Mali - a country a little smaller than Australia’s Northern Territory, but larger than South Africa - is a product of a complex and often turbulent history. In the 8th century it was consolidated into a kingdom – a significant power in the western section of the profitable trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, slaves and various other goods. In the next eight centuries it developed within the sphere of three consecutive local empires.
In the 11th century Islam was adopted and eventually became a dominant religion and is now a faith of ninety per cent of the population. The Moroccan invasion in the late 16th century coincided with the economic demise of the Empire, as the important trade shifted to maritime routes, increasingly controlled by Europeans.
Through historical periods of prosperity, the country grew into the most important West African centre of Islamic scholarship and learning, especially in the cities of Djenne and Timbuktu, where priceless archives of written documents of many centuries of knowledge and literature are kept – now in danger of deliberate destruction.
The former empires always encompassed a variety of ethnic and cultural groups, with about 40 languages still spoken in the country. Although French is the official language, Bambara – the native speech of the largest ethnic group - is widely spoken by more than three quarters of the 15 million people in Mali.
One of the major factors in the current conflict is the racial and ethnic division between the Arab-Berber population – (mostly but not exclusively entrenched in the north) - and the sub-Saharan African groups predominantly in the south. Berber – Tuareg and Moors, often racially mixed with dark-skin Africans, used to control the slave trade right up until the 20th century and historically prevailed as masters in a ‘feudal’ society, while the black Africans were frequently ruled and even enslaved. French colonial administration added its own layers of complexity through apportioning different favours and obligations, generally in favour of the Berber population.
The Berbers, consisting of about 10% of the population, aspire to their autonomy. They have engaged in rebellion - at various times inflamed and on occasions brutally repressed - which has continued since Mali gained its independence from France in 1960. This conflict is enmeshed with some extreme and militant elements and deep historical resentments, as well as real and perceived injustice in sharing political and economic opportunities in this country of very modest living standards.
In 1910 the Australian Museum acquired a small collection of body ornaments and other objects of the Tuareg people from Timbuktu and in 1979 some masks of the Bambara and Dogon people of Mali. These artefacts sit side by side in the store like a metaphor for the times, past and future, when people of different cultures and customs could live peacefully together.