Introduction / History The Songhai are located in the southern and eastern sections of Mali, mainly inhabiting the lush river plains from east of Lake Debo to the border of Niger. Other Songhai live in the desert, with little water and sparse vegetation. There are also sizable communities in Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, and Nigeria.
The Songhai are known by various names. The Sorko are fishermen in hamlets along the rivers. The Fono live in the upper lake area, and the Gow are hunters in the high grass stretches of the savanna. A caste of magicians goes proudly by the name of Sohanti.
The Songhai trace their origins to the eighth century kingdom of Za. Islam was embraced as early as 1010, but it was mixed with their original beliefs in spirits of the river, soil, and wild game. The Za dynasty endured to the end of the sixteenth century, when it was conquered by the Sultan of Morocco.
What are their lives like? Songhai settlements usually consist of round, mud or thatched dwellings with straw roofs. An increasing number of rectangular mud-brick houses with corrugated-tin roofs can be seen. Villages along the Niger River contain many rice fields and garden plots. Villages farther from the river are surrounded by bush areas and cultivated fields. Cowpeas, groundnuts, and manioc are the usual crops, but millet is grown from June to September during the brief rainy season. Farming the fields is considered noble labor and is for men only. The women have gardens in which they grow mangoes, guavas, citrus fruits, papayas, dates, and bananas during the hot, dry season. They also cultivate carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, and various types of squash. Most of the garden work is done by family members. In addition to farming, the Songhai also raise some livestock.
The village community is patrilineal; that is, all the men have a common male ancestor. Among Songhai nobles, firstborn sons are pressured to marry their paternal uncle's daughter, in order to maintain the purity of the lineage. Men marry in their late twenties; whereas, girls marry in their early teens. Whether the marriage bond lasts or not, children belong to the husband's lineage group. Although the Songhai value the Islamic right to have up to four wives, the majority of men have only one, primarily for economic reasons. When there is more than one wife, each lives in her own separate dwelling within the household's compound.
What are their beliefs? The Songhai are almost all Sunni Muslim. Even though Islam introduced new elements to the Songhai culture, it left the underlying framework of custom and tradition virtually untouched. Islam is superficially important to them, as evidenced in the fact that every town has a mosque, or at least a Friday mosque. Some communities have imams, who teach Islamic philosophy, and Muslim ceremonial activities are frequently practiced. Spirit possession, magic, sorcery, ancestor worship, and witchcraft, however, remain the vital components of Songhai belief. Most of the villages have possession troops, magician-healers, and witches. Ceremonies of spirit possession occur at least once a week in some places. The most important of these are the genji bi hori (a festival in which the Songhai make offerings to the "black spirits" believed to control pestilence) and the yenaandi (rain dance). Both of these ceremonies are held in the dry season. Marabouts (Islamic clerics) lead community prayers but are also used in healing the sick.
What are their needs? Generally, the Songhai live simple but adequate lives, except in times of drought. Unfortunately, these occur regularly and have left many children as orphans in refugee camps along the Niger. Malnutrition is a problem for many.
A majority of the Songhai have never heard a clear presentation of the Gospel. Christian workers who can share the love of Jesus in practical ways are urgently needed to reach the Songhai.
Prayer Points * Ask the Lord to send Christian agricultural workers, educators, and doctors to minister to the Songhai of Mali.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom to missions agencies focusing on the Songhai.
* Ask the Lord to save key leaders among the Songhai who will boldly proclaim the Gospel.
* Pray that God will strengthen, embolden, and protect Songhai believers.
* Ask God to raise up intercessors who will stand in the gap for the Songhai.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a vigorous Songhai church for the glory of His name!