Aside from the handling of its numismatic products I've had two personal contacts with the Republic of Mali.  The first was when the father of my high school girl friend returned from Europe with several boxes of African sculpture, the prize piece being a Bambara "fetish."  They may not have been legal at that time, and are certainly export-prohibited now.  Though the sculptures were never actually taken out of their boxes, I got to see the top of the Bambara piece when the cover was lifted.  It was a model of a rhinoceros as I recall, about two feet long, seemingly made out of mud.  I was told that the material was actually a mixture of sawdust and blood.  Very exotic.
    The other contact was when I was meeting my parents at Kennedy airport in New York City last year.  A man, dressed in African clothes, rushed by carrying about 5 gigantic bags and boxes, and one of them had a Bamako address written in large letters.
    It's not easy to run into evidence of this country out in the rest of the world; ten million people in a landlocked territory about the size of Texas and California combined.  About 80% is desert, and not having been blessed with the minerals we all want these days, Mali is one of the world's poorer countries.  Commerce and development lag.
    It was not always thus.  There used to be a lot of gold, and the rulers of Mali were rich with cash and culture.  "Fabulous" Timbuktu, a byword for far-away places, was renowned for its scholars all the way to India.  Chinese porcelain found its way to Mali in exchange for Malian gold dust.
    Numismatic pickings are decidedly slim.  Here's why.
    Malian prehistory is poorly researched, to say the least.  In the post-glacial period of 30,000 years ago what is now the Sahara was forested, and Paleolithic hunter-gatherer cultures roamed.  As the climate warmed over the next 20,000 years the forests began to be replaced by grasslands, and Neolithic agricultural cultures began to appear.  Both Paleolithic and Neolithic relics are found throughout the Sahara.  I recently acquired some small, flint, Neolithic arrow points that came with an "Algeria, c. 5000 BCE" tag, "deep in the desert" I was told.  Could just as well have been northern Mali.  The people who made the points are assumed to have been Berbers, the supposed "original inhabitants" of North Africa, whose name was given to them by the Arabs, who thought they were "barbarians" in the original Greek sense of the word.
    The coastal Berbers were faced with foreign immigration and conquest from the time of the Phoenicians, c. 1500 BC, to the late coming of the Europeans.  The inland Berbers took to nomadic herding as the region dried out in historical times.  Being nomads, they developed a bellicose lifestyle, and took to preying on their neighbors, especially those to the south that didn't look like them.
    The southern peoples were no pushovers.  They had developed their own agricultural tradition contemporaneously with the Berbers, and though the ancient southerners lacked horses, they were fierce, and there were, relatively speaking, a lot of them.  By the 4th century AD the Malian gold fields were under the military occupation of the first of the great southern kingdoms, Ghana.
    Ancient Ghana shares only its name with the modern Republic.  The capital of the old kingdom was about 200 miles north of the modern capital of Mali, Bamako, near the Mauritanian border, and some 600 miles away from modern Ghana at its closest point.
    Ghanaian gold went north in Berber caravans, traded for salt, cloth, and the products of Mediterranean industry.  It came to be the major source of the wealth of Muslim North Africa and Spain, and when you examine one of the relatively common gold dinars of the region you are probably holding a piece of old Ghana, which is to say, Mali.
    Ghana's power started to peter out in the 11th century, and finally it was extinguished by a vassal of the Moroccan Almoravids.  Islam prescribes conversion or death for pagans, which is how the southerners were seen, and the Almoravids were renowned for their zeal and piety.  A great deal of conversion went on in Ghana/Mali.  The gold trade continued.
    The Almoravid government decayed in its turn, and in the 13th century was overthrown by the new southern kingdom of Mali.  This Islamic kingdom originated contemporaneously with the coming of the Almoravids, and at its peak it was perhaps the greatest supplier of gold in the world.  One of it's sultans, Mansa Musa (1307-22), distributed 50,000 ounces of gold during his pilgrimage to Mecca.  You can bet it made the headlines in Venice and Constantinople.  Sultan Musa brought back scholars and architects to adorn his cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
    By now the Mediterranean world was in its Middle Ages, the Mongols and the Black Death had done their worst, and Europe and Asia had been using coins in commerce for over 1000 years.  The Almoravids issued coins for use in the north.  Their successors, the Mali sultans, were Muslims, and usually one of the first things a Muslim ruler did was to put his name on coinage.  Ghana/Mali supplied much of the gold for that coinage, yet coinage was not in use.  Why?
    Well, because they just didn't do it there.  Never had.  Gold passed by weight, as dust and bars.  The northern nomads preferred to keep their wealth on the hoof.  The southern people liked to count their trades in salt or cloth or metal.  Despite the centralized control to which the region was usually subject, the government did not get into the coinage business.
    Mali had wealth but it also had bad borders and worse neighbors.  Nomad raids were a constant feature of life along the extensive northern borders, and over a couple of centuries the cost of security sapped the state.  In it's decline a dynasty arose in the second city, Gao, in eastern Mali near the Ivory Coast-Burkina Faso border.  Gao had been the seat of a small kingdom, Songhai, since the 9th century.  Songhai had been conquered by the great Mali sultan Musa, but had begun to emerge again after his death.  By the mid-15th century Songhai had expanded to cover most of central Mali and western Niger.
    Songhai declined during the 16th century, and was destroyed by a Moroccan force in 1591.  Morocco never really got a stable administration going, however, and anarchy prevailed over two centuries, save in the southern region, where the Bambara maintained order.
    The French started to show up in the mid-19th century, reaching the now depleted Malian gold fields by traveling east from Senegal.  It is no small trek from Dakar to Bamako, some 600 miles of jungle filled with biting creatures and disease.  They found peoples who had been the subject of Muslim Holy War for 1000 years, and who really, really didn't want to become Muslims.  These people saw the French as potential allies
    The Muslims were no pushovers though, several of them kept the French busy for decades.  One of them, Almamy Samory Toure, fought the French until 1898, and has become national hero both to Mali and to neighboring Guinea.  He is commemorated on a Guinean coin.
    The French bundled the administration of Mali with Senegal, through whose port of Dakar most of its commerce passed.  The French found that there was not really that much business for them in the region, and they neglected it.  Discontent grew during the 20th century, and the independence movement that resulted had a militantly anti-colonialist flavor.  Internal autonomy was obtained in 1958, the entity being called at the time the Sudanese Republic, which was a bit of a problem, because there was another Sudan in East Africa.  In 1959 Senegal and the Sudanese Republic joined to form the Mali Federation, which became sovereign the following year and immediately joined the French Community.  Senegal backed out later in 1960, but the name Mali was retained by the territory as we see it today on the map.
    Initially, the new country wanted nothing to do with France, but that wasn't a feasible way to maintain a state, let alone get any development going, so Mali has found itself forced to cooperate with its neighbors, who were all cooperating together with France, and eventually (1984) it rejoined the French Community.
    All right already.  The coinage is simple.  There's hardly any of it.  The pre-coin period is gold dust, salt, cloth, etc., and no examples to be had.  One finds metal bracelets with labels declaring the products of Senufo culture, and some Senufo live in Mali.  Other objects are occasionally seen.  I once had a primitive arm ring with a bird head on it cast in aluminum!  The tag said Mali.  It takes a pretty hot fire to melt aluminum.  By and large, Mali is not well represented in the "primitive money" market.
    (2002 note: after 1999 a large site of the Tellem culture of the 10-15th century was discovered at the Bandiagara cliffs.  Several thousand copper artifacts were at the site, and some of them have escaped being interred in museum and university drawers and are currently wandering around in the commercial market.)
    There are no coins known of the Medieval period.  During the later French period coins of French West Africa were used, and of that series only the 1944 50 centimes is hard to find.  The essaies are not too difficult, as essaies go, though the piedforts are quite rare.  I don't know anything about the anomalous 1944 proofs.  Never seen them.
    Mostly, these days, Mali uses West African States money, but it issued some of its own coins and paper money during its self-imposed exile from the French Community.  The 1960 Independence coins are pretty hard to find, though I've seen both the silver and the gold.  1961 aluminum animal coins, especially the "horse" 10 franc and the "lion" 25 franc, have been bought up in bulk by jewelers, who like to make cutouts of them, and these coins have become scarce.   1967 gold coins promoting the glories of strongman president Modibo Keita are hard to find.  Good thing demand is low for these expensive and showy items.  1975-76 FAO items in base metals make for the most common Malian issues, with the exception of the 25 francs, which is not available.  That's it.