Songhai people

The Songhai people (also Ayneha, Songhay or Sonrai) are an ethnolinguistic 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. Predominantly a Muslim community, the Songhai are found primarily throughout Niger and Mali in the Western sudanic region (not the country). The name Songhai was historically neither an ethnic nor linguistic designation, but a name for the ruling caste of the Songhay Empire which are the Songhai proper found predominantly in present-Niger.[4] However, the correct term used to refer to this group of people collectively by the natives is "Ayneha".[5][6] Although some Speakers in Mali have also adopted the name Songhay as an ethnic designation,[7] other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves by other ethnic terms such as Zarma (or Djerma, the largest subgroup) or Isawaghen. The dialect of Koyraboro Senni spoken in Gao is unintelligible to speakers of the Zarma dialect of Niger, according to at least one report.[8] 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.[9]

Songhai man near Timbuktu, Mali 2012.jpg
A man of the Songhai people from Mali, in 2012.
Total population
c. 8.4 million
Regions with significant populations
West Africa
 Niger5,106,423 (21.2%)[1]
 Mali1,984,114 (5.9%)[2]
 Benin406,000 (2.9%)[3]
Songhay languages, French
Predominantly Muslim
Related ethnic groups
Djerma, other Nilo-Saharan groups,
Mandé, Soninke, Fula (in Niger and Mali),
Hausa, Toubou, Kanuri (in Nigeria and Niger).


Formerly one of the peoples subjected by the Mali Empire, the Songhai were able to reassert their control of the area around Gao after the weakening of the Mali Empire, founding the Songhai Empire which came to encompass much of the former Malian territories, including Timbuktu, famous for its Islamic universities, and the pivotal trading city of Djenné, and extending their rule over a territory that surpassed the former Mali and Ghana empires. Among Songhai'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 the 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.[10]

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, proceeding to conquer much of the region after the Battle of Tondibi.


Percentage of Songhay people distribution in all major countries combined

  Niger (77.2%)
  Mali (18.3%)
  Benin (4.5%)





Society and cultureEdit

A Gorom-Gorom market selling Songhai pottery.

The language, society and culture of the Songhai people is barely distinguishable from the Zarma people.[11] Some scholars consider the Zarma people to be a part of and the largest ethnic sub-group of the Songhai.[12] Some study the group together as Zarma-Songhai people.[13][14] However, both groups see themselves as two different peoples.[11]

Social stratificationEdit

The Songhai people have traditionally been a socially stratified society, like many West African ethnic groups with castes.[15][16] According to the medieval and colonial-era descriptions, their vocation is hereditary, and each stratified group has been endogamous.[17] The social stratification has been unusual in two ways; it embedded slavery, wherein the lowest strata of the population inherited slavery, and the Zima, or priests and Islamic clerics, had to be initiated but did not automatically inherit that profession, making the cleric strata a pseudo-caste.[11]

Louis Dumont, the 20th-century author famous for his classic Homo Hierarchicus, recognized the social stratification among Zarma-Songhai people as well as other ethnic groups in West Africa, but suggested that sociologists should invent a new term for West African social stratification system.[18] Other scholars consider this a bias and isolationist because the West African system shares all elements in Dumont's system, including economic, endogamous, ritual, religious, deemed polluting, segregative and spread over a large region.[18][19][20] According to Anne Haour – a professor of African Studies, some scholars consider the historic caste-like social stratification in Zarma-Songhay people to be a pre-Islam feature while some consider it derived from the Arab influence.[18]

The different strata of the Songhai-Zarma people have included the kings and warriors, the scribes, the artisans, the weavers, the hunters, the fishermen, the leather workers and hairdressers (Wanzam), and the domestic slaves (Horso, Bannye). Each caste reveres its own guardian spirit.[15][18] Some scholars such as John Shoup list these strata in three categories: free (chiefs, farmers, and herders), servile (artists, musicians and griots), and the slave class.[21] The servile group was socially required to be endogamous, while the slaves could be emancipated over four generations. The highest social level, states Shoup, claim to have descended from King Sonni 'Ali Ber and their modern era hereditary occupation has been Sohance (sorcerer). Considered as being the true Songhai,[4] the Sohance, also known as Si Hamey are found primarily in The Songhai in the Tillabery Region of Niger, whereas, at the top Social level in Gao, the old seat of the Songhai Empire and much of Mali, one finds the Arma who are the descendants of the Moroccan invaders married to Songhai women.[22] The traditionally free strata of the Songhai people have owned property and herds, and these have dominated the political system and governments during and after the French colonial rule.[21] Within the stratified social system, the Islamic system of polygynous marriages is a norm, with preferred partners being cross cousins.[23][24] This endogamy within Songhai-Zarma people is similar to other ethnic groups in West Africa.[25]


The Songhai people cultivate cereals and raise small herds of cattle and fish in the Niger Bend area where they live.[23] They have traditionally been one of the key West African ethnic groups associated with caravan trade.[23]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Africa: Niger - The World Factbook - Central Intelligence Agency". 27 April 2021. Retrieved 1 May 2021.
  2. ^ "Africa: Mali - The World Factbook - Central Intelligence Agency". 27 April 2021. Retrieved 1 May 2021.
  3. ^émographiques%20et%20économiques%20RGPH-4.pdf[bare URL PDF]
  4. ^ a b Stoller, Paul (1992), The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch, p. 59 "In this way the true Songhay, after the seventeenth century,is no longer the one of Timbuktu or Gao, but the one farther south near the Anzourou, the Gorouol, on the islands of the river surrounded by rapids" (Rouch 1953, 224), ISBN 9780226775487, retrieved 4 June 2021
  5. ^ Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts: LLBA., Volume 33, Issue 3, 1999, retrieved 14 May 2021
  6. ^ Etudes de lettres, Faculté des lettres de l'Université de Lausanne, 2002, retrieved 14 May 2021
  7. ^ Heath, Jeffrey. 1999. A grammar of Koyraboro (Koroboro) Senni: the Songhay of Gao. Köln: Köppe. 402 pp
  8. ^ "Niger". Ethnologue. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  9. ^ Dimmendaal, Gerrit. 2008. Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent. Language and Linguistics Compass 2(5): 843ff.
  10. ^ "The Story of Africa- BBC World Service". Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  11. ^ a b c Abdourahmane Idrissa; Samuel Decalo (2012). Historical Dictionary of Niger. Scarecrow Press. pp. 474–476. ISBN 978-0-8108-7090-1.
  12. ^ Songhai people, Encyclopædia Britannica
  13. ^ Don Rubin (1997). The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Africa. Taylor & Francis. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-415-05931-2.
  14. ^ Boubou Hama (1967). L'Histoire traditionnelle d'un peuple: les Zarma-Songhay (in French). Paris: Présence Africaine. ISBN 978-2850695513.
  15. ^ a b Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (1984). Les sociétés Songhay-Zarma (Niger-Mali): chefs, guerriers, esclaves, paysans. Paris: Karthala. pp. 56–57. ISBN 978-2-86537-106-8.
  16. ^ Tal Tamari (1991). "The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa". The Journal of African History. Cambridge University Press. 32 (2): 221–250. doi:10.1017/s0021853700025718. JSTOR 182616., Quote: "[Castes] are found among the Soninke, the various Manding-speaking populations, the Wolof, Tukulor, Senufo, Minianka, Dogon, Songhay, and most Fulani, Moorish and Tuareg populations".
  17. ^ I. Diawara (1988), Cultures nigériennes et éducation: Domaine Zarma-Songhay et Hausa, Présence Africaine, Nouvelle série, number 148 (4e TRIMESTRE 1988), pages 9-19 (in French)
  18. ^ a b c d Anne Haour (2013). Outsiders and Strangers: An Archaeology of Liminality in West Africa. Oxford University Press. pp. 95–97, 100–101, 90–114. ISBN 978-0-19-969774-8.
  19. ^ Declan Quigley (2005). The character of kingship. Berg. pp. 20, 49–50, 115–117, 121–134. ISBN 978-1-84520-290-3.
  20. ^ Bruce S. Hall (2011). A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960. Cambridge University Press. pp. 15–18, 71–73, 245–248. ISBN 978-1-139-49908-8.
  21. ^ a b John A. Shoup (2011). Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 265–266. ISBN 978-1-59884-362-0.
  22. ^ An Introduction to the Zarma Language (PDF), Peace Corps/Niger, 2006, p. 3, retrieved 22 December 2021
  23. ^ a b c Songhai people Encyclopædia Britannica
  24. ^ Bonnie G. Smith (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford University Press. pp. 503–504. ISBN 978-0-19-514890-9.
  25. ^ Tal Tamari (1998), Les castes de l'Afrique occidentale: Artisans et musiciens endogames, Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie, ISBN 978-2901161509 (in French)