Mali’s History & Culture: The Keys to a Durable Solution

Link to Cultural Anthropology

This article was published in the online journal Cultural Anthropology in a series called Hot Spot: Mali. June 10, 2013.

A long brewing crisis in Mali erupted over a year ago exposing wide spread corruption and nepotism that had frustrated Malians for a long time. Although Malians knew of their own frustrations and those of their immediate friends and family, the crisis laid bare a shocking degree of blatant governmental abuse. Perhaps the most crucial neglect was in the contentious and collapsed education system. But corruption permeated all levels of society and went as far as governmental collaboration with drug traffickers and hostage takers.

Janet Goldner, Colleagues and Friends in Bamako, 2008.
Janet Goldner, Colleagues and Friends in Bamako, 2008.

Those of us who have been working in Mali for many years, have friends and colleagues whose beliefs and outlook mirror our own and with whom we have debated and discussed the crisis during the last year. My own filter has to do with Malian culture and cultural preservation. This perspective extends back to ancient Djenné (a city that dates to at least 200 BC) and to the three empires, Wagadu (Ghana), Mali and Songhay that originated in and governed the territory that is today the Republic of Mali and more. These empires brought together many peoples and cultures. The enormous scope of the empires makes Mali a cultural source for West Africa. In Mali these traditions are carefully preserved and still transmitted from mouth to ear.

This history continues through the period of French colonialism including Malian resistance to the initial colonial penetration and the struggle for independence. The first president after independence was Modibo Keita. After him Mali suffered 23 years of dictatorship and the two highly corrupt elected governments whose moral authority the current crisis calls into question.

Janet Goldner, Horses and Jockies Dressed by Kandioura Coulibaly, Segou, 2007.
Janet Goldner, Horses and Jockies Dressed by Kandioura Coulibaly, Segou, 2007.

Yet Mali has a history of democracy that stems from the Mali Empire and the Manden charter, which is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.[1] The charter first codified social relations and organized the Mali Empire as a constitutional monarchy in 1235. For almost 800 years Malians and their allies have considered themselves members of the same large family or nation. The articles of this constitution, which still govern social relations today, codify peaceful coexistence within this family across diverse communities, as well as the intermingling of cultures and intermarriage. This brought a history of ethnic harmony.

While there has been attention to the terrible destruction of Islamic holy sites and manuscripts in Timbuktu, the breadth of Mali’s history appears nowhere in the reports and analysis of experts and the media. I believe it is impossible to understand or solve the crisis without taking the historical and cultural context into account. This vision is shared by most Malians with whom I am in contact. But ordinary Malians have not been consulted in the reactions and solutions to the crisis thus far.

Malian culture is still suffering from the cultural disruption and attempted erasure that resulted from colonialism. Colonialism forbad the practice and growth of culture and forced languages, rituals and symbols underground to survive. I am often astonished to witness the debates of Malian intellectuals, each knowing part of the history, actively examining, debating, working to put the disparate pieces together.

Some of these pieces exist in recognized UNESCO World Heritage sites in Djenné, Gao, Timbuktu and Dogon. Other pieces are preserved with griots and other traditional negotiators and mediators such as blacksmiths and hunters. The material culture is rich with artifacts that witnessed the past. While their meanings are obscure, some of the same intellectuals who debate the history also know how to read these objects for the history they contain.

Culture is a living entity that must evolve and grow in order to remain viable. This continuing research into the past through the preservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and transforming this heritage to bring it into the present and the future is important for the continuity of Malian identity. Malian culture holds the keys to the resolution of this conflict and the future of Malian democracy. This is especially important to bear in mind at this trying time when solutions to the current crisis are being imposed by an international community that is unaware or not mindful of this rich cultural context and the interconnected histories of the peoples of the region.

The Mali Empire was at the origin of building Timbuktu into a city of learning. Its successor, the Songhai Empire covered all the territories in present day Mali and much more. The Songhai and several other ethnic groups in Mali have occupied the north of Mali from times immemorial to present. At present, a minority Tuareg group (MNLA) is seeking independence for an ethnic minority (Tuareg) that doesn’t want it, on a piece of land that it has never owned (or ruled) at any point of time in history, in the midst of much larger communities that were never consulted on the matter. Moreover, MNLA claims of extraordinary underdevelopment or neglect of northern Mali seem unfounded.


The desert climate is harsher than some other parts of Mali but the conditions of life and access to government services and attention is not markedly different from the rest of Mali. That is to say that the government is largely absent in most of rural Mali- schools, health care, water, roads, etc. The amount of money that has been spent in the north of Mali over the years has not been spent in the rest of Mali. That the funds have not arrived at their intended destinations is symptomatic of the widespread corruption and disregard for local conditions throughout Mali that is at the heart of the current crisis.

The MNLA has profited from the negotiations to end each of the conflicts they started over the years. Each fragile peace has lasted until the money ran out. Then it has been time for the next rebellion. By negotiating with the MNLA, one only sets the timetable for the next rebellion.

The internationally imposed election scheduled for July 28th doesn’t allow for needed reforms, accurate voter roles, suffrage for the refugees and internally displaced people. Kidal is still not under government control. From the Malian standpoint, this election is necessary in order to alleviate widespread suffering caused by the cut in donor funding as soon as the crisis began. The funding would begin again after an election.

Mali needs support for a Malian solution rather than imposed solutions driven by external interests. A durable solution can come only from the Malian cultural and historical context. Malians themselves need to build a representative, democratic, pluralistic government that hears and respects the will and the rights of all Malians.

Janet Goldner is an artist, independent scholar, and consultant. She has been working in Mali for more than two decades.