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Customs of Mali

Marriage and Family

Individuals usually accept the judgment of their families in the choice of a marital partner. Marriage rules are strongly influenced by Islam, but women are less dependent on their husbands than in some other Muslim countries because they can, under certain conditions, divorce their husbands and rejoin their families. Polygamy is still practiced (as allowed by Islamic law), but has become less common—partly because of the economic burden and partly because many women in urban areas no longer accept the status of second, third, or fourth wife. A Muslim man who wishes to take another wife usually seeks the approval of his first wife and then must provide for all wives (up to four) equally.

Traditionally, families have been large, partly because the more children there were, the more help the parents could expect to get in the fields and in their old age. However, urban families are becoming smaller. The extended family generally maintains strong ties, and even distantly related family members are expected to help each other when needed. The authority of the family or clan chief is incontestable. Babies receive a lot of affection, but older children are given less attention. Older people enjoy great respect.

Houses are made of mud that disintegrates under heavy rain, and roofs are often damaged by wind storms. Crops depend on sufficient rain, and surpluses are rare. Outside cities, few households have electricity or running water, and these services are frequently interrupted in urban areas. The average wage earner supports ten people.


The dietary staple in Mali is millet. Prepared as a dough-like substance or as porridge, it is often served with leaf or vegetable sauce and occasionally with meat. In the north, milk, dates, and wheat are important foods. People in urban areas prefer more expensive foods, such as rice. Restaurants that serve Western dishes are found in Bamako and in regional capital cities. Malnutrition is widespread.

Urban families usually use a spoon and often other utensils for eating, but people in rural areas continue to follow the tradition of using the right hand. Family members eat from bowls. The male head of the family determines who eats from which of several bowls. For example, men and boys may share one bowl, and women and small children another. Marital status and age may also affect which bowl a person eats from. Adult men and women seldom eat from the same bowl. Each person takes food from the portion of the bowl that is directly in front of him or her.


Men and women in most Malian ethnic groups shake hands when meeting. A man of power (such as a village chief) will always initiate a handshake. Otherwise, a person joining a group or entering a room initiates a handshake with each adult present, beginning with the eldest or most senior. When a man and woman are introduced, the man waits for the woman to extend her hand before shaking it. Among the Moors and Tuaregs, men do not shake women’s hands. Only the right hand is used to shake hands. The only exception is when a close family member or friend leaves on a long trip, in which case the left hand is used to indicate that the two people will see each other again. Special respect may be shown during a regular handshake by touching one’s own right elbow with the fingertips of the left hand. Respect may also be shown by touching one’s forehead or one’s chest over one’s heart with one’s right hand after a gentle handshake.

Verbal greetings vary among the ethnic groups. If someone’s language is not known, a person may use one of the nation’s more commonly spoken languages as a greeting, and the other will respond in his or her own language. For example, if one person uses the French Bonjour ('Good day'), the other might respond with the Bambara equivalent, Nse. Among friends, greetings are usually followed by inquiries about family members and their health. Greetings often last several minutes. It is impolite not to greet someone when passing them on the path or street. Comment ça va? (French for 'How are you?'), or Ykakene? in Bambara, are common greetings.

People generally address one another by their first names and, because the family name provides information about one’s ethnic and social background and geographic origins, only first names are used in introductions in order to respect people’s privacy. It is only when people have established trust that the family name is divulged.

In Mali visiting plays an important role in maintaining kinship bonds and friendships and in demonstrating the value put on a relationship. Visits between rural friends and relatives occur often and are usually unannounced because there are few telephones. Guests remove their shoes before entering a room or stepping on a mat. Visitors are offered at least water when entering a compound and may be given the best seating. In villages, guests bring small gifts to their hosts, often including tea, sugar, or kola nuts. Compliments are usually appreciated, but are modestly denied. Guests are usually offered refreshments, which they invite their hosts to share, because it is considered impolite to eat in front of others who are not eating. When visiting a village chief (dugutigi), people take special care to show respect.


The most popular sport in Mali is soccer. As a spectator sport, it provides people with an opportunity to sit together and talk while watching the game. Informal peer groups, known as groupes de grains, often meet to drink tea and socialize. In Bamako and other urban areas, wealthier people spend considerable time watching television and videos.

Holidays and Celebrations

National holidays include New Year’s Day (1 January), Army Day (20 January), Labor Day (1 May), and Independence Day (22 September). The most important religious holidays are the feast at the end of Ramadan and, 40 days later, Tabaski (Feast of Mutton), during which at least one ram is sacrificed by each household. The dates for these feasts change each year according to the lunar calendar. Christmas Day (25 December) and Easter Monday are observed as days off from work. Animists celebrate many days of feasting.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas