Mali cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
In Mali, greetings and the care given to them characterize the initial contact or assessment of a person’s values; discuss your urgent requests only after greeting the person properly. Many may find these greetings rather long or pointless, but they establish acceptance in a particular group (e.g., at the office, in the field, in social life, or with the employees under your supervision). A Malian will ask the person with whom he is speaking how he/she is doing and even ask about the person’s family, neighbours and acquaintances.
Malians use a lot of gestures in their daily life. However, you should not greet people by kissing them on the cheek unless you know them very well and certainly not in the workplace.Invitations to weddings, baptisms, Ramadan, Tabaski celebrations, and even funerals are spur-of-the-moment and relationships are formed quickly. You should, nevertheless, be candid and direct if certain things that your acquaintances make you uncomfortable; be tactful and diplomatic, but firm.
Do not point at people with your index finger. Burping is a sign that you have eaten your fill and is considered to be a compliment to the person who made the meal or a sign that you wish him/her peace; however, passing gas in public is not acceptable.
Provided that you or your parents have enough money, it is a social, moral, and spiritual obligation to get married. The appropriate age to get married depends on whether you live in a rural or urban area. Staying single is not well viewed since people tend to think that it is immoral or even sacrilegious.
Whether extended or nuclear, families have distinct lifestyles and beliefs (e.g. Peulh, Maures, Bamanan, Muslim, Christian, Animist). It takes time to understand the relationships and to be able to distinguish one from the other.
Humour may rely on a shared culture and given the hierarchical Malian society, it is best to know the person before acting informally. The type of humour will depend on whether the person is older or younger, a man or woman, an employer or employee, a superior or junior colleague. Joking cousin relationships (ethnic teasing *) help resolve any crises or difficulties between nyamakalan/hòròn casts (blacksmiths, travelling Black African poets and musicians, and aristocrats). It is important to respect social, moral, and ethical distances; there are certain areas that are for women (i.e., the kitchen, areas where grains are ground - with mortar and pestle!) or for men (i.e., the town hall or council).
* Joking cousin relationships are social bond based on ethnic teasing. Different ethnic groups mock one another and light-heartedly broach sensitive topics.
When meeting and greeting a Malian, it is very important that you inquire about family members as they are one of the main topics of conversation. Ask about their health and the well-being of the person with whom you are speaking. Then ask about the family, children, spouse, and parents in greater detail. This is part of the usual way of greeting people. Another good topic of conversation is to ask Malians about their background. Each ethnic group has a very different and fascinating history. Moreover, Malians are very proud of their origins and it will be an honour for them to explain their past. At the same time, they may reveal the ethnic teasing that occurs between joking cousins. This kind of teasing is very amusing and familiarizing yourself with it lets you participate in light-hearted exchanges. All Malians have a very close relationship to the earth and their village. Thus, asking about a person’s village’s culture and activities is always appreciated. Almost 80% of Malians are crop farmers and animal breeders. Once the friendship is a bit more established, two other topics that can be broached are politics and religion. Politics are not taboo; nevertheless, it is a delicate subject if you are not that close to the person with whom you are speaking. When the topic comes up, watch the individual’s reactions closely to determine if the person is comfortable with the issue. Malians are very open about speaking about religion, but perhaps not when you first meet them. They have a good sense of humour and enjoy using it when interacting with others.
Physical contact is acceptable between good friends and is not considered to be indicative of sexual relations. However, there is a certain moral or spiritual distance between men and women, people of the same sex, or between seniors and youth.
Eye contact is fleeting because having or keeping a direct gaze, particularly with your parents, older people, or your employer, suggests that you are not well brought up or are even hostile or defiant toward authority.
Malians also communicate with a number of expressions and sounds that indicate agreement or disagreement. Therefore, be careful to not give out ambiguous signals; a calm voice and direct approach are acceptable even if it does not satisfy the person you are speaking to; he/she will express his/her appreciation of your behaviour to others. On the other hand, the Malian tradition/custom of "musalaha" (leaving things alone until the situation calms down) or even not being sure of the real motives of a person-who they do not know- may cause Malians to not reply with a straightforward answer.
In the workplace, it is common practise to shake hands although there are a few exceptions. Relations are usually very friendly although there is a certain amount of distance between young and old, and men and women.
Eye contact is not held except among people of the same standing (i.e., between people of the same age or hierarchy or once a friendship has been well established); looking someone directly in the eyes would cause everyone to feel uncomfortable. With people of the different rank (i.e., seniors/youth or colleagues at different hierarchical levels) individuals may not make contact at all for fear of breaking protocol or simply out of respect.
Malians often stand close to others and consider it acceptable behaviour. A foreigner will notice this particularly when using public transportation or walking in the street or the market. It is normal for Malians to stand close to someone of the same sex and this is not interpreted in the same way that it might in North America. When speaking, Malians do not make eye contact. Doing so is considered to be very disrespectful if the person with whom you are speaking is older than you. When Malians meet, they will shake hands, but kissing one another on the cheek is not part of usual salutations. When greeting older people (whom Malians may refer to as "un vieux" or "une vielle"), people from Mali will bow their heads ever so slightly as a sign of respect. In certain regions, particularly in the south, women will bend their knees when greeting an older person. Foreigners should take note of the appropriate gestures for meeting others.
Malians are generally very direct with their language. Foreigners may misinterpret some sentences they use. In particular, when making a suggestion or asking someone for assistance, they will use the phrase, "(IT) SHOULD BE..." ("Il faut" in French). While in Canada, this could be considered an order; it is, in fact, merely a request.
Display of emotion
It is preferable to keep your anger under control and talk with the person privately. Once the person has been humiliated, he/she will no longer trust you and will avoid you. By the time you realize how sensitive people are, it is often already too late. People do not touch closely and hugs are only acceptable between men and women in certain public places such as a university campus, cafés, bars, or nightclubs. Girls should not kiss or embrace their boyfriends in public and boys should be rather discreet with their actions as well; do not display your feelings in public.
In Mali, displays of emotion are very rare and self-control is very important. This restricts men more than women since women’s displays of emotion are more tolerated. Displays of affection and anger, even coming from foreigners, are very poorly viewed.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Modest attire is appropriate for both men and women, but especially for women. It is proper to talk calmly and politely and Malians generally call one another by their last names. Should many people have the same last name they will add the first name as well. Malians are often called upon to attend baptisms (which are often held from 6:30 to 7:00 am), although people who work in international organizations are often excused and it is understood that they will attend at another time to compensate! The same applies for weddings (religious ceremonies are often held during Ashr from 1:30 to 2:00 pm if not on Sunday), or funerals which cannot be missed. Otherwise, they are usually punctual and productive.
Malians take pride in their appearance. However, men do not have to wear a jacket and tie. It is essential that you do not wear short clothing even if it is hot out. Remember that 90% of Malians are Muslim. As a result, women must wear clothes that cover their shoulders and skirts that fall below the knee. Long sleeved shirts are not compulsory for men; however, shorts are not appropriate. If a man holds a senior position, he should wear cotton pants, but not jeans. Malian colleagues always appreciate it when foreigners wear traditional clothing.
Malians use the formal form of "you" ("vous" in French) when addressing others. This is a sign of respect and is it important that foreigners do the same. An expatriate should not require his colleagues to address him with the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French). Also, it is essential that you use your colleagues’ family names since in Mali "the family takes precedence over the individual."
Time is very flexible in Mali and lateness and absenteeism are commonplace. Canadians should come to terms with these differences. Malian colleagues may miss a day of work for family or other reasons. This does not mean they are not committed to their work or that they lack interest or motivation. Rather, it is the result of family values and community solidarity. Certain periods do not favour productivity, particularly Fridays (which correspond to Sunday in the Christian faith) as this is when people go to the Mosque to pray, as well as during Ramadan when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Generally, for many reasons, productivity is a lot lower than in Canada.
Preferred managerial qualities
Qualities such as directness and resolve, coupled with courtesy, empathy and a smart appearance are most highly regarded.
Wherever one is from, these qualities make people respect and obey their superiors. Take your time. Listen and observe the group and individual dynamics before associating with the first people you meet. Malians express themselves through sayings, riddles, and proverbs; it will be difficult to lay the groundwork for friendships or intimate relationships even after you have been there for a long time.
Colleagues respect their superiors’ level of education, ability, and experience. It is also essential to be a good listener. In the general population, the expatriate supervisor is seen as being more knowledgeable. However, this image tends to disappear in circles where people are better educated. In most cases, people will respect a male more than a female superior. Expectations of a female superior are greater and she will have to prove herself.
Some people will tell you directly how they and their colleagues feel. Nonetheless, keep in mind that people most likely have other things, such as favours, in mind. Certain comments may be made to others and you need to be conscious of the rumours you hear. Humour is often filled with positive or negative signals, which can shed some light on the issue.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Malian administration has inherited military and colonial logic that community and regional decentralization is trying to shatter through recent policies and administrative reform. Decision-making, as well, depends on the objectives you seek or wish to fulfill as well as your personal motivations and your ability to develop active and sufficient cooperation between executives, middle management, and junior employees! This is becoming more common in development and local organizations. However, Malians, with their aptitude for not upsetting people, especially their superiors, know how to bow to hegemonic demands at no cost to themselves, but also with no human investment.
Yes, you may consult your immediate supervisor for answers or feedback. Everything depends on the way in which you approach them (diplomatically and politely) and whether they like people to take that kind of initiative. Personally, when I cannot figure out something on my own, I take the initiative even if it might not work out. In any case, people will know what my opinions are and I usually do not ask for an intermediary’s assistance as some people may recommend that you do!
Consulting others is very important and even more so if you are an expatriate since your colleagues will know the culture better than you. All colleagues have the right to speak their mind; however, it is up to the superior to make decisions. It is best to consult your superior to obtain answers to your work-related questions.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
The social and professional thoughts and demands that Malians have about equal salary pose the same challenges that they do in Western societies. All questions related to women’s participation in society create serious local challenges for the majority of Malian women and religious authorities as some feminists attempt to classify professions in public or presidential politics.
The majority of Malian women do not understand what “gender equality” means. The more socially and spiritually active a family is, the more emphasis is put on the spirituality of a person, which entails respect of the particular faith’s values and practices. Therefore, in Mali, the question of “gender equality” must take into account these values, principles, and religious laws.
Sex outside of marriage, cohabitation, adultery, sodomy, and homosexuality are serious sins akin to heresy, heathenism, or, in showing support for any one of these, renouncing one’s faith.
Present-day Malian society has an underlying structure that grew out of the traditions of three religions: traditional sectarian movements (9%), Islam (90%), and Christianity (1%). In Mali, social activities are organized around the daily Muslim prayers that occur from dusk to dawn. Malians follow the rules of their religion (Islam) in the workplace by leaving the office to pray during Dohr ( from 1:30 to 2:00 pm) and Ashr (from 3:30 to 4:00).
Malian society is influenced more by family or social cohesiveness than by social divisions such as class with the exception of the existing segregation of people of certain casts such as the Nyamakalaw (who are blacksmiths, jeliw otherwise incorrectly known as travelling Black musicians and poets, cobblers, weavers, etc)!
People of caste may jokingly or honestly approach a hòròn person (someone of noble birth) at work without being offensive.
More than anything, it is more a case of people being joking cousins although some people declare themselves as being from a specific culture.
Malians are a reluctant to accept gender equality. This may hard to accept, but is due to cultural and religious factors.
Life centres around religion and Malians’ behaviour is based on religion and culture. In their faith, man takes precedence over women. It is also important to respect prayer periods and religious festivals.
There is very little distinction between social classes. The better-educated Malians tend to do things the way Westerners do. This may be poorly viewed by others, depending on how firmly they believe in class distinctions.
Ethnic origins are crucial and they are considered communities that need to be protected and preserved. For example, not that long ago, the Peulh, Srakolé and Malinké would only marry amongst one another. This phenomenon is now starting to fade.
There are no religious or ethnic conflicts in Mali. Despite this, gender differences and anything that relates to ethnic origins may create discrimination or tension in the workplace. If an expatriate superior or colleague wants to have gender equality in the workplace, he/she will likely be up against the disapproval of Malian colleagues.
Your feelings and length of time you have known the person affect interpersonal relations. With the exception of establishing formal financial or business relations, there are no set rules. Business relations are based on the belief that it is a reciprocal relationship; once this trust is broken, outside parties must be called in to fix the delicate situation.
Otherwise, you should ensure your contracts are drawn up in legal fashion, even by the police! Avoid implicit or explicit invitations to inflate bills as they are particularly frowned upon by the state police!
It is important to break free of the formal relations between colleagues and establish a more personal connection by earning clients’ and colleagues’ trust; this is a critical factor in personal and professional relations. In order to make things more personal, you should share your family life by inviting the person to your home to meet your family or inviting him/her over to a friend’s house. Going out to restaurants is also a good idea. However, Malians do not look kindly on personal relations between a man and a woman and will likely regard it as something that is more romantic than professional.
Privileges and favouritism
Since the family is the core of social life, it is not out of the question that relatives or either close or distant friends ask you for assistance. However, rules that dictate you to be fair and impartial may help you circumvent such inconvenient circumstances.
It is preferable to form friendships with your colleagues, but this may lead them to ask for privileges. In Malian culture, friends lend a helping hand. It is essential that you determine the feasibility of what has been asked of you before following through with it. Whatever decision you make, other colleagues will likely be jealous and envious—this is unavoidable. Observing and listening to others will best guide your actions and words.
Conflicts in the workplace
Yes, if you think that the person might agree to a private conversation. Otherwise, if you are having problems with someone, normally it is best to meet in a discreet place. No matter the extent of the problem, avoid humiliating the other person. Generally, this kind of approach is not appreciated.
When you want to say something to colleagues, it is best to always do so privately, and if possible, go through a third person. Malians always prefer to be confronted privately because it is considered to be an insult if done in public and this may negatively affect the relationship. If people are having problems with you, their attitude will change and a third party will let you know.
Motivating local colleagues
True professional satisfaction from having a decent, regular salary, respect, and good working conditions is the ultimate workplace motivation. Malians are very compliant once they are satisfied with their working conditions.
The most motivating factor is the superior’s commitment; he/she is the driving force whose attitude sends a message to all employees. Afterwards, it is important that the superior successfully create a good working environment.
Recommended books, films & foods
All of Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s books; Bocar N’Diayé - Les groupes ethniques du Mali; Us et Coutumes du Mali and Djibril Tamsir Niane - Soundjata ou l’épopée du Mali. Massa Makan Diabaté - Le Lieutenant de Kouta; Le Coiffeur de Kouta; Le Boucher de Kouta, Hatier, 1982; Comme une piqûre de guêpes; L’assemblée des Djinns; Pascal Baba F. Coulibaly - Les angoisses d’un monde; Youssouf Tata Cissé - La confrérie des chasseurs Malinké et Bambara : Mythes, rites et récits initiatiques. You can find these books at Olivieri or Renaud-Bray bookstores in Montréal.
Movies and television
Cheick Oumar Sissoko-Nyamaton’s La leçon des ordures! and Souleymane Cissé’s Yeleen, la lumière! Also watch TV5 and Télé Québec in Canada and ORTM and TV5 in Mali.
http://www.afribone.com/ or www.malinet.net (provides a portal to almost all other sites about Mali!)
Maffé and ginger juice.
Without a doubt, the most interesting book about Mali is Amadou Hampaté Ba’s L’enfant Peulh. It is also very well written in somewhat of a typical Malian poetic style. The book’s story is about the conquest of the Ségou kingdom and immerses the readers in Mali’s past, which, thanks to the descriptions, is very accurate. It makes immerses the reader in the atmosphere experienced when living abroad in Mali. In addition, there is also Maryse Condé’s Ségou, Djibril Tamsir Niang’s L’épopée mandingue and Une si longue letter.
Mali.net and Afribone.
On January 26, 2003, an association called "L’association des Maliens du Grand Montréal" was created and it may help you find out additional information about Mali. There is most likely another Malian association as well.
The Bamako Museum and botanical gardens; the Women’s Museum in Bamako-Korofina; and other tourist areas such as Ségou, Djenné, Mopti, Pays Dogon, or Tombouctou.
Restaurants in Bamako
I would suggest Djenné and San-Toro.
Boubacar Traoré, Salif Keïta, Bonkana Maïga, Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré, Ami Koïta, Rokia Traoré, Habib Koîté, Djénéba Seck, Tata Boré, Kandia Kouyaté, etc.
Rice with peanut sauce (with meat, chicken or fish) otherwise known as "maffé" by the Senegalese or Fulfulde; couscous (basi) or "tò" (semolina or millet, sorghum, or corn paste with okra or spinach); "fonio" with tomato or peanut sauce.
I would suggest going to concerts by professional singers or jeliws (travelling black African poets and musicians), listening to the ORTM (Mali’s Radio and Television Broadcasting Office) or watching plays at the Kotèba Theatre. Otherwise, once you have established friendships with Malians, they will invite you to family and social celebrations, which will be a good way to effortlessly learn about Malian society and culture.
The best-known musician is Salif Keita, who has captured my heart. His lyrics and songs thoroughly express how Malians think and live. Keita sings in French, English, Diola, and Mandingue and his songs are romantic and cheerful.
My next favourite singer is Diabaté Sissoko who enthrals audiences with his voice, his cora (an instrument that sounds like the harp, but has 21 or 28 strings) playing skills, and talent as a travelling Black African poet who recites stories about genealogy, traditions, and history.
It is also worthwhile familiarizing yourself with Amadou and Mariam, a famous blind couple in Mali. In their songs you will hear the very slow and somewhat monotonous Mandingue rhythm that is very popular in Mali
Malians frequently think about the achievements of the individuals who founded the country such as Sunjata Keyita, Tira Maghan, Fakoli Dunbiya, Biton, Kulibali, Da Monzon Jara, Babemba Taarawele, etc); those who resisted the colonial invasion such as El-Hadj Oumar Tall and Samori Ture; the heroes or fathers of Malian independence such as Modibo Keïta, Mamadou Konaté; as well as people, such as Abdul Karim "Cabral" Camara and the Martyrs of March 26, 1991, who died under the Malian dictatorship from 1968 to 1991.
There are many, but the most well-known are: Soundjata Keita, Mandé’s king; Soumankourou Kanté, Sosso’s king; Siramakan, Soundjatan Keita’s most famous General; Da Monson Diarra, a Ségou king; Binton Coulibaly, a Ségou king; Samagnanna Bassi, a Kharta king; Babemba et Thiéba Traoré, Sikasso kings (resistance members who defended the country against the most recent French colonialists); Fakoly, a great warrior; and Modibo Keita, the first President upon Mali’s independence in 1960.
Shared historical events with Canada
Personally, I cannot think of anything other than the fact that Malians do not understand why they are required to go to Abidjan or Ghana to obtain a Canadian visa when there is a Canadian embassy in their country. Otherwise, relations are rather cordial and welcoming.
No. Quite to the contrary, Canada is seen as a great friend to Mali.
Although most Malians realize how to differentiate the different nationalities of development professionals or volunteers (French, Americans, Canadians, and others) and speak with all of them, they do not escape the tendency to group them all together. Otherwise, they tend to enjoy and evaluate interpersonal or group relations that they have with others without basing them on stereotypes.
Generally, Canadians believe that demands and requests for assistance in Mali stem from the simple fact that Canada is a well-off North American country. Their requests are also extended to Malians who are in a good financial situation and not only to North Americans. One good turn deserves another and friendship is based on mutual assistance. If it is possible that you can grant the requests, you may develop a faithful friend or colleague who will later lend a helping hand.
Canadian women are often worried about Malian men. In general, Malian men are rather reserved (compared to other Western African nationals). People will compliment you, but romantic advances are rather rare. Being too cautious could prevent relations from blooming.
Canadians may interpret someone not showing up for a meeting as lacking motivation or trust when, in fact, it means nothing at all. The group and family are very important and it is simply a case of survival that makes these aspects take precedence over work. Canadians should be prepared to be flexible.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter is the youngest of two children. Although he was born in the city, he grew up in both rural and urban settings. He studied in Bamako, Mali, but also studied at the Académie d'Aix-Marseille in Aix, France (Natural and Social Sciences), and at McGill University in Canada. Subsequently, with the help of a scholarship from the World Health Organization, he immigrated to Canada to study and work in fields of Medical and Epidemiological Anthropology. He currently lives in Montreal, where he has lived since 1995, but regularly goes to Mali, Africa, the United States, and Europe to teach, research and work in the areas of cultural and sporting activities, human development, and the prevention and control of tropical diseases. He is married and has two children. Your cultural interpreter grew up surrounded by many cultures such as the Bamanan, Mandenka, Fulfulde, Songhaï cultures.
Your cultural interpreter, the youngest of two children, was born in Quebec in 1975. She grew up in an urban area and studied anthropology at the Université de Laval in Quebec City. Her studies took her abroad for the first time in 1995, when she visited Morocco and stayed with a local family. Subsequently, she went on a three-month intercultural homestay in Senegal. She received her BA. in 1999 and then worked as an anthropologist on a village food security project for a Canadian NGO in Burkina Faso. For several months in 2001 she worked in Mali as a supervisor for a Canadian NGO program for youth who were participating in their first intercultural experience. She worked in tandem with a community group to carry out her activities. She then returned to Canada and has been living in Montreal for almost the past two years. She works in a local food security organization and has begun an MA. in project management.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.