Ethnic Adornment and my travels in Mali . by Eva Lea Baby

Ethnic Adornment and my travels in Mali . by Eva Lea Baby

I hope I can limit this article to the subject of ethnic adornment, and more to the North, as this is the area I love most…..Timbuktu and North of it.

However all of Mali is fascinating.

I am married with a Malian since 14 years, he was born in Gao (Tuareg-Sonrai city near the border of the Niger Republic and former capital of the Askia-kingdoms), and grew up in Timbuktu. We met on my first trip to Mali, when I travelled with my friend Iduna, who had made the route Taoudeni-Timbuktu with the famous Azalai caravan. .She got to know people from Timbuktu, held contact, travelled there again, and as we worked at the same office, it was a question of time, that I would take this trip with her. That is very long ago, and since then, I have travelled many times to Mali and Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is a special place, different from other cities in Mali. For me, it is a magical place in the true sense. The only places in Mali where I felt the same magic was at Djenné’s mosque, and Gao`s Askia graves
– apart from the desert,which holds a magic of its own.

One cannot explain this, either you feel it or you don’t, and I felt it deeply.

After the invasion of Tuareg rebels and Islamic fighters in 2012, I have not been back there, for security reasons. Even my husband who is now in Mali, avoids going there, although he is from there!

It is worth to read the history of Timbuktu, it’s discovey by the Europeans in 1826 ( Brit. Alexander Gordon Laing), he could not return to Europe, as he was killed..

1828 French René Caillé reached Timbuktu, stayed 11 days and returned as first European to safely return back from there. In 1853 another explorer, Heinrich Barth, reached Timbuktu and returned.

Timbuktu holds 3 famous mosques, constructed with mudbricks, they are under the protectorate of the UNESCO. (The great Mosque (Djingarey-ber, which is a Sonrai word meaning „great mosque“) built in 1327 (picture), Sankoré Mosque and Sidi Yahya Mosque. Timbuktu was originally a Tuareg place, where baggage was stored, and an old woman named Bouctou, guarded it. Tin means well, so Tin Bouctou means nothing else than „the well of Bouctou“, which transformed later to „Timbuktu“.

Mali has many folks, and they speak different languages, some of the main groups are:

In the North: Tuareg, Sonrai (big Sonrai kingdoms with the Askias kings in Gao), Bella, Arabs (Mauritania and Morocco) , and other ethnic groups who had emigrated there from the South.

In the middle part live primarily Peul (Fulani) and Dogon (Bandiagara), Bozos (river), and South the Bamana (Bambara) and other Mande peoples (e.g. Sarakollé, Minianka, Soninke, Senoufos, Khassonkes, Bobos, etc.  They all have their own languages and cultures, it is an ethnical paradise.

This is just a small incomplete introduction, and does not claim to be either comprehensive nor faultless.

Before passing to the adornment, I would like to mention the other famous mosque in Mopti. This mosque is huge and famous, although younger

than the Timbuktu mosques. Its name is Komogeuel.

Mopti is THE city of the Peul (Fulani).

The Fulani women of Mali are famous for their looks, they are said to be the most beautiful.

The Fulani women wear these famous huge earrings with that twisted look.

However, do not think that in Mopti, you would seewomen with this jewellery walking around. This is only seen on festivities, I chose this photo because it not only shows the famous earrings, but also a pendant and amber (or faux amber) pieces on her head.

Below is another photo of a Peul woman wearing the earrings, and one can see the typical „liptattoo“. Peul women,also wear a chain of small rings falling from their temples.The same type of rings are also worn by other ethnies, e.g. the Sonrai)


I have photos of my mother-in-law wearing such a chain of rings at a wedding as guest. My mother-in-law is Sonrai, but to some part South Moroccan. The women of Mali are very elegant and beautiful, but it is wrong to think, you would see them walking around like this in the streets.

As a tourist you might not see them like this at all.

Today, many styles are mixed, due to intermarriage, or just due to preference. Sometimes members of my family wear the typical adornments of the North (Tuareg, Sonrai wedding head-dresses), sometimes a veil, sometimes a scarf around the head or

nowadays also a string with guilded coins around the head, which I had never seen before 2007..  The wish to embellish oneself for events like weddings is very intensive in Mali, weddings are among the most important events.

Back to my beloved north – years ago, I have travelled a lot in Northern Mali,
that means north from Timbuktu into the desert, and along the Hombori route to Gao.
Here the people are mainly Tuareg, Peul, Sonrai, Bella, Mauritanians ( called Hassanyia after their language), and others.
There is not much jewellery to be seen, apart from these headdresses worn by the brides and female visitors or family members at weddings.
The women veil their heads in the desert part, and are in general poor.They did not have much jewellery, but every woman was wearing her special „gris-gris“, (amulets) made of red-coloured goatskin and mirrors – this against the bad Djinns who live in the desert and who can cause you harm. (when you ride in the desert and all is emtpy around you, you soon start to think, that Djinns are not unreal, but can be there,). With my friend Iduna, having her “own family“ in Timbuktu, I was accepted as member of the family, and the ladies started to make gris-gris for me too, as the first thing.

The woman in front has a dark-violet veil, which dyed her arms and face, a much desired effect, which is considered as an embellishment too. I am not going into details about Tuareg Jewellery, as this is a vast theme,
and would need an article by itself. Tuareg jewellery, is a gorgeous chapter, but needs to have a separate article of it’s own

In a very old photo of me, wearing also this headdress of Mali’s north at a festivity. I found it recently and had to smile at my red nose, burnt from the sun of Timbuktu. It wasnot a wedding, but a New Year-dinner festivity.

Some of my Malian family (mainly ladies in Bamako) have become very modern and like to dress the European way. Of course, they have the right to turn “modern“, and one should not deny it to them, nevertheless I hope that this does not intensify, it would be so sad, Malian traditional fashion and jewellery, with all the different ethnies, is so overhwelming, it would be a drama if it disappeared.
But I see also signs of combination- the old and the new, which is a good way!

To end this, here is another Malian bride in all her beauty, she is modern, but wears the traditional headdress and dress at her wedding.! Some brides have both now, a white Western dress with white veil, and a traditional dress with Northern headdress and they change the dress, one is worn for the civil wedding and one is worn for the religious wedding and dinner.

Aren’t they lucky?

We European brides have usually only one….

Article By Eva lea Baby

Additional images Africa Adorned.

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