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TUAREG MEN riding their camels near Menaka on a dune, like the ones where beads were found on the surface. Known as the Blue Men, for the blue stain imparted to their skin from their indigo-dyed clothing.

Learning About

Beads In Mali


History, Glass

and Diplomacy




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.









Robert and Barbara Pringle
Robert and Barbara Pringle retired from the peripatetic life of a Foreign Service family more than a decade ago. Two assignments in West Africa in the 1980s left them with a lifetime interest in the history and cultural uses of beads. In their article, they share the story of how Robert’s assignment to Bamako, Mali, introduced them to the beauty and historical significance of the thousands of old beads then pouring into the markets all over the region. In the 1980s both African and overseas demand was bringing many of these beads into the markets which they had the opportunity to visit as they traveled about Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as neighboring countries. In retrospect, they feel lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

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