The Missionary Mandate Newsletter

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Bambara People: A look at their Cultural and Religious Background

By: Charles & Mia Harris

In our previous article; Declaring:  Our "Unreached People Group," we reflected on the historical facts of this great tribal nation, our "frontier people group" (a term we prefer using in our research) as the "Bambara Tribe" of Mali, West Africa.  In this writing, we will answer several questions that will allow us to have a better understanding of this indigenous tribe  and their way of life. The questions are as follows: Are they Agricultural, pastoral or urban? What are some of their values? Whether cultural beliefs are a bridge or a hindrance to the Gospel? Are they Matriarchal or Patriarchal? What are the primary religious beliefs? How do these beliefs affect their culture?

In their daily life, eighty percent of the Bambara people are farmers, with many of them growing their main crop called millet.  Millets are a group of small-seeded species of cereal crops or grains, widely grown in difficult production environments such as Mali which suffers through repeated  periods of drought. "Rice and millet are the staples of Malian cuisine, which is heavily based on cereal grains."  Other crops includes sorghum and groundnuts maize, cassava, tobacco, and numerous other vegetables, with most being grown in private gardens. The Bambara farmers also raise livestock, such as horses, goats, sheep, and chickens. "Both men and women share the farming duties. Nevertheless, the wives frequently get in the fields later and leave earlier than the men. This gives them time to prepare the morning and evening meals. Children between the ages of 12 and 14 also help with the family's work, leading the oxen as they plow and guarding them during rest periods."
"Despite the wide variety of cultures in West Africa, from Nigeria through to Senegal, there are general similarities in dress, cuisine, music and culture that are not shared extensively with groups outside the geographic region.”  Each Bambara village is made up of a variety of family units, usually all from one lineage or extended family. Each household, or gwa is responsible to provide for all of its members, as well as to help them with their farming duties. Children i Mali begin working at a very young age, participating in caring for their younger siblings, doing household chores, or other physical labor that is needed. It is quite usual to observe "young girls carrying their youngest sibling, strapped to their back with a wide strip of cloth." Young girls also begin helping with household chores, such as doing the wash by hand, pounding the millet to make flour, etc. Like their mothers, the girls seem to work longer hours than the male counterparts. "Boys also do physical labor that would not be even thought of in the US. But, especially in cases where a parent has died, the children are expected to carry the load."
Most of their  homes are routinely larger than homes of many other West African groups. It is said that some of the dwellings hold up to "60 or more people."  "The people are extremely friendly and warm. People greet each other in Bambara, asking how their family is, children, parents, and inquiring about the health or well-being of all. Hospitality is also stressed, with families providing meals for guests that they themselves could not afford to eat."

Mali Widow

Family and marriage is very important to the Bambara people. Though the price of marriages is expensive, it is considered as a type of "investment". However the main principle of a marriage is to have children, which helps to ensure the family's labor force and future of the family lineage. Weddings are considered  a family affair and as a result of the mixture of family units, marriage involve the union of two lives, two families and sometimes two communities! In all African traditions the bride plays a special role and is treated with respect among the tribes, because she is a linkage between the unborn and the ancestors.  "Most Bambara women have an average of eight children. All adults are married. Even elderly widows in their 70's or 80's have suitors for the reason that the Bambara believe that a wife enlarges a man's status."

What are the primary religious beliefs? How do these beliefs affect their culture? While historically, Islam is still the predominant religion in Mali mostly Sunni Islam and is now the largest branch of Islam, its influence came through the need for survival and remains because of its support to the government, and various institutions.
Years ago, "the Bambara used to be strongly spirited lively, being opposed to Islam, and this is why Muslims give them the name of "bamana" or pagan." However, "Islam has gone into Mali very slowly, and now is one of the first religions of the country."  This religion came to Mali as a result of trans-Sahara trade and was introduced by traders who brought both their material goods for the market, as well as, a new religion.  Christianity was introduced in the fifteenth century by the Christian countries of western Europe, during the Trans-Sahara Slave Trade, who went to the continent, not to proclaim the Word of God, but for material gain.   Thereby, using the Bible for malicious advantages and through deliberate lies and ignorance taught that God sanctioned human slavery and winked at the wickedness of an ungodly system by suggestion that "slavery was part of God's plan to expose a hitherto heathen people to the blessings of Christianity."
Based upon our continued research, we have discovered and firmly believe that their cultural beliefs are a bridge and not a hindrance to the Gospel? Please allow me to pause in this writing and share my heart's convictions.  If the true Word of God is preached out of a pure heart and demonstrates through love and grace, that the gospel sets men free of sin and condemnation, we can win the world. The Word must be taught in truth; that Christ came to teach us and serve as our example for living, and that He (Jesus) also came to die. Christ death was not to enslaved mankind, but to free him and bring deliverance, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.   
Today, there are many ethnic groups in West Africa, including the Bambara, who still traditionally believed in the "spirits of the land," (ancestral worship) who were thought to ensure the success of their crops. Since it was the ancestors who had developed the original arrangement with the spirits, spiritual contact with ancestors are considered essential.  This  religion is very much part of the agricultural and natural life of the people. Before vegetable leaves are eaten at the beginning of the rainy season thanks must be given to the spirits of the land, the "mhondoro" and ancestors.
Even though "they believe in a supreme creator god as well as in gods of the air and water." Apparently, this religion is practiced only because they have not come to know their higher Creator personally, and will not really turn to God, because they believe He is too far removed from them and too indifferent.
The Barbara people and all of Africa must come to know that the Gospel of Christ is humanity's single hope for eternal life.  And, "the church of God is a multinational, missionary community," thereby, it is inclusive of all nations, cultures and people groups.  Also, there must be a call to repentance, self-denial, submission to the will and authority of God, that will result in a true and committed following in the teachings, love, joy, and sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
However, this will not be accomplished with lies and selfish motives, by neither African leaders or foreign missions. They must come to know that Christ is faithful, and true, holy, righteous and merciful, and come to understand and believe that Christ is love, demonstrated in our actions as Christians, for the love of all mankind. In this way, Christianity will never again be seen as a darkness that ordained slavery and cultural imperlism, but a true light of agape' love that brings freedom and the promised blessings of abundant life.  As the scriptures teaches (Galatians 1:6-9 paraphrased): there is only one gospel of grace and anyone who preaches another gospel, meaning those who subvert the truth or propagate a false doctrine the Bible says: "let him be accursed."
Are they Matriarchal or Patriarchal?  Bambara people "share many aspects of broader Mandé social structure." The society is "patrilineal and patriarchal, though virtually no women wear a veil."  Although patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male is the primary authority figure or where fathers hold authority and occupy the dominant role over women, children, and property.
However, it must be said that the African women in most cases are exalted with and sometimes above her father, husband and brothers. Indeed, no other human of any racial or ethnic type has been so widely venerated as has the African woman.