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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 dignityeven 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.


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.


Interknowledge Corporation. Mali. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Gao borey, Kado, Kwaara borey, Songhoi, Songhrai


The Songhay are the fourth-largest ethnic group in Niger, West Africa. There are also considerable Songhay populations in Mali and Benin. They are closely related culturally to the Zarma. The Songhay are spread over a large area of eastern Mali, western Niger, and northern Benin. The largest concentrations are in eastern Mali and western Niger. In eastern Mali, the Songhay population lives along the Niger River from east of Lake Debo to south of Ansongo. In Niger, Songhay live along the Niger River from Firgoun to Sansane-Hausa, as well as west of the Niger north of Niamey in the region of Tera. In regions far from the Niger, the geography consists of laterite plateaus broken by occasional mesas. The vegetation in Songhay country, which is by and large scrub desert, is sparse. Water is deep and in short supply, except in the land along the Niger River, which is lush with wild vegetation as well as vegetable and fruit gardens. The climate of Songhay country, like that of Zarma country, consists of a single rainy season that begins in June and ends in September. Average rainfall varies from 20 centimeters in the north of Songhay country to roughly 40 centimeters in the south. The average high temperature, as in Zarma country, is 36° C, but temperatures reach the mid-40s at the peak of the hot season in mid-May. The average low temperature is 22° C.

History and Cultural Relations

The Songhay trace their origins to the coming of Aliman Za (or Dia) to the Niger River (near Koukya) in the latter part of the eighth century. With the help of iron weapons, Za conquered the indigenous populations of Gabibi (hunters and farmers) and Sorko (fishers). Aliman Za, probably a Lemta Berber from southern Libya, founded the Za dynasty of Songhay that endured from the latter part of the eighth century to 1491 and the death of Sonni Ali Ber, who was succeeded by Askia Mohammed Toure (founder of the Askiad, the second and last dynasty of Songhay). During the reigns of Sonni Ali Ber and Askia Mohammed, the Songhay Empire reached the zenith of its imperial power. The weaknesses and avarice of most of Askia Mohammed's successorshis sonssapped Songhay of its strength. In 1591 a small Moroccan force sent to Songhay by El Mansur routed a much larger Songhay army, marking the end of the Songhay Empire. Descendants of Askia Mohammed continued to rule a unified southern state of Songhay until 1660, in what is today Niger. Rivalries among the ruling princes, however, precipitated the balkanization of the south into five principalities: Garuol, Tera, Dargol, Kokoro, and Anzuru. These principalities remained independent until the coming of the French military in 1898.


Like Zarma villages, Songhay villages are usually nucleated settlements of round mud or thatched dwellings with straw roofs. In these villages, one also finds an increasing number of rectangular mud-brick houses with either thatch or corrugated-tin roofs. Villages far from the Niger River are surrounded by cultivated fields (mostly of millet) and by bush areas. There are substantial rice fields and garden plots around the riverine villages.


Nonriverine Songhay are dryland farmers who cultivate millet as a principal subsistence crop. Most farmers do not sell their grain after the harvest. Millet is cultivated along with cowpeas, sorrel, and groundnuts. Sorghum and manioc are also cultivated in regions with heavy soils. In riverine areas, rice is cultivated. In both riverine and nonriverine areas, dry-season gardens are also cultivated. Gardeners harvest mangoes, guavas, citrus fruits, papayas, dates, and bananas, as well as tomatoes, carrots, peppers, lettuce, cabbages, squashes, sorrel, and okra. The Songhay, like the Zarma, rely heavily upon the household for agricultural labor, but rice cultivators often hire nonkin to harvest their crops.

Like the Zarma, the Songhay are well-known migrants. During the colonial period, both Songhay and Zarma migrated in droves to the colonial Gold Coast, where they were known collectively as either "Zabrama" or "Gao." In Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Ivory Coast, Songhay today are cloth merchants as well as nyama-nyama ize ("the children of disorder"), who sell a variety of goods. In Niger, Songhay men sell surplus millet and rice and engage in transport and commerce; women sell cooked foods and condiments.


As with the Zarma, the patrilineage and lineage segments are the most significant kinship groupings. Descent is also patrilineal. Unlike their Zarma cousins, however, the Songhay also recognize noble lineages, principally those whose apical ancestor is Askia Mohammed Toure (maiga ), Sonni Ali Ber (sohanci ), or Faran Maka Bote (sorko ). The Songhay employ Iroquois cousin terminology, using bifurcate-merging terms.

Marriage and Family

Polygyny is highly valued among the Songhay, as it is among the Zarma, but the great percentage of Songhay households are monogamousprimarily for economic reasons. Among Songhay nobles, firstborn sons are pressured to marry their parallel cousins (father's brother's daughters), in order to maintain the purity of the noble lineage.

Sociopolitical Organization

The household is the fundamental unit of Songhay social organization. Beyond the household is the village quarter (kurey ), which elects a quarter chief (kurey koy ). The neighborhood chiefs constitute a village council, which elects the village chief (kwaara koy ). Whereas the Zarma profess a rather egalitarian ideology, the Songhay do not. Village chiefs are accorded deference, especially if they are of noble descent, which is usually the case in major towns.

In precolonial times, Songhay social organization consisted of nobles, other free Songhay, and captives. The latter were originally prisoners taken in precolonial raids. Captives could be sold, but their offspring were considered membersalbeit stigmatizedof noble families. Captives became weavers, smiths, and bards.

The most important political authorities in Songhay country are various paramount chiefs. These men are appointed in Songhay villages of historical consequence (Dargol, Tera, Kokoro, Ayoru, Yatakala). Such chiefs are always of noble descent, and they have at least symbolic authority over the village chiefs in their jurisdiction.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. According to Songhay religious beliefs, there are a number of paths that situate Songhay in the cosmos. These paths are magic, possession, ancestor worship, witchcraft, and Islam. Islam is superficially important, in that every town has a mosque, and larger towns have Friday mosques. Possession, magic (and sorcery), ancestor worship, and witchcraft, however, are the vital components of Songhay belief. Most Songhay towns have possession troupes and magician-healers, as well as suspected witches.

Religious Practitioners. For Muslims, there are marabouts, Islamic clerics who either heal the sick or lead the community in prayer. Some Songhay communities have imams, who teach Islamic philosophy to lesser clerics. There are also healers as well as priests who are associated with the possession cults and are also healers in their own right.

Ceremonies. Muslim ceremonial activities are the most frequent rituals practiced among the Songhay (daily prayers, weekly prayer, the Ramadan fast, and the Tabaski). There are also spirit-possession ceremonies, which in some Songhay towns occur at least once a week. The most important spirit-possession ceremonies are the genji bi hori, a festival in which Songhay make offerings to the black spirits that control pestilence, and the yenaandi, or rain dance. Both of these ceremonies are held in the hot season.

See also Zarma


Boulnois, J., and B. Hama (1953). Empire de Gao: Histoire, coutumes et magi des Songhai. Paris: Maisonneuve.

Gabbai, Jean-Marie (1988). Les génies du fleuve. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance.

Kati, Mahmoud (1912). Tarikh al-Fattach. Translated by M. Delafosse. Paris: Maisonneuve.

Olivier de Sardan, J-P. ( 1982). Concepts et conceptions songhayzarma: Histoire, culture, société. Paris: Nubia.

Olivier de Sardan, J-P. (1984). Sociétés songhay-zarma. Paris: Karthala.

Rouch, Jean ([1960] 1989). La religion et la magie songhay. Brussels: Éditions de l'Université de Bruxelles.

es-Saadi, Mohammed (1900). Tarikh es-Soudan. Translated by
O. Houdas. Paris: Leroux.

Stoller, Paul (1989). Fusion of the Worlds: An Ethnography of Possession among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stoller, Paul, and Cheryl Olkes (1987). In Sorcery's Shadow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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