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The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa
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The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa

by Patricia McKissack

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For more than a thousand years, from A.D. 500 to 1700, the medieval kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay grew rich on the gold, salt, and slave trade that stretched across Africa. Scraping away hundreds of years of ignorance, prejudice, and mythology, award-winnnig authors Patricia and Fredrick McKissack reveal the glory of these forgotten empires while inviting us


For more than a thousand years, from A.D. 500 to 1700, the medieval kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay grew rich on the gold, salt, and slave trade that stretched across Africa. Scraping away hundreds of years of ignorance, prejudice, and mythology, award-winnnig authors Patricia and Fredrick McKissack reveal the glory of these forgotten empires while inviting us to share in the inspiring process of historical recovery that is taking place today.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An ambitious introductory survey. . . . This will be extremely useful as a springboard to books and articles that offer more depth but are less accessible to students.” —Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

“The history of medieval Africa, long ignored and distorted, is here given full attention. The McKissacks are careful to distinguish what is known from what is surmised; they draw on the oral tradition, eyewitness accounts, and contemporary scholarship; and chapter source notes discuss various conflicting views of events.” —Booklist

“Here is an introduction to the medieval history of West Africa, where the great trading cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Jenne (now Djenné) were located, from roughly A.D. 500 to 1700. The text is helpfully illustrated with both modern and historical maps and documents.” —The New York Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The McKissacks ( Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman? ) continue to illuminate aspects of African American heritage with this introduction to three major kingdoms of medieval Africa: Ghana, Mali and Songhay. Based on folklore, contemporaneous accounts and modern scholarly research, their discussion covers the origins, customs, people and political history of these civilizations, which flourished from approximately A.D. 500 to 1700 but which until recently have been neglected by historians. Because much of the available information about medieval Africa is sketchy at best, the narrative is sometimes confusing, especially when the authors combine divergent theories or rely on myth and legend to fill holes in the historical record. Still, their volume contains insightful information about an important period in both African and world history and explores such complicated issues as African involvement in the slave trade and the role of religion in establishing, shaping and destroying bygone kingdoms. A timeline, notes and extensive bibliography encourage further reading. Ages 10-14. (Jan.)
School Library Journal
Gr 5-7-The McKissacks describe the West African civilizations that flourished between the years 700 C.E. to 1700 C.E. A chronological account is given of each successive kingdom, and there is also substantial information about the social history of Mali and Songhay, e.g., education, the treatment of women, religion, and arts and crafts. The relationship between Islam and politics, and the interplay between traditional and Islamic customs in Mali and Songhay are highlighted. The authors have attempted something unique with their inclusion of indigenous and contemporaneous historical accounts (by such historians as Leo Africanus and Ibn Battuta), as well as in their substantial use of oral history. While this makes for an interesting perspective, it prevents the line between history and mythology from being clearly drawn. For example, in the story of Sundiata, visits from a powerful king in the magical form of an owl are not distinguished from the factual dates that Sundiata ruled Mali. This might limit the usefulness of the book to situations in which adults are able to help students think critically about the text. Adequate but uninspired photographs of ancient artifacts and modern people with traditional life styles illustrate the text. Unfortunately, the maps do not make clear the geographical relationships among the three kingdoms (they existed at different times, and in each case the territory of the earlier kingdom was wholly or partly subsumed under the later kingdom). The helpful notes discuss the validity of certain bibliographical sources. The informative time line links events in Africa to those in other parts of the world, and the bibliography is impressive. In spite of its limitations, this title will be an important addition to most collections.-Susan Giffard, Midtown Ethical Culture School, New York City

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The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay

Life in Medieval Africa

By Patricia McKissack, Fredrick McKissack

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1994 Patricia and Fredrick McKissack
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-11351-1


The Origin of Ghana

The first of the great Western Sudanese empires to emerge was Ghana, peopled by a Mande-speaking group called the Soninke or Sarakulle.

The oldest account of Ghana's origin is contained in the Soninke's oral tradition.

Soninke oral history, like that of most African cultures, has been passed from one generation to another by bards, or griots (GREE-ohs). For centuries the griots have combined history, music, poetry, dance, and drama to entertain and teach their audiences. They can be compared with the ancient Greek bards, like Homer, who were fascinating storytellers but so much more. Before the Soninke had a written language, the griots were the historians, the keepers of memories. Every village had a griot, and so did every clan. The royal family and other important families sometimes hired a personal griot to record their actions. Griots kept mental records of all memorable events — feasts and ceremonies, royal coronations, births, deaths, marriages, victories, and defeats. Some of their presentations were as long and artful as The Iliad and The Odyssey.

According to legend, Gassire was the first griot from whom all other Soninke griots are descended. He invented the pui, which is a poem about a hero, also called a praise-song.

One of the first stories a Soninke griot learns is the pui of Gassire. The story tells of a guinea hen who laid several large and beautiful eggs. While she was away, a fat snake came and ate her eggs. The hen was so angry, she declared war on the snake. To bolster her courage, she sang a song about what she was going to do. The hen defeated the snake, then flew to a tree to sing about her deeds. People say that Gassire heard the hen's victory song and learned it.

Historians believe this pui is a mythological retelling of Ghana's origin. The hen represents the early Soninke people who overthrew an enemy who was more powerful.

In more modern times, some of the Soninke oral histories have been written down. One collection of stories that dates back to the founding of Ghana is called The Dausi. It describes the rise and fall of four Soninke kingdoms known collectively as Wagadu.


Ghana, which means "warrior-king," was one of the many titles of the Soninke rulers. Over time, outsiders began to refer to the king and the land as Ghana. Before that, the Soninke called their homeland Wagadu, which means "place of herds."

The Dausi describes the four great city-states of Wagadu. Dierra was the first and strongest to emerge. Agada was the second. Ghana was the third and most well known, and the fourth was Silla, a city-state on the west bend of the Senegal River, upstream of Tarkur, about in the location of present-day Bakel.

Here is an excerpt from The Dausi:

Four times
Wagadu rose.
A great city, gleaming in the light of day.
Four times
Wagadu fell
and disappeared from human sight.
Once through vanity.
Once through dishonesty.
Once through greed.
Once through discord.
Four times
Wagadu changed her name.
First she was Dierra,
then Agada,
then Ghana,
then Silla.

The story about the first ruler of Wagadu is also contained in The Dausi. His name was Dinga, the first of the Ghanas.

Dinga's Pui from The Dausi

Dinga was, by all accounts, a ruler of impeccable character. He won many battles and rid the land of goblins. After Dinga slew the powerful goblin leader, he married the goblin's three lovely daughters and fathered many children. All the different Soninke clans — the Sisse, Kante, Sylla, and others — trace their ancestry to Dinga's sons and daughters.

Dinga's rule was long and prosperous, but as he grew older the king became obsessed with who would succeed him. He adored all of his children, but his eldest son, Khine, was his favorite. Dinga wanted his power to pass to Khine, but it was not Dinga's right to choose. The Soninke at this time were most probably a matrilineal society. If so, the line of sucession would have passed through the king's sister.

Perhaps Khine was not wise, or maybe family rivalry led to a household conspiracy against Dinga. With the help of his relatives in the Sisse clan, another son, named Dyabe, outsmarted his brother and won his father's royal blessing, the same way Jacob tricked his brother Esau in the Old Testament story.

Dyabe's Pui from The Dausi

When old Dinga died, Khine raised an army to overthrow his brother. Dyabe fled and took refuge in the bush. One morning he woke to find a drum beside him. Realizing it was magical, he told the drum what to say and the drum responded by sending a message that was carried by the winds. Within days, troops from the four directions answered his call. Dyabe promised to make the four commanders of these troops fados (governors) of the kingdom's four provinces in exchange for their loyalty.

Dyabe's army marched to the capital city, defeating Khine's troops every step of the way. But the royal city held fast. Khine's warriors fought on. Dyabe had no choice but to retreat. His demoralized army camped in a grove of thick and tangled thornbushes.

That same night Dyabe was confronted by a large, seven-headed snake that identified itself as Wagadu-Bida, a god, which said it would help Dyabe win the battle in exchange for a promise. Anxious to win, Dyabe swore an oath without first knowing what he was promising to do. (Some accounts say he knew the terms before swearing.)

Dyabe was sickened when the snake asked that virgins be sacrificed to it every year to commemorate the victory. But he had given his promise; there was no way out of his bargain. With the help of the snake-god, Dyabe won the battle. He was given the title Kaya Magha, or "king of gold," because he ruled over a vast and gold-rich kingdom, protected by an invisible barrier that kept out invaders.

As promised, Dyabe and his people prospered. He organized the kingdom according to a caste system. The nobility were ranked at the top. At the bottom of the social order were slaves. The royal clan was the Sisse. The Drame, Kante, and Sylla clans provided the kingdom's artisans: metalworkers, blacksmiths, and gold- and silversmiths, as well as its griots, farmers, fishermen, herders, leatherworkers, and soldiers.

But the story doesn't end with Dyabe. Just as he had promised, Dyabe sacrificed a young maiden to Wagadu-Bida the Snake-god every year in exchange for continued peace and prosperity. After Dyabe died, each successor to the throne swore allegiance to Bida to ensure continued protection.

Then there came a time when a lovely young girl named Sia was chosen to be sacrificed. She was engaged to a mighty warrior named Amadou the Taciturn, or "He who does not say much." The young warrior could not stand to lose his beloved Sia, so he took action. First Amadou forced one of the priests of Bida to tell him how to kill the snake. Bida's seven heads had to be chopped off. The priest was confident that even though Amadou knew how to kill the Snake-god, he wouldn't stay alive long enough to accomplish the feat. Bida was old and powerful, but Amadou was sure he would win. After all, he had love on his side.

When the sun set, Amadou went to the sacred grove where Bida lived and hid behind a screen made of greenery. He waited for hours. At last, the procession arrived. Sia marched bravely before them. They tied her to a tree, then everyone hurried away.

Amadou waited until the snake raised one of its hideous heads. Rushing forward, the warrior lopped it off. The creature's head sailed high into the air and landed in Wangara. He had six more heads left. Amadou chopped another off. The snake coiled around the warrior's chest and was crushing the life out of him. Amadou freed himself and whacked off another head.

The creature's poisonous breath weakened Amadou, but he held his ground. Just as Bida's seventh head was severed, it hissed a terrible curse: For seven years, seven months, and seven days, Ghana will receive neither rains of water nor rains of gold. The terrible serpent died and, in time, so did Ghana. Since it was no longer protected, the Wagadu known to all as Ghana fell into decline and was finally overrun by invaders. The griot's tale ends here.

The Soninke's origin myth has given researchers a point from which to begin looking for old Ghana's roots. Ghana's early history is still sketchy, but as archeologists continue to explore the Sahel, more and more evidence is uncovered, sometimes supporting the oral tradition, at other times disproving it. Slowly a new story is emerging, which is just as exciting and full of surprises.

The Berbers

Modern historians believe Ghana began to rise as a commercial power as early as A.D. 300. One reason they pick this date is because coins struck in North Africa at that time have been found in the Western Sudan. Around this period, too, routes for camel caravans linking North Africa and the Western Sudan began to be established. The Soninke, who were well-organized, settled farmers, and the nomadic Berbers, who ran the caravans across the desert, lived in a kind of armed peace. When there were good rains and the Soninke farmers had good crops, they became stronger and advanced to take over cities that were formerly outside of their territory. When the Berber forces had a temporary advantage, they would raid into Ghana.

Warring clans often settled disputes or sealed treaties by uniting their ruling families through marriage and forming a new clan. Did the Mande-speakers view the Berbers as "goblins" when they ruled parts of their land? When they then defeated the Berbers, did a Mande king marry several of a Berber chief's daughters and establish a new royal clan? Certainly this is one way to read the pui of Dinga in the light of history.

Oral Accounts, Early Written Histories, and Modern Archeology

The first scholars to write about Ghana never visited it personally. Al-Bakri, an eleventh-century Moorish nobleman who lived in Cordova, Spain — then controlled by Islamic Moors — was curious about the people and customs below the Sahara. Later, he became an authority on a place he had only visited through the eyes of others. He spent a lifetime compiling records, documents, and interviews with hundreds of people who had visited the Western Sudan. Unfortunately, only two of his geographical works survive, and even his most well-known work, The Book of Routes and Kingdoms, is incomplete.

For many years al-Bakri's works were the most complete texts we had on old Ghana. Some archeologists are now searching to confirm, or challenge, what we have learned from al-Bakri. We have indicated when we are following al-Bakri and what questions his works raise.

According to al-Bakri, there was a cave located among some trees outside the king's city of al-Ghaba, which means "sacred grove." The cave was guarded night and day. Visitors had freedom to go everywhere except there, and any intruder was dealt with severely. Was this the place where generations of Ghanaian kings worshiped Wagadu-Bida? Did they believe the cave was the "pit" where the Snake-god lived? And did they, according to Dyabe's oath, order young women to be sacrificed every year in exchange for wealth and peace?

At one time human sacrifice was practiced among the Berbers, but despite intriguing leads, archeologists have not found conclusive proof that it was practiced among the Soninke or at al-Ghaba.

Al-Bakri stated that Ghana's kings went to the groves two times in their lives: once during their coronations and again when they were buried. What went on during the king's coronation was a secret that died when the old religion ended. Thanks to al-Bakri we have a more elaborate description of what happened to a king after he died.

According to his account, Ghana's kings were laid to rest in a thicket outside the city. A wooden dome was made and placed over the burial spot. The king, resting on a bed, was put under the dome. The priests placed all his personal things around him, because, like the Egyptians, they believed he would need these things in his afterlife. His first wife — either alive or dead from suicide — was placed inside, as were his servants, who were sent to accompany their king to the afterlife. The tomb was sealed and covered with layer upon layer of dirt, building a mound.

Perhaps the cave at al-Ghaba was a holding place for offenders who were awaiting execution. Or, could the sacred grove have been a prison? Some contemporary researchers have raised these possibilities, but as yet there is not a lot of physical evidence to support either idea.

Wagadu-Bida cursed Ghana when it died, saying no rain would fall. If the myth is interpreted as a metaphor, the snake could have been a river, whose origin was located in the grove outside al-Ghaba. When drought came, the river dried up and died, and without a water supply, the semi-arid kingdom of Ghana died, too. Perhaps this is the story behind the legend.

These and other speculations are what keep researchers looking for answers. As of now there is no conclusive archeological evidence of where al-Ghaba was located. Once that is determined, we will be able to test al-Bakri's history.

* * *

As the Soninke grew stronger, the Ghanaian kings expanded their empire to include parts of the modern-day countries of Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, and Senegal.

At the same time Ghana was rising to power in the Western Sudan, Islam, a new religion, was spreading across Arabia. Islam would become as important to Africa as Christianity was to Europe. The new religion spread into North Africa and into Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries. It changed people's views of life, brought new knowledge, and expanded the trade network that had existed since the first millennium.

The Coming of Islam

La ilaha illa Allah; Muhammad rasul Allah.
There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.

In A.D. 610–11, a man named Muhammad had a revelation that led to the formation of one of the world's great religions: Islam, which means "submission."

He went to Mecca, where he spread the message of God and wrote the Koran as it was revealed to him. Unlike the Christian Bible or the Jewish Torah, which were written by different people during various historical periods, the Koran — the sacred scriptures of Islam — was written by Muhammad during the twenty-two years of his prophethood.

During his life Muhammad taught that Allah was the one and only God of all the universe; all believers — known as Muslims — were equal before God, and the rich had to share their wealth with the poor, for on the final judgment day, all people would be judged equally before God. Human destiny was in God's hands and everything was predetermined by Allah. Neither men nor women could escape their fates.

Those teachings have been expressed in the five "pillars," or obligations, of Islam — prayer; the giving of alms; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of the Muslims; and the most important one, faith. Any person choosing to be a Muslim has only to repeat these words in front of another Muslim: "I testify that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet." Recited in Arabic, this phrase is called the shahada and it sounds like a song, so much so that in times of joy or sadness it is very often chanted by believers.

The Muslims have always believed it is their duty to take Islam into every part of the world. The new religion grew quickly through jihads(holy wars), trade, and cultural exchange. North Africa — Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco — was taken by Arabian conquests between 639 and 708. For centuries North Africa had been the battlefield of conflicting ideas. Now North Africa was a political, economic, and military stronghold, unifying, for the first time, people who had long been divided. Eventually Arabic would be the common language of ninety million people, and Islam would be practiced in such varied places as Spain, Persia, Turkey, Egypt, East and West Africa, and India.

Interest in the Western Sudan grew when the sultans of Arabia heard traders' stories about the gold-rich country south of the Sahara. The Arabs wanted very much to add West Africa's wealth to the ever-expanding Arab-Islamic empire, as well as to add believers to the Islamic world. But to launch a jihad against Ghana would not have been practical. Ghana was too far away and protected by an enormous desert.

Over time, though, Islam reached Ghana anyway. This happened in the same way as missionaries, fur trappers, and traders spread across the American west, bringing a new religion and a new economy with them.

Islam has no organized priesthood, but educated religious teachers and professionals were and are important and powerful people. As a group they are called the ulama (the learned), and their opinions still play a large role in places where Islam is practiced.


Excerpted from The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay by Patricia McKissack, Fredrick McKissack. Copyright © 1994 Patricia and Fredrick McKissack. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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