Mali Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Mali is one of the largest countries in West Africa, and stands at the crossroads between West Africa and the Sahara. In this lesson, we look at its ethnic groups.

Crossroads of the Desert

While you may scratch your head at the mention of the West African state of Mali, chances are you've heard of its most famous city, Timbuktu. If you're getting a mental image of a desert oasis with mud-brick buildings in the middle of the Sahara, you're getting the right idea. However, that's not all of Mali. In fact, much of the population lies further to the south. Despite that, there is still a rivalry between the north and south that is best explored by looking at the ethnic groups of Mali.

Timbuktu has long been a major trading post

The Mande

The largest ethnic group in Mali are the Mande. They make up more than 50% of the population of the country, and are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. There are 30 million Mande people scattered throughout the western part of West Africa. They tend to be Muslim, but practice a much more moderate form of Islam than some of their neighbors. However, what makes the Mande really interesting is the fact that their culture has a number of secret societies. If you've ever been to a museum and seen those oblong African masks with very animated facial expressions, there is a pretty good chance you've been looking at a Mande mask used for secret society business.


To the north, the Touareg form 10% of the population of Mali. If you've heard of the Berber nomads of the Sahara, you've encountered a group that is quite similar to the Touareg. However, while the Berber may live just beyond the towns of the Sahara, the Touareg truly live out in the desert. Both men and women wear thick headscarves to keep out the sudden sandstorms of the desert. Historically speaking, they have a real conflict with the government of Mali, but despite that rivalry, they also practice Islam.

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