Several days ago, an American living in Bamako wrote the following account on his blog:
I was in a SOTRAMA (Mali’s take on the minibus, a green shell ringed with wooden benches, infinite division of space, unlimited passengers) the other day and I watched a guy scoop up a baby from the arms of a mother who was burdened with several bags and a large plastic bowl overflowing with toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.
After she climbed into the SOTRAMA and arranged her merchandise, she did not ask for her baby back. Her baby remained in the arms of a stranger, who was now smiling and laughing with the woman’s daughter on his lap.
Two other women – strangers to each other – began a conversation that ended with reciprocal benedictions when they parted ways.
Everyone sucked their teeth in unison when a policeman stopped the SOTRAMA and asked to see IDs. But everyone quickly laughed when the prentike [the driver’s apprentice] mocked the policeman and then dodged the outstretched hand intending to give him a playful slap on the head.
At a time when Mali has become unjustly branded around the world as a den of violence, religious zealotry and ethnic strife, this anecdote helped me remember what it is about Mali that made me fall in love with the place years ago, and what it is that keeps me going back. I want to highlight four of what I consider the most admirable qualities of Malian society and culture, and reflect on how, if properly harnessed, they might help the country cope with the challenges now before it.
(Although I use terms from the dominant Bambara language, having lived in Senoufo and Soninke communities in Mali, I know the Bambara have no exclusive claim to these qualities, and that equivalent concepts exist in other Malian languages.)
1. Mɔgɔya. This is what’s evident in the SOTRAMA story above — a spontaneous familiarity found even among strangers, an eagerness to engage with other people socially in almost any situation. The Bambara word mɔgɔ means “person,” and you could translate mɔgɔya as “personhood,” but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. In Mali, as in much of Africa, the person is not reducible to the individual; mɔgɔya is expressed through social relations, which exist prior to the person. “It is only by means of social ties that one can achieve personhood,” writes anthropologist Saskia Brand in her ethnography of Bamako, Mediating Means and Fate. An individual human being does not necessarily qualify as a person because, as Brand notes, someone who is anti-social may not be considered a mɔgɔ.
I think of mɔgɔya as a parallel of social capital, something that constitutes a public good, and the decline of which in American society has been noted by social scientists like Robert Putnam. Whatever you call it, Mali has it in spades. For outsiders like me, everyday displays of mɔgɔya can lift the spirits. For Malians, mɔgɔya is what holds society together.
2. Danbe. This term can be equated with dignity, honor, and reputation. Danbe stems in large part from what anthropologists call “ascribed status” — that part of one’s reputation one inherits from one’s ancestors, closely linked to one’s place of origin, as described in my own book. Malians take great pride in their history, both at the level of the family and of the nation. A whole category of people (known as jeliw or “griots”) make their living reminding other people of their danbe. They make sure the memory of illustrious forebears, of legendary heroes and great leaders from Mali’s precolonial history stays fresh in the public mind.
Malians consequently tend to have a solid sense of who they are and where they came from. They exhibit comparatively little desire to mimic outsiders, whether it’s the French, the Americans or the Saudis. They have their own ideals to emulate, rooted in centuries of oral tradition and in their own understanding of their faith. “For us, danbe is at the center of everything,” a Malian man once told me. “It’s like water, you cannot live without it.”
3. Faso kanu. This term literally means “love of father’s house,” but a better translation would be “patriotism.” People unfamiliar with Mali might be tempted to dismiss the country as another African basket case built around arbitrary European-drawn borders lumping together ethnic groups that ought to be separate. But all borders are arbitrary, and overall Malians coexist quite well within the borders they inherited (I’ll address a notable exception below). They relate to their nation-state in a way many other Africans don’t, in part because of the danbe complex of dignity, honor and historical memory that goes back to the 13th-century founding of the Mali Empire. Watching recent news footage from Timbuktu and elsewhere in newly liberated zones, I’ve been struck by the scenes of jubilant crowds greeting the troops and journalists, and by hordes of children chanting “MALI! MALI! MALI!” Even as the country has been at war, Malians have been transfixed by their national soccer team, les Aigles, who on Saturday battled their way past South Africa to reach the semi-finals in the African Cup of Nations. Don’t tell them their national identity is a meaningless colonial-era construction; they’ll think you’re stupid or crazy.
4. Senenkunya. Definitely the most idiosyncratic of the four, senenkunya is a system of joking relations that cross-cuts distinctions of ethnicity, caste, and clan. When two strangers in Mali meet, the first thing they do is ask each others’ jaamu or clan name. If for example one’s a Traoré and the other’s a Diarra, or one’s a Coulibaly and the other’s a Keita, or one’s a Fulani cattle herder and the other is a blacksmith (both statuses readily revealed by clan name), the second thing they will do is ritually insult one another. They will belittle each others’ intelligence, ancestry, and diet, often accusing each other of flatulence. And then they will get along like old friends.
Bizarre as it may appear, senenkunya is about a lot more than ritual insults (see a recent BBC article). It lays out a shared cultural blueprint to help people from all walks of life relate to one another. If two people in conflict learn that they are “joking cousins,” the conflict is immediately ended. Senenkunya is a system of alliances, some characterized by joking, others by deep respect and even avoidance. Like danbe, its origins can be traced to the earliest period of Mali’s precolonial history. If mɔgɔya is the glue that holds Malian society together, senenkunya is the grease that facilitates social relations and exchange.
(A couple of my colleagues in France, Etienne Smith and Cécile Canut, have questioned the utility of senenkunya and other African systems of joking relations, describing analyses like mine as outmoded functionalist irenicism. While I don’t know what irenicism is, I do consider their argument a fitting contribution from two dim-witted, flatulent eaters of donkey meat.)
Mali’s combination of strong social capital, concern for dignity, national identity, and joking relations described above can, I believe, help the country survive the conflict that now engulfs it. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, there’s nothing that’s wrong with Mali that can’t be fixed by what’s right with Mali. But Mali’s history since independence also suggests that these cultural assets have not extended evenly to all parts of the country. While the Tuareg are joking cousins with the Songhay, this fact has not prevented conflict among these groups, and one Malian has even told me that Songhay-Tuareg cousinage is “non-binding.” The “Tuareg problem” in the north is the one ethnic divide in contemporary Mali with political salience, and groups on both sides of this divide consider themselves the historical victims. Light-skinned Tuareg point to a history of periodic repression by the Malian state and its associated ethnic militias, while their darker-skinned neighbors point to a history of being enslaved and attacked by the Tuareg. Recent recriminations against Tuareg and Arabs in Timbuktu are rooted in this history.
For Mali to break the decades-long cycle of conflict in the north, two things must happen. One, Tuareg leaders must face up to the legacy of slavery and racism that marks their people’s relations with black Africans. Two, officials of the central government must face up to the pattern of neglect and abuse that marks their relations with the Tuareg. At a juncture when even some Europeans are calling for an independent Tuareg state, perhaps we should think instead about how Tuareg and non-Tuareg can forge new bonds of peace with each other. The inclusiveness of Malian society simply needs to be taken a step further. It is not so far-fetched to imagine that all citizens of Mali, regardless of ethnicity or skin tone, might someday soon unite behind a common national identity.
Allez les Aigles!
A very thoughtful and helpful post about Malian culture. the US could use more than a little of the social capital you describe. I’d like to hear more about the Tuaregs and their history vis a vis other Malians. Can you devote a post to this issue?
You need to tell me what your Malian identity is first, so that I can find out whether we are cousins or not and respond accordingly …….. Well said, I agree to all of the above, having lived in various parts of Mali for more than ten years. Too bad, the Touregs don’t have cousins. Maybe someone in Mali should officially adopt them!
Hi Bruce, nice text once again.
Your french colleaugues reproached you irenicisme, I think it’s irenism: seeking to understand focussing on what you have in common, while ignoring differences. (btw: funny illustration, the reference to donkey-meat eaters!)
On irenics (as opposed to polemics), I always send folks to Emily Martin’s chapter in Science Wars – http://books.google.com/books/about/Science_Wars.html?id=PQcAB-2VwgIC – “Meeting Polemics with Irenics in the Science Wars.”
So, I thought Allez les aigles at the end was an overdue cheer for the Philly football team, but when I hit reply, the link to a photo showed up and I assume it’s a Malian soccer team? thanks for the blog post. and greetings from Geneva, where it is cold but probably no more than there. the place where I am staying is beautiful and despite distractions I’ve started writing and will keep going. the days are shorter though; sunrise is almost 8am! how are you and family doing? Judy
The Superbowl was already over by the time I wrote this, and while I didn’t watch it I’m pretty sure the Eagles weren’t in it. But it’s nice to see there’s an American out there who follows professional sports even less closely than I do!
You are right ,it’s “irenicism”:a term much favoured by theFrench intelligentsia:it means (I am simplifying you are ready to give your all to a cause preferably lost,or are all ears for a hopeless fiend)
Thank you for your chronicles:I only Know Kayes on seine!
Please tell us what your Malian name is.
In Mali I’m known as Sekou Keita, which puts me in a long line of illustrious heroes (unlike those lowly Coulibaly bean-eaters)
Okay, just curious.
You might be interested to know that from 1996-2007, there was a writers’ contest held in Kayes among the Soninke (“Madi Kaama Musundo” = the Madi Kaama contest. Ba Madi Kaama was a Soninke wise man of about 150 years ago.). The theme for 2001 was joking relationships (“kallengooraaxu” in Soninke) and how these could be used in conflict resolution in today’s Mali.The documents are all in Soninke, and our organization helped publish and distribute them. Interesting stuff.
PeterJ dit Pierre Diabate
Ehhhh!! Coulibaly te sho dun!! Keita ye shodunna ye! 🙂 Thanks for the great post, so true. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate your in-depth analysis and love for Mali, especially in light of all the oversimplification and “Africanistan” (a term I very much disagree with) reporting around Mali lately (mostly from reporters who clearly haven’t spent much or any time in Mali and are all to eager to jump to the “failed African state” storyline).
HAHAHAHAH Keitake, Aw salam aleikum.
Thank you for the master piece, it is great to read about other peoples point of view on Mali.
I have been living in New Zealand for the last 20 years and still miss Mali every second….
Madou Coulibaly from Sanembele, cercle de Kati, region de Koulikoro.
Best wishes from your king (Coulibalyke).
Thank you for a lovely reminder that there are millions of real, living, breathing people in Mali. I want to rally support to Stop the War and start the peace and reconciliation process that was not given enough effort or attention in this latest confllict before resorting to a milutary campaign. If you’d like to join in, I’ve started a post with a list of 5 current petitions and an appeal for more ideas. Best, Anita
lovely story-telling and an article worth more than the majority of media-reports together. i ni ce, Sekou Keita!
“While I don’t know what irenicism is, I do consider their argument a fitting contribution from two dim-witted, flatulent eaters of donkey meat.”
Thanks for the laugh, Bruce. They must be Traorés.
Um, they were obviously Diarras and/or Konés, shodunna.
Great post, Bruce!
Your friend, Djeneba Kone
Thanks a lot! We, Malian are pride of Mogoya, Faso kanuya, Danbeya, Sanankuya. If one of these lack a man, this one is consider as a dead man in our society. Because they are the fundamental things which help functionning Malian society.
Wonderful post, and I think those four reasons will certainly help pull Mali through. I carried a stranger’s small child on my lap once all the way from Bamako to Kangaba. This was when I was a fairly new volunteer. It wasn’t really a choice that I was given, nor did I really want to hold the child at the time, but rather, someone just placed him there because that was the only option. Boy was it difficult, when he and I were both falling asleep, to keep him from falling out the back of the open bachee. This also became one of the things that I grew to love about the Malian people, it gives you a completely different perspective on life.
Hey Bruce, thrilled that the sotrama anecdote provided some inspiration for this post. Couldn’t agree with you more on the content. I also appreciate the fact that you marked the concepts in bamanankan as it helps make them more concrete. On the subject of cousinage and Tuaregs, many Tuaregs have told me that they are cousins with the Dogon and there are indeed a number of insults that are shared between them (I have a Dogon name and this has come up on multiple occasions). If anyone else reading here has any knowledge on the origins of this, please let me know!!
You’re right. I had a dogon name too! (Kumbe Goulakan) Between Bandiagara and Bankasse, everyone always told me to joke with the fulani (obsessed with their cows and milk!), the bozos (always on the river, probably poop in it!), the songrai (don’t know how to farm correctly!), and the tuareg (never stay in one place, love their camels too much!).
The first three groups were common in Dogon Country and Sevare/Mopti, but the Tuareg not so much. For that reason, I never got to see much first hand joking between the Dogon and Tuareg, but when I occasionally went up towards Douentza, I happened upon it a few times, and the joking was just as lively as in anywhere else around the country. Once the obligatory insults ensued, the familiarity was warm and apparent! Only in Mali…
Very good, Bruce. I too love those four things, though I don’t think I could have expressed them as well as you did. By the way, your post reminds me that I need to make a couple of new posts to my blog. One will be a experience I had with that the French call plaisanteries and what Anglophone scholars call joking relations, what you call senenkuna . I don’t think I would have remembered the Bamabra word without a hint, but I sure remember the incident that I will soon recount on my blog.
The importance of “Senekunya” is critical and it’s value to diffusing conflict is very important. I offer an example from my personal experince: Traveling on a motorised periouge to Timbuctou, a Bozo boat captain tried to extort more money from me than was the going price. It got heated with a threat to put me off in the middle of the night, in the middle of the river. The other passengers pointed out that my last name was “Dolo” (from the Dogon people). The captain immediately dropped the issue. He was obliged to for the sake of his “danbe”, the “senekunya” and to avoid being called a non-person due to “mogoya”. Thanks Bruce for this good analysis.
(Besides Bozo are just not that bright. Anybody who eat their fish with the scales still on have something wrong with them.)
Hey, this is a great post you’ve written here, and pretty much sums up my feelings too, we both love mali for the exact same reasons! I stumbled upon this page looking for “senenkunya” as I wanted to find a good explanation I could link to when trying to explain it to french people (I’m french myself, have lived in Mali, done some anthropology research too at undergrad levl) I can’t beleive these dim-witted French social scientists you mentionned would underestimate its importance, I’ve always thought that senenkunya was one if not the most important reason for the exemplary, solid, social peace in Mali compared to most other african countries. I always thought that senenkunya was what made Mali pretty much “tribal war”-proof…. with the exception, of course, of some tamasheq that have always caused trouble in the north–but a minority of them!… Senenkunya links always finds their source in some foundating mythical story, maybe now is the time to write one between the Songhai and the Tamasheq? (However it’s worth mentionning that the prohibition of blood-spilling between senenkunw also implies that marriage is forbidden as blood is ideally supposed to be shed when rupturing the bride’s hymen)
Some (non-Tuareg) Malians claim that the Tuareg have a “cousinage” with the Sonrai, but that the Tuareg (being the ungrateful spoiled children of the Republic that they are) refused to play their assigned role in this relationship. I have no idea whether this claim is remotely true.
Oh, I would have added these 2 things to your list : hadamadenya (different from mogoya/maaya), and, of course, the one thing that so many strangers in Mali are most grateful for, djatiguiya!
Bruce! you are a professor of Mali from every angle; as a Malian I am very impress about your knowledge on Mali.This is a terrific masterpiece article about Mali. Bruce, I dont not Known if you know that “A Bozo can not go to the funeral ceremony of a Dogon because of Senenkunya and vice versa”
I once worked with a Dogon and a Bozo on staff, and I noticed when we had staff meetings they would always sit on opposite sites of the room. Avoidance, you know.
Avoidance is the key for them sometimes as they have very strong bond, there should be no fight or aggressive behaviour between them even if a problem raise it should be resolved by smile and kindness so sitting on opposite side may help them. For not participating in funeral between them , there are different explanations why; but it all end up to the fact that the bond is very strong, unique and special to them.
Bruce, the term “senekunya” is what we learned in Bambara as “sinnagoya” (breast-rivalry). Are they the same or what difference exists between the terms?
Different spellings, same concept
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Great article! I have been to Mali many times, and head up a small non-profit (www.buildaschoolinafrica.org) that raises money to help build schools down in the Sikasso region. I love the tradition of joking insults (my Malian name is Coulibaly, so I am always being accused of being a bean-eater) ) and the overwhelming hospitality and kindness (and curiosity about foreigners) of the Malian people. The exchanges on the Sotrama are always interesting; as a single woman, I am often asked “How are your children?” “I have no children”. Astonishment: “You have no children?” “No – I have no husband.” More astonishment: “You have no husband?!!” My response ” Ayi –Ne ye ba jurun ntan ye ” -“No, I am a goat without a rope” always elicits howls of laughter. I was supposed to go to Mali in mid-January, to participate in the ground-breaking ceremony for our tenth school, but the travelers’ warnings and general apprehension about being a conspicuous target for kidnapping and ransom led me to cancel my reservation. The school construction has already started, but I am hoping that things will have settled down ad I’ll be able to visit the school in the fairly near future. I miss my Malian friends and am encouraged by the retreat of the radical Islamists (what a joyless group of people they are!) and hope that it will soon be safe for Americans and Europeans again.
A Malian woman e-mailed the following comment to me:
“I agree in part with you for the good we can draw from these societal values of ours… but at the same times lately, our generation 50 and younger have really picked and chosen from them and they are, at least in my opinion, part of the problem we living with.
“As for Faso Kanu, I think you Americans are doing much more than we are, and frankly we can and should learn one or two things from you. I would have been more in agreement if you had provided other examples beside soccer to illustrate our Faso Kanu as a Malian, because in my opinion, they aren’t many beside sports.
“As for griots, I’d rather not even go there in writing…. too big of the issue in our societies these days…. as danbé is being fabricated in a microwave mode, faster than you can imagine… and with money these days, nobles are becoming casted and casted/nobles. Griots chanting these days doesn’t mean anything to people with morals and self awareness…. they are more for people wanting to boost their ego…. “sorytellers” they have become unfortunately….
“Other things about the mogoya that is so fake is the musalaya…. sources of many illnesses in our society. Musalaya can be explained as a polite way of closing your eyes on a lie, a civil way and social expectation for one to accept the “unacceptable”. But there is a time variable linked to it (yes for once Malians do have a time variable taken into account): one is taught to portray or make use of the musalaya as it is expected not to last.”
The Malian women made very important points, I’m 37 years old and every time I go to Mali, I can detect sign that some part of today’s young generation as far back as their 40s and 50s lack mogoya and it get worse when u look at youth level. My dear Sister is right amongst the new generation of Griots, few have a true Danbe; thus I no longer give gifts or money to Griots since I was 20 years.
Great article! My family has spent 30 years in West Africa and been privileged to learn both Mori and Eve vernaculars of Burkina Faso and Togo. Bravo for an anthropologist who did more than do an ethnographical study for his PhD, but got into the virtual gold riches of a people’s culture. I’m sorry that so few western mono-cultural folks even care about these riches. It’s more regrettable still that the French nation’s view of African languages (“Elles vont disparaitre” – they will disappear) is robbing the Malian people of the wisdom of their Songhai nation’s past of which the griots sing and the drummers explain. May we hope that as westernization and materialism take full sway, that the Mali people, now speaking French, will see the loss and reach back to hold on to the concepts of truth through humor, grandeur of character through understanding, and hope, to resist the onslaught of a theology that forces belief by the sword.
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My daughter is long-returned from Mali (think you might have met – she was with a group from Carleton College), but the country still captures my mind. Thanks for this wonderful post.
“A couple of my colleagues in France, Etienne Smith and Cécile Canut, have questioned the utility of senenkunya and other African systems of joking relations, describing analyses like mine as outmoded functionalist irenicism. While I don’t know what irenicism is, I do consider their argument a fitting contribution from two dim-witted, flatulent eaters of donkey meat.)”
You are definitely “going native” man! I hear the voice of a Malian brother in the above statement, and I love it! An examplar of sanankunya at its best.
i love Mali. My heart longs to go back. I understand the senenkunya and am often criticized by family in the West, for how I do things. Now i understand what I do naturally and subconsciously.
I found this a well thought out commentary on traditional malian culture. Some mention should be made of the roll of money in all these relationships for not understanding this is a cause of frustation for those non integrated into Malian cultures. True that much is changing as the young are growing up in the cities. Keep up the good work. I was born in Mali and have lived 50 of my 72 years there and am a naturalised citizen Many know me as Mac of Mac’s Refuge in Sevare. Hoping soon to return to my retirement home there.
Brand dies a great job describing mogoya. I used this as my theoretical framework when addressing personhood for “Baara Denw”. Nice summary.
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Is Mac’s Refuge near Mopti closed?
No idea. Anybody else know?
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Hum, yes all is good and well in Mali. Not really though, not really. I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of what was said by the Malian woman.
I’d like to share my experience as a Songhoy woman.
It has happened to me, in Bamako, that a taxi driver would tell me to get out of his car because I was talking in Songhay. Not once, nor twice, but quite a few times. Malian do not speak French as much as in other countries, the dominant language in Bamako is bamanan(BTW I have never heard any French person comment on the future of African languages so I don’t really know where Doctarri’s comments comme from).
I have heard people, during the last elections, explaining that no Northerner (koronfemogo) would ever become president of Mali. The North is abandoned. It lacks the large diasporah that invests massively in the Kayes region. The Timbuktu airport lacks the 300m of track which would make it an international airport. Any potential visitors (I agree they are few and far between these days but tourism was one of the main ressources of the northern regions) have to pass by Bamako. So we emigrate, to the South, and there we slowly forget koyrotchini, and a lot of cultural mores that are specific to the North. There is a soft cultural imperialism which centers around Bamako. And Tuaregs are only the most vocal in protesting this.
We have not forgotten that Malian politicians stood by while we were invaded and tortured and only called for helped when the Islamists threatened to invade the South. We have not forgotten that the army abandoned cars and arms instead of defending the north. We haven’t forgotten that ressources sent by the king of Maroc to the Northern region were distributed to the rest of the country. We haven’t forgotten that when we got to Bamako as refugees, family was the only thing you could count on. Not the state, not the southern Malians. I’m quite sure things would have happened differently had Segou been invaded.
It’s quite curious, though, that when speaking about traditional structures, you avoid the topic of castes and slaves. It’s quite important IMO.
Everything you’ve written is true, Lalla. But I think these failings have been widely known and discussed online. My purpose with this post was not to gloss over the challenges facing Malian society, which are numerous and real, nor to suggest that “all is good and well in Mali,” a conclusion nobody who reads this blog could reasonably draw. My purpose was to draw attention to some of the overlooked assets from which Malian society can benefit in a time of conflict of crisis. You may find it curious that I didn’t write about caste and slavery, but I’d hardly consider those institutions assets.
I’d say that castes and slaves seem to be the flip side of the coin (4.). Focusing so much on one’s background and pedigree, on their credentials as nobles has the central function of reinforcing the class difference. One reason many people give against inter caste marriage is that they don’t want their kids to receive money (as casted do) from their cousins (nobles). Exchanges of money during social events (between nobles and slaves/jeliw/smithes/… or between children of a brother and a sister) are very strong indicators of social position.
Cousin jokes may help mediate day to day conflicts but are no use in other cases. People prefer to be silent on the real issues and joke about last names. Conflicts are rarely resolved this way, just buried until the next crisis. Many critics of Tuaregs complain of what they say, but also, plainly, of the fact that they state problems (too) bluntly. They expose a (glaring) lack of unity that should be kept hidden out of pudor. Any legitimate complaints from the north has been silenced so far in the name of unity and solidarity, in the name of traditional Malian values.
I’d say that quite a few Malians are getting fed up of the self serving interpretations of these principles. Watching ATT say he wasn’t going to emprison a corrupt civil servant because he had a family was disgusting and just one example of this.
I’ve heard a lot of people cite that remark by ATT. Do you happen to know when he said it? I’d love to get the details because those words became a central piece of information used to explain what happened under ATT.
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I was in Peace Corps in Mali then visited last week for the first time since then. Your post really sums up so much of what makes the country and the people so amazing. (By the way though Diarras do rule.)
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