Essay Songhai

Songhai empire, also spelled Songhay, great trading state of West Africa (fl. 15th–16th century), centred on the middle reaches of the Niger River in what is now central Mali and eventually extending west to the Atlantic coast and east into Niger and Nigeria.

Though the Songhai people are said to have established themselves in the city of Gao about ad 800, they did not regard it as their capital until the beginning of the 11th century during the reign of the dia (king) Kossoi, a Songhai convert to Islām. Gao so prospered and expanded during the next 300 years that from 1325 to 1375 the rulers of Mali added it to their empire. In about 1335 the dia line of rulers gave way to the sunni, or shi, one of whom, Sulaiman-Mar, is said to have won back Gao’s independence. The century or so of vicissitudes that followed was ended by the accession in about 1464 of Sonni ʿAlī, also known as ʿAlī Ber (d. 1492). By repulsing a Mossi attack on Timbuktu, the second most important city of Songhai, and by defeating the Dogon and Fulani in the hills of Bandiagara, he had by 1468 rid the empire of any immediate danger. He later evicted the Tuareg from Timbuktu, which they had occupied since 1433, and, after a siege of seven years, took Jenne (Djenné) in 1473 and by 1476 had dominated the lakes region of the middle Niger to the west of Timbuktu. He repulsed a Mossi attack on Walata to the northwest in 1480 and subsequently discouraged raiding by all the inhabitants of the Niger valley’s southern periphery. The civil policy of Sonni ʿAlī was to conciliate the interests of his pagan pastoralist subjects with those of the Muslim city dwellers, on whose wealth and scholarship the Songhai empire depended. His son Sonni Baru (reigned 1493), who sided completely with the pastoralists, was deposed by the rebel Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr Ture, also known as Muḥammad I Askia (reigned 1493–1528), who welded the central region of the western Sudan into a single empire. He too fought the Mossi of Yatenga, tackled Borgu, in what is now northwestern Nigeria (1505)—albeit with little success—and mounted successful campaigns against the Diara (1512), against the kingdom of Fouta-Toro in Senegal, and to the east against the Hausa states. In order to win control of the principal caravan markets to the north, he ordered his armies to found a colony in and around Agadez in Aïr. He was deposed by his eldest son, Musa, in 1528. Throughout the dynastic squabbles of successive reigns (Askia Musa, 1528–31; Bengan Korei, also known as Askia Muḥammad II, 1531–37; Askia Ismail, 1537–39; Askia Issihak I, 1539–49), the Muslims in the towns continued to act as middlemen in the profitable gold trade with the states of Akan in central Guinea. The peace and prosperity of Askia Dāwūd’s reign (1549–82) was followed by a raid initiated by SultanAḥmad al-Manṣūr of Morocco on the salt deposits of Taghaza. The situation, which continued to worsen under Muḥammad Bāni (1586–88), culminated disastrously for Songhai under Issihak II (1588–91) when Moroccan forces, using firearms, advanced into the Songhai empire to rout his forces, first at Tondibi and then at Timbuktu and Gao. Retaliatory guerrilla action of the pastoral Songhai failed to restore the empire, the economic and administrative centres of which remained in Moroccan hands.



LOCATION: Eastern Mali, western Niger, northern Benin

POPULATION: 3 million

LANGUAGE: Dialects of Songhay; French

RELIGION: Islam combined with indigenous beliefs


The Songhay established one of the three great medieval west African empires in 1463. The first Songhay king, Sonni Ali Ber, extended the boundaries of the Song-hay state. His successor, Askia Mohammed Touré, made Songhay a great empire by extending its control throughout much of west Africa. Askia's sons were corrupt, however, and the Songhay empire was weakened during the period that they ruled. By the end of the sixteenth century, Morocco controlled the northern sectors of Songhay. In time, the southern empire splintered into independent territories that were mutually hostile. However, they remained independent until coming under French colonial authority in 1899.


The Songhay-speaking peoples live near the Niger River in eastern Mali, western Niger, and northern Benin. Songhay country is situated in the semi-arid Sahel region. It consists of flat rocky plains, rocky mesas (land formations) in the south, and sandy dunes in the north. The vast majority of Songhay people live in Mali and Niger.


Songhay is a language 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.

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."


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


Greetings in the morning focus upon work and the health of people in one's compound. The midday greetings ask after one's afternoon. Late afternoon greetings involve questions of health. In the dusk greeting, people exchange wishes for peace and health. The Songhay are known for their generosity. When strangers arrive they are housed, well fed, and treated with great dignity—even if the hosts are poor.

Young men are supposed to be respectful of young women, who in turn are supposed to be shy around young men. This code is expressed in body language. Girls will often look at the ground when talking in public to boys.


Songhay people in rural areas live within walled or fenced compounds. These usually consist of a main house for the husband, and smaller houses for each of his wives and their children. The houses are usually made of mud bricks and have thatched roofs. More traditional homes are circular huts with thatched roofs. New houses may be made of cement and feature tin roofs. Most social activity is conducted out of doors in the compound, where food is prepared and eaten, and where people visit one another in the evenings.

Songhay in urban areas also live in compounds. The crowded conditions there tend to be less sanitary than those in the countryside.


Songhay families tend to be large. In rural areas, brothers live with their father, mothers, wives, and children in large communal compounds. In some cases, more than one hundred people might live in a rural compound. In urban areas, families are a bit more scattered and smaller in size.

Men and women lead fairly separate lives. They do different kinds of work. They eat separately. They often talk only to other people of their own sex. When a marriage occurs, a woman's primary allegiance is still to her own kin, for it is from them that she will inherit wealth. If husbands are abusive, the wife's brothers will often intervene. If a woman earns money, she will keep it for herself or share it with her blood kin.


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.

12 • FOOD

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.


Education takes two forms among the Song-hay: informal and formal. Mothers and fathers informally educate their children in survival skills: farming, fishing, hunting, building huts and houses, cooking, weaving, and sewing. Even though thousands of Songhay children attend elementary school, illiteracy is common. Some Songhay parents see formal schooling as a loss, because educated sons and daughters often move to towns and cities.


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


  1. 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.
  2. Add 2 more tablespoons of oil and heat.
  3. Stir in peanut butter, tomato, tomato paste, spinach, red pepper, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat.
  4. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Serve over millet or rice.

Adapted from Carole Lisa Albyn and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1993.

For their formal education, the majority of Songhay go through the educational systems of Niger or Mali.


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.


The principal activity of most Songhay men has been millet and rice farming. Since farming is seasonal, many Songhay men have developed secondary occupations: trading, transport, or tailoring. Many spend the nonplanting season working for wages in distant cities. Most Songhay women remain wedded to domestic activities. In some cases, divorced women sell cooked foods or trade in cloth to support themselves.


Soccer is the major sport among Songhay boys and young men. Boys and men also race horses, in competitions and for fun. During secular holidays, villages sponsor horse races and present the winners with prizes.

Wrestling is the other major sport. The idea is not to pin one's opponent but merely to throw him to the ground. Songhay girls are not encouraged to participate in sports.


Religious rituals such as spirit-possession ceremonies are also occasions for entertainment. In many Songhay towns, young people stage plays at the local theater. Towns also sponsor gatherings for young people where they can dance and socialize.

Television has become an important medium of entertainment in many of the larger Songhay towns. Neighborhood chiefs, who own televisions, will invite their neighbors into their compound for evenings of television viewing.


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.


There are two great social problems facing the Songhay. The first is the ever-present prospect of drought and famine. Many devastating droughts and famines have prompted the widespread migration of rural Songhay to towns and cities.

The second principal social problem involves political instability in the Republic of Niger, home to many of the Songhay.


Charlick, Robert. Niger: Personal Rule and Survival in the Sahel. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

Stoller, Paul. Fusion of the Worlds: An Ethnography of Possession Among the Songhay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; paperback edition, 1997.

Stoller, Paul, and Cheryl Olkes. In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship Among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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