brad_brown_3.jpgThe media recently has been highlighting the conflict in Mali, a place many had hardly heard of, and telling a story of cities captured and ruled by radical Islamists followed by the entrance of the French military recapturing those cities. Tuaregs and Arabs living in the north are described as “white” as opposed to black Malians in the south.

Mali takes its name from one of the great medieval western Sudan kingdoms.  The history of the kingdoms is complicated, similar to that elsewhere. 

The first very large kingdom was Ghana which reached its height of power in the 10th and 11th centuries, followed by the Mali Kingdom and, finally the Songhai Kingdom which lasted until the late 16th century.

Conflict between farmers and pastoralists has long been a factor.  (Remember the cattlemen versus homesteader movies?)  For the pastoralists and farmers in the wetter Sahel, sharing has generally been worked out.  However, at the edge of the desert, where water is scarce, conflict is historic. Yet, even among nomadic peoples there are those who live in towns. 

The fall of the Songhai Empire can be related to the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain with the Christian re-conquest.  Morocco turned south at a time when the only Sudanic Kingdom with firearms was Bornu. Commanded by a Spanish general, they sacked Timbuktu and its great university in 1591.  However many manuscripts written in Arabic and in local languages with Arabic script were taken by families and hidden. Only now are scholars researching these treasures.

In the 1600s, there was a splintering into many smaller, often rival, kingdoms, throughout much of West Africa.  Imagine what might have been different if the European traders arriving at the coast met larger more centralized kingdoms.

Islam first arrived in the Sahel in the 8th century. It spread first to the ruling class and gradually over the centuries took hold throughout the populace. After France took control in the 1890s, Islam became deeply entrenched at all levels of society.

The general practice of Islam in the region includes reverence for esteemed religious leaders and maintenance of their tombs. Music and poetry are a vital part of the faith and have resulted in Mali being known for its musicians.   The Islamic belief that women should dress modestly has generally not resulted in complete coverings. Schooling has been available to both sexes.

Mali became a French colony in the 1890s and boundaries were set for the area called French Sudan through most of the colonization period.   At that time, almost all of the surrounding areas were controlled by France.  Thus, the actual boundaries were not severely relevant to persons living near them.  However after independence this changed.

Boundaries are always problematic and around the world residents have been shifted from one side to the other, usually after conflicts.

The northern boundaries of Mali are particularly diffuse, being in sparsely populated areas of the Sahara Desert. In particular, the pastoral Tuareg inhabit not only Mali but also Chad, Libya, Niger, Algeria and Burkina Faso. They are a minority even in northern Mali but dominate outside of the cities and towns.

*Pictured above is Brad Brown, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist, is  a consultant on African coastal and marine projects and scientific capacity development. He is also president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He may be reached at