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Known officially as the République de Mali, the Saharan country of Mali is the largest country in West Africa, and the seventh largest in Africa, with a total land area of 478,839 square miles (1,240,192 sq. km). It is completely landlocked, surrounded by seven countries: Niger, Guinea, Mauritania, Algeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.
The Bambara ethnic group makes up the majority of the Malian population of over 11,700,000 (2006 estimate). Although French remains its official language, most of the population, especially those outside the urban areas, speak Bambara. The main religion practiced in the country is Islam — approximately 90% of its citizenry is Muslim.
The country’s name is taken from the native Bambara language, and means “hippopotamus.” Although nomadic tribes had passed through the region for centuries, the Malinke Empire was in control from the 12th to the 16th century. During this empire’s heyday, one of Mali’s primary cities, Timbuktu, was one of the largest in Africa, and represented the height of wealth and culture of the area. In 1591, Morocco took control of the region and would retain power for nearly 200 years.
By the beginning of the 20th century, France was in control of the country, and it became known as French Sudan by 1920. In 1946, it was officially part of the French Union. On 20 June 1960, it became independent of France, becoming the Mali Federation. At this time, it was made up of Mali, then known as the Sudanese Republic, and the Republic of Senegal, which later seceded a few months later. At this time, it became known simply as Mali.
On 19 November 1968, a military coup overthrew the republic and military rule was in place until 1991, when the current dictator was removed peacefully. Democracy was adopted, and the country's first democratically elected president took office in 1992. Unfortunately, the early 1990s were marked by a period of conflict between the Malian government and the Tuareg ethnic group. The Tuaregs, descendants of Berber and Arabic nomads, clashed with black Africans who made up the majority. Eventually, the Tuareg refugees moved back to the area after peace was achieved in 1995.
Since a democratic government was adopted, Mali’s leaders have striven to repair its economy, gain international financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and attract foreign investors. Despite its struggles, Mali continues to be one of the most socially and politically safe and stable countries in the region.
Most of the population lives near or along the Niger River, and life revolves around the river’s annual flood cycle. Farming and fishing along the river are two of the biggest industries, though gold mining has grown over the last few decades. Since most of the land isn’t arable or livable, the country has struggled to establish solid, profitable industries to adequately support its population.