History of Mali’s Bambara/Bamana

The Bambara are a part of the large Mande ethnic group in West Africa whose roots can be traced to Tichitt in southern Mauritania where urban centres thrived from at least 1500 B.C. Today, the Bambara live primarily in Mali but also in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal. At present, around 80% of the population in Mali speaks Bambara regardless of ethnicity. It is mutually intelligible with the Manding and Diola languages and along with French is today an official language of Mali.

In their own language however they refer to themselves as Bamana or Banmana meaning ‘those who accept no master’. Some scholars have suggested that the name may be originally derived from the Mande words Ban “to reject or repel” and Ana denoting “God”. However, since they certainly accepted their Gods this would be an unlikely name for them to confer upon themselves. It seems much more credible that Bambara is an  inaccurate French translation of Bamana.

The Bamana empire then was a large pre-colonial state ruled by the Kulubali dynasty that was centred in Segou in today’s Mali. Around 1640, Fa Sine became the third Faama (Mande for king) of an expanding Bamana tribal network. In the early 18th century Mumari Kulubali extended their influence. He joined an egalitarian youth organization in Segou known as a ton reorganized its structure and declared himself biton, or chief. Now Biton Kulubari, he built up an army of several thousand men and made successful slave raids against the neighbouring Fulani, the Soninke and the Mossi, founding the city of Bla and briefly capturing Tomboktou. The tomb of Biton Mumari Kulubari is well preserved and can be seen today at Segou koro.

Three more faamas ruled until 1748 when the throne fell into anarchy. Then, a freed slave named Ngollo Diarra seized power and re-established a degree of stability. Mungo Park on his expedition through Bamana territory two years after Diarra’s death in 1795 left us with the following impression of Segou – a testament to the Empire’s prosperity under his reign:

“The view of this extensive city, the numerous canoes on the river, the crowded population, and the cultivated state of the surrounding countryside, formed altogether a prospect of civilization and magnificence that I little expected to find in the bosom of Africa.”

Diarra’s decendents, known as the Ngolosi, continued to rule the Empire until its fall to the jihadist Toucouleur conqueror El Hadj, Umar Tall in 1861. Though the Bamana today adhere to Islam many still practise their traditional rituals particularly in the worship of their ancestors. Society is patrilineal and patriarchal,though few women wear the veil, and social structures are still reinforced through the old fraternal ton systems.

Different caste and ethnic groups tended to occupy certain predetermined roles within the Bamana social and political system. For instance, ethnic groups such as the Maraka were merchants specialising in desert trade but then advanced to agricultural production using captured slaves. The Jula specialised in long distance trade and the Fula communities in cattle breeding. The Bozo ethnic group largely comprised war captives and were turned to fishing and ferrying activities. Internal caste systems such as griots, metalworkers and other vocations were in time denuded with the collapse of the Bamana state. The ton tradition is especially strong particularly in farming (Chi Wara Ton) and hunting (Donzo Ton).

The Donzo Ton age-group fraternity has received prominence recently in the Ivory Coast where they became guards for hire in the unstable years before the 2002 civil war. These hunting fraternities have become more popular it is believed also because of the massive deforestation in west Africa which has left bare previously untraceable spaces. It is believed that amulets (gris-gris) protect them from harm and give them heightened powers such as amplified hearing and vision. They operate in much the same way as a Western guild.

Today, many of the Bamana are cotton farmers. 80% of Mali’s export earnings come from exporting cotton to the Far East where it is fashioned in Export Processing Zones into clothes and textiles for consumption in the West. They have seen a massive drop in their incomes over the past twenty years with the erasure of the UN’s commodity price stabilisation mechanism. Their principle desire politically is to see an end to the crippling cotton subsidies payed to farmers in the West which has kept the international price for cotton even lower than it was back in the 70’s.

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