What influence did geography have on the development of Mali?
Mali's location in the interior of West Africa and its physical and human characteristics have influenced its history in diverse ways. The Niger River, in particular, has been important to its development, both because it supplied water for domestic and agricultural uses and because it could be used as a "highway" for trade. Moreover, Mali represented a unification of several environmental realms: desert, short and tall grasslands, and (in times past) the forest fringe. Different environments are able to produce different products, thus setting up the conditions for trade. Trade, particularly trade in gold and salt, is what built the Mali Empire. Its cities became the crossroads of the north-south -- gold routes -- across West Africa. The region's relative location changed with the discovery of all-water routes around Africa and around the world in the period after 1500 A.D., however, and the economies of West Africa began a long period of decline. One of the more interesting questions we might ask is how imperial Mali could be so rich and modern Mali be so poor, even though their location remains basically unchanged.
What is geography?
In the Virginia Standards of Learning, geography and its role in the curriculum are presented this way:
"The goal of geography instruction is to provide an understanding of the human and physical characteristics of the earth's places and regions, how people of different cultural backgrounds interact with their environment, and how the United States and the student's home community are affected by conditions and events in distant places. Geographic themes include location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and region. Geographic skills include the ability to use maps, globes, and aerial imagery; to interpret graphs, tables, diagrams, and pictures; to observe and record information; and to assess information from various sources."
What is Mali?
The name of an ancient empire--The Mali Empire.
The name of a modern state--The Republic of Mali.
Where is Mali?
Mali is on the continent of Africa.
A continent is a landmass. Africa is one of seven continents. Mali is located in West Africa.
Mali is in the Tropics.
The Tropics of the Northern Hemisphere lie between the equator--0° latitude--and the Tropic of Cancer--23½° north latitude. Mali is a tropical country, which suggests that it is hot. Why is it so hot?
- Because the sun's rays are more directly overhead, thus very intense over much of the year.
- Because there is little cloud cover most of the year.
The sun passes directly overhead on two days each year.
Mali stretches across the Sahel and the Sahara.
Sahara means "desert" in the Arabic language; Sahel means "shore." Both zones stretch all the way across Africa. The Sahel, with its short grasses and scrubby bushes, is the shore of the desert--the shore of a "sea of sand." Mali is located partly in the Sahel, although the most productive part is in the grasslands south of the Sahel. Ancient Mali stretched north into the desert and south through the short and tall grasslands to the edge of the forest zone.
Mali is landlocked.
Ancient Mali was landlocked; so is modern Mali. It has no coastline on the ocean. This makes a difference today because so much international commerce goes by sea (because it is less expensive). This did not make a difference prior to 1500 A.D. because so much international commerce went overland, in Mali's case, across the Sahara.
Ancient Mali was at the crossroads of trade.
Ancient Mali was located astride one of the world's most lucrative trade routes; modern Mali is not. Camels, known as the "ships of the desert," carried salt from the northern mines in the desert to be traded for gold and other goods such as kola nuts and grain from the southern part of the Mali Empire.
Land and Water
Mali is generally flat.
The entire continent of Africa is essentially an elevated plateau with a very narrow coastal plain. Mali lies upon that plateau. A plateau is a relatively flat "tableland." Only in the south is the landscape hilly. Important features of Mali's south include:
- The Fouta Djallon highlands of the southwest.
- The Bandiagara plateau and escarpment of the southeast.
- The Hombori Mountains of the far southeast.
Mali includes a long stretch of the Niger River.
The Niger River rises in the Fouta Djallon and flows for 1,000 miles through Mali. The river has always provided water for:
- household uses
In the rainy season the Niger, in places, expands up to a mile wide. Along its course, there is an area known as the "inland delta." It is the remnant of an inland lake (like Lake Chad farther east) in which the Niger once terminated. Even today, during the rainy season in summer, the Niger fills the inland delta with water, giving it the appearance of its ancient ancestor. As the water goes down after the rains end, grass grows in the wet soil, providing grazing for animals and an opportunity for rice cultivation.
Climate and Vegetation
Mali's climate and vegetation vary from north to south.
Northern Mali is arid and "deserted" of vegetation. It is a true desert, a part of the Sahara. Few people live there. Southern Mali is wetter, and natural vegetation is increasingly abundant. The short grasses and shrubs that mark the Sahel give way to the tall grasses of the savannah further south. It is in the southern part of the country, and along the course of the Niger, that most of Mali's people live.
Mali's climate is marked by distinct wet and dry seasons.
Winters are dry. Summers are rainy. Rains arrive first, and in greater amounts, in the south, and later in much smaller amounts in the north. However, rainfall is not very dependable. In some years, there is enough; in others, there is not. Also, when it does rain, it often comes in torrential downpours, which erode the land and leach out nutrients from the soil. In addition, rainfall is spotty--heavy in one area, light only a few miles away. Thus, one village may have abundant crops, while a neighboring village is still waiting for its first rain.
During the dry winter season, days are generally in the mid-70s F. At night, however, it gets extremely cold. The lack of clouds allows the heat that has built up during the day to escape from the earth's surface. This is called radiation cooling. During the April to June dry season, daytime temperatures become much hotter--more than 90°F--as hot, dry winds blow from the northeast. These winds are known as the harmattan. They are followed by the wet season, when daytime temperatures become slightly cooler--in the mid-80sF.
Economy and Natural Resources
Most of the people of ancient Mali made their living in agriculture, just as they do today.
Pastoralism--herding of cattle, goats, sheep, and some camels--predominated in the dry, sparsely populated north. Crop agriculture predominated in the wetter south.
Despite generally infertile soils, two types of crops are grown today:
- Food crops: millet, sorghum, corn, rice, cassava, yams
- Cash crops: cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco; plus kola nuts in the southern forest zone
Trade in agricultural products developed between north and south, as the principle of comparative advantage would suggest. Leather, hides, sheepskins, and goatskins came from the Salhelian grasslands. Cash crops and food crops came from the south, the savannah and forest zones. They were traded in the village markets, as they are today. In the ancient capital of the Mali Empire, Niani, people lived mostly on pounded millet, honey, and milk.
The wealth of ancient Mali was based on trade, particularly the trans-Sahara trade.
Control and taxation of trade pumped wealth into the imperial treasury and sustained the Mali Empire's existence. The most profitable commodities traded were gold and salt.
- Gold. Gold was mined first at Bambuk on one of the tributaries of the upper Senegal River. Later, it was mined at Bure on the headwaters of the Niger River. The location of the gold mines moved as the mines in the west became exhausted and new sources were discovered further east. The mansa (King) claimed all the gold nuggets, but gold dust was available for trade. Gold is still mined today in Mali.
- Salt. Salt was mined deep in the Sahara, near the towns of Taghaza and Taoudeni. Slabs brought by camel can still be found in the market of Timbuktu, Mopti, and other Niger River towns.
These and other commodities were involved in the trans-Sahara trade. Great camel caravans brought salt, iron, copper, cloth, books, and pearls from the north and northeast. They were exchanged for gold, kola nuts, ivory, leather, rubber, and slaves from the south. The Niger River became a major artery of trade. When the caravans met the Niger, their goods would be unloaded on riverboats, and the camels would return north laden with valuable commodities from the south.
Although salt and gold dust were used as currency during the fourteenth century, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced as currency as well. Their use improved the collection of taxes and the exchange of goods.
Ancient Mali also had craftsmen who worked with iron, wood, metal, weaving, dyeing, and tanning leather.
In economic terms, Mali is one of the contemporary world's poorest countries.
Today, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. With the coming of the Europeans, trade was re-oriented away from the trans-Saharan trade routes to the coast. Commodities produced in Mali today fetch only low prices, and the land has probably become somewhat drier and less productive. Two-thirds of the present country is desert or semi-desert. The vast majority of the population (80 percent) are mostly subsistence farmers, growing just enough for their own needs, with small surpluses sold in the local markets. Fishing is also important. To this day, most of the labor is done by animal or human power. A few larger farms produce crops for sale (cash crops), mainly cotton and peanuts. About five percent of the population is nomadic. Industrial activity is concentrated on processing farm commodities grown for export, especially cotton, the main export. New gold mining operations give hope for future economic development, but at present Mali remains deeply dependent on foreign aid and vulnerable to fluctuations in the world price of cotton.
However, other countries with difficult climates and few resources have prospered. A good part of Mali's problems come from the lack of investment in the country during French colonial times and corrupt governments after independence. In an era of increasing globalization, Mali, along with most African countries, has clearly been left behind.