

Most Malians are Sunni Muslims who belong to one of two main Sufi brotherhoods - i) the Quadiriya, which came to West Africa in the 15th century and ii) the Tijaniya, founded in the 18th century and popularised in Mali during the 19th century.

Mali is one of only a few Muslim-majority countries to be governed by a fully democratic system. Today, its tolerant version of Islam is under threat from more extreme movements from outside the country.

The importance of music

Playing musicBack in the time of the great Mali Empire, griots or jalis performed songs for kings and nobles. Traditional songsters are still around and music remains important in Mali. It can be heard everywhere – in vehicles, in streets, from boats on the river and even in the desert.

Every year, the famous Festival in the Desert is held in the Saharan oasis of Essakane. This provides a showcase for Mali’s musical talent.

Mali has produced many stars of African music, including a number of female singers of Mande music (who are known as jalimusolu). In this type of music, the women sing while men provide the instrumental background.

African instruments of all kinds are handmade from local materials. The most common is probably the djembe, an upright drum made from wood and animal skin. The kora is also popular. This string instrument looks a bit like a long, upright banjo. It is made from animal hide stretched over half a calabash, with gut strings along a wooden neck. See the video of the kora player, which also shows how the instrument is made.