Introduction / History The Songhai of Nigeria are located in the western region of the country, mainly inhabiting the lush river plains along the Niger River. Others live in the desert, where there is little water and sparse vegetation. Sizable Songhai communities can also be found in the nearby countries of Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, and Mali.
The Songhai are known by various names. The Sorko are fishermen who live in small settlements 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 origin 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. Today, an increasing number of villagers live in rectangular mud brick houses with corrugated tin roofs. Songhai settlements 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. The farmers also raise some livestock.
Farming is considered noble labor among the Songhai 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. Many of the Songhai have now become merchants, selling cloth and other items.
The village community is patrilineal; that is, all the men have a common male ancestor. Among the Songhai nobles, firstborn sons are pressured to marry their paternal uncle's daughter in order to maintain the purity of the lineage. Men marry while they are in their late twenties; whereas, girls marry while in their early teens. Whether the marriage lasts or not, all of the children belong to the husband's lineage group. Although the Islamic law allows a man to have up to four wives, most of the Songhai men have only one, due to economic reasons. When there is more than one wife, each lives in her own separate dwelling within the extended family compound.
What are their beliefs? The Songhai are almost all Sunni (orthodox) Muslim of the Malikite branch. 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, as evidenced in the fact that every town has a mosque, or at least a Friday mosque. Some communities have imams (religious leaders) 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. In some places, ceremonies of spirit possession occur at least once a week. The most important ceremonies 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 are held in the dry season. Marabouts (Islamic holy men) 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, leaving many children as orphans. Malnutrition is also a problem for many of them.
A majority of the Songhai have not heard a clear presentation of the Gospel. Additional laborers and evangelistic materials are needed to see the Songhai reached for Christ.
Prayer Points * Ask the Lord to send Christian agricultural workers, educators, and doctors to minister to the physical needs of the Songhai.
* Ask the Lord to save key leaders among the Songhai who will boldly proclaim the Gospel.
* Pray that God will strengthen, encourage, and protect Songhai believers.
* Ask God to raise up intercessors who will faithfully stand in the gap for the Songhai.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a strong and growing Songhai church for the glory of His name!