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Blog / Mali Empire

The Mandingo of Sub-Saharan Africa

Referred to as Mandingo, Mandinka or Malinke, the Mandingo represent one of the largest ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Based primarily in West Africa, the population of Mandingo peoples is about 11 million. Spread across Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Ivory Cost, Chad and Niger, the Mandingo are thought to have links with the ancient Central Saharan lineage. Mandingo is a branch of the Mandé, which also includes ethno-lingual groups such as the Bozo, Bambara, Kpelle and Ligbi. 

The Mandingo people are purported to be descendants of the Mali Empire (1230 A.D. to 1600 A.D.) Some scholars think the Mandingo's roots go back even further - to the legendary ancient city of Djenné-Djenno (3rd century B.C.) The Mali Empire was established in the Senegambia region, deep in the heartland of West Africa. It is believed that they migrated there in the search for better agricultural lands and to expand their territory. More than half of the tribal group converted to Islam (from their indigenous pantheist belief structure) after reaching West Africa. Sadly, although the Mandingo people existed very nicely with the other settlers in the region, in the 15th century, Westerners arrived looking for human labour. The desire for farmland and the Industrial Revolution contributed to a period of slavery for the Mandingo.
Unfortunately, many Mandingo merchants were themselves involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It is difficult to understand, but many Mandingo were sold as slaves by their own people! As a result of the despicable slave trade, more than a third of the Mandingo population was sent to the Americas. This is why a large number of African-American people residing in the United States today are descendents of the Mandingo. The Mandingo culture is both spiritual and musical. Griots are well-known for their "praise singing" in which they tell stories, sing songs and proverbs. They are the keepers of oral tradition spanning centuries. Take a look at the video we've included below. This is a fascinating recounting by Imiuswi Aborigine ~ Prince Diabata - a griot musician from West Africa - of the history of the griot legacy and their long traditional of oral history.


Music also includes drumming and playing a unique instrument, called the "Kora", which has 21 strings and is made by hollowing out half of a large gourd and covering it with cow or goat skin. It looks pretty complex to us!

Clan society is patriarchal with many people living in family compounds in rural areas. The Mandingo have a natural bent for seeking autonomy and self-rule, incorporating leadership by a chief and a group of village elders. Their homes are largely centered along trade routes built by merchants known as "Dyulas", who supervise the overland, coastal and inland trading. Trading in rice, groundnuts (peanuts), corn and millet along with animals, the economy is labor-intensive.

Traditionally, marriages are arranged, particularly in rural areas. The family of the potential groom sends a gift of kola nuts to the male elders of the family of the potential bride. If the gift is accepted by the family of the bride, the courtship is then allowed to begin. Since their pre-Islamic days, the Mandingo have practiced polygamy, allowing a man to have up to four wives - only if he is able to care for each wife equally. The first wife has authority over subsequent wives and wives are expected to live communally, sharing responsibilities like cooking, laundry and house-keeping. The Mandingo people have an interesting history that can be traced back many centuries. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General is of Mandingo ancestry. Don't miss any of our articles, blogs, updates or recipes! Sign up for email updates.

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