Ethnic Songhai girl wears a traditional Songhai headdress made by artisan Hally Bara in Gao, Mali, March 6, 2013.Reuters/Joe Penney
Some nomadic Songhai groups live in Mali, Niger, and southeastern Algeria. The Songhai are composed of many related groups, the most important of which are the Zarma, with more than two million speakers. It is widely assumed that their languages form a branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.
Songhai man from Mali
The Songhai formed one of the great empires of Western Africa. Since the mid-1400s, the Songhai have been known as great and fearless warriors. A multi-talented people, they used their extensive organizational skills to conquer their neighbors and develop a government for one of the three great medieval West African empires. Ultimately, the ancestral lands grew to encompass over 60 miles from each bank of the upper bend of the Niger River in what is today eastern Mali and western Niger.
Songhai girl, Niger
Songhai society traditionally was highly structured, comprising a king and nobility, free commoners, artisans, griots (bards and chroniclers), and slaves. Marriage could be polygynous, cross cousins being preferred partners. Descent and succession are patrilineal. Cultivation, largely of cereals, is practiced intensively only during the rainy season, from June to November.
Cattle are raised on a small scale, and fishing is of some importance. As a result of their advantageous location at the crossroads of western and central Africa, the Songhai have traditionally prospered from caravan trade. Many young Songhai have left home for the coast, especially modern Republic of Ghana.
Professor Ahmed Baba (1556-1627), highly distinguished intellectual in ancient Timbuctu
The Songhai had a great warrior like Emperor Sonni Ali Ber and among its most noted scholars was Ahmed Baba—a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh al-Sudan and other works.
Morgan Freeman and Kimberly Elise are some notable descendants of the Songhai.
Holleywood actor Morgan Freeman trace his ancestry to Songhai people
The Songhay are proud of their heroic past and celebrate it in song, dance, and epic poetry. Singing, dancing, and praise-songs, performed by griots (both male and female), are central to the celebration of births, marriages, and holidays. Epic poetry is also performed on secular and religious holidays. Poetry performances are frequently broadcast on national radio.
Actress Kimberly Elise trace her ancestry to Songhai people
The Songhai (Gao and Timbuctu) people also continue to see Akans (Fantes), especially those in Ghana as their blood relatives.
The ancestral folk figure Faran Maka Bote is a Songhay culture hero. His father, Nisili Bote, was a fisherman. His mother, Maka, was a river spirit. Faran grew to be a giant with vast magical powers. As an adult he battled a river spirit, Zinkibaru, for control of the Niger River, and won. But he soon became overconfident. Dongo, the deity of lightning and thunder, demonstrated his anger toward Faran by burning villages and killing people. He summoned Faran and demanded that the giant pay his humble respects by offering music, praise-poems, and animal sacrifices. Dongo told Faran that if he organized festivals, Dongo would descend into the bodies of dancers and help the people along the Niger River.
Songhai elder, Mali
Modern Songhay stage similar events, called possession ceremonies. The praise-singers, or sorko, are said to be direct descendants of Faran Make Bote. In this way, Songhay myths are kept alive through social and religious activities.
Songhai little girl drinking water from a plastic cup
Songhai people speak Songhay language and it is spoken by 3 million people in the Republics of Mali, Niger, and Benin. There are several dialects of Song-hay. Because Mali, Niger, and Benin are all French-speaking nations, many Songhay people living in these states speak French.
Songhai girl from Timbuctu with reading tablet
The dialect of Koyraboro Senni spoken in Gao is unintelligible to speakers of the Zarma dialect of Niger, according to at least one report. The Songhay languages are commonly taken to be Nilo-Saharan but this classification remains controversial: Dimmendaal (2008) believes that for now it is best considered an independent language family.
A typical greeting is: Manti ni kaani (How did you sleep?). One usually replies, Baani sami, walla, meaning, "I slept well, in health." At bedtime, one says: Iri me kaani baani, which means "May we both sleep in health and peace."
Songhai women carrying their art-wares
The Songhai people are descendants of precolonial African empire of Songhai (Songhay). Their original home is the region of Dendi (meaning, essentially, ‘south, downstream’) in the south of what is now the Republic of Niger and the extreme north of the Republic of Bénin. Dendi was a province of the Songhay empire, whose governor, the Dendi-fari, was one of the highest ranking state officials. It was to Dendi that the askiyas retired after defeat at the hands of Moroccan forces in 1591, and from there that they organized resistance. Dendi was an ancient source of warriors for Songhay.
Ancient Songhai man
Given the mobility of the Sorko, it is likely that they were the first Songhay speakers (or speakers of proto-Songhay) to move upstream from Dendi and to establish small settlements on the banks of the Niger. One such settlement may have been at Kukiya, just above the rapids of Fafa and Labbezenga where canoes would have had to be unloaded and carried some distance during the low-water season. At some stage they may have been followed on land by Songhay-speakers mounted on small local horses who subdued the
existing agricultural populations—perhaps of Voltaic origin—as they went.
Kukiya would have attracted settlement as a natural way station on the river route, and by the fact that it was close to the northern limit of rain-fed agriculture, that is, if rainfall at that time (somewhere in the first millenium) was roughly the same as at the present day. These incoming Songhay horsemen would have established control over the Sorko there and, while forming a symbiotic relationship with them, would have made them the inferior partner. This process may have been mythologized in the legend of the alleged Yemeni brothers who arrived at Kukiya, one of whom killed the river god (symbolized as a fish), and assumed that god’s position of authority over the local folk.
Songhai people of Timbuctu
Later, when North African traders arrived on the banks of the Niger at the mouth of the Tilemsi valley—probably in the early ninth century—they began by doing business with Sorko encamped on the opposite bank. As this developed into more regular trading, per–haps involving grain transported from south of Kukiya, the Songhay chiefs at Kukiya were encouraged to move north to dominate this trade, and settle themselves on the left bank at what became Gao (or Kawkaw in the traders’ parlance). The settlement
flourished, and North African traders established a permanent settlement for them–selves at Sane, some five miles up the Tilemsi valley on the right bank of a wadi. By the tenth century the Songhay settlement at Gao had developed into a small kingdom that had established its hege–mony over the peoples living along the trade routes that radiated out from Gao: northwards towards T!dmakkat, eastwards towards Aïr, and westwards towards Ancient Ghana.
Emperor Sonni Ali Ber of Songhai
This first Songhay kingdom could flourish because it lay at a crossroads of trade routes leading on the one hand to North Africa, and on the other to Egypt. The raison d’être of both routes was the gold-dust that these Mediterranean-based merchants obtained from Ancient Ghana. The merchants could also bring southwards that precious commodity, salt, on which the Gao rulers seem to have maintained a monopoly; they may also have brought the larger Barbary horses which could be cross-bred with local horses to produce a breed that was both stronger and better adapted to local conditions, thus facilitating domination of neighbouring peoples. One by-product of such domination would have been slaves, which could be bartered
with the North African merchants for more horses or for other goods.
With the decline of Mali, the kingdom of Gao reasserted itself as the major kingdom in the Sahel. The people of Songhay were farmers and fisherman who who lived along the Niger River of West Africa. After centuries of resistance, they came were converted to Islam around the 1200s. A Songhay kingdom in the region of Gao had existed since the eleventh century AD, but it had come under the control of Mali in 1325. In the late fourteenth century, Gao reasserted itself with the Sunni dynasty. Songhay would not fully eclipse Mali until the reign of the Sunni king, Sonni Ali, who reigned from 1464-1492.
Sonni Ali aggressively turned the kingdom of Gao into the Songhay empire. Ali based his military on a cavalry and a highly mobile fleet of ships. With this military, he conquered the cities of Timbuctu and Jenné, the major cities of the Mali. The Berbers, who had always played such a crucial role in the downfall of Sahelian kingdoms, were driven from the region. Roughly around the same year Christopher Columbus had reached the western hemisphere, Askia Muhammad Touré (1493-1528), established the Askia dynasty of Songhay. Muhammad Touré continued Sonni Ali's imperial expansion by seizing the important Saharan oases and conquering Mali itself. From there he conquered Hausaland. The vastness of Askia Mohammed's kingdom covered most of West Africa, larger than all of the European states combined. With literally several thousand cultures under its control, Songhay ranked as one of the largest empires of the time.
In order to maintain his large empire Muhammad Touré further centralized the government by creating a large and elaborate bureaucracy. He was also the first to standardize weights, measures, and currency, so culture throughout the Songhay began to homogenize. Muhammad Touré was also a fervent Muslim; he replaced traditional Songhay administrators with Muslims in order to Islamicize Songhay society. He also appointed Muslim judges, called qadis , to run the legal system under Islamic legal principles. These programs of conquest, centralization, and standardization were the most ambitious and far-reaching in Africa at the time. It is of note that while the urban centers were dominated by Islam and Islamic culture, the non-urban areas were not Islamic. The vast majority of the Songhay people, around 97%, followed traditional African religions.
Under the leadership of Askia Mohammed, Timbuctu once again became a prosperous commercial city, reaching a population of 100,000 people. Merchants and traders traveled from Asia, the Middle East and Europe to exchange their exotic wares for the gold of Songhay. Timbuctu gained fame as an intellectual center rivaling many others in the Muslim world. Students from various parts of the world came to Timbuctu's famous University of Sankore to study Law and Medicine. Medieval Europe sent emissaries to the University of Sankore to witness its excellent libraries with manuscripts and to cosult with the learned mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, and jurists whose intellectual endeavors were said to be paid for out of the king's own treasury. Pictured above is a mosque at Timbuctu. (Photo courtesy of WSU)
Unfortunately for Songhay it was to be its very size that would lead to its downfall. A vastly spread empire, it encompassed more territory than could actually be controlled. After the reign of Askia Duad, subject peoples began to revolt. Even Songhay's massive army, said to be over 35,000 soldiers, archers and cavalry, could not keep order. The first major region to declare independence was Hausaland; then much of the Maghreb (Morocco) rebelled and gained control over crucial gold mines. The Moroccans defeated Songhay in 1591 and the empire quickly collapsed. In 1612, the cities of Songhay fell into general disarray and one the greatest empires of African history disappeared from the world stage forever. Not since this time, has any African nation rose to prominence and wealth as did mighty Songhay.
Songhai woman with her child
The Songhay economy used to be around long distance trade, salt and gold. In modern times, Songhay people are expert traders, farmers and fishermen. They engage in cultivation of Sorghum, millet and ground nut. Others are mostly involved in fishing in the River Niger.
Songhay are well known for weaving blankets and mats. The elaborate cotton blankets (terabeba) woven by men in the town of Tera are highly prized throughout the Sahel. Women living along the Niger River weave palm frond mats that feature geometric designs.
The staple of the Songhay diet is millet. It is consumed in three ways: as a pancake (haini maasa), as porridge (doonu), or as a paste (howru). Millet paste is made by mixing millet flour in a pot of boiling water until the mixture stiffens. This paste is consumed at the evening meal. It is topped by a variety of usually meatless sauces made from okra, baobab leaf, or peanuts. Songhay season their sauces with ginger (tofunua), hot pepper (tonka), and onion flour with sesame (gebu). A recipe for a meatless sauce follows:
Peanut and Greens Stew
4 Tablepoons oil
1 onion, chopped
½ cup chopped peanuts
2 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1 tomato, chopped
¼ cup tomato paste
3 cups finely chopped spinach or Swiss chard (wash first and trim coarse stems and fibers)
¼ teaspoon red pepper
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and peanuts. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until onion is soft.
Add 2 more tablespoons of oil and heat.
Stir in peanut butter, tomato, tomato paste, spinach, red pepper, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat.
Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve over millet or rice.
Adapted from Carole Lisa Albyn and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1993.
Fady Diarra, 25, wears a traditional Songhai beaded head wrap in Gao, Mali, March 6, 2013. (Joe Penney/Reuters)
Almost all Songhay are practicing Muslims. They pray five times a day; avoid alcohol and pork; observe the one-month fast of Ramadan; and try to the best of their ability to make the hajj, the very expensive pilgrimage to Mecca.
Songhai Muslim Imam
However, Islamic practices have not excluded traditional beliefs carried forward from ancient times. Traditional Songhay life is seen as a continuous passage across dangerous crossroads. To help them, the Song-hay regularly consult diviners (fortune tellers) and other traditional religious specialists, such as sohancitarey (sorcerers), sorkotarey (praise-singers to the spirits), and zimatarey (spirit-possession priests). These specialists must serve long apprenticeships to master knowledge of history, plants, words, and practices.
Songhay people observe the secular holidays of the countries in which they live. They also celebrate such major Islamic holidays as Muhammad's birthday, the end of the Ramadan fast, and Eid al-Adha (or tabaski), which commemorates Abraham's biblical sacrifice of a ram. For tabaski, people slaughter one or two sheep and roast them. They feast on the roasted mutton and offer raw and cooked meat to needier people who come to their door.
The famous malia singer Khaira ARBY wearing many gold ornaments typical of the Songhai people among which many gold discs as hair ornament and temporal decoration
Rites of passage
Most Songhay rituals marking major life-cycle events follow Islamic models. However, some practices go back to the days before Islam was introduced to sub-Saharan Africa. Birth, for example, is seen as a time of danger for both mothers and their children. During and immediately following childbirth, men are kept from the mother and child. Mother and child are presented to family and neighbors for the first time at the bon chebe (literally, "showing the head"). This is when the child is named. In the past, young boys underwent ritual circumcision at a relatively late age. These days, circumcisions are performed on toddlers by physicians in hospitals.
Once a couple is ready to marry, the groom asks the permission of the bride's father. He is expected to pay his future father-in-law a bride-price, which today is a fixed sum of money. He is also expected to give his future wife and her family many gifts. The expense of marriage makes it difficult for young men to afford to marry. The marriage ceremony is marked by the presentation of gifts. There is also an Islamic contract (kitubi) that binds husband to wife.
Divorce is quite common among the Songhay. Men initiate formal divorce by consulting a Muslim cleric and proclaiming, "I divorce thee" three times. Women initiate divorce informally by leaving their husbands, who then proclaim their divorce in the wife's absence.
When Songhay die, they are buried quickly and without fanfare. Mourning lasts for forty days. The family receives regular visits from relatives and friends. During these visits people honor the person who died by talking about his or her life.
Songhai Gao lady
Rural and urban Songhay men today wear a combination of traditional and Western clothing. They generally wear trousers and a loose-fitting shirt that they wear untucked. Younger men might wear used jeans and tee-shirts they buy at the market. Some men, however, prefer to wear the traditional, cotton three-piece outfit. It consists of draw-string trousers, a long-sleeved loose-fitting shirt with an open neck, and a boubou (long, full robe).
Most Songhay women rarely, if ever, wear Western clothing. They wear long wrap-around skirts (pagnes) and matching tops.
Fady Diarra, 25, wears a traditional Songhai beaded head wrap in Gao, Mali, March 6, 2013. (Joe Penney/Reuters)
Beautiful Songhai woman
Morgan Freeman traces his DNA ancestry to Songhai people of West Africa
A Songhai woman with traditional head tress. Gao still retains many of its ancient charms
Songhai woman and famous Malian singer Khaira ARBY
Songhai twin sisters, Mali
Kimberly Elise has Songhai ancestry from West Africa
Morgan Freeman is of Songhai ancestry
famous malia singer Khaira ARBY wearing many gold ornaments typical of the Songhai people among which many gold discs as hair ornament
Morgan Freeman is of Songhai ancestry
Sonhgai woman washing in a tream
Real Songhai beauty, Kimberly Elise