by Wesley Kawato
Until the 1970s very few people had heard of the Ma- linke tribes of West Africa or the Mande language cluster which is the basis for today’s Malinke lan- guages. That all changed in 1974 when Alex Haley published a book called Roots. Haley, a well-known African-American writer, had begun researching his family history. This search took him to the West African country of Liberia, one of the homelands of the Malinke people group. Haley heard the story of Kunta Kinte and realized that he was descended from this man. The Roots book later became a famous television mini-series.
Kunta Kinte was a Malinke warrior who was captured by white slave traders and shipped to America during the 1700s. We know from other historical sources that many Malinke people were sold into slavery, and slave traders also victimized other tribes in West Africa. But besides being victims of the slave trade, the Malinke and other people groups were also guilty of enslaving their local enemies and people from neighboring groups. Tribes often fought wars with each other, selling their prisoners to white slave traders. But the Malinke peoples have a heritage that goes back long before the era of slave trading.
History tells us that the Malinke were one of the groups that inhabited the Mali Empire which ruled the Niger River Valley during the 1200s. The Mali Empire built the legend- ary city of Timbuktu where a great library was once located. Much of what we know today about the early history of West Africa comes from sources within the Mali Empire and the scroll remnants that still exist from what is left of the library. The Mali Empire splintered into many people groups that exist today. The Malinke is one such group.
They speak the languages from the Mande cluster, and the language of each subgroup is different from every other Malinke language and dialect; but to a trained linguist, the similarities between these various languages are very clear. Today these people groups are prominent along the west coast of Africa from Senegal to Cote d’Ivoire. Malinke people groups also stretch far inland from Gambia to Chad.
As the Mali Empire fell apart in the 1300s, Arab merchants introduced Islam into West Africa. Many people groups embraced the new religion, among them the Malinke. Even after converting to Islam, most of the Ma- linke people groups never fully gave up their belief in nature spirits. Today the Malinke and their related racial cousins practice a very impure form of Islam that is riddled with elements of traditional spirit worship.
After the fall of the Mali Empire, a number of Malinkes settled in what is now Liberia. But between 1400 and 1800 slave traders captured large numbers of these people. Perhaps as many as one third of the Malinke population was shipped to America as slaves during that time.
Starting in the mid 1800s, freed American slaves began returning to Liberia. By 1847 there were enough Afro-Americans living in Liberia to form an independent nation. Also the Malinke and their neighbors had recovered from the devastat- ing effects of the slave trade. Unfortunately, during the 1800s there were frequent clashes between the African-Americans and the various tribes. The African tribes were usually the losers. Their spears were no match for the guns of the African- Americans. The African-Americans quickly forgot their heritage as former slaves and practiced slavery themselves. Many tribes living in West Africa, including the Malinke, became victims of slavery once again.
Slavery in Liberia was finally abolished during the 1920s thanks to international pressure. The League of Nations played a huge role in ending slavery in Liberia. Yet the Liberian tribes remained second-class citizens in that country for decades to come because of poor education.
Things changed rapidly in 1980 when a military coup overthrew the Libe- rian government. An air force sergeant named Samuel K. Doe led a new military junta that proved to be just as divisive as the government it had replaced. Doe’s military junta escalated racial tensions. The various Liberian tribes fought one other for the right to rule Liberia. The situation escalated into a full-fledged civil war in 1989. President Doe had no use for Chris- tians, so he favored Liberia’s Muslim tribes, even though he wasn’t a Muslim himself. Doe introduced laws that made it difficult for mission agencies to operate in Liberia. Churches and mission stations were destroyed in the fighting, and missionaries were forced to flee. The killing didn’t end until 1996, the same year President Doe was overthrown. By that time 200,000 people had died in the fighting, and that figure included many Malinke casualties. Charles Taylor, the new dictator, set out to punish tribes like the Malinke that had supported President Doe. The persecution against the Malinke didn’t end until Taylor was overthrown in 1999 during another civil war. Democratic elections were not held until 2005.
Today the Malinke people groups in Liberia have many needs. There are many war wounded among them, including those who have lost arms and legs. There are also many orphans and fatherless children. Rape was very common during the two civil wars, and many Malinke men were also killed fighting for one faction or another. There are a few followers of Jesus Christ among the Malinke. One church pastor who isn’t understood by his people group is now a virtual outcast.
Ask God to encourage this small band of Malinke believers to reach out to their people group with the message of salvation in Christ. Pray that God would break the hold that Islam and spirit worship have on the Malinke.
Many missionaries have come to Liberia after peace was restored. They found many churches and mission stations badly damaged or totally destroyed. They have done much repair work and reconstruction since 1999. Today New Tribes Mis- sions, the International Mission Board, and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church are very active in the Malinke homeland and other places where the people groups have settled. There is also Bible translation work being done among some of the Malinke groups that you will pray for this month.
Pray for peace and stability in this region. Pray for God to guide medical mission- aries to go to this country to heal the sick and wounded. Pray for faithful workers who will start schools and orphanages. Pray that God will protect the mission work being done among the Malinke peoples.
Dear Praying Friends,
This month we are praying for the Malinke people, also known as the Mandinka or the Mandingos. These three names all refer to the same cluster of people groups who live in West Africa. For the sake of simplicity, we will use
the most popular term, Malinke.
This West African people group cluster has been known in the Western world for hundreds of years. They were both enslavers and the enslaved during the heyday of the African slave trade. Many African-Americans probably have Malinke blood in their veins. After the slave trade ended in the United States, many African-Americans returned to West Africa to the country which is now known as Liberia. Please read the background article to learn about the history of this country.
Most Malinke peoples are still unreached, but there is work going on in many of their subgroups. Some have Bible portions, and many have the JESUS Film and Global Recordings materials in their dialects.
Pray that these materials will find willing hearts among each Malinke group.