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|35 million (1996)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Mali||7,638 988 (50%)|
|Ivory Coast||5,123,420 (21%)|
|Burkina Faso||1,984,200 (15%)|
|The Gambia||714,000 (42%)|
|Sierra Leone||465,813 (8%)|
|Mauritania||306,900 (10%)|
|Liberia||245,300 (7.4%)|
|Islam (99%), Animism|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Mandé peoples, especially the Dyula, Khassonké and Bambara|
The Mandinka (also known as Mandenka, Mandinko, Mandingo, Manding or Malinke) are a West African ethnic group with an estimated global population of 11 million (the other three largest ethnic groups in West Africa being the unrelated Fula, Hausa and Songhai peoples). The Mandinka are the descendants of the Mali Empire, which rose to power in the 13th century under the rule of the Malinké/Maninka king Sundiata Keita.
The Mandinka are one ethnic group within the larger linguistic family of the Mandé peoples, who account for more than 20 million people. (Other Mande peoples include the Dyula, Bozo, Bissa and Bambara). Originally from Mali, the Mandinka gained their independence from previous empires in the 13th century and founded an empire which stretched across West Africa. They migrated west from the Niger River in search of better agricultural lands and more opportunities for conquest. Through a series of Fula conflicts known as the Fula jihads, particularly the Fula-led Imamate of Futa Jallon, many Mandinka people converted from indigenous animist beliefs to Islam. In the 21st century, more than 99% of Mandinka in contemporary Africa are Muslim.
The Mandinka people live primarily in West Africa, particularly in The Gambia and Guinea—in both of which they constitute the largest ethnic group. Major populations of the Mandinka people also live in Mali, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Mauritania. Although widespread, in most countries the Mandinka are not the largest ethnic group. Most Mandinka live in family-related compounds in traditional rural villages. Their traditional society has featured socially stratified castes. Mandinka communities have been fairly autonomous and self-ruled, being led by a chief and group of elders. Mandinka has been an oral society where mythologies, history and knowledge is verbally transmitted from one generation to next.
Between the 16th and 19th century, many Muslim and non-Muslim Mandinka people, along with numerous other African ethnic groups, were captured, enslaved and shipped to the Americas. They intermixed with slaves and workers of other ethnicities, creating a Creole culture. The Mandinka people significantly influenced the African heritage of descended peoples now found in the Caribbean, Brazil and the southern United States.
The Mandés were initially a part of many fragmented kingdoms that formed after the collapse of Ghana empire in the 11th century. During the rule of Sundiata Keita, these kingdoms were consolidated, and the Mandinka expanded west from the Niger River basin under Sundiata's general Tiramakhan Traore. This expansion was a part of creating a region of conquest, according to the oral tradition of the Mandinka people. This migration began in the later part of the 13th century.
Another group of Mandinka people, under Faran Kamara – the son of the king of Tabou – expanded southeast of Mali, while a third group expanded with Fakoli Kourouma.
With the migration, many gold artisans and metal working Mandinka smiths settled along the coast and in the hilly Fouta Djallon and plateau areas of West Africa. Their presence and products attracted Mandika merchants and brought trading caravans from north Africa and the eastern Sahel, states Toby Green – a professor of African History and Culture. It also brought conflicts with other ethnic groups, such as the Wolof people, particularly the Jolof Empire.
The caravan trade to North Africa and Middle East brought Islamic people into Mandinka people's original and expanded home region. The Muslim traders sought presence in the host Mandinka community, and this likely initiated proselytizing efforts to convert the Mandinka from their traditional religious beliefs into Islam. In Ghana, for example, the Almoravids had divided its capital into two parts by 1077, one part was Muslim and other non-Muslim. The Muslim influence from North Africa had arrived in the Mandinka region before this, via Islamic trading diasporas.
In 1324, Sultan Mansa Musa who ruled Mali, went on Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca with caravan carrying gold. Shihab al-Umari, the Arabic historian, described his visit and stated that Musa built mosques in his kingdom, established Islamic prayers and took back Maliki school of Sunni jurists with him. According to Richard Turner – a professor of African American Religious History, Musa was highly influential in attracting North African and Middle Eastern Muslims to West Africa.
The Mandinka people of Mali converted early, but those who migrated to the west did not convert and retained their traditional religious rites. One of the legends among the Mandingo of western Africa is that the general Tiramakhan Traore led the migration, because people in Mali had converted to Islam and he did not want to. Another legend gives a contrasting account, and states that Traore himself had converted and married Muhammad's grand daughter. The Traore's marriage with a Muhammad's granddaughter, states Toby Green, is fanciful, but these conflicting oral histories suggest that Islam had arrived well before the 13th century and had a complex interaction with the Mandinka people.
Through a series of conflicts, primarily with the Fula-led jihads under Imamate of Futa Jallon, many Mandinka converted to Islam. In contemporary West Africa, Mandinka are predominantly Muslim, with a few regions, such as Guinea Bissau, where a significant minority (13%) of the Mandinka people is not Islamic.
The history of slave raiding, capture and trading in the Mandinka regions, in significant numbers, started long before the European colonial era, as is evidenced in the memoirs of the 14th century Moroccan traveller and Islamic historian Ibn Battuta. Slaves have been a part of the socially stratified Mandinka people, and several Mandinka language words, such as Jong or Jongo refer to slaves. There were fourteen Mandinke kingdoms along the Gambia River in early 19th century Senegambia region, for example, where slaves were a part of the social strata in all these kingdoms.
|Region||Total embarked||Total disembarked|
|Kongo people region||5.69 million|
|Bight of Benin||2.00 million|
|Bight of Biafra||1.6 million|
|Gold Coast||1.21 million|
|Windward Coast||0.34 million|
|Sierra Leone||0.39 million|
|Brazil (South America)||4.7 million|
|Rest of South America||0.9 million|
|North America||0.4 million|
According to Toby Green, selling slaves along with gold was already a significant part of the trans-Saharan caravan trade across the Sahel between West Africa and the Middle East after the 13th century. With the arrival of Portuguese explorers in Africa as they looked for a sea route to India, the European purchase of slaves had begun. The shipment of slaves by the Portuguese, primarily from the Jolof people, along with some Mandinka, started in the 15th century, states Green, but the earliest evidence of a trade involving Mandinka slaves is from and after 1497 CE. In parallel with the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the institution of slavery and slave-trading of West Africans into the Mediterranean region and inside Africa continued as a historic normal practice.
Slavery grew significantly between the 16th and 19th century. The Portuguese considered slave sources in Guinea and Senegambia parts of Mandinka territory as belonging to them, with their 16th to 18th century slave trade-related documents referring to "our Guinea" and complaining about French and British slave trading ships overrunning them. Their slave exports from this region nearly doubled in the second half of the 18th century compared to the first, but most of these slaves disembarked in Brazil.
Scholars have offered several theories on the source of the transatlantic slave trade of Mandinka people. According to Boubacar Barry, a professor of History and African Studies, chronic violence between ethnic groups such as Mandinka people and their neighbours, combined with weapons sold by slave traders and lucrative income from slave ships to the slave sellers, fed the practice of captives, raiding, manhunts and slaves. The victimised ethnic group felt justified in retaliating. Slavery was already an accepted practice before the 15th century. As the demand grew, states Barry, Futa Jallon led by an Islamic military theocracy became one of the centers of this slavery-perpetuating violence, while Farim of Kaabu – or the commander of Mandinka people in Kaabu – energetically hunted slaves on a large scale. Kaabu was, states Martin Klein – a professor of African Studies, one of early suppliers of African slaves to European merchants.
The historian Walter Rodney states that Mandinka and other ethnic groups already had slaves who inherited slavery by birth, and who could be sold. The Islamic armies from Sudan had long established the practice of slave raids and trade. Fula jihad from Futa Jallon plateau perpetuated and expanded this practice. These jihads were the largest producer of slaves for the Portuguese traders at the ports controlled by Mandinka people. The insecure ethnic groups, states Rodney, stopped working productively and became withdrawn, which made social and economic conditions desperate, and they also joined the retaliatory cycle of slave raids and violence.
Walter Hawthorne – a professor of African History, states that the Barry and Rodney explanation was not universally true for all of Senegambia and Guinea where high concentrations of Mandinka people have traditionally lived. Hawthorne states that large numbers of Mandinka people started arriving as slaves in Portuguese, French and British colonies in the Caribbean and South America, only between mid 18th through to the 19th century. During these years, slave trade records show that nearly 33% of the slaves from Senegambia and Guinea-Bissau coasts were Mandinka people. Hawthorne suggests three causes of Mandinka people appearing as slaves during this era: small scale jihads by Muslims against non-Muslim Mandinka, non-religious reasons such as economic greed of Islamic elites who wanted imports from the coast, and attacks by the Fula people on Mandinka's Kaabu with consequent cycle of violence.
Mandinka are rural subsistence farmers in the Sahel who rely on peanuts, rice, millet, maize and small-scale husbandry for their livelihood. During the wet season, men plant peanuts as their main cash crop. Men also grow millet and women work in the rice fields, tending the plants by hand. This is extremely labour-intensive and physically demanding work. Only about 50% of the rice consumption needs are met by local planting; the rest is imported from Asia and the United States.
The oldest male is the head of the family and marriages are commonly arranged. Small mud houses with conical thatch or tin roofs make up their villages, which are organised on the basis of the clan groups. While farming is the predominant profession among the Mandinka, men also work as tailors, butchers, taxi drivers, woodworkers, metalworkers, soldiers, nurses and extension workers for aid agencies. However, most women, probably 95%, tend to the home, children and animals as well as work alongside the men in the fields.
Today, over 99% of Mandinka are Muslim. Mandinkas recite chapters of the Qur'an in Arabic. Some Mandinka syncretize Islam and traditional African religions. Among these syncretists spirits can be controlled mainly through the power of a marabout, who knows the protective formulas. In most cases, no important decision is made without first consulting a marabout. Marabouts, who have Islamic training, write Qur'anic verses on slips of paper and sew them into leather pouches (talisman); these are worn as protective amulets.
The conversion to Islam took place over many centuries. According to Robert Wyndham Nicholls, Mandinka in Senegambia started converting to Islam as early as the 17th century, and most of Mandinka leatherworkers there converted to Islam before the 19th century. The Mandinka musicians, however were last, converting to Islam mostly in the first half of the 20th century. Like elsewhere, these Muslims have continued their pre-Islamic religious practices such as their annual rain ceremony and "sacrifice of the black bull" to their past deities.
Most Mandinkas live in family-related compounds in traditional rural villages. Mandinka villages are fairly autonomous and self-ruled, being led by a council of upper class elders and a chief who functions as a first among equals.
The Mandinka people have traditionally been a socially stratified society, like many West African ethnic groups with castes. The Mandinka society, states Arnold Hughes – a professor of West African Studies and African Politics, has been "divided into three endogamous castes – the freeborn (foro), slaves (jongo), and artisans and praise singers (nyamolo). The freeborn castes are primarily farmers, while the slave strata included labor providers to the farmers, as well as leather workers, pottery makers, metal smiths, griots and others. The Mandinka Muslim clerics and scribes have traditionally been considered as a separate occupational caste called Jakhanke, with their Islamic roots traceable to about the 13th century.
The Mandinka castes are hereditary, and marriages outside the caste was forbidden. Their caste system is similar to those of other ethnic groups of the African Sahel region, and found across the Mandinka communities such as those in Gambia, Mali, Guinea and other countries.
The Mandinka practice a rite of passage, Kankurang, which marks the beginning of adulthood for their children. At an age between four and fourteen, the youngsters have their genitalia ritually cut (see articles on male and female genital cutting), in separate groups according to their sex. In years past, the children spent up to a year in the bush, but that has been reduced now to coincide with their physical healing time, between three and four weeks.
During this time, they learn about their adult social responsibilities and rules of behaviour. Preparation is made in the village or compound for the return of the children. A celebration marks the return of these new adults to their families. As a result of these traditional teachings, in marriage a woman's loyalty remains to her parents and her family; a man's to his.
The women among the Mandinka people, like other ethnic groups near them, have traditionally practiced female genital mutilation (FGM). According to UNICEF, the female circumcision prevalence rates among the Mandinkas of the Gambia is the highest at over 96%, followed by FGM among the women of the Jola people's at 91% and Fula people at 88%. Among the Mandinka women of some other countries of West Africa, the FGM prevalence rates are lower, but range between 40% to 90%. This cultural practice, locally called Niaka or Kuyungo or Musolula Karoola or Bondo, involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, or alternatively, the partial or total removal of the labia minora with the clitoris.
Some surveys, such as those by the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), estimate FGM is prevalent among 100% of the Mandinkas in Gambia. In 2010, after community efforts of UNICEF and the local government bodies, several Mandinka women's organization pledged to abandon the female genital multilation practices.
Marriages are traditionally arranged by family members rather than either the bride or groom. This practice is particularly prevalent in the rural areas. Kola nuts, a bitter nut from a tree, are formally sent by the suitor's family to the male elders of the bride-to-be, and if accepted, the courtship begins.
Polygamy has been practiced among the Mandinka since pre-Islamic days. A Mandinka man is legally allowed to have up to four wives, as long as he is able to care for each of them equally. Mandinka believe the crowning glory of any woman is the ability to produce children, especially sons. The first wife has authority over any subsequent wives. The husband has complete control over his wives and is responsible for feeding and clothing them. He also helps the wives' parents when necessary. Wives are expected to live together in harmony, at least superficially. They share work responsibilities of the compound, such as cooking, laundry and other tasks.
Mandinka culture is rich in tradition, music and spiritual ritual. Mandinkas continue a long oral history tradition through stories, songs and proverbs. In rural areas, western education's impact is minimal; the literacy rate in Latin script among these Mandinka is quite low. However, more than half the adult population can read the local Arabic script (including Mandinka Ajami); small Qur'anic schools for children where this is taught are quite common. Mandinka children are given their name on the eighth day after their birth, and their children are almost always named after a very important person in their family.
The Mandinka have a rich oral history that is passed down through griots. This passing down of oral history through music has made music one of the most distinctive traits of the Mandinka. They have long been known for their drumming and also for their unique musical instrument, the kora. The kora is a twenty-one-stringed guitar-like instrument made out of a halved, dried, hollowed-out gourd covered with cow or goat skin. The strings are made of fishing line (these were traditionally made from a cow's tendons). It is played to accompany a griot's singing or simply on its own.
The kora has become the hallmark of traditional Mandinka musicians". The kora with its 21 strings is made from half a calabash, covered with cow's hide fastened on by decorative tacks. The kora has sound holes in the side which are used to store coins offered to the praise singers, in appreciation of their performance. The praise singers are called "jalibaa" in Mandinka.
One Mandinka outside Africa is Kunta Kinte, a main figure in Alex Haley's book Roots and a subsequent TV mini-series. Haley claimed he was descended from Kinte, though this familial link has been criticised by many professional historians and at least one genealogist as highly improbable (see D. Wright's The World And A Very Small Place). Martin R. Delany, a 19th century abolitionist, military leader, politician and physician in the United States, was of partial Mandinka descent.
Sinéad O'Connor's 1988 hit Mandinka was inspired by Alex Haley's book.
Mr. T, of American television fame, once claimed that his distinctive hairstyle was modelled after a Mandinka warrior that he saw in National Geographic magazine. In his motivational video Be Somebody... or Be Somebody's Fool!, he states that "My folks came from Africa. They were from the Mandinka tribe. They wore their hair like this. These gold chains I wear symbolize the fact that my ancestors were brought over here as slaves." In a 2006 interview, he reiterated that he modeled his hair style after photographs of Mandinka men he saw in National Geographic.
Many early works by Malian author Massa Makan Diabaté are retellings of Mandinka legends, including Janjon, which won the 1971 Grand prix littéraire d'Afrique noire. His novels The Lieutenant of Kouta, The Barber of Kouta and The Butcher of Kouta attempt to capture the proverbs and customs of the Mandinka people in novelistic form.