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Songhay

Songhay

PRONUNCIATION: song-HIGH

LOCATION: Eastern Mali, western Niger, northern Benin

POPULATION: 3 million

LANGUAGE: Dialects of Songhay; French

RELIGION: Islam combined with indigenous beliefs

1 INTRODUCTION

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.

2 LOCATION

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.

3 LANGUAGE

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."

4 FOLKLORE

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.

5 RELIGION

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.

6 MAJOR HOLIDAYS

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.

7 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.

8 RELATIONSHIPS

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.

9 LIVING CONDITIONS

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.

10 FAMILY LIFE

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.

11 CLOTHING

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.

13 EDUCATION

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.

Recipe

Peanut and Greens Stew

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  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.

14 CULTURAL HERITAGE

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.

15 EMPLOYMENT

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.

16 SPORTS

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.

17 RECREATION

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.

18 CRAFTS AND HOBBIES

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.

19 SOCIAL PROBLEMS

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.

20 BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

WEBSITES

Interknowledge Corporation. Mali. [Online] Available http://www.geographia.com/mali/, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ml/gen.html, 1998.

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Songhay

Songhay

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


Orientation

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.


Settlements

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.

Economy

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.


Kinship

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


Bibliography

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.

PAUL STOLLER

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Songhay

Songhay

PRONUNCIATION: song-HIGH
LOCATION: Eastern Mali, western Niger, northern Benin
POPULATION: 3.5 million
LANGUAGE: Dialects of Songhay; French
RELIGION: Islam combined with indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Beninese; Malians; Nigeriens

INTRODUCTION

The Songhay have one of the most glorious histories of any African people. Known throughout West Africa as great and fearless warriors, the Songhay established one of the three great medieval West African Empires in 1463. The first Song-hay king, Sonni Ali Ber, who spent much of his 30-year reign engaged in war, extended the boundaries of the Songhay state far beyond its ancestral lands, which extended some 100 km (62 mi) from each bank of the upper bend of the Niger River in what is today eastern Mali and western Niger. His successor, Askia Mohammed Touré, who founded a new dynasty, the Askiad, ruled from the Songhay capital at Gao, still a town today along the banks of the upper Niger River in Mali. Askia Mohammed made Songhay a great empire by extending its control throughout much of West Africa.

The political skill of Askia Mohammed's sons, who succeeded him, paled in comparison to that of their father, who set up elaborate and efficient bureaucracies to govern the empire. During his sons' reigns, however, corruption weakened the structures of imperial bureaucracy and treachery compromised imperial power. Toward the end of the 16th century, imperial Songhay was little more than an empty shell. In 1591 a small column of Moroccan soldiers crossed the Sahara and routed the excessively large Songhay army at the battle of Tondibia. The Moroccans installed a pasha (civil and military official) and controlled the northern sectors of Songhay. The Songhay nobles, all descendants of Askia Mohammed, fled southward to present-day Niger, where they continued their much diminished imperial rule. In time, the southern empire splintered into independent principalities that were mutually hostile. These principalities remained independent until 1899 when they were subjected to French colonial authority, which continued until the founding of the Republic of Niger in 1960. In the first three governments of the Republic of Niger, Song-hay played central political roles. Compared to other ethnic groups in the Republic of Niger, they have a disproportionately large representation in the officer corps of Niger's army.

Location and homeland

The Songhay-speaking peoples live near the Niger River in eastern Mali, western Niger, and northern Benin. Key towns in Songhay country include Gao and Timbuktu in Mali, and Ayoru, Tillaberi, Niamey, and Tera in Niger. Songhay country is situated in the semiarid Sahel, which consists of flat rocky plains broken by rocky mesas in the south, and sandy dunes in the north.

The vast majority of Songhay are agriculturalists who grow millet and sorghum in sandy fields or cultivate rice in the shallows of the Niger River. This region features one of the harshest climates in the world. From October to May it does not rain. The dry period consists of two seasons: cool and hot. The cool season is dry, windy, and dusty with daytime temperatures rising well above 27°c (80°F) and nighttime temperatures often plummeting below 10°c (50°F). By February, however, the daytime readings reach 38°c (100°F) or more. By April and May, afternoon temperatures sometimes exceed 46°c (115°f). At night, the mercury drops only to 30°c (85°F) or so. The rains come in late May or early June and break the heat. The rainy season lasts from June through September.

Songhay-speaking peoples have a more than 100-year history of migration from Niger and Mali to the Guinea Coast countries of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. More recently Songhay traders have traveled to France as well as to the United States, where Songhay traders live and work in New York City. The vast majority of Songhay people, however, remain in Mali and Niger. Into the 21st century, in the US, most Songhay immigrants live in New York City, mostly in Harlem and the South Bronx and in a vibrant community in Greensboro, North Carolina.

LANGUAGE

Songhay is a language spoken by 3 million people in the Republics of Mali, Niger, and Benin. There are several dialects of Songhay. In Timbuktu, Songhay people speak kwaara cini (literally, “town talk”). The Songhay spoken between Gao and Tillaberi along the Niger River is called issa cini (literally, “river talk”). By contrast, people living in far western Niger in such towns as Tera, Dargol, and Wanzerbe are said to speak Song-hay. Peoples living east of the Niger River from Tillaberi south to the town of Say speak the Zarma dialect. People living along the Niger River near the Niger-Benin border speak Dendi, yet another Songhay dialect. Because Mali, Niger, and Benin are all French-speaking nations, many Songhay people living in these states are conversant in French.

As in many African languages, greetings are important in Songhay. The first greeting is: “Manti ni kaani,” “How did you sleep?” One usually replies, “Baani sami, walla,” meaning, “I slept (implied) well, in health.” The 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 reference questions of health. In the dusk greeting, people exchange salutations of peace and health. At bedtime, one says: “Iri me kaani baani,” which means “May we both sleep in health and peace.”

FOLKLORE

Songhay trace their origins to the 8th century AD and the coming of Aliman Dia to the Niger River. Aliman Dia possessed iron weapons and with these he subdued the resident peoples, sorko (fishers) and gow (hunters). Aliaman Dia brought these peoples together and founded the first Songhay dynasty, the Dia. Descendants of Aliaman Dia governed Songhay until the 15th century when a dynasty, the Sonni, succeeded them.

The ancestor of the sorko, Faran Maka Bote, like Aliman Dia, is a Songhay culture hero. Faran Maka Bote's 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 the control of the river spirits, which meant control of the Niger River. Faran won this battle and became master of the Niger River. But his confidence soon surpassed his capacities. Dongo, the deity of lightning and thunder, demonstrated his displeasure with Faran by burning villages and killing people. He summoned Faran and demanded that the giant pay his humble respects to Dongo 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. This event marked the first Songhay possession ceremony. These ceremonies are still performed today. One of the most important members of a Songhay possession troupe, moreover, is the sorko, praise-singer to the spirits and direct descendant of Faran Make Bote. In this way, myth in the Songhay world is connected to ongoing social and religious practices.

RELIGION

Although almost all Songhay are practicing Muslims, Islamic practices have not excluded pre-Islamic beliefs. Songhay see life as a series of paths (the life path or paths; in the Songhay language, the fonda or fondey) that constitute life in the world. Like paths in the Songhay bush, the metaphoric paths of life end when they meet two new paths that fork off in different directions. At these crossroads, points of potential danger where the spirit and social worlds meet, people are vulnerable to misfortune, sickness, and possibly death. Because life is seen as the continuous negotiation of dangerous crossroads, Songhay people regularly consult diviners, who read shells that indicate what precautions a person must take to move forward on her or his path.

The paths of Songhay religious specialists are steeped with learning and fraught with difficulties. There is sohancitarey, the path of Songhay sorcerers, descendants of the Songhay king, Sonni Ali Ber. There is the path of sorkotarey, which is followed by praise-singers to the spirits, descendants of Faran Maka Bote. Healers descended from slaves, called horso, follow the path of their ancestors (horsotarey), practicing magic passed down from generation to generation. Cerkowtarey is the path of witches, who precipitate illness, misfortune, and death in Songhay villages. They are said to fly in the night and to be able to transform their appearance. Death results when witches steal and eat their victims' souls. There is also the path of zimatarey that is followed by spirit-possession priests, who work with the sorko to stage spirit-possession ceremonies. Except for witches, who receive their powers through ingesting their mothers' milk if their mothers are witches, these specialists must serve long apprenticeships to master the knowledge of history, plants, words, and practices. Along their paths, apprentices become vulnerable to the powers and rivalries of the spirit world, which the Songhay call “the world of war.”

For most Songhay, whose contact with the spirit world may well be frightening but is generally infrequent, the path of Islam is well followed. They pray five times a day, avoid alcohol and pork, honor and respect their elders, give to the poor, observe the one-month fast of Ramadan, and try to the best of their ability to make the exceedingly expensive pilgrimage to Mecca. If they submit to these practices, they believe that they will ascend to heaven. These beliefs, however, do not preclude beliefs about the spirit world.

MAJOR HOLIDAYS

Songhay people, like other groups in the Republic of Niger, celebrate Nigerien Independence Day, and other state-related holidays. They also celebrate such major Islamic holidays as Muhammad's birthday, the end of the Ramadan fast, and tabaski, which commemorates Abraham's biblical sacrifice of a ram. For tabaski, people slaughter one or two sheep and roast them in their compound. They feast on the roasted mutton and offer raw and cooked meat to needier people who knock on their door seeking an offering.

RITES OF PASSAGE

Like all peoples throughout the world, the Songhay perform rituals to underscore the major events of the life-cycle. Most of these rituals follow Islamic prescriptions, though some practices related to birth, puberty, marriage, divorce, and death predate Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. Birth, for example, is seen as a time of danger for both mothers and their children. During pregnancy, most Songhay women avoid certain foods. 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”), at which the child is named. As children mature, they are educated by their fathers and mothers. Young boys learn to farm millet and sorghum, cultivate rice, fish, and hunt; young girls learn cooking, child care, and other domestic chores. In the past, young Songhay practiced a pre-Islamic female initiation called the gosi, during which young girls were ritually purified for marriage. This practice did not involve female genital mutilation. Young boys once underwent circumcision at a relatively late age. Circumcision specialists (guunu) would travel from village to village and circumcise scores of boys in one afternoon. These days, circumcisions are performed on toddlers by physicians in hospital settings.

In adolescence, Songhay often forge life-long friendships. Groups of friends will work together and attend social events like drumming ceremonies or dances organized by the samaryia, which is a village-level young people's organization. Eventually women and men are ready to marry. In the recent past, there were many cousin marriages among the Songhay, especially among families of nobles, descendants of Askia Mohammed Touré. Young men and women were encouraged to marry the children of their father's siblings. Nowadays, cousin marriages are less frequent.

Once the groom asks the bride's father for permission to marry the latter's daughter, 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 many gifts: cloth, blankets, perfume, and soap. He will also give his in-laws gifts of rice, meat, and kola nuts. The significant expense of marriage makes it difficult for young men to afford to marry, which is why most Songhay grooms are significantly older than their wives. The marriage ceremony is marked by the presentation of gifts and the sanctification of an Islamic contract (kitubi) that binds husband to wife. Drummers play music and people eat and dance in the bride's compound.

Divorce, which is quite common among the Songhay, is not marked by ceremony. Men initiate formal divorce by consulting a Muslim cleric and proclaiming, “I divorce thee” three times. If there are children in the marriage, they live with the father after two years of age. This practice, too, follows Muslim law. Since there is no joint property held between husband and wife, divorces are easy to obtain and free of property disputes. Women informally initiate divorce by leaving their husbands, who then proclaim their divorce in the wife's absence.

Adulthood among the Songhay is spent working and raising families. As people age, they have fewer responsibilities. When they become elders, they spend much of their time conversing with their friends and imparting wisdom to the younger generations. When Songhay die, they are buried quickly and without fanfare. Mourning lasts for 40 days, during which 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, his or her likes and dislikes, and perhaps his or her peculiar expressions.

INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS

Generosity, grace, and modesty are key ingredients of ideal Songhay interpersonal relations. One is supposed to direct one's social energies towards the other and the group. Self-absorption is looked down upon. The Songhay are, like many peoples in the West African Sahel, known for their generosity. When strangers arrive they are housed, well fed, and treated with great dignity—even if the hosts are poor. Such is the hallmark of Songhay graciousness, which may have developed in response to the harsh ecological and economic conditions in which they live.

Songhay are also modest people. If they are wealthy in comparison with their neighbors, they do not flaunt their material success. Dress is also modest. Men wear long flowing robes (boubous) over loose-fitting cotton trousers and shirts. Women wear long wrap-around skirts (pagnes) and tops. In both cases, people dress for comfort and avoid wearing clothes that show off their bodies. 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. Boys do make eye contact with girls. Girls, however, will often look at the ground when talking in public to boys. Whenever young men and women become involved with one another, they do so in private. Their public behavior maintains a socially sanctioned modesty.

LIVING CONDITIONS

Songhay people in rural areas live mostly in small villages, which are usually near a water source—a series of wells, a pond, or the Niger River. Families live within walled or fenced compounds, which 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. Homes offer Songhay protection from heat, wind, and rain. Most social activity, however, is conducted out of doors in the compound, where food is prepared and eaten, and where people visit one another in the evenings.

Songhay who live in such urban areas as Niamey, the capital of the Republic of Niger, also live in compounds. Space in urban areas is, of course, limited, which means that people live in crowded conditions that tend to be less sanitary than in the countryside. In the Songhay Diaspora in France and in New York, families live in small apartments in neighborhoods in which other West African immigrants have settled. In New York City Songhay men and women live in Harlem, the South Bronx, and in Brooklyn.

FAMILY LIFE

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 100 people might live in a rural compound. In urban areas, families are a bit more scattered and smaller in size. In the family, women play central roles. They fetch water, buy and prepare food, clean the house and compound, and look after the children. As a woman ages, she expects younger wives (if the marriage is polygamous), daughters-in-law, or daughters to perform domestic chores. Men work in the fields and are often away from the family compound. When they return, women give them bathing water and feed them.

Men and women lead fairly separate lives. They do different kinds of work. They eat separately. They often talk exclusively to other people of their own gender. When a marriage occurs, a woman's primary allegiance is to her blood kin, for it is from them that she will inherit wealth. If husbands are abusive, the wife's brothers will often intervene to end the abuse. If a woman earns money, she will keep it for herself or share it with her blood kin. She rarely gives her husband money, for it is his responsibility to feed, clothe, and otherwise care for his wife. In the Diaspora, Songhay husbands spend long periods of time away from their wives and families. They meet their familial obligations by wiring money to their families in Niger.

CLOTHING

Rural as well as urban Songhay men today wear a combination of traditional and Western clothing. More often than not, they wear tailored suits consisting of trousers and a loose-fitting shirt that they wear untucked. Younger men might wear used jeans and tee-shirts they buy at local or regional markets. There are some men, however, who prefer to wear traditional garb, which includes a damask cotton three-piece outfit, consisting of matching drawstring trousers, long-sleeved loose-fitting shirt with an open neck, and long billowy robe (boubou) with a deep chest pocket. These robes are sometimes covered with elaborate designs brocaded in silver and gold thread. The only Songhay women who wear Western fashions belong to the upper classes of Nigerien society. Most Songhay women rarely, if ever, wear Western clothing.

FOOD

The staple of the Songhay diet is millet, a highly nutritious grain that Westerners use principally as bird seed. Millet is consumed in three ways: as a pancake (haini maasa), as porridge (doonu), or as a paste (howru). No matter how it is consumed, the millet must first be pounded or milled into flour. Millet flour can then be mixed with water to make a pancake batter, which is then fried on a griddle. This food is usually eaten at breakfast. Porridge, which is eaten at the noon meal, is mixture of millet flour that has been shaped into a doughy ball, milk, water, and sugar. Millet paste is made by mixing millet flour in a pot of boiling water until the mixture stiffens. This paste, which is consumed at the evening meal, 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), onion flour with sesame (gebu), sorrel paste (maari bi), and a variety of other ingredients that have no English-language equivalents.

Food is served in porcelain bowls that Songhay buy at markets. In rural areas, bowls are fashioned from large gourds and are decorated. Men and women eat separately. Food is served in a common bowl from which people eat with their right hands. The left hand, which people use to clean themselves, is considered impure.

EDUCATION

Education takes two forms among the Songhay: informal and formal. Mothers and fathers informally educate their children in matters of subsistence: farming, fishing, hunting, building huts and houses, cooking, weaving, and sewing. Even though thousands of Songhay children attend elementary school, illiteracy is common. In remote areas, some Songhay parents see formal schooling as a loss, for it often means that semieducated sons and daughters leave the countryside for towns and cities. Elementary school students must pass screening examinations to attend middle schools. Middle school students must pass the brevet, another screening exam, to advance to the lycée, or high school. After four years of high school, students must pass a baccalaureate exam in order to qualify for university education. In Niger there is one university, Université de Niamey; several normal schools, which train primary school teachers; and several advanced education centers where bureaucrats and technocrats acquire their respective training.

CULTURAL HERITAGE

The Songhay are proud of their imperial past and celebrate it with 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 secular and religious holidays. Epic poetry is also performed on secular and religious holidays. It recounts the heroic feats of cultural heroes like Sonni Ali Ber and Askia Mohammed Touré, the greatest of the Songhay kings. Poetry performances are frequently broadcast on national radio.

WORK

The principal activity of most Songhay men has been millet and rice farming. Since the tasks associated with farming do not consume an entire year, many Songhay men have developed secondary occupations: trading, transport, or tailoring. More than a few Songhay men spend the nonplanting season working for wages in Niamey, the capital of Niger, or in faraway coastal cities like Abidjan, Lome, or Lagos. Except in upper-class families, Songhay women remain wedded to domestic activities. In some cases, divorced women sell cooked foods or trade in cloth to make their way in the world. A small percentage of Songhay women work as civil servants for the government of Niger. In the Diaspora, Songhay men in New York City work as street vendors, import-export businessmen, security guards, factory laborers and gas station attendants.

SPORTS

Soccer is the major sport among Songhay boys and young men. No matter the size of the village, there is a space where young boys and men regularly play soccer. Larger villages support soccer clubs and teams that compete against other villages. The national team recruits its players from these local soccer clubs and competes against teams from other African nations. Boys and men also race horses both informally and formally. 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. There are wrestling competitions in most larger villages as well as a prestigious national competition. Songhay girls are not encouraged to participate in sports, although those who attend school are required to take physical education and engage in intramural competition.

ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION

Such religious rituals as spirit-possession ceremonies are also occasions for group entertainment. When a spirit-possession ceremony is staged, vendors come to sell cigarettes, cooked foods, and candy to the audience. In many Songhay towns there is a local theater, in which young people stage plays about the social conflicts of growing up in a changing society. Sometimes these local theater troupes perform on national radio. Towns also sponsor local singing and dance groups, as well as 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. Most people cannot afford electricity, let alone a television set. But neighborhood chiefs, who own televisions, will invite their neighbors into their compound for evenings of television viewing.

FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES

Songhay are well known for weaving blankets and mats. The elaborate cotton blankets woven by men in the town of Tera (terabeba) are highly prized throughout the Sahel. Women living along the Niger River weave palm frond mats that feature geometric designs.

SOCIAL PROBLEMS

There are two great social problems facing the Songhay. The first is the ever-present prospect of drought and famine. Songhay live in the Sahel, which throughout its history has been prone to drought and famine. In the past 35 years there have been many devastating droughts and famines that have prompted the widespread migration of rural Songhay to towns and cities. In any given year, even the slightest disruption of the cycle of rains can precipitate grain shortages, hunger, and famine.

The second principal social problem involves politics. At present the Republic of Niger is politically unstable. The first three governments of the Republic of Niger were led by Song-hay-speaking peoples, which led to charges of ethnic favoritism from the other ethnic groups (Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri, and Tuareg) that constituted the majority of the population. Thirty years ago, the issue of tribalism was important. Today, the power and relevance of the state has diminished, especially in rural areas. While in the past people might have charged the government with ethnic favoritism toward the Songhay, people in the present must concentrate their energies on making their way in a politically and socially uncertain world. In the Diaspora, the principal social problem is the separation of families, which sometimes precipitates divorce. This same separation sometimes results in new marriages in the host country, meaning that some Songhay men have two families: one in Niger and one in a new home like New York City

GENDER ISSUES

Gender is central to the flow of social relations. In rural Song-hay villages, men and women have relatively distinct identities. These identities have been shaped by patterns of work and social obligation as well as by the influence of Islam. In general, women run household economies and, for the most part, participate directly in child-rearing. The man's domain is usually outside of the home—in the fields or at the market. These “roles” shift somewhat in urban areas in which women engage in economic activities outside the home. Indeed, some urban Songhay women are educated and have civil service positions. These women hire others to cook, clean, and look after their young children. The same can be said of Songhay women who live in places like Paris or New York City. Sometimes, the expanded roles that Songhay women enjoy in urban or diasporic communities precipitate domestic tension in the household.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Fugelstad, Finn. A History of Niger, 1850–1960. London: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Stoller, Paul. Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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

———. Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2002.

———. The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2008.

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

—by P. Stoller

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