The Songhai people (also Songhay or Sonrai) are an ethnic group in West Africa who speak the various Songhai languages. Their history and lingua franca is linked to the Songhai Empire which dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th century.
Songhai groups live in Mali (1.250.000 people), Niger (1.310.000 people), Burkina Faso (241.000 people) and some small comunities in Benin and Ghana. (Peoplegroups.org, 2023)
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.
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 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.
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.
Akans of West Africa (Ghana and Cote d`Ivoire) and Guans in Ghana have historical affinity, common migration stories as well as some blood relations with the Songhai people. In fact Akans and Guans were part of Songhai people before leaving southwards. Akans and Guans settled in Gao and Timbuctu for so many years and were part of Songhai civilization before the spread of Islam and the fall of the empire led them to other emerging empires and later to the Gold Coast (now Ghana)
The Songhai (Gao and Timbuctu) people also continue to see Akans (Fantes), especially those in Ghana as their blood relatives.
The language, society and culture of the Songhai people is barely distinguishable from the Zarma people. Some scholars consider the Zarma people to be a part of and the largest ethnic sub-group of the Songhai. Some study the group together as Zarma-Songhai people. However, both groups see themselves as two different peoples.
It was from one of Mali's former conquests, the kingdom of Gao, that the last major empire of the western Sudan emerged. Although the city of Gao had been occupied by a Songhai dynasty prior to being conquered by Mansa Musa's forces in 1325, it was not until much later that the Songhai empire emerged. The empire saw its pre-eminent rise under the military strategist and influential Songhai king, Sonni Ali Ber. It began its rise in 1468 when Sonni Ali conquered much of the weakening Mali empire's territory as well as Timbuktu, famous for its Islamic universities, and the pivotal trading city of Djenné. Among the country's most noted scholars was Ahmed Baba—a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh al-Sudan and other works. The people consisted of mostly fishermen and traders. Following Sonni Ali's death, Muslim factions rebelled against his successor and installed Soninke general, Askia Muhammad (formerly Muhammad Toure) who was to be the first and most important ruler of the Askia dynasty (1492–1592). Under the Askias, the Songhai empire reached its zenith.
Following Askia Muhammad, the empire began to collapse. It was enormous and could not be kept under control. The kingdom of Morocco saw Songhay's still flourishing salt and gold trade and decided that it would be a good asset.
The Dendi people are a subgroup of the Songhai.
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.
The Songhai people cultivate cereals, raise small herds of cattle and fish in the Niger Bend area where they live. They have traditionally been one of the key West African ethnic groups associated with caravan trade.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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).
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.
Polygyny is highly valued among the Songhay, as it is among the Zarma, but the great percentage of Songhay households are monogamous—primarily 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.
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 members—albeit stigmatized—of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.