Events‎ > ‎AFRICA @ 50‎ > ‎

Mali Cinquantenaire

The Cinquantenaire : Mali Honors the Past and Plans for the Future

By Janet Goldner

Prior to returning to Mali this year I was skeptical about the celebration of fifty years of independence. Independence? What independence? I wondered. Mali often seems more dependent than independent given its economic and geopolitical circumstances. But over the course of the two months I was in Mali this August and September, I was impressed with the significance of this period of reflection. 

Malian Independence is celebrated each year on September 22nd, but this year the entire period from September 1st through the end of 2010 has been declared a period of commemoration.

Throughout my stay in Mali, the many interviews and remembrances on television and the debates amongst the general population reflecting on the country’s past, present, and future were very touching and informative. On September 22nd, there was a military parade in Bamako, Mali's capital, while the next evening, a civilian parade filled a stadium. The most remarkable aspect of these parades, besides the surprising amount of military material on display, was the singing of the Malian national anthem in Malian languages rather than the usual French.

Events in Bamako also included the opening of gardens and parks, a new multi-level traffic overpass, and the opening of a new office complex to house all the government ministries. In addition, a much-needed third bridge crossing the Niger River will be completed next year. These projects are changing the face of Bamako and Mali at large.

A Brief History

The territory that comprises the modern nation of Mali was the site of three major empires dating to at least the fourth century, namely: the Wagadu (also known as the Ghana Empire); the Mali Empire; and the Songhay Empire. The people of these Empires developed high levels of social organization and urbanization. French colonization (from 1892 to 1960) represents but one chapter in a long Malian history, which includes the majesty of sophisticated empires as well as the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Since 1960, the Republic of Mali has had eight years of socialist government under President Mobido Keita, and 23 years of military dictatorship under General Moussa Traore. Since 1991, it has had a democratically elected government and two elected presidents: Alpha Oumar Konare and the current president Amadou Toumani Toure.


Logo-Sabouciré- Site of Resistance

The Cinquantenaire celebrations were launched on September 1st in the village of Logo-Sabouciré, the site of the first battle between French colonial forces and African soldiers on Malian soil. Logo Sabouciré fell to French cannon fire on September 22nd, 1878, but only after a fierce battle with African troops. The French were more numerous and better-armed, but the African resistance was noble and courageous. Today it is celebrated as a way for Malians to ensure that their legacy of courage and independence lives on. To commemorate the battle, September 22nd was chosen by the Republic of Mali as its Independence Day. This year's commemorative celebration, which was televised live and replayed several times, included speeches, songs, and a reenactment of the battle at Logo-Sabouciré.

The Kurukan Fuga Charter

The commemoration of the Kurukan Fuga Charter took place in Kangaba on September 30th. The day was divided into several phases: a statement by the griots – the certified keepers of oral tradition; music and dance; a historical epic about the Charter; and the laying of the corner stone for a memorial intended to commemorate the Charter. 

The Kurukan Fuga Charter is one of the oldest constitutions in the world and has survived for centuries in oral form. The charter was adopted in 1236 when Emperor Sunjata Keita (c. 1217 – c. 1255) (founder of the Mali Empire), representatives of Mande people and their allies first codified social relations and organized old Mali as a constitutional monarchy. It consists of a preamble and chapters advocating social harmony in diversity, the inviolability of the individual, education, the integrity of the country, food security, the abolition of slavery by razzia (or raid), the rights of women, and freedom of expression and organization. These articles collectively formed the basis of the Empire’s legal system. 

While the Empire has long since disappeared, the terms of the Charter and the associated rituals continue to be transmitted through the generations. The Kurukan Fuga Charter is still the bedrock of values and identity of the Mande peoples. 

One particularly interesting chapter of the Charter concerns the concept of sinankuya. This social code regulates interactions between people, from the oldest to the youngest, in all aspects of life throughout Malian culture. For almost 800 years, Malians and their allies have considered themselves members of the same large family or nation. Sinankuya authorizes, and, at times requires, that members of the same family or of different ethnic groups mock and insult each other without consequence. These verbal confrontations are a means of securing frank, positive, and constructive social interaction. The social practice of sinankuya ensures peaceful coexistence within the family and across diverse communities.

Artistic and Cultural Biennial

The year ends with a Cultural Biennial in Sikasso at the end of December. For ten days young dancers, musicians, and singers from the nine regions of Mali come together to compete. Prizes are given to the best regional troupe in each category. The Biennials began right after independence in 1960, but were disbanded during the country’s military dictatorship, but resumed about eight years ago under the new democratic government. Many of the Malian musicians who are well known on the world music scene today, such as Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, were first recognized at the Biennials.

The performances bring together a cross-section of traditional Malian cultures. By focusing on youth, who learn and perform the songs, dances, and theatre of their region, the Biennial develops an infrastructure for culture throughout Mali and fosters cultural preservation. Young artists from all over Mali get to know each other and the traditions of the other regions. The young participants develop friendships, understanding, and a deep respect for such traditions. 

This period of introspection and taking stock is an important moment that should not be underplayed. Mali has seized the opportunity presented by the commemoration of fifty years of independence to remember, bear witness, take stock, come together and move forward. By appreciating the lessons of the past and giving thanks to the dedication of all those who fought for freedom and sovereignty, Malians express their determination to preserve the integrity of their county and their artistic and cultural heritage for the generations to come.


About the author: Janet Goldner is an artist, researcher, activist. Janet Goldner's steel sculptures combine art and poetry to examine contemporary social issues. She cuts images and texts into the steel using a welding torch as a drawing instrument. Recent work has included video and photography. Since her Senior Fulbright Research Fellowship to Mali in 1995, she has spent several months in Mali every year working on a wide variety of cultural projects. Janet has developed and directed a University Study Abroad program to Mali and has been an active collaborator with Malian artists, who have been the key to her experience and understanding of Malian culture.