"Mali is one of the highlights in West Africa. It has everything that encapsulates Africa; colourful markets and people, deserts, mud architechture, river life and dramatic escarpments. The Bandiagara Escarpment in the Dogon country is a cultural feast. Gao and Timbuktu, on the edge of the Sahara, are famous for their history. Getting to Timbuktu is still a memorable journey today!" - Bradt (Africa Overland)

Government Parliamentary democracy
Population 13.8 million
Capital Bamako

Mali is landlocked and has a subtropical to arid climate. It is mostly flat, rising to rolling northern plains covered by sand, with savanna around the Niger River in the south. Most of the country lies in the Sahara Desert, which produces a hot, dust-laden harmattan haze common during dry seasons and leads to recurring droughts. The nation has considerable natural resources, with gold, uranium, phosphates, kaolin, salt and limestone being most widely exploited.

Although large swathes of Mali are barren, the country is self-sufficient in food thanks to the fertile Niger river basin in the south and east. Its straight borders on the north stretch into the centre of the Sahara desert, while the country's south, where the majority of inhabitants live, features the Niger and Senegal rivers. Formerly French Sudan, the country is named after the Empire of Mali.

The empire of ancient Mali, located in western Africa, stretched across the Sahel (sub Sahara) and the Sahara Desert from the fourth century. The empire was located astride one of the world's most lucrative trade routes, the Niger River which supplied the people with water for domestic and agricultural uses, and was also the "highway" for trade. They earned much of their wealth from salt and gold trading. Camels carried salt from mines in the north to be traded for gold, kola nuts, and grain in southern Mali.

The Mandé peoples settled the Sahel (including present-day Mali), and formed a succession of Sahelian kingdoms, including the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire. Timbuktu was a key city in these empires as an outpost for trans-Saharan trade and a center for scholarship

Mali was invaded by France starting in 1880, which annexed it as an overseas department of France. The colony, which at times also included neighbouring countries, was known as French Sudan or the Sudanese Republic. Independence was won in 1960.

Amadou Toumani Toure, the army general credited with rescuing Mali from military dictatorship and handing it back to its people, won presidential elections in May 2002. Mr Toure first came to power in 1991, overthrowing military ruler Moussa Traore after his security forces killed over 100 pro-democracy demonstrators.

He gained widespread respect, and the nickname "soldier of democracy", for handing power to elected civilians the next year.

In 1985 Mali fought a brief border war with Burkina Faso, and relations continue to be strained. In the early 1990s the army was sent to the north to quell a rebellion by nomadic Tuareg tribes over land, cultural and linguistic rights. However, Mali remains relatively peaceful.

Main exports: Cotton, gold, livestock

Mali is among the poorest countries in the world, with 65% of its land area desert or semidesert, and economic activity largely confined to the area irrigated by the Niger River. About 10% of the population is nomadic and some 80% of the labor force is engaged in farming and fishing. The country is one of the continent's biggest cotton producers. Along with other African exporters it has lobbied against subsidies to cotton farmers in richer countries, particularly the US. It argues that these depress prices and restrict Malian farmers' access to export markets. Mali's economic development is also held back by a chronic foreign trade deficit, making it heavily dependent on foreign aid and the money sent home from emigrants working abroad. The economy is said to be improving over the past ten years and the government anticipates that Mali will soon become a major Sub-Saharan gold exporter.

Mali's population consists of diverse Sub-Saharan ethnic groups, sharing similar historic, cultural, and religious traditions. Exceptions are the Tuaregs and Maurs, desert nomads, related to the North African Berbers who traditionally have opposed the central government. Tuaregs seeking greater autonomy led to clashes with the military until 1992, when the government and most opposing factions signed a pact to end the fighting and restore stability in the north. Its major aims are to allow greater autonomy to the north and increase government resource allocation to what has been a traditionally impoverished region. The peace agreement was celebrated in 1996 in Timbuktu during an official and highly publicized ceremony called "Flamme de la Paix".

Approximately 90% of the Malians follow Sunni Islam, but not always to the exclusion of traditional religious beliefs and practices. The Muslims have their own educational systems, leading in some cases to the equivalent of baccalaureate and doctoral studies. An increasingly large number of Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca and study in Arab countries. Christians comprise about 5% of the population. Under French colonial rule the introduction of missionaries into predominantly Islamic areas was discouraged.

Literacy in French, the official language, is low and is concentrated in the urban areas. The government has expanded literacy considerably since 1960 by stressing education at the primary and lower secondary levels. A national university was established in Bamako in the 1990s.

Mali's broadcast and print media are among the freest in Africa. There are some 40 privately-owned newspapers and 50 private radio and television stations, as well as state-run print and broadcast media.

Mali has produced some of the stars of African music. The Festival in the Desert, held every year in Essakane, a Saharan oasis, celebrates this talent.

(edited. Wikipedia, BBC, The Africa Guide, Bradt)
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