The Mandinka of West Africa received an amount of world recognition when author Alex Haley traced his Roots and ancestry (Kunta Kinte) to the small Mandinka village of Juffreh in The Gambia, West Africa.

Originally from Mali, the Mandinka gained their independence from previous empires in the thirteenth century, and founded an empire which stretched across West Africa. They migrated west from the Niger River basin in search of better agricultural lands and more opportunities for conquest. During this expansion, they established their rule from modern day The Gambia to Guinea (Conakry). Here they founded the empire of Kaabu, comprised of 20 small kingdoms. Through a series of Islamic holy wars between 1855 and 1890 the Mandinkas were converted to Islam.

Today 95% of Mandinkas are Muslims. Most Mandinkas live in family-related compounds in traditional rural villages. Mandinka villages are fairly autonomous and self-ruled, being led by a chief and group of elders.

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Interpersonal relationships are important and maintained through reciprocal visits at weddings, naming ceremonies, circumcisions, funerals, and times of assistance.

The most important social grouping is the kafoo (kah' foe), formed at the time of circumcision initiation and lasting throughout life. Mandinkas live in an oral society. Learning is traditionally done through stories, songs and proverbs. Western education's impact is minimal; the literacy rate in Roman script overall in The Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau is quite low. However, more than half the adult population can read the local Arabic script; small Qur'anic schools for children where this is taught are quite more common.

Mandinkas live in one of the poorest areas of the world. Diarrhea, malaria, and upper respiratory tract infections account for much of the high childhood death rate; infant mortality is 120 per 1,000 live births, and life expectancy is only about 50 years. Eighty percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition. The annual per capita income is less than $300. Most Mandinkas are poor subsistence farmers living on the edge of survival; one poor rainy season can spell a year of hunger and despair.

In the rainy season (June through October), men plant peanuts as their main cash crop; peanuts are also a staple of the MNK diet. Men also plant millet (coos) and corn, mostly for family consumption. Women work in the rice fields, tending the plants by hand. This is an extremely labor intensive and physically demanding work. Only about 50% of the rice consumption needs are met by local planting; the rest is imported from Asia and the United States.

While farming is the predominant profession among the Mandinka, men also work as tailors, butchers, taxi drivers, woodworkers, metal workers, soldiers, nurses, and extension workers for aid agencies. However, most women, probably 95%, remain in the home as wives and mothers.


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