Introduction to Mali

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa about twice the size of Texas. It is covered by sand in the north, savanna in the south and rugged hills in the northeast. Eighty per cent of the population earn their living in farming or fishing. There are more than eleven ethnic groups. The major languages are French and Bambara. Mali is a peaceful democratic republic. Ninety percent are Muslims, nine per cent practice the indigenous religion and one per cent is Christian.

Mali faces some of the most daunting challenges of the 21st century as Malians work to reduce hunger, improve education, and continue on the democratic path they began in 1991. Life expectancy is 53 years and the literacy rates is 25%. Almost of the population live below the poverty line and only of the population has access to clean water. The United Nations regularly ranks Mali among the lowest 5-10 countries in the world on its Human Development Index, and its environmental problems are proliferating while the desert continues to advance.

On the other hand, Mali has a rich, living tradition of visual art, material culture and performing art known and admired throughout the world. The clothing, pottery, sculpture, jewelry, beads, dance, instrumental music, and song of this diverse region are woven into the fabric of village life as well as tempo of the city. The artists, artisans, and performers who pass this proverbial knowledge along from one generation to the next keep one eye on their heritage and the other on the shifting sands beneath their feet. These culture workers sit on the line that divides and connects past and future. Their task is to balance on this line at the same time that they must continually redraw it.

This is especially true for the textiles and fabrics so closely identified with Mali.

Stephen L. Esquith
Professor, Department of Philosophy
Dean, Residential College in the Arts and Humanities
Michigan State University