Historians who work in certain diaspora areas of the Mande people are frequently told by Mandekan speakers that their ancestors came from “Mande Kaba” (Kaaba). When reporting this, they usually then proceed to explain that Kaba is the Mande term for the French-named town of Kangaba, capital of the Mali empire. However, in my work on the precolonial state of Kong in northeastern Côte d'Ivoire, it became important to question exactly what this phrase means in the context of oral traditions and chronology.
The hypothesis equating Kaba, Kangaba, and the capital of the Mali empire dates back in print to the early French studies of ancient Mali, and particularly to Maurice Delafosse, that prolific writer on West African oral traditions, religion, and languages. In his 1912 magnum opus, Haut-Sénégal-Niger, Delafosse cited Kangaba, “sans doute” as the capital of the pre-Sunjata “royaume” of Mali. In his annotation of the French translation of the mid-seventeenth century compilation, Ta'rikh al-Fattash, Delafosse again presented this idea. The Ta'rikh stated that “[t]he town which served previously as the capital of the emperor of Mali was named Diêriba [jāriba]; following, there was another named Niani [Yan.”
In a note Delafosse explained that Diêriba “is also the name of the town called Kangaba on our [French] maps, which after having been the first capital of the manding empire, is still today the chief town of the province of Manding or Malli.” He was most likely relaying information from his interpretation of traditions as well as his own personal observations of early twentieth-century Kangaba. The Keita family, claiming descent from Sunjata Keita, the founder of the Mali empire, enjoyed political control of Kangaba, and were recognized as having held this position for some time.