Mandé Cultures

Ivory Coast Table of Contents

The largest cultural complex in northwestern Côte d'Ivoire is that of the Mandé peoples, descendants of renowned inventors of West African agriculture--independent of, but approximately coincident with, early crop domestication in the Middle East. As traders, artisans, and cultivators, they developed highly complex political structures. Two large empires are still remembered today--the Soninké Empire of Ghana, which dates from about the fourth to the thirteenth century, and the Malinké Empire of Mali. The Malinké, like the Soninké, extended their dominion into what is now northern Côte d'Ivoire between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. In about 1670, their Bambara subjects threw off Malinké rule and established several independent states, which were attacked by Fulani armies in the nineteenth century and subsequently fell under the domination of a Malinké conqueror, Samori Touré.

Most Mandé societies are organized into patrilineages and agricultural homesteads. Animal husbandry plays an important role in the economy, although commerce is also well developed, with large markets in both rural and urban settings.

Among the three Mandé groups that continue to dominate the northwest are the Malinké, also found in neighboring Guinea and Mali, and the Bambara, most of whom live in Mali. More recent Mandé immigrants to the region include the Juula, who are dispersed throughout the nation but are identified with the area near the city of Kong. None of these three groups retains its ancient hierarchical political structure, but each has a hereditary nobility and fairly extensive social stratification. The Malinké and Bambara group men and women according to fairly narrow age ranges, and the resultant sororities and fraternities serve to strengthen social solidarity and organize communal work projects.

Most Mandé people speak variants of a common language, sometimes referred to as Mandé-kan, and they share numerous other cultural traits. At the same time, they have different histories and myths of origin, and most important from their point of view, they have different religions.

The Bambara have retained the substance of local beliefs and practices and are known locally as pagans. The Malinké have adapted tenets of Islam to their native beliefs, creating a wide variety of Islamic and syncretic sects. The Juula are strongly Muslim--so much so that many Bambara refer to themselves as Juula if they convert to Islam. Similarly, in other areas of Côte d'Ivoire, Muslim Malinké are referred to as Juula outside their home area, in recognition of their Islamic beliefs. Non-Muslims in the northwest are often called Bambara, regardless of ethnic affiliation.

The term Juula is also a local term for a trader and is used ambiguously in the region to refer to merchants and sedentary descendants of former Juula. The lines of ethnic identity are also blurred because traders are often recognized authorities on Islamic law and may be Juula in both senses of the term.

The Juula have a history of itinerant preaching, teaching, and trading, and they won converts easily in areas characterized by patrilineal descent, patriarchal family organization, and plural marriage. The Wattara clan (jaamu) among the Juula was centered in the region of Kong, where it developed into a mini-kingdom surrounded by Sénoufo people and was destroyed by Samori Touré in the nineteenth century.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress