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The Manden Charter

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    The introduction and notes have been prepared by John Terry (2021) and the translated excerpted is available on Wikipedia

    The Manden Charter, also known as the Kurukan Fuga (or Kouroukan Fouga) Charter, is an oral declaration of rights and law developed in the thirteenth century.1 “Manden” refers to the region between modern Guinea and Mali, in the northern Niger River basin, and was then part of the Mandingo Empire which was constituted by various Malinke clans and peoples. The basic social organization of these Mande groups was the kafu, a community of anything from to, people living in or near a mud-walled town and ruled by a hereditary dynasty called a fama. The paramount ruler, though hedged around with all the splendid ceremonial of African kingship, bore the military title of mansa, ‘conqueror’, which underlined the reality that his dominion might expand or contract according to the range of his armed forces.Where the mansa’s soldiers were no longer seen, there the kafusi would soon resume their independence under their traditional famas. Outside the Mande-speaking nucleus, the relationship with subordinate rulers was even more essentially based upon the regular or occasional payment of tribute.2

    Mande People
    Fig. 1: A map of the Mande people in West Africa (Wikimedia Commons).

    Video: Da’mon Stith, Kingdoms, empires, and states of medieval Africa (2020)

    Traditional dating methods for the Manden Charter are complicated since it is an oral history:

    “Both [the Charter of Mande and the Charter of Kurukan Fuga] purport to be medieval but are at least partly modern creations. Some publications state that the two are one and the same, but the Charter of Mande was compiled from the oral history of the Mandinka and was published in 1991. Its compilers claimed that the oral tradition for the Charter of Mande dated to 1222, though other scholars believe the date to be imaginary, and it was presented as a set of laws or a constitution for the medieval Mali Empire. The Charter of Kurukan Fuga was compiled from oral histories from Mali, Senegal, and Guinea during a meeting in the late 1990s and was reformatted to make it look like a constitution in 1998; the new format may misrepresent its actual status in medieval Mali. It was dated to 1236 and was attributed to an emperor of Mali. Some scholars propose that these documents contain defenses of human rights as well as other modern notions of liberty, and a few suggest that the documents prove that Africans of the 1200s had contemporary attitudes toward human liberty, making medieval Mali the inventor of present-day concepts regarding human rights and the people of Mali benign slave owners.”5

    In modern times, the Charter is maintained through its retelling by griots, or official storytellers/historians who have traditionally been tasked with maintaining oral traditions, “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.”6 Griots were central to Mande culture as it became the dominant culture of West Africa during the later medieval period.7

    Video: Interview with Griot Alhaji Papa Susso (2020)

    Video: A Traditional Griot Song on the Kora and Balafon (2020)

    On the one hand, many modern scholars understandably hold up the Manden Charter as a premodern example of a statement of human rights, especially since it discusses the rights of enslaved people, children, and women and also makes quite clear that most people of a certain age group should have a stake in the running of society. On the other hand, for their contemporary audiences, “terms such as human rights would likely be unknown to them and would require explanation. On the other hand, they did have strong notions about social rights. Their laws tended to emphasize the rights of communities of people rather than of individual people; people had rights through their families, marriages, crafts, and religions.”8

    Discussion and response questions:

    1. What does it say?
    2. What is interesting about it, and why?
    3. Which articles deal with gender roles, and what do these tell us about the society that produced the Manden Charter?
    4. What does it remind you of in our own society?
    5. Who do you think issued the Charter? What were their aspirations, and what problems were they trying to address?
    6. Whom is it for, and why do you think so?
    7. What themes can you detect (e.g. theft, murder, treatment of groups such as women or enslaved people)?
    8. What are the key differences between written and oral culture? What are examples of oral culture in our society, and why do we assume written documents are superior?
    9. Based on the contents of the Manden Charter, what was the logic behind organizing societies in medieval Africa and how did that compare with other parts of the medieval world? What does this tell us about the challenges, realities, and aspirations of such societies?

    Article 1: The Great Mande Society is divided into sixteen clans of quiver carriers, five clans of marabouts,9 four groups of "nyamakalas"10 and one group of slaves. Each one has a specific activity and role.

    Article 2: The "nyamakalas" must devote themselves to tell the truth to the chiefs, to be their counsellors and to defend by the speech the established rulers and the order upon the whole territory.

    Article 3: The five clans of marabouts are our teachers and our educators in Islam. Everyone has to hold them in respect and consideration.

    Article 4: The society is divided into age groups. Those born during a period of three years in succession belong to the same age-group. The members of the intermediary class between young and old people, should be invited to take part in the making of important decisions concerning the society.

    Article 5: Everybody has a right to life and to the preservation of physical integrity. Accordingly, any attempt to deprive one's fellow being of life is punished with death.

    Article 6: To win the battle of prosperity, the general system of supervision has been established to fight against laziness and idleness.

    Article 7: The sanankunya (joking relationship)11 and the tanamannyonya (blood pact) have been established among the Mandinka. Consequently any contention that occurs among these groups should not degenerate the respect for one another being the rule. Between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, between grandparents and grandchildren, tolerance should be the principle.

    Article 8: The Keïta family is nominated reigning family upon the empire.

    Article 9: Children's education behooves the entire society. The paternal authority in consequence falls to everyone.

    Article 10: We should offer condolences mutually.

    Article 11: When your wife or your child runs away, stop running after them in the neighbour's house.

    Article 12: The succession being patrilineal,12 never relinquish power to a son when one of his father's brothers is still alive. Never relinquish power to a minor just because he has goods.

    Article 13: Never offend the Nyaras (the talented).13

    Article 14: Never offend women, our mothers.

    Article 15: Never beat a married woman before her husband has tried to correct the problem.

    Article 16: Women, apart from their everyday occupations, should be associated with all our managements.

    Article 17: Lies that have lived for 40 years should be considered like truths.

    Article 18: We should respect the law of primogeniture.14

    Article 19: Any man has two parents-in-law: We have to hold them in respect and consideration.

    Article 20: Do not ill treat the slaves. We are the master of the slave but not the bag he carries.15

    Article 21: Do not follow up with your constant attentions the wives of the chief, of the neighbour, of the marabout, of the priest, of the friend and of the partner.

    Article 22: Vanity is the sign of weakness and humility the sign of greatness.

    Article 23: Never betray one another. Respect your word of honour.

    Article 24: In Manden, do not maltreat the foreigners.

    Article 25: The ambassador does not risk anything in Manden.

    Article 26: The bull confided to your care should not lead the cattle-pen.

    Article 27: A girl can be given in marriage as soon as she is pubescent without age determination.

    Article 28: A young man can marry at age 20.

    Article 29: The dowry16 is fixed at 3 cows: one for the girl, two for the father and mother.

    Article 30: In Mande, divorce is tolerated for one of the following reasons: the impotence of the husband, the madness of one of the spouses, the husband's incapability of assuming the obligations due to the marriage. The divorce should occur out of the village.

    Article 31: We should help those who are in need.

    Of Goods

    Article 32: There are five ways to acquire property: buying, donation, exchange, work and inheriting. Any other form without convincing testimony is doubtful.

    Article 33: Any object found without a known owner becomes common property only after four years.

    Article 34: The fourth heifer born is the property of the guardian of the heifer. One egg out of four is the property of the guardian of the laying hen.

    Article 35: One bovine should be exchanged for four sheep or four goats.

    Article 36: To satisfy one's hunger is not robbery if you don't take away anything in your bag or your pocket.

    Preservation of Nature

    Article 37: Fakombè is nominated chief of hunters.17

    Article 38: Before setting fire to the bush, don't look down at the ground, raise your head in the direction of the top of the trees to see whether they bear fruits or flowers.

    Article 39: Domestic animals should be tied during cultivation and freed after the harvest. The dog, the cat, the duck and the poultry are not bound by the measure.

    Final Disposals

    Article 40: Respect kinship, marriage, and the neighbourhood.

    Article 41: You can kill the enemy, but not humiliate him.

    Article 42: In big assemblies, be satisfied with your lawful representatives.

    Article 43: Balla Fassèkè Kouyaté is nominated chief of ceremonies and main mediator in Manden. He is allowed to joke with all groups, in priority with the royal family.18

    Article 44: All those who will transgress these rules will be punished. Everyone is bound to make effective their implementation.


    [1] Some modern scholars believe that the Manden Charter and Kurukan Fuga are distinct documents, but modern oral versions often present them as one in the same.

    [2] Roland Anthony Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa, 1250–1800 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press: 2001, 62.

    [3] "Manden Charter, Proclaimed in Kurukan Fuga." UNESCO (, accessed July 7, 2021.

    [4] Mark Cartwright, "The Spread of Islam in Ancient Africa," World History Encyclopedia, last modified May 10, 2019 (, accessed July 7, 2021.

    [5] Kirk Beetz, "Laws and Legal Codes in Medieval Africa," Laws and Legal Codes in Medieval History. Facts On File, 2019 (, accessed June 28, 2021.

    [6] "Oral History Defined," Oral History Association (, accessed 7 July 2021.

    [7] N'Kaela Webster, "This Man Embodies A Thousand Years of West African Oral History," Audible, March 27, 2017 (, accessed June 28, 2021.

    [8] Beetz, "Legal Codes."

    [9] A marabout is a Muslim holy man

    [10] Nyamakalas refers to a caste, or social group, of people within Mande society who were thought to have special talents. During the medieval period most griots came from this class of people.

    [11] This "joking" status of relationship between two or among several individuals has a long and complex history in West Africa. It can refer to people who are close enough to be considered practically family, but also have the right to disparage each other in a joking way. Think of modern concepts of "roasting" as a guide to understanding this crucial social practice.

    [12] This means that power and inheritance are passed from father to son.

    [13] This refers to members of the social class of nyamakalas (see Article 1).

    [14] A widespread practice in the medieval and modern periods, primogeniture refers to inheritance falling to the oldest son of a family.

    [15] As in many ancient and medieval societies, slavery was a fact of life. The most common ways into temporary states of slavery were through warfare or inability to pay debts.

    [16] A dowry refers to a marriage gift, often by a bride's family to the groom. In this case, the groom's family is expected to bring the gift of cattle.

    [17] While the identity of Fakombè is unknown, hunters in Mande society had special status and were often believed to have magical powers over nature.

    [18] According to the Epic of Sundiata, Balla Fassèkè Kouyaté was Sundiata Keita's griot. As the griot of the founder of what would later become the wealthy and powerful Mali Empire, he must have possessed high status. On this joking relationship, see Article 7 on sanankunya.

    The Manden Charter is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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