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The Richest Man in the World


          Long before our modern-day Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Muskses, there was Mansa Musa. He ruled over a kingdom that awed the world at the time, but few now remember: the Kingdom of Mali. 

          How was Mansa Musa so wealthy? For that, some historical context is necessary. Musa's ancestors reigned over Mali, slowly building it up over time. The country was blessed with dominance in the region from military might, and natural resources, and prosperity flowed as a result. West Africa produced a surplus with each harvest, keeping their people fed and trading away the rest. Above all else, that region of the world has a rare resource in plenty: gold. 

          There was, however, one small problem. West Africa has no natural salt. Nowadays, that's not a big deal, but for empires the size of Mali, it majorly hampers conservation of food, and salt is one of a handful of natural sweeteners for food. Across the Saharan desert were the Berbers of North Africa. They had more salt than they knew what to do with. In addition, North Africa is a relatively poor place, its climate suited to little farming, and heavily relying on the seas. 

          Where there is a need, there is a will, and where there is a will, there is a way. In less than fifty years from the founding of Mali as a nation, a lucrative trade deal was in place, with elaborate customs. For example, both trade parties arrived at a prearranged location. Once there, the Berbers would place the salt they had brought, and then back away. The Malians would approach, examine the quality and quantity of the salt offered, and then put a quantity of gold they thought of as a good exchange for the salt, backing away. The Berbers would return, inspect the amount of gold, and if they liked it, they would take the gold with them, leaving the salt behind. If not, then they simply backed away again, after which, the Malians would return to offer more gold until the Berbers were satisfied with the trade.

          Digging more thoroughly into this custom, it can be inferred that the West Africans soon realized that gold was more valuable elsewhere than in their own native land. They became shrewd business dealers. Both sides profited, and now Mali had salt. 

          Contact with the Berbers eventually lead to more than just salt. Religion and education followed. The royal family was converted to Sunni Islam, and they moved their capital to Timbuktu, what would become one of the greatest cities of the medieval world. Arabic and West African traditions blended and combined together in a beautiful mix of culture, religion, architecture, and thought. A university was established, and both male and female people could attend it and learn the knowledge of their times, an unthinkable act in most parts of the world at the time. 

          That was the Mali of the medieval world, and the Mali of Mansa Musa. Musa was wisely educated, and loved by the common people during his reign. Like many of his time, he was also a devout follower of the Sunni faith, and so he decided to perform the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. 

          Mansa Musa's Hajj is where many base their calculations for his wealth. Adjusted for inflation, the royal Malian family possessed roughly $400 billion in gold and other resources. For comparison, the second wealthiest group/individual of all time is the Rothschild family, with a total of $350 billion. Keep in mind, that $350 billion is spread among hundreds of inheritors, not accumulated under a single head, as was the case with Mansa Musa. 

          When Musa's entourage arrived in Egypt, he made full use of that wealth. He liked a great deal of what he saw in Qahirah (Cairo) and so he bought out a great many sellers. He paid for everything in solid gold. The Egyptian economy collapsed under the enormous inflation that followed, taking a whole ten years to recover. Mansa Musa quite literally spent enough money to throw a powerful sultanate into anarchy. 

          I hope Mansa Musa's life was of interest. West Africa is often forgotten in the course of human history, which is a real shame, as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai have some of the richest history in the world. May the forgotten times and lives that have hallmarked the events of the world be remembered. 
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