MALI EMPIRE Mali built on and expanded the state building of Ghana; it was centered around the Niger River, and benefited from the productive agriculture in this region. As with Ghana, one of the primary sources of wealth and power in this region was agricultural production. The prosperous and bountiful agricultural production possible in this river basin supported a large civilization - it is estimated that the great Mali city of Timbuktu was as large as 20,000 inhabitants! This was much larger than any European cities during this same period. Mali also derived incredible power and wealth from the natural resources of this region, and the opportunities provided by the Trans-Saharan trade routes. (see maps) A seemingly endless supply of profitable goods such as gold, ebony and ivory were exported out of the Mali region to eager consumers in the Mediterranean, and then Europe. The gold coming out of West Africa became the basis for gold stocks and treasuries throughout the trading world; West Africa, specifically Mali, supplied the gold underlying currency and trade systems throughout Europe, Africa and Asia! A lasting impression Mali created in the minds of other cultures and states throughout the Mediterranean and in Europe was the perception of the immense wealth of West Africa. It was also during the Mali Empire that Islam took firmer root. Although many continued to practice the traditional, polytheistic African religion, the rulers of Mali converted to Islam. The monarch renounced his semi-divine status and shifted rule in his state to one based on the Qur'an and the laws of Islam. Islam became more prevalent in terms of religious practice, and embedded in the culture and law of Mali. The two most famous leaders of the Mali Empire were Sundiata (Sundjata) and Mansa Musa. Sundiata (1230-1255), sometimes called the "Lion King", is viewed as the heroic founding figure of the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa (Mansa is a title) ruled a century later, 1312-1337, and raised Mali to its peak in terms of territorial power, economic importance and even more significantly, intellectual achievement. Mansa Musa also made global history when he undertook a famous pilgrimage in accordance with his Islamic beliefs in 1324-1325. This journey to Mecca took Mansa Musa and his entourage across Northern Africa, and most famously to Egypt. Mansa Musa spent time in Egypt - and in the
process displayed clearly to the world the immense wealth of Mali. In addition, Mansa Musa was exposed to the achievements and scholarly brilliance of Islamic civilization; he came back committed to sharing these Islamic achievements with the Mali people. Mali, and its relations with other states, was demonstrably changed by this expedition. In terms of the wealth he brought with him as he traveled East, Mansa Musa made a very definite and long lasting impression. He brought gold from West Africa, carried on camels and/or elephants (depending on the historical version you read.) Much of this gold was distributed along the journey, often as alms, leaving behind historical accounts from the time that convey wonder and envy about the wealth of Mali. In Egypt, accounts written at the time reported that the amount of gold that Mansa Musa brought and spent in Egypt was so great that gold flooded the market - causing great inflation and destabilizing the economy for over 10 years!! The fame of Mali's wealth continued to spread after this episode. In fact it was in part due to this reputed and seductive wealth that Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese sent expeditions to the Western African coast in the 1400's - 1500's, initiating the period of European expansion that ultimately led to the end of Western African autonomy and control. More immediately, Mansa Musa's visit tied Mali closer to the Islamic world. He returned with an invigorated interest in cultivating Mali in intellectual and scholastic terms. Musa built up the city of Timbuktu as the center of the Mali Empire; it became an important Islamic center as well. Timbuktu, a Tuareg seasonal camp, expanded to become one of the most important intellectual centers in the Islamic world. Muslims from all over the Islamic world came to this city to study Islamic law, theology and science; at its peak it was reported that there were 180 universities and schools dedicated to study of the Qur'an and Islamic knowledge in Timbuktu! In the 14th and 15th centuries, Timbuktu was considered one of the greatest cities in the world. There are thousands of manuscripts from this period that help to catalog the achievements of Islamic culture by the 15th century and there is still a great deal to be discovered about this great civilization, and recent discoveries of written sources promises to enhance our understanding further in the future.
Around 1450, due to numerous assaults by surrounding Tuareg tribes, Mali declined and ultimately fell. Leadership by a family based further south in the Niger River valley replaced Mali rule, creating the third great West African kingdom - the Songhai Empire. Although it reached even greater territorial size than the Mali Empire, it did not establish the same degree of cultural importance and power. The Songhai Empire lasted until the mid-1500's, when the increased presence of Portugal increasingly disrupted Songhai central power and its control of trade, in particular the slave trade. By the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese had begun an important new phase - European control of West Africa. QUESTIONS One of the most immediate questions that comes to mind after reviewing the recent greatness of West Africa, as well as Eastern African societies is --- what happened? These regions today are some of the poorest - by any measure; suffering is caused in these areas by low individual and state income, high infant mortality and incidence of disease, and massive environmental destruction. There are also continued stories of devastating and brutal civil wars and internal violence in areas such as Sudan (the home of Nubia), Ethiopia, Liberia and the Ivory Coast (regions on the outskirts of the once-great Mali Empire). How do regions fall so rapidly from being vital and wealthy regions to becoming peripheral, impoverished, and politically fractured? This should interest and even concern you. There are certainly lessons to be learned from civilizations or regions that experience this degree of decline. In part, European colonization (15th - 20th centuries) is certainly to be blamed, in particular the extraction of wealth from this region and cultural disruption that took place under colonial rule for centuries. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade also dramatically undermined political and social development and stability by forcibly transporting millions of West Africans to the new colonies in the Americas. The imposition of colonial rule, arbitrary colonial borders which made no sense to Africans and authoritarian colonial bureaucracies disrupted African tribal and governing traditions, replacing tribal based society with states and bureaucracies that were imposed from other cultures. The disruption and artificial political traditions resulting from hundreds of years of colonization clearly have contributed to the ceaseless political instability that is still resulting in such unimaginable suffering today in so many parts of Africa.
Adding to this suffering is the continued decline and erosion of environmental conditions. In terms of the environment and economies, colonial exploitation certainly left behind exhausted and depleted economies. However, today the more serious problem is environmental degradation - famine, drought, declining agricultural yields, lack of clean drinking water, and diseases that feed on malnourishment and unsanitary conditions. In addition to colonial exploitation, centuries of destructive land use such as over-grazing by domestic animals and erosive agricultural practices clearly have and continue to exacerbate the rapid decline of the environment in this continent. Some today also point to dramatic changes and decline of the environment in parts of Africa that are attributable to global climate change. Current crises facing African peoples result from a combination of these factors. For example, the fact that desert regions are expanding, eating up arable land, is certainly intensifying political problems and grinding, appalling poverty and starvation conditions. The growth of deserts or even semi-arid conditions necessarily reduces agricultural production, as well as reduces the amount of water in a region, leading to impoverishment and dreadful suffering of the population.