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:: MALI ETHNOGRAPHY ::

Mali map.

Total population: +/- 15 millions.
Saharan population: +/- 1,3 millions (8,67%).
Total population density: 12 hab/km2.
Saharan population density: 1,85 hab/km2.
Ethnics: 50% mandes, 19% peuls, 13% voltaics, 11% berbers (touareg) and 7% songhais.
Languages: Bambara and french.
Religions: 90% islamic, 5% christian and 5% animist.
Life expectancy: 52 years.

Present day Mali was once part of three empires that controlled the transaharan trade: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. In the late XIX century, France seized control of Mali making it a part of the French Sudan. The French Sudan, after renamed as Sudanese Republic, joined with Senegal in 1959, achieving its independence in 1960 as the Mali Federation. However, shortly after Senegal withdraw from the confederation and the Sudanese Republic became the independent Republic of Mali.

After a long dictatorial regime, Mali achieved a new constitution and a multiparty regime in the early 1990s. However, Mali as the other subsaharan states, is one of poorest countries in the world, where half the population lives below the international poverty line. Still, the key industry in Mali is the agriculture, which includes the cotton as a product for exportation, while in recent years a gold extraction industry is rising.

Fortunately, Mali historically has enjoyed reasonably good relations between the various ethnics, albeit some hereditary servitude relationships remain, as well as tensions between the songhai and the touareg. In recent times, the northern border of Mali has become troublesome, because of insecurity caused by banditry and the presence of islamist terrorists.


Taudenni is a remote salt mining site isolated in the very arid malian desert, in one of the hottest regions on the world, located over hundred miles from the nearest inhabited location. Taudenni replaced three centuries ago the abandoned salt pan of Tarhazza, located around 150 km to the north-west.

At Taudenni the salt is dug by hand from the bed of a salt lake, cut into slabs and transported towards Tombuctu either by truck or by camel. The salt caravans (known as azalai) from Taudenni are some of the last that still operate in the Sahara. In 1969 a prison was built at the site and the inmates were forced to work in the mines, until the prison was closed in 1988. The inmates forced to work at Taudenni were political prisoners. The extreme conditions provoked the death of about 140 of them, which are buried in a nearby cemetery, where only a dozen of graves have names on them.

The miners use crude axes to dig pits that usually measure 5 x 5 meters with a depth of 4 meters. The miners first have to remove 1,5 meters of red clay overburden, then several layers of poor quality salt before reaching three layers of high quality salt. The salt is then cut into slabs that are 110 cm x 45 cm by 5 cm thick and weigh around 30 kg. Two of the high quality layers are of sufficient thickness to be split in half so that 5 slabs can be produced from the three layers. Having removed the salt from the base area of the pit, the miners excavate horizontally to create galleries from which additional slabs can be obtained.

When a pit is exhausted another one is dug so there are now thousands of pits spread over a wide area. Over the centuries salt has been extracted from three distinct areas of the depression, with each successive area located further to the south-west. These three areas can be clearly seen on satellite photographs. Around 1000 men work at the mines from October to April, living in primitive huts made from blocks of inferior quality salt. The hottest months of the year are avoided but still about ten workers remain there.

The salt mines in Taudenni. The salt mines in Taudenni.

The salt slabs are transported across the desert towards Tombuctu, via the oasis of Arauane. In the past they were always carried by camel but recently some of the salt has been transported by trucks. By camel the journey to Tombuctu takes around three weeks with each camel carrying four or five slabs. The typical arrangement is that for each four slabs transported to Tombuctu, one is for the miners and the other three are payment for the camel owners.

The salt has been traditionally transported by two large camel caravans leaving Tombuctu, one in early November and the other in late March at the end of the season. It was estimated that in 1939-40 the winter caravan consisted of more than 4000 camels and that the total production amounted to 35000 slabs. The number of slabs reaching Tombuctu increased from 10500 in 1926 to 160000 in 1957 (with a total weight of 4800 tons). However, in the early 1970's the production decreased and at the end of the decade was between 50000 and 70000 slabs.

A salt caravan near Taudenni. A salt caravan near Taudenni.

The touareg in Mali are a minority, as they are in every country they inhabit. These nomads exploit the relatively abundant vegetation that exists in the eastern part of Mali, in the regions of Kidal and Gao. It is here in the forests among the pools that the families gather for the rains. Most of the year they live in small family units, a few tents of extended family, far from neighbors to maximize the yield, grazing their animals on the besieged and sparse vegetation. Thus, with the rains and the subsequent surplus of water and food, the families coming together is a moment of relaxation and celebration.

The issawat is an activity relegated to the night. After the stars have come out and the families have finished dinner, the youth sneak off. Perhaps one will begin playing a tende drum. The other young and unmarried youth will hear the distant low pounding of the drum. Sneaking off to some locale away from the camp, the youth assemble.

The music of the issawat is characterized by the sigadah, the low humming of the men, which provides a bass, and the woman who will sing the melody. The songs are often provocative, songs of love, albeit it in a very coy and covert manner. The issawat is also the opportunity for the youth to meet and flirt, and in the periphery of the performance, the young boys and girls whisper to one another.

Targui girl playing the drum during the issawat. A group of touareg girls in Tessalit.



Arauane is a village located in the middle of the arid Azauad, being a station on the trade route between Tombuctu and Taudenni. This village was an oasis in the past, but it has declined in the last centuries, to the point that its mosque got buried in sand to its minaret.

In the early 1990s, this village was surrounded by a 3/4 circle of sand dunes, about 20 meters high. The sand was falling from these dunes continuously, slowly burying the village. There were no houses to be seen within the circle, only their roofs could be seen. People living in Arauane were actually living underground, stepping into their houses as one would step into a cellar. Restoration works on this village began in the early 1990s, but were severely disrupted by a touareg rebellion.

The decayed village of Arauane.

Tombuctu is a town with a population around 35000, that was in the past a thriving trading center and a cultural town with an important university and library. The town was founded around 1100 by the touareg and named Tin Buktu, which in their language would mean "the place of the caretaker Buktu". During its most splendorous time, the town was inhabited by around 100000 people, of berber, arabic and bamba ethnicity. The town was a crossroad of several trade routes and referred as the port of the desert, meeting place of the ones that travel in canoe and the ones that travel in camel.

In Europe, Tombuctu became legendary among the explorers and adventurers because of the rumors talking about mosques with high minarets and palaces ornamented with gold. When the first modern europeans came to Tombuctu, found that the town was infested with islamic fanatics that prosecuted the infidels, so they had to access the town in disguise. Even being disguised, the explorers found the people of Tombuctu as generally inhospitable. When french explorer René Caillé entered the town in 1828, he felt dissapointed; instead of seeing what the legends promised, he found that the town was instead a mass of adobe hovels, where people lived in bitter poverty.

Even today, many tourists feel dissapointed when they visit this place. Certainly, there are no marvels in Tombuctu, but it is a town with a long history and an example of sudanese architecture mixed with adobe brick elements. In the mosque of Sankore the doors are decorated with moorish elements, a remember of the moroccan influence in the past times. Precisely, was the moroccan invasion in the XVI century the event that started the decadence of Tombuctu, followed by the approaching dunes and the sand storms that ruined the vegetation and caused unease in the inhabitants. Today, Tombuctu is still a forgotten town, where the dunes of the desert already rest against the walls.

The traditional sudanese architecture in Tombuctu. The mosque of Sankore in Tombuctu.

Traditional architecture and moorish door in Tombuctu. Traditional architecture and moorish doors in Tombuctu.

In the image below, a peul woman wearing a festive headdress made with amber balls, golden rings and huge golden earrings. The peuls (also known as fulani or fulbe) are the most numerous nomad people in the world, being still one of unknown origin, product of miscegenation. Traces of their culture have been observed in the neolithic art existent along the central Sahara. At the present they live in many countries in the western Sahel, where they traditionally lead their herds of sheeps, goats and cattle. In saharan countries, around 2,8 millions live in Mali, 1,5 millions live in Niger and lesser numbers of them inhabit Mauritania and Chad. They were amongst the first africans that adopted the islam, religion that they follow with devotion. Polygyny is habitual within the peuls, since the islam tolerates this practice.

A peul woman with a festive headdress.

Mali Geography



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