Africa Guide

Bambara People


The Bambara are a large Mande racial group located mostly in the country of Mali. They are the largest and most dominant group in that country. Across the border in Mauritania, there are about 1000 Bambara living near the town of Timbedra. The Bambara live in the middle valley of the Niger River.

The Bambara speak "Bamana", which is one of the Manding languages. Bamana is widely spoken in Mali, especially in the areas of business and trade.

During the 1700's, there were two Bambara kingdoms: Segu and Karta. In the 1800's, aggressive Muslim groups overthrew these kingdoms, leaving only a few anti-Muslim Bambara to oppose their occupation. This lasted forty years until the arrival of the French. Only 3% of the Bambara had become to Islam by 1912. After World War II, the number of Muslim coverts grew due to their resistance to the French and their exposure to Muslim merchants. The Bambara are 70% Muslim today.

Daily Life:
Most of the Bambara are farmers. Their main crop is millet, even though sorghum and groundnuts are produced in large quantities. Maize, cassava, tobacco, and numerous other vegetables are grown in private gardens as well. Sorry to say, drought and other ecological programs have hurt the farmers in these years. The Bambara farmers also raise cattle, horses, goats, sheep, and chickens. The neighboring Fulani herdsmen are often trusted to herd the Bambara livestock. This permits the Bambara to give attention to farming for the period of the short rainy season. Many of the Bambara hunt animals such as ostrich, boar, antelope, and guinea fowl for their meat and skins. They also gather large amounts of honey from wild bees. Both men and women share the farming duties. Nevertheless, the wives frequently get in the fields later and leave earlier than the men. This gives them time to prepare the morning and evening meals. Children between the ages of 12 and 14 also help with the family's work, leading the oxen as they plow and guarding them during rest periods.

Every Bambara village is made up of many different family units, usually all from one lineage or extended family. Each household, or gwa is responsible to provide for all of its members, as well as to help them with their farming duties. Bambara homes are characteristically bigger than homes of most other West African groups. Some of the dwellings hold as many as 60 or more people. The members of each gwa work together every day except for Mondays. Monday is a special and traditional day. Islamic schools have been set up in some of the Bambara villages. On the other hand, many of the non-Muslim villages have failed to establish schools just because the kids are needed to stay home and help farming works. For this reason, some village populations are entirely illiterate. Marriage is very significant to the Bambara. Though the price of marriages is expensive, it is considered as a type of "investment". The major purpose of marriage is to have children, that provides the family's labor force and ensures the future of the family lineage. Most Bambara women have an average of eight children. All adults are married. Even elderly widows in their 70's or 80's have suitors for the reason that the Bambara believe that a wife enlarges a man's status.

Even though most Bambara claim to be Muslim, many people still follow their traditional beliefs in ancestor worship. The Bambara trust that the ancestral spirits may take on the forms of animals or even vegetables. In extraordinary ceremonies, the spirits are worshipped and presented with offerings of flour and water. The oldest member of a lineage act as the "mediator" between the living and the dead.  

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