The Republic of Mali comprises a very diverse population spread over a vast territory composed of a large part of the southern Sahara, the Sahel, and the savannah. One of the world’s great rivers, the Niger, runs through much of the national territory, reaching its northern apex near Timbuktu. For over a millennium, this territory has allowed empires and kingdoms to flourish alongside decentralized societies. These include the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay, as well as any number of smaller states, trading diasporas, and nomadic and semi-nomadic communities. The territory of Mali has long been a hub in African commercial and intellectual circuits, notably those linking the societies of the Maghreb (or North Africa) to those bordering the Atlantic. In the 19th century, as elsewhere in Muslim Africa, new and explicitly Islamic states emerged in western and central Mali. They did not endure more than a few decades, as the territory was colonized by France in the late 19th century. The Republic of Mali claimed its independence in 1960 and rapidly developed greater autonomy from French neo-colonialism than did most of its neighbors. Mali has maintained an out-sized diplomatic and cultural role on the African continent and beyond under a socialist government from 1960 to 1968, military government through 1991, and a vibrant democracy in the decades since. However, since 2011, the country has been increasingly beset by violent conflicts between nonstate actors, the national government, and foreign forces including the French. Thus, in historical perspective, Mali’s geographic position and its environment have proven conducive to the production of expansive, diverse, and mutually dependent communities that have produced radically distinct and often fragile states.
Madina Thiam and Gregory Mann
The study of West Africa has contributed to the expansion of comparative arid-lands floodplain prehistory, from both the data collection (cultural and historical) and the theoretical aspects. The neoevolutionary approach that often pictures Africa as a backward continent has been successfully challenged. In the Middle Senegal Valley and in the Inland Niger Delta, research on their societies’ complexity done along these two subcontinent’s floodplains has described new processes (including urbanization) that were not previously featured in the archaeological literature. The two floodplains, because of their ecological diversity, with the richness of their ecological diversity, attracted Saharan populations affected by drought at the end of the second millennium and the first millennium BC. However, after their initiation occupation the two areas took different trajectories in complexity and settlement organization. Large complex settlements have been found at Jenne-jeno and in the Ile a Morphil that illustrate whole new trajectories of civilization. These forms of complexity, found in areas with historically known polities, were not included in the range of possibilities predicted by standard complexity theories regarding civilizational development. Ethnographic and historical data, reveal the existence of societies with a central authority embedded within and balanced by a diffuse, segmented and heterarchical power structure; often as a strategy to resist the individual consolidation of power. These societies exhibit evidence of horizontal differentiation and consensus-based decision making. All these types of organization are characterized by the presence of several sources of power vested in corporate entities, such as lineages, age groups, cults and secret societies.
The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves. Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another. Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.
Over centuries, a variety of decentralized societies and centralized states have formed in territories across the western Sahel and southwest Sahara, and along the Niger and Senegal river valleys. Women have played central yet often unacknowledged roles in building these communities. By the late 11th century, some were rulers, as tombstones from the Gao region seem to suggest. A travelogue describing the Mali empire, and a chronicle from Songhay, tell stories of women who plotted political dissent or staged rebellions in the 14th–16th centuries. By and large, everyday women’s reproductive and productive labor sustained their families, and structured life in agricultural, pastoral, fishing, or trading communities. In the 1700s in Segu, women brewed mead, cultivated crops, dyed textiles, and participated in the building of fortifications. In Masina in the 1800s, girls attended qurʾanic school, and a woman was the custodian of the caliph’s library. Women also suffered great violence stemming from conflicts, forced displacement, and slavery. By the end of the 19th century, they made up a considerable portion (at times the majority) of enslaved individuals in the region. After the European conquest and creation of the French Soudan colony, the French administration imposed an export-oriented wage economy, in which women worked to supply crops and sustain infrastructure projects. From the regions of Kayes, Kita, and Nioro, many migrated to groundnut- or gold-producing regions of Senegambia. While women’s labor and migrations were seldom accounted for in administrative records, their attempts to leave unhappy marriages or escape enslavement do appear in court records. However, colonial domination was gendered: the administration ultimately shunned women’s emancipation efforts, seeking to channel its rule by reinforcing patriarchal authority in communities. In 1960, the Republic of Mali achieved independence. Under the democratic and military governments that followed, women built pan-African and transnational alliances. In 1991 and beyond, they fought to achieve more rights, and greater political power and representation. Their labor and migrations have continued to sustain a large portion of the economy. Post-2011, they have been both active participants in, and victims of, the conflicts that have engulfed the country, suffering displacement, loss of livelihood, and sexual violence, for which many have yet to receive justice.