- Paperback: 48 pages
- Publisher: Five Ponds Press (December 30, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0972715606
- ISBN-13: 978-0972715607
- Package Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 0.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #981,813 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Mali: Land of Gold and Glory Paperback – December 30, 2002
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Masoff's portrayal of Mande peoples as solely responsible for the greatness of the Malian Empire is inaccurate. In fact there was much more of a sharing in this legacy with `non-Mande' peoples. Of particular note are the Amazigh peoples inclusive of Amazigh (Berbers) prominent in northern Africa, related Tamashek (Tuareg) peoples of Mali and surrounding countries to the north and east, as well as Arab peoples, and others. To better understand the role of these differing peoples consider the trans-Saharan trade. It was guided and protected largely by Amazigh and Arab peoples and was essential for the phenomenal growth of the commercial, social, scholarly, and religious traditions of Mali. These peoples were not only in the arid zones guiding and protecting caravans, they also lived in Malian cities where they assumed key roles in all aspects of urban development and governance during the Mali and Songhay periods. Though Masoff properly attributes the bend of the Niger River at Timbuktu and Gao as the locus of trade and geographically central to commercial and social advances, Amazigh peoples - so prominent in the region - are mentioned just in passing. A small but strange omission is no mention that the woman who founded Timbuktu, 'Buctou', was Amazigh and of Tamashek descent.
Another problem with the exaggerated prominence of Mande peoples is encouraging - perhaps inadvertently - an already rampant revisioning of African history along color lines - with emphasis on a black telling. US audiences have been particularly subject to portrayals of Africa as `black'. This perspective falsely racializes the continent and denies the more complex dimensions of diversity and physical types that were well represented in the region historically, and that are still there today. To her credit Masoff does not reference skin color as a means to characterize peoples mentioned in the book.
Furthermore the reader is left with the impression that the height of civilization was reached under Mali. This impression is achieved in part by characterizing the Songhay Empire which followed Mali, as entirely despotic. Though Songhay was indeed despotic under Soni Ali (for just 15 years I believe) the portrayal of a steady decline thereafter is incorrect. The historic record clearly indicates that after the fall of Ali, Timbuktu scholars led a strong revival of the social traditions. Inspired by Islamic faith and African traditions, they continued to effectively encourage leaders across the region to embrace tolerance and honor diversity. Askia Mohamed is especially renowned for leading the Songhay Empire to unite western Africa and further develop the peace-making traditions that had gained so much ground during the Malian period. This was achieved in spite of trade beginning to be drawn away from the Sahara towards sea routes to the south. The 16th century should therefore be characterized as a period of social progress despite an eroding economy.
In mis-characterizing Songhay, excluding mention of Gao as the capital, and not identifying the prominence of Amazigh/Tamashek influence - the Malian Empire has been artificially and unnecessarily pumped up. If the full character of Songhay and prominence of Askia Mohamed had been revealed, it would have only served to further credit Mali for the sustaining force of its great traditions - which was and is its real and enduring impact.
Building on this point, there is a general over-emphasis in the book on material wealth and material achievements. Yet the peace-making traditions of this era are the most enduring and substantive aspects of the historic legacy in Mali today. For instance, the current success with democratic governance in Mali has been directly attributed to popular association with Malian traditions as much as or more than to the influence of contemporary western notions of democracy. Many states and regions around the globe boast a legacy of material wealth and power, but few - even in Africa - combined wealth with a social tradition and literary heritage emphasizing tolerance, peace and justice. In your book there are references to the warmth of contemporary Malians, but this characteristic is not connected well to these historic and living social traditions.
Exploring misrepresentation of culture further, the photo caption for the men on camels wearing turbans is wrong. They are described as 'Berber' yet clearly they are Tamashek/Tuareg. One reason this distinction is important is because peoples indigenous to Mali (in this case Tuaregs) are characterized as peoples seemingly `from somewhere else'. Though related to Tuaregs, Berbers live primarily in Northern Africa not Mali. Another small but important point is that the caption beneath the photo of Tuareg boys says that they keep their face covered for religious reasons. In fact turban use is not at all related to their Islamic faith rather it is a cultural custom.
Also unfortunate is an exaggerated and negative characterization of the desert as a `sand box' - as if nothing grows or flourishes there or anywhere in Mali these days. But today agriculture is the main pillar of the southern Malian economy. Though drought and desertification are prominent and catastrophic forces, an agro-pastoral economy is active in the northern Malian Sahel and Savanna today. Young people and educators in the United States should not be led to view the Malian arid zones, or deserts anywhere as a sand-box/wasteland, rather they are rich and diverse ecological zones where many species including humans and their ruminating animals have learned to thrive - though often on the edge.
Despite flaws this book has great promise. It requires only small revisions so that the next edition is more inclusive and historically accurate. Meanwhile the accompanying curriculum guide should be modified so that educators are aware of the problems and able to dispel myths of Mande over-representation in historic and present-day Mali.