The Soninke (also called Sarakole, Seraculeh, or 'Serahuli, and who include subgroups such as the Maraka and the Wangara) are a Mandé people who descend from the Bafour and are closely related to the Imraguen of Mauritania. They were the founders of the ancient empire of Ghana c. 750-1240 CE).
After contact with Muslim Almoravid traders from the north around 1066, the Soninke nobles of neighboring Takrur embraced Islam, being among the earliest sub-Saharan ethnic groups to follow the teachings of Muhammad. The Ghana empire dispersed, resulting in a diaspora which today finds Soninkes in Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. Among this diaspora were famous traders known as the Wangara who spread further afield from traditionally Mande areas, hence the term Wangara is used today in modern Ghana and Burkina Faso to describe the Soninke populations present in urban cities and towns. Today the Soninke number around 1 million. They speak the Soninke language, a Mande language.
Oral tradition on the fall of the Ghana Empire
The Soninke share a very conservative culture, inherited by the structural social organization from their forefather founders of the empire of Ghana. This empire constitutes the major part of the Soninke history and lifestyle.
The first ruler of this empire was said to be Dingha Cisse, who it is said had a semi-divine status. He came with his people from "the East", either Mali or possibly what is modern day Senegal, and created a coalition against the neighboring tribes and “nomadic raiders”. Some believe that after long battles with the Berbers, Cisse married the three daughters of their leader and created an impressive alliance.
Oral tradition in the legend of Wagadu says that after Cisse's death, his two sons - Khine and Dyabe, disagreed about who would become the successor. They fought and Khine won the battle. Dyabe, humiliated, made an accord with a black snake with seven heads named Bida. Dyabe promised to sacrifice a virgin to the snake once every year in return for victory over his brother. He fulfilled his promise to Bida until his death. The wealth of Ghana is depicted by this story, as the Soninke believe that there were rains of gold due to the annual virgin girl sacrifice to the black snake. Another clarification to the prosperity of the Empire was its gold mines located in Kumbi Saleh, the imperial capital. This place became an important commercial centre. The existence of camels facilitated the transport of gold and other products, such as slaves, salt and copper, textiles, beads, and finished goods, with the rest of the world.
With the amplitude of trade, Islam was adopted throughout the empire. However, the king continued to follow his cultural beliefs. Twelve mosques were built, and Islamic schools. Some Arab historians relate the decline of the Empire to the attack of Almoravid who came to convert the empire into Islam, but others believe the power of Islam was slow and did not engage any assault. There are many explanations about what lead to the decline of the empire. One fact is that the king lost his trading monopoly. Also, drought began to have a long term effect on the land, ruining its ability to sustain cattle and cultivation. New gold fields began mining for example, at Bure (modern Guinea) which was out of reach for Ghana and new trade routes were opening up further east and across the atlantic.
For the Soninke people, the decline of their empire was due to the legend of Wagadu, and the rupture of the pact between the empire and the black snake. This happened after the nobles chose Siya Yatabare as the annual sacrifice. She was the most beautiful and “cleanest” virgin girl in that year, but she was also engaged to be married. Her fiancé, Maadi, was the son of Djamere Soukhounou whose unique quality was that he always did what he promised. When Maadi was told him what would happen, that his fiancée would be given to “Bida” - the black snake of Wagadu, he promised Siya that she would not die in the well of Wagadu.
Siya tried to convince him that it is her destiny, that he should let her to be the gift to the snake in order to save the Empire, but Maadi refused. Within days, he asked his friend, the blacksmith of his village named Bomou, to sharpen his saber. When the day came, Maadi set on his way in the direction of the well of Wagadu. Siya Yatabare was well dressed and her hairstyle was in plaited with gold. The praise-singer encouraged her, as did her family. When they left, she saw Maadi and they both fell in tears. Siya told him that if he killed the snake, Wagadu would not have any more rain and the empire would be destroyed forever. Maadi refused, saying their destinies are ratified. He left her and hid himself nearby to wait for the snake.
The snake of Wagadu had seven heads. When the snake took out his first head, Maadi cut it. He did the same to all the others. When the snake took out his last head, the one in silver, the night became clear like the day. The snake said, “I swear by the lord of seven head, during seven years and seven bad years, and during seven months and seven bad months, during seven days and seven bad days, Wagadu will not receive any rain and any piece of gold”. Maadi did not mind, and cut the last head. The snake died. Maadi gave to Siya his shoes, the sheath of his saber, his ring, his “danan koufoune” cap. He told her that, if tomorrow they ask you some clarifications, give them those things. Maadi went to his village and told all the details to his mother. She said “you are my only son and it is because of your fiancée that you killed the “Bida”, however, the nobles of Wagadu will try to punish you. I swear in the memory of your father that I will do everything to protect you from Wagadu.”
When the sun came up, the nobles asked the prise-singer to go check the well of Wagadu. When they saw Siya, and the heads of the snake in the well, they asked her what happened. As an answer, she gave them the shoes and all the things that Maadi gave her. The nobles of the 99 villages called everybody to come and try to wear the articles of clothing. When Maadi wore the shoes, the bonnet and the ring, everything fit. People knew that he killed the snake. They were going to take him when his mother intervened and said: “I thought there were men in Wagadu, but I do not see any. You are afraid of the prediction of the snake even before you die. But there is something sure, nobody will kill my son because of a snake. I do not see any men here. You will know that my loincloth is better than all your trousers accumulated here. During those seven bad years and seven bad months and seven bad days, the needs of wagadu would be in my charge as an exchange of my son’s life and his marriage with Siya Yatabare.”
With shame, the notables of Wagadu concluded the agreement. After Djamere Shoukhouna died, the nobles of Wagadu met and decided that she did what she promised and the agreement was at end and the destiny of the nation would be accomplished. Wagadu went from fertile to dry, and there was no more rain. The children of Dingha, the Soninke, were forced to leave that place which became inhospitable. Thus every family went to his destiny that is the decline of the Ghana Empire - the end of the Soninke Empire. Organisation de l’empire du. Portail Soninké. Retrieved on 2006-09-13..
The Camara of Guidimakha’ story one of the Soninke tribes
Mr Camara Yelli one of the inhabitants of Haourou a village in Guidimakha
told me February 25, 2006 that Soundiata Keita the emperor of the Manding in Mali wanted to have the city of Boli in his Empire. He promised to all the warriors of his Empire that the person who will help him conquer the city of Boly will have anything he wants from him. Gane the ancestor of the Camara of Guidimakha was the strongest warrior of Soundiata Keita Empire. Gane went with his army to the city of Boly he won the battle. He killed the king of Boly cut his head and put it in his bag. He brought it to Sundiata Keita as a proof of his victory. So the city of Boly became a part of Soundiata Keita Empire. He was very happy and wanted to reward his warrior Gane. He told him in front of all his court come tomorrow at early morning I will give to you anything you want that you have seen in my kingdom. This is the big promise that the emperor Soundiata Keita made to Gane. Tekhaye Kante the youngest wife of Soundiata heard it. As she loved Gane she dressed herself as new bride and sat early in the morning in the middle of the royal court. Soundiata Keita, Gane and the royal court met at this time at the place convened. When Gane saw her, he thought that it was the gift the emperor promised him and thanked Soundiata keita. As an emperor a parole is sacred so he agreed to give to Gane in marriage his wife Tekhaye Kante. However Soundiata Keita was so furious and humiliated and Tekhaye Kante knew it. She advised to her new husband Gane to desert the Soundiata Keita Empire. Gane followed his wife’s advice and left with her and his friends Barri, Gassama, Dagnokho. When they arrived in a village away from soundiata Keita’s Empire he left his companions and his wife with the chief of that village named Sylla. He went hunting. During his absence Soundiata Keita’s army came and fought with the sylla in order to bring back with them Tekhaye Kante the ex-wife of the emperor. The sylla won the battle and soon Soundiata’s army went back without Gane’s companions. When Gane came back from hunting he took his companions and left the sylla’s village in order to prevent their hosts from any attack of Soundiata Keita. On the road to Guidimakha he met a cisse and they became friends, continuing the journey together. They arrived to a mountain and found there a king named Magha Soumare. They continued by foot to the top of the mountain. For the warriors of that time, music would be made to let the king know about their presence. He knew that Gane was a strong warrior. The soumare were farmers and they needed protection against the Berbers of Mauritania. Gane agreed to help to protect them. Magha Soumare gave a part of his kingdom to Gane will dominate thus he asked Gane to promise him that the kingdom will take his name. He gave his daughter in marriage to Gane as an alliance. After his death Gane dominated a part of the kingdom but he did what he promised. He named it “Guidimakha” which means the Mountain of Makha. The Guidimakha is located in the southern Mauritania and the northern Mali.
Soninke people today live throughout West Africa, but remain centered around the former homelands of the Ghana Empire and the valley of the upper Senegal river
and along the Mali - Senegal border between Nara
and Nioro du Sahel
. Migrations seeking labor, encouraged under French colonial rule
have led many Soninke to build communities in Dakar
and other large cities in Africa and beyond. There is a large and growing Soninke community in Paris, France
. Trade networks, famously led by the Wangara
mercantile confederations, spread soninke people can culture throughout most of Mali and Senegal, southern Mauritania, northern Burkina Faso, as well as parts of the Gambia
, and Guinea-Bissau. The Maraka
- Soninke merchant communities and plantations (centered just north of the city of Segu
, Mali) were an economic mainspring under the Bambara Empire
, and built trade routes throughout the region. Today the Soninke number above 1 million.
Social organization and politics
The ancient empire Soninke was governed by an emperor who had a great power but was not a tyrant. His power was limited by some notables who were in charge of the administration, taxes, army, justice and other duties. So the central government of the empire was composed of the emperor and those nobles that we can consider as important advisors. The peripheral courts had some freedom deciding on their interior problems however they were supervised by the imperial court concerning the problems of all the empire as the army. In the time of Wagadu there was an emperor at the head of the empire followed by the noble’s families. Even after the decline of the empire the majority of the Soninke families still maintained this hierarchy in their villages. In the Soninke social organization everyone occupies a place in that level. You cannot be a king or a smith by choice. It is something that you receive by family passing. It is a merit that you have from you forefathers. So this hierarchy is very important in Soninke culture and it is something that the Soninke respect. This structural social organization is divided in three levels. The first level is the “Hooro” who are the free men. They have the highest social rank. The hooro are the rulers, they have the right to punish and make justice. Among the “Hooro” there are the “tunkalemmu” princes. They are designated to exercise authority. Only they can become king. They have this leadership in their blood. They receive it from their fathers. The next class after the princes “tunnkalemmu” are the “mangu”. The mangu are the advisors of the princes. They are their confidents. When there are some problems among the different classes of “Hooro” or free man they play the role of mediators. The “mangu” origins are “kuralemme” which means warriors. So when there is a war he becomes the chief of the army. The last class of the “hooro” free man is the “modinu” the priest. Their origin is from the influence of Islam in Soninke society. They make justice, and educate the population. They teach them Islam and protect them with prayers. They are very much respected for their knowledge in religion. The second level of the Soninke organization is the “naxamala” which is also divided in many others classes. The “naxamala” are the dependent men. The “tago” or blacksmiths occupy the first class among them. They make the arms and tools of work. They also make jewelry. They are respected for their knowledge in iron. After the blacksmith there comes the carpenter “Sakko”. They are the friends of the inhabitants of the forest. They are the confidents and the masters of devils. They have a big importance because their knowledge in wood is great. Then we have the praise-singer “Jaroo”. During ceremonies they are in charge of animation, speaking, and singing. They are the most famous in the dependent class “naxamala”. They are the only authorized to say anything they want. They are the orator of the society. They detain the history of most important Soninke families. The last class in the “naxamala” class is the cobbler “Garanko”. They are in charge of the leather shoes, saddle of mounting and sheaths of sabers. The last hierarchy of the Soninke social organization after the free-man “horoo” and the dependent men “naxamala” are the slaves known as “komo”. The slaves “komo” work for the masters. Their masters had also to take care of them but it was not always the case. The slaves have been always the force major of labor in the Soninke society. The prosperity of the Soninke society was due to their abundance in the domain of farming. In the past there were more slaves than free-men.
People and culture
The different Soninke social classes do not marry one another. It is very important for the Soninke to maintain this social organization so the free-men do not marry the dependent man or the slaves. A priest can marry a princess however a prince cannot marry a priest girl. There are different steps to follow when celebrating a marriage in the Soninke society. If a girl pleases a man he has to send his parents in order to convince the girl family to give their daughter to their son in marriage. If both families agreed they do what is called “I na tamma laga” the engagement. They do it in the mosque. After this step every month the fiancé give to his family in law his “Nakhafa” the contribution of the fiancé to his future wife’s family for their foods and others spending. Every tabaski or other holidays, he has also give meat to his family in law. This is not mandatory if he does not have the means to do it. If both families agreed that it is time for the two new couples to live together they do what is called “futtu” the definitive accord of marriage. They usually do it a Thursday afternoon they send the girl to her husband’s house. In that occasion the friends of the new couples come to spend the day with them in separate rooms in their parent’s house. This event is the “karikompe”. The new married couple has advisors. The boy’s advisor is the “Khoussoumanta-yougo” and the girl’s advisor is the “khoussoumanta-yakhare”. After one week of celebration the women meet to show the gifts that the couple received from their parents mostly from the girl’s mother.
Circumcision the “Birou”
Mamadou Soumare an author said “Above its traditional surgery, the ritual of circumcision makes in evidence, the physical endurance, the pain, the courage, in one word the personality of the child.” Festivities are organized during many weeks starting from the date of circumcision has been chosen by the notables of the village. In order to prepare them psychologically the elder who had been circumcised the year before organized every afternoon “tam-tams” for the new one. Throughout the ceremony they place the “tambour” called “daïné” in the middle the young who are going to be circumcised sit around, and the others teenagers of the village, young girls, women, men and slaves form a circle. During this time the boys surrounded with beautiful scarves “disa” sing for them.
The Soninke have a variety of cuisine. As an example, breakfast foods include “fonde”, porrage made of millet, sugar, milk, and salt, and “Sombi” porrage made of rice, millet or corn. For lunch “demba tere” and “takhaya” are very common, both containing rice and peanuts, frequent Soninke ingredients. "Dere”, a stew, is a mixture of millet and beans.
The Soninke traditionally engage in both with trade and agriculture. During the rainy season men and women both cultivate. However women usually stay at home to cook and take care of their children. They also do others works as dyeing cotton material. The dark blue indigo is considered a typical Soninke color. The Soninke attained a high good level of living. Emigration took a huge place in their life. Most of the time women, children and old stay at home alone when the young men go to neighbor cities to find money. From the 1960s until recent years, the majority of West African immigrants in France from this ethnic group.the soninke are still now the back bone of countries like the Gambia, senegal and mali. this throug all history they have been trader in gold, salt and even diamonds.
From their heritage of the ancient Ghana the Soninke maintained Islam as their religion. They are one of the first West African ethnic groups to convert into Islam.
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