Theonite Source Bibliography

African history is so neglected in most of the world that a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the Yammanka people of my Theonite Series are a fabrication that I fantasy-authored into existence to seem interesting. I’ve written up this bibliography of sources for two reasons: first, to put that unsettling assumption to rest and second, to provide anyone who is interested a window into an African culture that is truly worth studying.

I was in high school when I decided to base on the dominant culture of books on the Mande, a family of ethnic groups from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Gambia, and in the surrounding areas of West Africa. I spent the next seven years scraping together every source I could find on the Mande, snapping up out-of-print books on Amazon, using my college student access and all my printing pages to raid JSTOR, and crying on the phone so my study abroad program would fly a Malian oral traditionalist halfway across Africa to speak to me.

For the completely uninitiated, the Mande are best known to the wider world as the rulers of the greatest empires in West African history, each of which displaced the last:

  • The Empire of Ghana (700 – 1240), also called Wagadou, was ruled by the Soninke people
  • The Mali Empire (1230 – depends on who you ask), also called the Mande Empire, was ruled by the Maninka people
  • The Songhai Empire (1464 – 1592) was ruled by the Muslim Songhai people
  • The Ségou Empire (1640 – 1862) was ruled by the Bambara people (also called Bamana)
Map from The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa by Patricia & Fredrick McKissack (Henry Holt and Company, New York: 1994)

Aside from the headliners of these big dynasties, many Mande and Mande-adjacent ethnic groups have lived in the area just as long, farming, fighting, intermarrying, and influencing the history and culture of the region: the Soso, Dyula, Bozo, Dogon, Vai, Mandinka, the Kpelle… The non-Mande Fulbe (the Fulani) herdsman have been around as uneasy neighbors at least since the days of the Mali Empire. Berber / Tuareg nomads have had clear influences on Mande art dating back to pre-history.

Which ethnic groups get counted as ‘Mande’ varies depending on the source (Wikipedia, for instance, like to count the Soninke as Mande, but I’ve yet to hear from a Maninka person who was cool with that; maybe DNA tests have identified a common ancestry or something, but Mande orature largely treats them as culturally distinct.) So, to avoid argument, what I’ve compiled here are my sources on Mande and Mande-adjacent peoples. I was going to include sources from as far afield as Cameroon, where I took a lot of inspiration for modern Yamma’s government, but the list came out to 100+ sources and I didn’t want to do that to you, so we’ve stayed focused on Mande country.

Sadly, missing from this list are a lot of sources that I never saved or cited anywhere, as well as my non-text sources, mostly recordings and songs with no published transcription. I also want to acknowledge my main human sources on Mande culture, Malian griot, journalist, and activist, Mamadou Ben Chérif Diabaté, and Professor of Ethnomusicology at Carleton College, Nicholas Hockin, both of whom helped inform my understanding of the sources below.

Mande Source Bibliography

I’ve placed these in something like a recommended reading order, from the basics to more advanced scholarship, but feel free to start wherever your heart takes you!

Please note that the inclusion of sources here are not endorsements. While some of these are sources that I treasure, some I just skimmed as long ago as 2012. Many of them are old, containing biased or otherwise questionable scholarship.

Originally, I made notes on some of my favorite (and less favorite) scholarly sources, but I removed them for the sake of brevity. Instead, I’ve placed a Yammanka 🔥 by some sources to say “if you pick up one from this batch, let it be this one!” If you have questions about a specific source, you can always contact me at

Getting Started (Basic History)

THE ROYAL KINGDOMS OF GHANA, MALI, AND SONGHAY: Life in Medieval Africa by Patricia & Fredrick McKissack (Henry Holt and Company, New York: 1994)

This is the closest thing I’ve found to a beginner’s guide to Mande history. While it oversimplifies a lot, it’s a perfectly serviceable primer for the heavier sources on this list.

GASSIRE’S LUTE: A West African Epic translated by Alta Jablow (Waveland Press, Inc., Long Grove, Illinois: 1971 and 1991), translated from Leo Frobenius, Spielennsgeschichten der Sahel, Atlantis, Bd. VI, Jena: Diederichs Verlag, 1921

Before the founding of the main Mande empire (which gets its own special box below) there was the Soninke Empire of Ghana. This society saw the rise of the hereditary oral traditionalists who we see echoed later in Mande jeliw (the inspiration for the jaseliwu of Theonite). This song provides the dramatic origin story of this caste of storytellers that are the reason we still have these accounts of the distant past today. First translated to German in 1921 and later into English, it’s likely that a lot of the original nuance is lost in translation, but it’s good as baby’s first ancient West African epic (not literally; do not read this to your baby, it’s really violent).

ORAL EPICS FROM AFRICA: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent by John WilliamJohnson, Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Belcher (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis: 1997)

Not specific to Mande or even West African epics, but this collection contains bite-sized introductions to the origin stories of the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.

The Epic of Sunjata

The story of Mande’s founding ancestor, Sunjata Keita (romanized a few different ways, as you can see below) and his contemporaries, is vital to understanding Mande culture. I own four complete versions of the epic:

SUNDIATA: An Epic of Old Mali narrated by Mamadou Kouyaté, translated by D.T. Niane (Longman African Writers: 1994)

SUNJATA by Bamba Suso & Banna Kanute (Penguin Books: 1974 and 1999)

SUNJATA: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples by David C. Conrad (Narrated by Djanka Tassey Condé, translated by David C. Conrad) (Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis and Cambridge: 2004)

THE EPIC OF SON-JARA: A West African Tradition Fa-Digi by Sisòkò, translated by John William Johnson (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis: 1986 and 1992)

I highly recommend reading two or more of these back-to-back to get a flavor of how the same history can transform with the teller. While major events are agreed on, each performer focuses on different details and historical figures. Since almost every named character in the Sunjata Epic represents an ancestral line that still exists in Mande today, every version adds dimension to the history and helps inform Mande society at large.

THE HEART OF THE NGONI: Heroes of the African Kingdom of Segu by Harold Courlander & Ousmane Sako (Crown Publishers Inc., New York: 1982)

This collection of historical stories covers a later period of Mande (specifically Bambara) history. While this work would fit with my scholarly sources, I’ve included it here because of it’s readability. You’ll recognize the culture of kings, blacksmiths, and griots from the Sunjata Epic, but it’s fun to see how those medieval battles play when everyone has guns.

Stories from French-Colonial & Post-Colonial Mande

THE DARK CHILD: The Autobiography of an African Boy by Camara Laye, translated from French by James Kirkup and Ernest Jones (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1954)

THE FORTUNES OF WANGRIN by Amadou Hampaté Bâ, translated from French by Aina Pavolini Taylor (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press: 1973, 1987, and 1999)
While The Dark Child is autobiographical, this one is fictional.

SO LONG A LETTER by Mariama Bâ, translated from French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas (Waveland Press Inc., Long Grove Illinois: May 21, 2012)
Another historical fiction.

And now the scholarly sources!

There are so many of these that I’ve divided them into ten sub-categories: Castes, Blacksmiths & Art, Textiles, Writing Systems, Griots & Music, Sunjata, Samori, Narrative & History, Magic & Religion, and Other. These categories are pretty arbitrary, but I’ve tried to set them up so they flow into each other.


🔥 “THE DEVELOPMENT OF CASTE SYSTEMS IN WEST AFRICA” by Tal Tamari, The Journal of African History, No. 2 (Cambridge University Press, Great Britain: 1991)

“A QUESTION OF CASTE IN WEST AFRICA WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO TUKULOR CRAFTSMEN” by Roy M. Dilley, Anthropos, Bd. 95, H. 1. (Anthropos Institute: 2000)

On Blacksmiths & Art

🔥 THE MANDE BLACKSMITHS: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa by Patrick R. McNaughton (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis: 1988 and 1993)

MANDE POTTERS & LEATHER-WORKERS: Art and Heritage in West Africa by Barbara E. Frank (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London: 1998)

SURFACES: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture edited by Leonard Kahan, Donna Page, and Pascal James Imperato (Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis: 2009)

INSCRIBING MEANING: Writing and Graphic systems in African Art by Christine Mullen Kraemer, Mary Nooter Roberts, Elizabeth Harney & Allyson Purpura, African Arts, Vol. 40, No. 3 (UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: Autumn, 2007), pp. 78-91

“WHEN IS AN OBJECT FINISHED? The Creation of the Invisible among the Bamana of Mali” by Sarah C. Brett-Smith, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 39 (The President and Fellows of Harvard College acting through the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: Spring, 2001), pp. 102-136


🔥 BOGOLAN: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali by Victoria L. Rovine (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London: 2001)

“BOKOLANFINI: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali” by Pascal James Imperato & Marli Shamir, African Arts, Vol. 3, No. 4 (UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: Summer, 1970), pp. 32-41+80

“THE LANGUAGE OF WEST AFRICAN TEXTILES” by Lisa Aronson, African Arts, Vol. 25, No. 3, Special Issue: West African Textiles (UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: July 1992)

Writing Systems

“A NEW WEST AFRICAN ALPHABET: Used by the Toma, French Guinea and Liberia” by Théodore Monod, Man, Vol. 43 (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland: September – October, 1943)

🔥“A CULTURAL REVOLUTION IN AFRICA: Literacy in the Republic of Guinea since Independence” by Dianne White Oyler, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Boston University African Studies Center: 2001)

“THE N’KO ALPHABET AS A VEHICLE OF INDIGENIST HISTORIOGRAPHY” by Dianne White Oyler, History in Africa, Vol. 24 (African Studies Association: 1997)

“CHEROKEE AND WEST AFRICA: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script” by Konrad Tuchscherer & P. E. H. Hair, History in Africa, Vol. 29 (African Studies Association: 2002)

“AFRICAN SCRIPT AND SCRIPTURE: The History of the Kikakui (Mende) Writing System for Bible Translations” by Konrad Tuchscherer, African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Taylor & Francis, Ltd: 1995)

“THE LOST SCRIPT OF THE BAGAM” by Konrad Tuchscherer, African Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 390 (Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society: January 1999)

Griots & Music

🔥 IN SEARCH OF SUNJATA: the Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature, and Performance by Ralph A.Austen (Indiana University Press: 1999)

GRIOTS AT WAR: Conflict, Conciliation, and Caste in Mande by Barbara G. Hoffman (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indiana: 2000)

🔥 MANDE MUSIC: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa by Eric Charry (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London: 2000)

IN GRIOT TIME: An American Guitarist in Mali Eyre Banning (Temple University Press, Philadelphia: 2000)

WOMEN’S VOICES FROM WEST AFRICA: An Anthology of Songs from the Sahel by Aissata G. Sidikou & Thomas A. Hale (Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis: 2012)

“MEMORIES OF GRIOTS” by Nicholas S. Hopkins, Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 17 (Department of English and Comparative Literature: 1997)

“LANGUAGE, ART, SECRECY AND POWER: The Semantics of Dalilu” by Patrick R. McNaughton, Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 24, No. 4 (The Trustees of Indiana University: Winter, 1982), pp. 487-505

“A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT TRAVELS AROUND THE WORLD : Jenbe Playing in Bamako, West Africa, and Beyond” by Rainer Polak, The World of Music, Vol. 42, No. 3, Local Musical Traditions in the Globalization Process (VWB – Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung: 2000), pp. 7-46

“GRIOTTES: Female Voices from West Africa” by Thomas A. Hale, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 3, Women as Oral Artists (Indiana University Press: Autumn, 1994), pp. 71-91

“ELLE CONNAÎT TOUT LE MANDE”: A Tribute to the Griotte Siramori Diabate” by Jan Jansen, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 4, (Indiana University Press: Winter, 1996), pp. 180-197

“HADY”: A Traditional Bard’s Praise Song for an Urban Teenager” by Tal Tamari, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 38, No. 3, The Preservation and Survival of African Oral Literature (Indiana University Press: Fall, 2007), pp. 77-111

“WILD ANIMALS AND HEROIC MEN: Visual and Verbal Arts in the Sogo bò Masquerades of Mali” by Mary Jo Arnoldi, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 31, No. 4, Poetics of African Art (Indiana University Press: Winter, 2000), pp. 63-75

“HEROES AT THE BORDERLINE: Bamana and Fulbe Traditions in West Africa” by Stephen Belcher, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Indiana University Press: Spring, 1998), pp. 43-65

“SECRETS AND LIES: Context, Meaning, and Agency in Mande (Secrets et mensonges: contexte, signification et rôle des acteurs sociaux mande)” by Barbara G. Hoffman, Cahiers d’étues Africaines, Vol. 38, Cahier 149 (EHESS: 1998), pp. 85-102

“THE NARRATIVE GENRE AMONG THE BAMANA OF MALI” by Pascal Baba Couloubaly, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 24, No. 2, Special Issue on Oral Literature Summer (Indiana University Press: 1993)

“POLITICAL HISTORY AND SOCIAL COMMENTARY IN MALIAN SOGOBÒ THEATER” by Mary Jo Arnoldi, Africa Today, Vol. 41, No. 2, Arts and Politics in Africa (Indiana University Press: 2nd Qtr., 1994), pp. 39-49

“THE SUNJATA EPIC AS A GENDERED ACTIVITY” in Epic Adventures: Heroic Narrative in the Oral Performance Traditions of Four Continents by Jan Jansen and Hendrik M. J. Maier.

On Sunjata

“A CHECKLIST OF PUBLISHED VERSIONS OF THE SUNJATA EPIC” by Stephen P. D. Bulman, History in Africa, Vol. 24 (African Studies Association: 1997), pp. 71-94

“THE SUNJATA EPIC: The Ultimate Version” by Jan Jansen, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Indiana University Press: Spring, 2001), pp. 14-46

“THE CHARTER OF KURUKAN FUGA” Bamako: 27-30 July 2004 (Kankan: 3-12 March 1998)

“CANONIZING SOUNDIATA IN MANDE LITERATURE: Toward a Sociology of Narrative Elements” by Manthia Diawara, Social Text, No. 31/32, Third World and Post-Colonial Issues (Duke University Press: 1992), pp. 154-168

“MASKING SUNJATA: A Hermeneutical Critique” by Jan Jansen, History in Africa 27 (Cambridge University Press: 2000), pp. 131-141

On Samori

“HISTORY, MEMORY AND THE LEGACY OF SAMORI IN SOUTHERN MALI C. 1880-1898” by Brian J. Peterson, The Journal of African History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Cambridge University Press: 2008), pp. 261-279

“THE ORIGINS OF SAMORI’S STATE” by Djibril Tamsir Niane, Actes du Colloque of the Symposium International de Conakry: Centenaire du Souvenir (Conakry: Editions universitaires, 2000).

“FIREARMS, HORSES, AND SAMORIAN ARMY ORGANIZATION 1870-1898” by Martin Legassick, The Journal of African History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Cambridge University Press: 1966), pp. 95-115

“WARRIORS AND TRADERS. The Political Organization of a West African Chiefdom (Guerriers et commerçants: l’organisation politique d’une chefferie ouest-africaine)” by Robert Launay, Cahiers d’Études Africaines, Vol. 28, Cahier 111/112, Manding (EHESS: 1988), pp. 355-373

“TRADERS AND THE CENTER IN MASSINA, KONG, AND SAMORI’S STATE” by Victor Azarya, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Boston University African Studies Center: 1980), pp. 420- 456

History & Narrative

🔥 THE YOUNGER BROTHER IN MANDE: Kinship and Politics in West Africa by Jan Jansen & Clemens Zobel (selected papers from the Third International Conference on Mande Studies, Leiden, March 20-24, 1995) (Research School CNWS Leiden, The Netherlands: 1996)

“THE REPRESENTATION OF STATUS IN MANDE: Did the Mali Empire Still Exist in the Nineteenth Century?” by Jan Jansen, History in Africa, Vol. 23 (African Studies Association: 1996), pp. 87-109

“POLITIES AND POLITICAL DISCOURSE: Was Mande Already a Segmentary Society in the Middle Ages?” by Jan Jansen, History in Africa, Vol. 23 (African Studies Association: 1996), pp. 121-128

“POWER AND ITS PORTRAYALS IN ROYAL MANDÉ NARRATIVES” by Lilyan Kesteloot, Thomas A. Hale & Richard Bjornson, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Indiana University Press: Spring, 1991), pp. 17-26

“SEARCHING FOR HISTORY IN THE SUNJATA EPIC: The Case of Fakoli” by David C. Conrad, History in Africa, Vol. 19 (African Studies Association: 1992), pp. 147-200

“WOMEN’S MASKS AND THE POWER OF GENDER IN MANDE HISTORY” by Peter M. Weil, African Arts, Vol. 31, No. 2, Special Issue: Women’s Masquerades in Africa and the Diaspora (UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: Spring, 1998), pp. 28-37+88-90+94-95

“A TOWN CALLED DAKAJALAN: The Sunjata Tradition and the Question of Ancient Mali’s Capital” by David C. Conrad, The Journal of African History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Cambridge University Press: 1994), pp. 355-377

“FROM THE “BANAN” TREE OF KOUROUSSA: Mapping the Landscape in Mande Traditional History” by David C. Conrad, Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol. 42, No. 2/3, Engaging with a Legacy: Nehemia Levtzion (1935-2003) (Canadian Association of African Studies: 2008), pp. 384-408

“BROTHERS, CHIEFDOMS, AND EMPIRES: On Jan Jansen’s “The Representation of Status in Mande” by Stephen Bühnen, History in Africa, Vol. 23 (African Studies Association: 1996), pp. 111-120

Magic & Religion

“THE MANDE CREATION MYTH” by Germaine Dieterlen, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Edinburgh University Press: Apr., 1957), pp. 124-138

“ISLAM IN THE ORAL TRADITIONS OF MALI: Bilali and Surakata” by David C. Conrad, The Journal of African History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Cambridge University Press: 1985), pp. 33-49

“BAMANA SAND DIVINATION: Recursion in Ethnomathematics” by Ron Eglash, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association: Mar., 1997), pp. 112-122

“THE SALT-GOLD ALCHEMY IN THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURY MANDE WORLD: If Men Are Its Salt, Women Are Its Gold” by B. Marie Perinbam, History in Africa, Vol. 23 (African Studies Association: 1996), pp. 257-278


“PERFORMANCE, STYLE, AND THE ASSERTION OF IDENTITY IN MALIAN PUPPET DRAMA” by Mary Jo Arnoldi, Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 25, No. 1/2 (Indiana University Press: Jan – Aug. 1998) pp. 87-100

“PERFORMING AUDIENCE. On the Social Constitution of Focused Interaction at Celebrations in Mali” by Rainer Polak, Anthropos, Bd. 102, H. 1. (Anthropos Institute: 2007), pp. 3-18

“OF DANCING MASKS AND MEN: Visible and Hidden Dancers of the Bamana and Bozo (Mali)” by Elisabeth Den Otter (1997)

“SUBVERTING SOCIAL CUSTOMS: The Representation of Food in Three West African Francophone Novels” by Shirin Edwin, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Indiana University Press: Fall, 2008), pp. 39-50

“PLAYING PUPPETS: Innovation and Rivalry in Bamana Youth Theatre of Mali” by Mary Jo Arnoldi, TDR, Vol. 32, No. 2 (The MIT Press: Summer, 1988), pp. 65-82

“JOKING PACTS IN SUDANIC WEST AFRICA: A Political and Historical Perspective” by Tal Tamari, Seitschrift für Ethnologie, Bd. 131, H. 2 (Dietrich Reimer Verlag GmbH: 2006), pp. 215-243

If you pick up any of these books or articles, please hit me up so we can discuss! I’m usually easy to reach at my Twitter, Instagram, or

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