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Mon, 08.18.1000

The Songhai People of Africa, a story

*The Songhai people are celebrated on this date in 1000. They are an African ethnolinguistic society in West Africa that speaks various Songhai languages. Their history and lingua franca is linked to the Songhai Empire, which dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries. Predominantly a Muslim community, the Songhai are found primarily throughout Niger and Mali in the Western Sudanic region. The name Songhai was historically neither an ethnic nor linguistic designation. Still, a name for the ruling caste of the Songhay Empire, which is the Songhai proper, found predominantly in present Niger. 

However, the correct term used to refer to this group of people collectively by the natives is “Ayneha.”  Although some Speakers in Mali have also adopted the name Songhay as an ethnic designation, other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves as Zarma (or Djerma, the largest subgroup) Isawaghen. According to at least one report, the dialect of Koyraboro Senni spoken in Gao is unintelligible to speakers of the Zarma dialect of Niger. The Songhay languages are commonly considered Nilo-Saharan, but this classification remains controversial: Dimmendaal (2008) believes it is best considered an independent language family for now.

Formerly one of the communities subjected to the Mali Empire, the Songhai could reassert their control of the area around Gao. This was followed by the founding of 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 mostly of fishers and traders.

Following Sonni Ali’s death, Muslim factions rebelled against his successor. They installed the Soninke general, Askia Muhammad (formerly Muhammad Toure), 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 it would be a good asset, conquering much of the region after the Battle of Tondibi.

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