The Mandinka (also known as the Mandingo and Malinke, among other names) are a West African people spread across parts of Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. With a global population of some 11 million, the Mandinka are the best-known ethnic group of the Mande peoples, all of whom speak different dialects of the Mande language. They are descendants of the great Mali Empire that flourished in West Africa from the 13th through the 16th centuries. Beginning in the 16th century, tens of thousands of Mandinka were captured and shipped to the Americas as slaves. Of the approximately 388,000 Africans who landed in America as a result of the slave trade, historians believe 92,000 (24 percent) were Senegambians, from the region of West Africa comprising the Senegal and Gambia Rivers and the land between them; many were Mandinka and Bambara (another Mande ethnic group). In the 20th century, the author Alex Haley made the Mandinka famous when he traced his “Roots” back to the village of Juffure in the Gambia, where his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, was captured and sold into slavery in the United States.
Some Mandinka converted to Islam from their traditional animist beliefs as early as the 12th century, but after a series of Islamic holy wars in the late 19th century, more than 95 percent of Mandinka are Muslims today. Most live in family compounds in rural villages, which are largely autonomous and governed by local chiefs. Most Mandinka men are poor subsistence farmers, for whom one rainy season spells hunger and ruin. Peanuts are a main crop, and a staple of the Mandinka diet; they also plant millet, corn and sorghum. Mandinka women do the laborious, physically demanding work of tending the rice fields, in addition to their roles as wives and mothers.
Traditional customs include circumcision for both boys and girls, arranged marriages and polygamy (Mandinka men are allowed up to four wives). The Mandinka have a strong oral tradition, in which “griots,” or storytellers, keep alive stories of village and family history, often accompanied by music on the kora, a traditional instrument resembling a harp. Literacy is low among many Mandinka populations, at least for Roman script; more than half can read local Arabic script, taught in small Koranic schools that are more common in Mandinka villages.