Thirty years ago this summer, a truly remarkable West African event was staged in London that easily compares with all the fun and games of the Cultural Olympics which we have been witnessing this year in all its magnificent variety. I am talking of the Manding Congress, organised by David Dalby, a renowned specialist in African languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London, where he was also at that time the head of the Centre for African Studies (even now he is still a Professor Emeritus at SOAS, although he is now in France, and has not been seen in London for years).
Search for it on the Internet and you will find very little. I am old enough, however, to have preserved a precious file on the Manding Congress held between June 25 and July 3, 1972, which contains a wealth of material. For example, there is a catalogue of the two-month exhibition on Manding Civilisation at what in those days was the ethnographic wing of the British Museum called the Museum of Mankind. The catalogue illustrates the richness of the Manding civilisation, and it was just one facet of a multi-disciplinary multi-faculty show, which I recall held me in absolute thrall. London has never seen anything like it and will not easily again.
What strikes one sifting through the papers is the emphasis on ‘Manding’ as both a linguistic and cultural grouping, based on the coming together of a number of peoples in the western part of West Africa including the Malinké (Soce) of eastern Senegal: the Mandinka of the Gambia; the Bambara and related peoples on the southern part of what is now Mali; the Malinké of Upper Guinea (around the holy city of Kankan) and the Dioula of northern Côte d’Ivoire, as well as more loosely related peoples in Guinea-Bissau, western Burkina Faso, Liberia and Sierra Leone (usually known as Mandingoes). The frontiers were fluid, and involved strong connections with other historic West African peoples such as the Pulaar and Soninke.