Customs and Cuisine of Mali | GAIA Vaccine Foundation

Customs and Cuisine of Mali

By Vinola V. Munyon

What’s in a Name?

The Republic of Mali, “The place where the King lives,” is a landlocked country in West Africa. On gaining independence from France in 1960, the Sudanese Republic and Senegal were united as one country, the Mali Federation. The withdrawal of Senegal from the Federation just a few months later led to the rechristening of what was left of the Mali Federation (which was essentially just The Sudanese Republic) as The Republic of Mali.

Bordered by Mauritania on the west, Algeria on the northeast, and with smaller borders with Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger, The Republic of Mali is the eighth largest country in Africa. For comparison, it is a little less than twice the size of the state of Texas in the United States. The terrain of the country is mostly flat with plains in the north, hills in the northeast, and the savannah in the south. The northern parts of Mali are arid, Saharan zones, the central parts are semi-arid and Sahelian, and the Southern parts where the rivers Niger and Senegal flow are the cultivated Sudanese zone.

Once part of the famed trio of West African empires (the Ghana Empire, the Songhai Empire, and the Mali Empire) that were influential in Trans-Saharan trade, Mali today is the third largest producer of gold in the African continent but a country that is among the poorest in the world.

The People

The Malians are multiethnic and multilingual with over 40 African languages being spoken among the many ethnic groups. Among the sub-Saharan ethnic groups represented are the Bambara (33.3 percent, 2018 estimates), Fulani (13.3 percent), Sarakole/Soninke/Marka (9.8 percent), Senufo/Manianka (9.6 percent), Malinke (8.8 percent), Dogon (8.7 percent), Sonrai (5.9 percent), Bobo (2.1 percent), and Tuareg/Bella (1.7 percent).  French is the official language and is spoken by the vast majority. Bambara is the other most commonly spoken language (46.3 percent). In addition to the official language, Mali recognizes 13 national languages.

The national population estimate as reported in July 2018 was 18,429,893. At six children per female, Mali has the third highest fertility rate in the world. This combined with a decline in mortality rates has positioned Mali to double its population by 2035. Mali has had a history of seasonal outmigration that continues to date, both due to the push (poverty, food shortages, conflict, etc.) and pull (seasonal employment, refuge, etc.) factors. Due to these factors, the population of Mali is skewed young with 48 percent of its population being in the 0 – 14 age group. The population density is highest in the southern regions of the country, the arable and climatically more hospitable parts of the country. Population estimates for 2019 indicate that about 43 percent of the population is urban dwelling, all concentrated in a few major cities. Nomadic tribes still reside in the Northern parts of the country, and much of the central part of the country is predominantly rural.

According to 2018 estimates, about 93.9 percent of Malians identify as Muslim, making Islam the predominant religious faith in the country. Those ascribing to the Christian faith account for about 2.8 percent of the population, and those that practice Animism account for 0.7 percent. Despite its dominance, Islam is not the state religion, Mali is a secular country that allows for freedom of religion. In practice too, there has been scant recorded animosity between religious groups historically. However, in 2012, Sharia law was introduced in northern regions of the country which has caused Mali to appear in rankings of countries potentially hostile to Christian minorities.

Literacy rates are low (total population literacy rate 33 percent; male, 45 percent; female, 22 percent) due to low school enrollments. The number of years spent in school typically ranging from 7 years for females to 8 for males. Despite primary schooling being free, the inability of families to afford the secondary costs of education (books, uniforms, lunches, etc.) and the lack of funding for facilities and staff have kept school life expectancy low.

The Family Unit

A typical family unit in Mali includes not just extended family but also occasionally close friends who have over the course of time become honorary family members referred to as “joking cousinship” (or cousinage in French). Family, however which way it may be defined, is a sacred entity. One’s family lineage is considered to define and determine one’s character. While residence is patrilocal (female members move in with the family they marry into), females continue to maintain ties to their birth family, travelling to their birth family homes for holidays and sending presents at special occasions.

The roles of members of a family are largely traditionally gender-defined, with males working outside the home and females working within the home, although when women do work outside the home it is in areas that are deemed appropriate for their gender, such as tending to crops and petty trade. Child rearing and childcare is primarily the responsibility of the females in a family, although the “village” (the extended family) is very much a source of support. Children are valued and large families are celebrated. The more children the better. This value proposition in conjunction with the lack of education about, or access to, contraception and the absence of bodily autonomy for women is associated with the high fertility rate in Mali. Infant male circumcision and female clitoridectomy are traditional practices in most ethnic groups (the Tuareg are an exception).

While it is considered inappropriate for girls and boys to socialize with the opposite sex, this conservative approach does not extend to matters of clothing. Unlike in other Muslim-dominant societies, Malian women are not prohibited from exposing their arms, heads or necks.

Elders and mothers are afforded special honor and eye contact with an elder is considered disrespectful. Girls are expected to help mothers with household chores while boys are required to help the men with the work outdoors. Cooking is entirely the realm of “womenfolk-work.” Males do not cook, nor do they do their own laundry.

The Food of Mali

While the specifics of Mali cuisine vary by ethnic tribe, in general the staples are grains such as rice, millet, and sorghum served alongside curries (stews) that contain braised greens such as baobab and spinach, meat or fish. While couscous is the staple in the arid North, rice and millet are more so in the South. Curries are an essential part of most meals, and they can be red, white, or black. Red curries get their color from chili powder or ground chilies and are hot to taste. Coconut milk imparts white color to white curries, and these are therefore mild tasting. Black curries contain coriander, fennel, and cumin and have a spicy flavor profile. Peanut paste or peanut-tomato sauce is a base for most curries.

Chicken, goat, mutton, and fish are the dominant proteins. Meat is often served grilled. With the majority of Malians practicing the Islamic faith, pork and alcohol are typically eschewed. Fruit juices and sweet milky tea are drinks of choice.

A quintessential Mali dish is “la capitaine sangha” – Nile perch in a hot chili sauce served with rice and fried bananas.

“Tiguadege na” is a peanut-butter based stew typically prepared with chicken or lamb and cubed carrots and potatoes.

Jollof rice is a dish that is prevalent through the West African nations, each with its distinctive spin and a claim of superiority. Jollof rice is typically a one pot dish of long-grain rice cooked in stewed tomatoes and tomato paste, with the addition of meat, vegetables, and spices like nutmeg and cumin (a la Jambalaya). Ghanaian Jollof rice is served with fried plantains. Nigerian Jollof rice is cooked over wood and has a smoky flavor. The Malian Jollof rice uses less tomato and may include okra and nuts.

Spaghetti in Mali is served with Chouo (stewed beans) and Touru (onions in hot oil).

Sakasaka is a vegetable soup made with green onions and served with Malo (plain rice).

Momi is a small, mildly sweet pan cake that resembles ebelskivers that is a popular street food. Sometimes it is served with hot sauce.

While dessert is not a typical course with meals and reserved only for special occasions, street vendors hawk sorbet made with fruit juices. Packaged in clear plastic bags, the color of the sorbet corresponds to its flavor – red: Dabreni (Hibiscus juice), white: Nono (Yoghurt) or coco (coconut juice), pale yellow: Nyama (ginger juice), orange: Aji (orange juice), and black: Tomidji (coca cola).

Cafe au lait or sweet milky coffee is made with a few tablespoonsful of condensed milk and a few teaspoons of instant coffee and mixed with hot water.

The Mali Way of Life

­Once a prosperous trading post, Mali today is listed among the poorest nations in the World. Droughts, rebellions, a coup, two decades of military dictatorship and more recently a jihadist insurgency in the northern parts of the country have caused a steady decline in the quality of life. The impacts of global climate change have also hit this part of the world hard. Changes in rainfall frequency and duration have increased the conflicts over already scarce resources of land and water.

Despite the adversity, the Malians are lauded as extremely friendly and helpful people who welcome visitors as family. Volunteers who have travelled and lived among the Malians on aid missions speak of people who are “examples of the heights of human kindness – who take people in with nothing to offer them.” They are proud of their heritage and history, yet open and curious to learning about other cultures.

The history of Mali and its people is ironically much like that of Timbaktu, the ancient city in Mali located to the North of the Niger River. Compared to Athens, in its golden age Timbuktu was the epicenter of learning and culture of the Mali empire and famed for its resources. Guy Lankester writes in Fromhere2Timbaktu, “It is where Saharan Africa meets sub-Saharan Africa, the desert meets the river, north Mali meets south. It is in Timbuktu that these worlds have always traded – salt, gold and knowledge.” Today Timbaktu is a metaphor for a “distant, inaccessible place.” The Oxford English Dictionary calls it, “the most distant place imaginable.” It is widely assumed by many to be a fictional place, but Timbaktu is very real, very poor today, and sinking under shifting desert sands. And yet to the Malians it is right at the heart of the world: “For some people, when you say ‘Timbuktu’ it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you that we are right at the heart of the world (Ali Farka Touré*).”


*Ali Farka” Touré (31 October 1939 – 6 March 2006) is a Grammy award winning world-renowned singer and multi-instrumentalist. Born in Mali, he was famous for his style of merging West African music with the Blues.

The CIA World Factbook available at: