Beads In Mali
In the 1980s, markets in Mali blossomed with beads for sale—new imports from Europe; stone, wood and other natural materials crafted by local artisans; old glass trade beads available in the “antiquités” section beside masks, pots and other cultural artifacts; and African-produced powder glass and Kiffa beads. In 1987, Robert was appointed United States ambassador to Mali, and we arrived in Bamako just at the right moment to be drawn into the excitement. We knew something about the ritual and economic value of beads in Southeast Asia from Robert’s graduate work in Sarawak, Malaysia, and a later assignment to the Philippines, where he specialized in political problems among minority peoples. But the number and variety of beads we encountered was slim, and the more interesting ones were either prized by their indigenous owners or already owned by wealthy collectors, especially true in the Philippines.
Mali was different. The reasons were related to both history and geography. From roughly the sixth to the sixteenth centuries, Mali had been the site of three great, multi-ethnic empires (Ghana, Mali and Songhai), which flourished in large part because of trade. This trade had to do both with resources (most notably Malian gold) and the Niger River, over twenty-six hundred miles (about forty-two hundred kilometers) in length. At its northernmost point, roughly where Timbuktu is located, the Niger flows through desert, and the shortest routes to the Mediterranean left the river from this area and headed north, transitioning from boats to camels and from water to sand. This land route to Europe was eventually displaced by a sea route during the growth of the Atlantic slave trade, but beads remained important items of exchange.