An Annotated & Illustrated Collection of Worldwide Links to Mythologies,
Fairy Tales & Folklore, Sacred Arts & Sacred Traditions
by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.



of Benin, Burkina Faso,
Mali, Niger, &Nigeria

From the Joshua Project
[see below]
This is a Profile Report on the Songhay from the Joshua Project (a Christian organization).  Here are useful demographics and a fragment of history:
Of the 1.5 million Songhai in central West Africa, over 500,000 live in the Republic of Niger. They are located in the westernmost provinces, mainly inhabiting the lush river plains along the Niger River. Others live farther from the river in the desert areas, where there is little water and sparse vegetation.  Sizable Songhai communities can also be found in the nearby countries of Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, 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....


Songhay by Tunde Adeleke
I have been trying for days to get through to this educational site but the server is always down.  Google cached it 7 weeks ago on 7/15/05, so I'm using that link instead.  Unfortunately, it provides no images and thus no map of Gao appears (I am including Google's thumbnail of it--also see below for a better map).  Since this is page 1 of 4, one also can't get the other 3.  The site looks promising however (it also offers a section on the Hausa), and I'm hoping it soon re-appears.  In the meantime, I am quoting the opening page in full:
[Update: 25 July 2006: all four pages of this fine site are now working so I have deleted the Google link.]
....Controversial Origins (ca. 1000-1450)

Early Songhay provides us with a striking example of the complexities involved in trying to interpret pre-modern west African sources correctly. Written sources were seldom produced soon after the events which they purport to record occurred. Typically in west Africa (and in many ancient and medieval world cultures, for that matter), several centuries of oral transmission might pass before descriptions found their way onto the written page. Songhay is no exception in this regard. Only the following can be derived with certainty from the sources dealing with Songhay: that the Songhay people were not indigenous to the eastern Niger bend, but arrived there from an original home base to the south or the east; that Gao would be their most important city; that they valued kingship as a political structure; and that in time they were influenced by the coming of Islam to the western Sudan.
[Update: 25 July 2006: link is now broken but I'm keeping the annotation]
This is another cached site from Google dating from 8/26/05.  It comes from H-NET, an excellent service from Michigan State University, but the page now comes through as a "404" with no forwarding address.  Since I have no time to fuss with this, I'll keep the cached link.

This is a review of a 1998 book for younger readers: David Conrad,'s The Songhay Empire. African Civilizations. A First Book.  It only has 64 pages and is rated for grades 4-7 (Ages 9-12).  The reviewer is Paul H. Thomas, Hoover Institution Library, Stanford University.  He opens with this fine historical summary:

This book is one of a series written for children in elementary and perhaps early middle school that deals with kingdoms and states in pre-colonial Africa. This particular volume deals with the Songhay empire that existed from the 1300s to its fall in 1591. It stretched, at its zenith, across the West African Sudan, from what is now northeastern Nigeria, along the Niger River to the Futa Jallon highlands in what is now the country of Guinea. The growth of this 'empire' was primarily based on its position as middleman in the trans-Saharan trade between the peoples of the forest regions of sub-Saharan Africa that lay to its south and the states of North Africa and the Middle East to its north. In addition to the political power it wielded, it was known for the vast wealth it accumulated and as a center of learning and culture and for promoting the spread of Islam. In addition to the Songhay empire itself, there is also some introductory material on its precursor, the kingdom of Gao....
The reviewer finds that the book is too taken up with names, dates and places of endless battles although he admits that it is difficult to find a good balance with such material.  What I like about the review is that he offers a number of other choices for this age group, including Songhay by Tunde Adeleke (see thumbnail of bookcover above), which he praises.

Songhay Wedding Blanket
[Link updated 25 July 2006]
This is an excellent and fascinating page on "Imperial Africa" with a great opening map showing the various pre-Colonial kingdoms stretching from east to west.  Here is how it opens:
Imperial African States that we know about mostly developed along the Sahel ("Corridor") which was the major trade route between East and West Africa. The Sahel "shore" was seen as a "coastline" on the great expanse of the Sahara Desert. Crossing the Sahara was very much like navigating the oceans in that there were few permanent features that one could follow, and one's direction was generally determined by stellar navigation. Towns in the northern Sahel were, therefore, considered trading ports, just as a town on an ocean coast might have been.

Empires that developed in the southern interior of the continent are not as well documented, and while they very likely did develop, as in the case of Great Zimbabwe, almost nothing is known about them.

The author, Cheryl J. Mason-Middleton, then gives an individual section to each kingdom, including the Songhay, 1460-1600.  Especially interesting is the fluid Moslem context.  The passage is brief so I'm quoting it in full because it offers a great summary (and I never know when a fine page might suddenly disappear from the web!):
The Songhay people seem to have had their origins along the Niger River in the area of the settlement of Kooky. Early on, the Za Dynasty presided over the Songhay agricultural economy and eventually was replaced by the Sunni rulership as the fourteenth century came toward its close, Mali's control began to decay, and the Sunni, perceiving opportunity, occupied the northern Sahel trade port of Gao, just as the Tuareg were taking control of Timbuktu. This move gave Songhay a strategic advantage toward a westward expansion, as well as, bringing greater trading wealth and cultural exchange.

Songhay began to acquire territories formerly under the control of Mali. It was during the reign of Sunni Ali (1464-1492) that imperial expansion took its most dramatic form. During this time, Sunni Ali captured Timbuktu and brought the entire Niger country under Songhay control. His capture of Timbuktu and persecution of the Muslims there (who had supported the Twaregs) gave him a bloodthristy and savage image in the eyes of the Muslims, but generally, Ali maintained positive relations with Muslims in his captured territories. Upon his death, the throne was usurped by Muhammad Toure who founded the Askia Dynasty.

Muhammud expanded and stabilized Songhay, and sought to placate Muslim powers. Where Ali had only been nominally Muslim, and adhered most closely to Songhay traditions, Muhammud was devoutly Muslim, and retained Songhay traditions only to maintain his place on the throne. In 1528 he was deposed by his sons. Through a series of coups over the next sixty years, the final disintegration of the century and a half old Songhay Empire was assured.

Sunni Ali Ber (detail)
See directly below
This is a brief, but attractive biographical page on Sunni Ali Ber (1464-1492 AD), King of Songhay.  I'm quoting this in full:
When Sunni Ali Ber came to power, Songhay was a small kingdom in the western Sudan. But during his twenty-eight-year reign, it grew into the largest, most powerful empire in West Africa.

Sunni Ali Ber built a remarkable army and with this ferocious force, the warrior king won battle after battle. He routed marauding nomads, seized trade routes, took villages, and expanded his domain. He captured Timbuktu, bringing into the Songhay empire a major center of commerce, culture, and Moslem scholarship.
This is Thinkquest's page on "Saharan Trade: A Link Between Europe and Africa," for those who wish to explore the larger context of Songhay's role in trade.  It looks at how the gold-for-salt trade got started, who was involved, where (good maps are provided), and how Islam arrived via the carvan routes.  The data is basic but it gives a good sense of the scope and flow of those early times.  Here's the short passage on Songhay:
The Songhay Empire and Trans-Saharan Trade

When the Songhay people, under the leadership of Sunni Ali Kolon rose up to challenge the Mali Empire in the late 1400s, they understood the importance of controlling the trade centers of the Empire. The Songhay captured Timbuktu, a center of education and trade very well known outside of Western Africa, as well as Jenne, a beautiful city located in the backwaters of a tributary of the Niger River that was also a trade and learning center.

Gao, a city that had started to grow in importance during the Mali empire, continued to grow in population and in importance as a market center. In addition, the copper mining town of Takedda, located on the eastern trans-Saharan trading route, contributed to the Songhay empire's financial growth. Finally, during Sunni Ali's reign (late 1400s), trade along the eastern trans-Saharan route created during the Mali empire reached a peak.
From Global African Presence comes a somewhat more detailed look at Songhay's early history as a kingdom.  The page is entitled, "A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SONGHAI EMPIRE" by Juanda Honore.  Here are a few excerpts focusing on Sunni Ali as well as the role of scholarship, currently so sadly lacking in these areas:
...During the reign of Sunni Ali most of what was formerly the Ghanaian and Mali Empires were incorporated into the Songhai Empire.

Sunni Ali marched on Timbuktu and captured it along with its great University of Sankore, which had thousands of students from many parts of  the world.  During the waging of a seven year war Sunni Ali captured the great city of Jenne.  Sunni Ali would marry the queen of Jenne, Queen Dara, and they would reign together splendidly.  Sunni Ali eventually gained control over the entire middle Niger region.

Sunni Ali, in addition to restoring order to the Sudan (the Arabic expression for West Africa), was also a brilliant administrator.  He divided the Songhai Empire into separate provinces and placed each province under the control of its own governor.  Much to his credit Sunni Ali developed new methods of farming and created for Songhai a professional navy.  Sunni Ali embraced and respected the Islamic faith of his trading partners, which accounted for much of his success as a ruler.  By the time of his death in 1492 the Songhai Empire under Sunni Ali had surpassed the greatness of the other West African empires (including Ghana and Mali) that preceded it and became the greatest empire in West Africa....
After Sunni Ali's death, his son ruled briefly before one of Sunni Ali's former generals overthrew him and took the throne.  This was Askia Muhammad Toure:
...Askia Muhammad Toure greatly improved the learning centers of the Songhai by encouraging scholars to come from other parts of  Africa (as well as Europe and Asia) to settle in Timbuktu and Jenne, and built as many as 180 Koranic schools in Timbuktu alone.  Indeed, the Sankore University in Timbuktu developed a reputation for scholarship in rhetoric, logic, Islamic law, grammar, astronomy, history, and geography....

[Mislaid source]
This is "Mohammed I Askia, King of the Songhai Empire (r. 1493-1528)," a much more thorough page by Ronald W. Davis on early Songhay empire days.  Let me pick up with what Davis says about Sunni Ali:
...In the process of forming an empire, however, Sonni Ali revealed a streak of barbaric cruelty. Furthermore, many of the newly conquered areas west of Songhai proper were heavily Islamic and culturally more sophisticated than Songhai itself, and often related more to North African than sub-Saharan ethnic types. Sonni Ali's vicious temperament and cavalier attitude toward Islam set his subjects to plotting. His death in 1492, before consolidation of Songhai's considerable territorial gains could be completed, prepared the way for Mohammed to emerge as a national leader.

In April, 1493, Mohammed allied himself with the Muslim clerics and disaffected Muslim portions of the empire against Sonni Ali's son and would-be successor, whose support lay primarily in the Songhai homeland. Ethnic and religious divisions ran deep in the ranks of the large Songhai army. Mohammed avoided what otherwise might have become a bloody and prolonged civil war by staging a coup, seizing the capital, and forcing Sonni Ali's son into exile. He took the dynastic title of askia (askiya).

Davis explains that the new ruler was probably not Songhay, but Soninke, long associated with the royal lineage of ancient Ghana.  In the 1400's, however, the Soninke had become subjects of the Songhay.  Once Mohammed took over --
...Mohammed viewed Islam as the logical counterpoint in Songhai to the power and influence of the traditional priesthood and political leadership. He lavished attention, gifts, and titles upon Muslim notables, particularly those in the newly conquered, western part of the empire. He also strove to develop the city of Timbuktu--already known for its concentration of Muslim clerics and scholars--into a first-rate center of learning, a cultural focus that could rival the traditional religious center of Kukia in the eastern Songhai homeland.

Mohammed must have perceived the enormous advantages of Islam in transforming Songhai from a peripheral state into a partner in what was, in the sixteenth century, the world's most diverse and extensive civilization and commercial network....

He went on a hajj and was away for two years.  When that period ended --
... The hajj attracted scholars and religious notables from all over the Middle East; many accompanied Mohammed back to Songhai and greatly strengthened the scholarly community there. Timbuktu, in particular, developed an international reputation as an academic and religious center....

... Mohammed continued to expand Songhai's frontiers, often in the cause of a jihad, or holy war. His soldiers battled the Mossi tribes of modern Burkina Fasso to the south and captured most of the important salt mines and oases in the Sahara as far as the frontiers of modern Algeria and Libya. Even some of the powerful Hausa city-states of northern Nigeria fell under Mohammed's sway. The Songhai army featured a mobile cavalry and levies of conscripts, very likely the first such standing army in Africa, supported by a strong riverine navy on the Niger....

...Despite his commitment to Islam, there is no evidence of persecution of unbelievers. Gao, in fact, became a haven for Jewish refugees from the Saharan oases when persecution broke out there in the early sixteenth century. Many of Mohammed's gestures toward traditionalism may have resulted from the fact that the people of the Songhai capital of Gao continued to resist Islamic influence....

In assessing his significance, Davis points out at least one highly crucial role played by Mohammed:
...Evidence from the era of his predecessor, Sonni Ali, strongly suggests that Islam was in decline, actively challenged by pagan and traditional elements in West African society. Given the importance of Muslim merchants in the economic life of the region, it is also likely that the Niger basin was in a state of economic disarray owing to the disintegration of Mali and growing hostility to outsiders. These trends Mohammed dramatically reversed, restoring and greatly expanding commerce and drawing the Niger basin closer than ever before to the world economy. His contributions toward an Islamic cultural order laid the foundations for the eventual emergence of Islam as a mass religion in West Africa....

[Note: at the end of this fine essay, Davis provides an excellent bibliography.]
Finally, this general public series, Collapse: Why Do Civilizations Fall? is sponsored by Annenberg/CPB.  This particular page is on Mali and Songhay:
...Mali and Songhai, as well as the smaller kingdom of Ghana before them, were once great trading kingdoms famous for their gold. Yet despite their greatness, they each declined for similar reasons....

...As Mali's power waned, Songhai asserted its independence and rose to power in the area. Songhai had been an important trade center within Mali's empire, just as Mali had once been ruled by Ghana. Great Songhai kings such as Sunni Ali Ber and Askia Mohammed Toure extended the Songhai kingdom farther than Ghana or Mali had before it and brought an organized system of government to the area. It was the largest and most powerful kingdom in medieval West Africa. The riches of the gold and salt mines drew invaders, though, and in the late sixteenth century a Moroccan army attacked the capital. The Songhai empire, already weakened by internal political struggles, went into decline....


Songhay Woman
From photographer/reporters, Bernard and Catherine Desjeux
This is a tribute to author and ethnographic filmmaker, Jean Rouch, by anthropologist Paul Stoller.  Here is how it opens:
I first met Jean Rouch in the summer of 1976 in Niamey, the capital of the Republic of Niger, a place that he considered home, a place, where, after the tragic car accident that killed him at the age of 86, he now rests. I had arrived in Niger to begin gathering data for a doctoral research project on the religion of the Songhay people, the very people depicted in Jean Rouch’s books and in his celebrated films....
Here are two excerpts about Rouch's films on Songhay religious life:
...In July 1942 Rouch received a telegram from a labor boss that Dongo, the deity of thunder among the Songhay people, had killed ten of his workers. Wondering about the ‘real’ identity of this murderer, Rouch assembled a group of his Nigerien associates and asked them about Dongo. They suggested that Dongo was, indeed, the ‘devil of thunder’ and that the tragic fate of the workers was the result of their non-Islamic ‘devil worship.’ One of the Nigeriens, Damoré Zika, had a different take on Dongo and ‘devil worship.’ He told Rouch that his grandmother, Kalia, a priestess of a Songhay spirit possession troupe, could protect the workers from the ravages of Dongo. Accompanied by Damoré Zika and Kalia, Rouch witnessed his first spirit possession ceremony. Thus began a lifetime of work and reflection on spirit possession in Africa and elsewhere. Accompanied by Damoré Zika, Rouch attended other ceremonies. He wrote to Marcel Griaule, who then occupied the chair in ethnology at the Sorbonne, for advice on how to proceed on how to collect more data. With Griaule’s encouragement, Rouch began to document aspects of pre-Islamic Songhay religious life: sorcery, sacrifice, and spirit possession....

...As a provisional researcher for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientique (CNRS), Rouch embarked on doctoral research in Niger and Mali in 1947-48, gathering oral histories about the Songhay past.  He also continued to film Songhay ritual life. In 1951 Rouch returned to Niger and Mali once again and shot films on Songhay as well as Dogon ceremonial life. In his early films, Rouch’s aim was to document social and religious life. In Les magiciens de Wanzerbé (1948) he presents a documentary of social life in the famed village of Songhay sorcerers, Wanzerbé. We see children playing as well as a sorcerer gathering materials central to his ‘science’ – nothing extraordinary. And yet, in a sorcerer dance sequence, Rouch documents something not yet known to us – a dancer coughing up a sisiri, a metal chain that usually rests in the stomach of a few select sorcerers. How can a person live with a metal chain in his or her stomach? By indirectly posing this question in the film, Rouch compels us to wonder about ‘magical’ possibilities....

Don't miss this engaging tribute to Rouch -- especially the touching sections on the reception he got when he visited a Harlem market in New York City at the age of 82.

[Here is an alternate link to this essay:]
This is "Jean Rouch: Cinematic Griot" by Amie Karp from the University of Florida's Journal of Undergraduate Research (Volume 1, Issue 7 - April 2000).  It is a very interesting, well-researched and footnoted critique of Rouch's work among the Songhay in Niger (and Nigeria).  Some excerpts:
...Rouch is both loved and hated throughout the cinematic world. Abdu Sambo Zima, the son of a possession priest in Nigeria, was once so affected by Rouch's Pam Kuso Kar that he was moved to transform his life (Rouch#21 188). Zima, who holds an advanced degree in physics, has now immersed himself in the spiritual realm as well--he has succeeded his father as a possession priest in the Niamey tribe (Rouch#21 188). Zima, like many other Africans, hails Rouch as a cinematic "griot": a bard of sorts who passes his knowledge from one generation to the next. Songhay griots sing the praises of their ancestors to their descendants; Jean Rouch "sings" the praises of his "characters" to their peoples....Rouch is not considered to be a filmmaker in the Western sense, he is a venerated griot whose tales are simply projected onto a screen....

...In 1954 Rouch brought Bataille sur le grand fleuve back to Ayoru, where he had actually filmed the hippopotamus hunt. Without any announcement Rouch waited until nightfall, hung a white sheet from a brick wall, and projected the film in color. At first the projector itself attracted the people of Ayoru, however their attentions soon shifted when they recognized the ghosts of their tribesmen who had died since the initial filming three years prior (Naficy 345). The audience asked Rouch to show the film several times, and by the fifth screening they began critiquing it. They said that the film was not believable because it had music in the background--a hippo hunt requires silence because noise would chase away the hippos. In reaction to their criticism, Rouch got rid of the soundtrack and corrected other errors in the film (Esnault 74).  That night Jean Rouch and the people of Ayoru gave birth to participatory cinema....

Face from Human Pyramid,
film by Jean Rouch
This is a treasure trove from Documentary Educational Resources ( -- a huge and comprehensive listing of Rouch's some 120 films, many from Africa, including quite a few from Niger.  Some films are given very detailed descriptions offering data hard to find elsewhere -- a Niger rain-making ritual, for example, caught my eye, for it includes a goddess of the rainbow and deities of wind, cemeteries, lightning, thunder, and more, as well as the ritual itself.  The 28 minute film dates from 1951, Les hommes qui font la pluie, or Yenendi, les faiseurs de pluie (The Men Who Make the Rain, or Yenendi: The Rainmakers) -- here is an excerpt:
...Arrival of the spirits: Start of the possession dances, which permit the spirits to speak through the voices of the dancers they have chosen. These are Moussa, spirit of the wind; Naiberi, goddess of the cemeteries; Sadara, the rainbow; Tyirey, master of the lightning; Hausakoy, master of the thunderbolt; and Dongo, master of the thunder and the rain. They fall down before the hut. They back out, dressed in their ritual costumes and carrying their ritual objects.

They go back to the hut to talk with the men about the next rainy season. Bargaining: the men want a lot of rain and very little thunder. The gods want a lot of thunder and very little rain because they are angry. They are appeased with gifts.

Making rain: The priests and the faithful go behind the hut. A ditch is dug, running east to west (it represents the land of Simiri). The hampi (ritual jug) is placed at the top of this ditch. It is filled with water and millet (first fruits of the last harvest): it represents the spirit of the thunder, and the priests and spectators place one finger on the edge of the jug; this is the sermon of the rain. Dongo pours out the jug of the sky: the year's rain falls on the land of Simiri. According to the pattern created by the streams of water and the distribution of the grains, the men learn whether the season will be good and the crops abundant....

There are a number of other rain dances filmed by Rouch during the years. By the late sixties, Dongo and the other deities are angry that people have left their old ways -- and rain becomes scarce.  (One cannot help wondering if any of the rain rituals have been done recently.)

Here is a 15 minute film from 1967 about a priest of Dongo named Daouda Sorko (who is also found in a number of other Rouch films):

Daouda Sorko, fisherman from the village of Simiri, Niger, is a high priest of the cult of Dongo, the thunder spirit. Daouda recounts the myth to Damouré Zika of the origin of the seven Torou spirits, the principal deities of Songhay mythology, and in particular the way in which Dongo has become the most feared divinity, the master of the sky, responsible for thunder and rain.
The wide range of Rouch's work is indicated by 1974's Toboy Tobaye, "Rabbit, Little Rabbit," a 13 minute film with a completely different focus:
Dances of today and yesterday by children disguised as rabbits during the nights of Ramadan (Niger).
Here is another one that sounds intriguing, Le griot Badye (Badye, the Storyteller), a 15 minute film from 1977:
A traditional singer employing birdsong as a source for the music he uses to accompany his storytelling.
There are also a whole series of films on Dogon rituals, but those are beyond the scope of this page on Niger.  This site is great for browsing -- but you'll need an up-to-date browser like Netscape7.2 or it won't load -- other pages from -- see below -- aren't as fussy and will load on older browsers.
This site offers "Jean Rouch Talks About His Films to John Marshall and John W. Adams
(September 14th and 15th, 1977)."  It is a fascinating page pf lengthy and candid comments from Rouch on spirit possession, "cults," belief, rituals, ghosts, new gods, and the people and experiences in his films.  The focus is on three films: Les Maîtres Fous, "Mad Masters," in which people are possessed by the shadow-sides of their white masters; "The Lion Hunt," with amazing details on respect shown lions by Songhay and Fulani peoples; and "Jaguar,"a fictional journey.
This is a closer look at Rouch's "Mad Masters":
Les Maitres Fous is about the ceremony of a religious sect, the Hauka, which was widespread in West Africa from the 1920s to the 1950s. Hauka participants were usually rural migrants from Niger who came to cities such as Accra in Ghana (then Gold Coast), where they found work as laborers in the city's lumber yards, as stevedores at the docks, or in the mines. There were at least 30,000 practicing Hauka in Accra in 1954 when Jean Rouch was asked by a small group to film their annual ceremony. During this ritual, which took place on a farm a few hours from the city, the Hauka entered trance and were possessed by various spirits associated with the Western colonial powers: the governor general, the engineer, the doctor's wife, the wicked major, the corporal of the guard....

...The imagery in Les Maitres Fous is powerful and often disturbing: possessed men with rolling eyes and foaming at the mouth, eating a sacrificed dog (in violation of taboo), burning their bodies with naming torches. Beyond the imagery, the themes are also powerful, and have had an impact in our own culture: Jean Genet's The Blacks was modeled upon the Hauka inversion in which blacks assume the role of masters, and Peter Brook's Marat/Sade was influenced by the theatricality and invented language of Hauka possession. Yet, as Rouch reminds us in an interview in Cineaste, possession for the Hauka cultists was not theater but reality. The significance of this reality is left ambiguous in the film, although Rouch's commentary suggests that the ritual provides a psychological release which enables the Hauka to be good workers and to endure a degrading situation with dignity. The unexplored relation of the Hauka movement to their colonial experience is perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by this ceremony in which the oppressed become, for a day, the possessed and the powerful.

Jean Rouch
This is another essay on Rouch's "Mad Masters" -- some excerpts:
... For Western viewers, the film’s power depends on the startling revelation that the gods violently possessing the members of the cult—causing them to foam at the mouth, stagger like madmen, and eat pieces of dog snatched from a boiling pot—are not ancient spirits, but the supernatural shades of their colonial oppressors.

One cult member is possessed by the Governor, others by the General and his staff, and the movements of the Hauka mimic the rigid gestures of these Colonial masters, as Rouch shows them in a parade-ground march. This thirty-minute short opens up endless questions about the nature of colonial power, as well as the relationship between modern cinema and archaic ritual....

...Les Maitres Fous has been called the "greatest anti-colonialist movie ever made....
This page from Germany (scroll down past the brief intro in German for English) offers more insights into "Mad Masters" by quoting selected passages from other sites, including some I have already used myself.  It also has a thumbnail .gif with a few shots from the film (hard to make out much, however).  Excerpts:
...In Ghana, the British authorities banned the film for allegedly insulting the Queen. Rouch himself forbade the film to be shown to those whom he filmed during their trance. When they saw themselves in that state they again immediately went into a dangerous trance....
...Les Maîtres Fous has generated controversy since its first screening in 1954 at the Museé de l'Homme, Paris. It has been both strongly criticized and enthusiastically extolled by Western and African audiences. It was banned in Great Britain and in Gold Coast after its release in 1955 and awarded best short film at the Venice Film Festival, 1957. This public ambivalence to the film has resulted from the reactions to arresting and graphic images and scenes, as well as to the social and cultural significance of the activities depicted within the film....
...Rouch admittedly held a critical posture towards the European colonization of African societies. Les Maîtres Fous as a film was consistent with his views regarding on European colonial activities. However, the participants and actual ceremony, ritual, and practices shown in the film were native expressions. The Hauka possessions of the Songhay and Zerma function as an interpretation and recasting of their social realities. The ceremonies obviate the social and symbolic relationships existing within their immediate social realities. Thus Songhay religion and its practices help to delineate the social, political, and historical relationships which impinge on Songhay culture and society and also serve as a criticism and resistance to British and French control. As such, the British government was not only condemning the film, but was also condemning a community and set of cultural practices which was oppositional to their political and economic agenda....
There is much more here but unfortunately I don't have time to sort through it all.  Thus I leave it to those with specific interests in this film to explore further.
This is a brief but interesting review of "Mad Masters" from a British film catalogue cautioning instructors to use care before showing the film in their classrooms.  Rouch is quoted as saying:
`The cult is an African expression of our culture. The title of the film is a pun. It means `the masters of madness', but the British colonial masters are the ones who are mad! There's an attitude of both mockery and respect in Les Maîtres Fous, they're playing gods of strength'.
The reviewer points out that after the violence of the possession scenes,
... this picture is countered by shots of the same people the next day in their city workday jobs  where they exhibit none of the `mad' behaviour of the trance.... But the power of the images is also what makes it difficult to use in the classroom.....
Finally, this is a rich, thoughtful, scholarly paper, "The Poesis of Mimesis in Les Maîtres Fous: Looking Back at the Conspiratorial Ethnography of Jean Rouch" by Prerana Reddy.  Here is an excerpt of interest:
...Perhaps these scenes do not succeed in showing how the Hauka cult relates to “normal” Songhay religious practices, but they do provide some elements of religion familiar to most audiences, such as initiation and confession. Consequently, we become aware that the possession ritual is grounded within the strict perameters of a religious and social order; it is not just a random outburst of psychotic energy, but a complex social event....

...We see close-ups of other people being possessed: their limbs shaking, foam bubbling at their mouths, eyes rolling back into their heads. Soon the compound is filled with Hauka spirits, all figures of colonial authority, all with trademark costumes and gestures with which to recognize the figures. Mounkaiba breaks an egg on the governor’s head, and through crosscutting to a colonial parade, we see that it is meant to represent the yellow and white plumes worn on the governor’s helmet during ceremonial occasions.

It is this Vertovian juxtaposition to which many critics direct their praise of the film. In this moment, the camera itself becomes the means to our understanding that it is British military behavior that is in fact absurd and theatrical. All the saluting, processing, and military costuming of colonial administrators is nothing but an exaggerated form of social hierarchicalization, by which outward signs and gestures maintain social order. It is this moment specifically that angered the British authorities into banning the film in Ghana, for they realized that the film’s mimetic powers via montage amplify the Hauka’s insult.  Thus, we are suddenly forced to realize that it is the colonial officers and not the foaming, jerking Haukas who are indeed mad. This revelation is further supported by the absurd “round table” meetings the mediums hold to decide whether or not to eat a dog raw or cooked. The uncanny result of shrouding the ridiculous content of their conversation in the rationality imputed by the form of a round table discussion makes apparent the way rationality has been conferred by the colonial powers to specific forms of discourse. Furthermore, it brings into question the very content espoused by that form, namely it problematicizes the truth claims of Western rationality as structured by the discourses of science....

In addition to this excellent analysis the paper also raises troubling issues about the film's larger implications.  It is well worth reading.

Frames from "The Lion Hunt": by Jean Rouch (see directly below]
Turning now to Jean Rouch's "Lion Hunt," this is a promotional page from a French government site for LA CHASSE AU LION A L’ARC, an 80 minute film.  Here is the film's description, beginning with a quote from Rouch:
“Only the Songhay hunters, a hereditary caste, are entitled to kill lions. The herdsmen are permitted only to throw stones at lions to chase them away. The Peul consider that the lion is necessary for the herd, and they are capable of identifying individual lions by the tracks they leave. But when a lion kills too many cattle, it has to be eliminated, because such a lion is a killer” (J. Rouch).
From 1957 to 1964, Rouch observed the Gao hunters from the Yatakala region and the film recounts episodes of the hunt in which technology and magic are intimately entwined: making bows and arrows, preparing the poison, tracking the animals, the death ritual. But the old killer lion known as the “American” succeeds in escaping all the traps set and the Gao hunters only get to two of his females. After the hunt, the men tell their children the story of the “gaway gawey”, the fabulous lion hunt.
[Note: this page won't load unless you have a fairly up-to-date browser.  I had to use Netscape 7.2.]
Again, Jean Rouch's 1964 film, "The Lion Hunters," is the subject of this page from  This is a color film, 68 minutes long, its footage --
...collected over a seven year period during the 1950s and 1960s, among the Fulani herdsmen and Songhay villagers in the Savannah of northern Niger and Mali....

...Lion-hunting is reserved by tradition to the Gao, a group of Songhay-speaking professional hunters, masters of the techniques and rituals of poison-making. The Gao also possess great knowledge of the bush, and are thought to have a special relationship with the spirits that inhabit its trees and waters. When lions raid Fulani cattle, the Fulani must request that Songhay chiefs send Gao hunters to their aid. The Songhay chiefs are paid by the Fulani in cattle....

I loathe the idea of hunting these magnificent beasts but I have to admit that if it has to be done, at least the Soghay understand the importance of doing it in a ritual context:
...Lions generally kill only sick or injured cattle, but on occasion they will attack a healthy herd. The Gao are usually able to determine which lion is responsible, for they know the characteristics and habits of individual animals. In the film, for example, the hunters attempt to find "The American," so called because of its strength and cleverness. [A]lthough lion-hunting is a test of manly courage, the Gao sing the praises not only of the hunters but also the hunted, following a kill. Once trapped and shot with poison arrows, the lion is commanded to die quickly, and to forgive the hunters. Its body is struck three times to liberate the animal's soul, so that it will not drive the hunters mad....
The lion called "The American" becomes very real to a reader and I was saddened to learn elsewhere that he was shot in 1968 with a rifle.  Not a fitting end.
The page also explores the "technology of the hunt" -- the bows, the arrows, how the poison is made and how the traps are set.  It closes with Rouch's insightful suggestion that --
...the Gao serve as mediators between an ancient hunting way of life, with its spirits of the bush, and the life and gods of pastoralism and settled agriculture....
For those desiring a much more thorough look at this film's history, attitude towards lions, the fate of "The American," and much, much more, scroll down to the section on this film from the link already annotated briefly (without excerpts) above, where Rouch himself discusses these matters at great length:
This is “Rouch Isn't Here, He Has Left”: A Report on Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch, conference report, French Institute, London, October 5–14, 2004, by Ian Mundell.  The essay explores at some length Rouch's role in the history of post-war European cinema.  Here and there are also references to his work in Africa.  This passage near the end, for example, caught my eye:
...According to [David] Bate, Rouch's interest in African myth concerned the poetics of the pre-conscious, not the unconscious. And while Rouch shared the Surrealist fascination with dreams, according to [Elizabeth] Cowie it was for their magic rather than as a way into the unconscious. “I saw that he was not a dreamer himself,” Rouch said of Freud, “but was rather exploiting dreams - like Karl Marx.” ....
Although this paper's primary focus is Rouch, not Africa, here is the paper's marvelous conclusion:
...But other, less obvious, suggestions were made, raising the most tantalising ideas for ordering and understanding Rouch's legacy. Look at Rouch's work in Niger this way, said Brice Ahounou, an anthropologist at the Comité du Film Ethnographique. In 1942 Rouch “met” and subsequently established a friendship with Dongo, the Songhay spirit of thunder. Over many years, Rouch filmed a series of cinematic portraits of this spirit, possessing men and women, young and old. These little-seen films contain a dialogue between Rouch, with the camera on his shoulder, and this divinity. Can there be anything to compare in film history?;jsessionid=ixYFKoeIuBx7?cookieSet=1&journalCode=var
This is a link to "Magia & Medicina" by Knut Ekstrom from Visual Anthropology Review, March 1997, Vol. 13, No. 1: 74-77.   It concerns Niger but the paper is in PDF format, which my computer can't access, nor was I able to retrieve an abstract.  So I have no idea what the content is.  Hopefully, someone will let me know!  ;-)

6 September 2005: Judith Mader of AnhroSource Customer Service has kindly come to my rescue.  There is no abstract for this paper but, she writes:

I understand your dilemma!  For what it's worth, this article is regarding the 8th International Festival of Ethnographic Films (14th-19th Oct. 1996).  It appears that the article briefly discusses a screening of the film "Yenendi de Ganghel" by Jean Rouch, made in Niger in 1968.
This is's page for In Sorcery's Shadow : A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger by Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes.  As always, one of the best things about amazon's pages are the wide-ranging and often contradictory reviews by readers.


Note: for other books as well as films and videos on the Songhay, be sure to visit my Niger page and scroll down to nearly the bottom of that long page.

Songhay Millet Farm (From Byhisgrace  -- see below)
Artist unnamed
I have a strong bias against missionaries.  I know that many are sincere and kind but they tend to be too quick to see "evil" in unfamiliar deities while being theologically blind to the "evil" in repressive forms of monotheism.  In other words, they are also so intent upon Bible study that they ignore the far more important study of the appalling history of inhumanity and arrogance their fellow missionaries have created over the past few centuries.

Christianity is a relatively young religion and perhaps Christians should have the good grace to show more humility in the face of much older beliefs.  Instead, they trek into foreign lands, backed up by the "guns, germs and steel" mentioned in my opening essay, and try to persuade other peoples to abandon their ancient ways in favor of their invaders' beliefs.  When their impoverished victims succumb to whatever material or spiritual bribes they are offered, missionaries count it as a victory for Christ.  It's really a victory for Western greed and powermongers and it inevitably greases the skids for yet uglier forms of colonialism that have nothing to do with Christ.

In Niger, however, Islamic monotheism, which is even younger than Christianity, is already widespread so Christian missionaries have an added layer to work with in addition to coping with far more ancient indigenous ("animistic") beliefs.

Having said all this, however, I have to say that this attractive opening portal page from a Southern Baptist group offers a series of pages that make an interesting and honest attempt to present Songhay traditions and lore as responsibly as possible....
Continuing....this page offers brief profiles of various aspects of Songhay life.  Here is the one for religion:
The Songhai are 99.5% 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 but spirit possession, magic, sorcery, and witchcraft remain the vital components of Songhai belief.
Continuing....this Southern Baptist page offers an unexpected disclaimer, which I appreciate because it gives due credit to anthropologist Paul Stoler's work and is also honest about the parameters of the group's limitations:
The vast majority of the information in this worldview was as result of interviews compiled by Brad and Sally Womble, Wayne and Gayle Gullion with Songhai, March - June 2000.  We have continued to update the material and correct it, as needed, as we observe and participate in their daily life.  Paul Stoller's many works and impressions of the Songhai people give valuable, detailed insight into their religious practices.  All comments or quotes written in boldface type have been taken specifically from the book In Sorcery's Shadow, by Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.  We do not claim to be professional ethnographers,  nor anthropologists.  This paper is simply a compilation of our observations, what we have read, and what we understand about the Songhai at this time, by the grace of God.  We continue to learn much daily.
This page on "Religious Structure" explores "World View: Songhai People of West Africa -- A Cultural - Social - Religious Profile."  Here is a general excerpt from the beginning of the page:
...The predominant religious system of the society is Muslim.  Each person interviewed stated that a great majority of the Songhai were Muslim.  It is acknowledged that a few have converted to Catholicism.   In actuality, even [a] casual glance at the practiced religion will reveal a mixture of the Muslim faith and a deep involvement in animistic practices....
The rest of the page offers a variety of specific and intriguing examples of Songhay beliefs.  Links at the bottom of the page will take you to related pages on "Family Structure," "Social Structure," and "Economic Structure."
Continuing with more from the Southern Baptists, this page offers Songhay proverbs.  Here are my two favorites:
Bundu mu jiri hari la, a su ba gu te kare.
Even if a log floats in water for a long time, it will never become a crocodile.

[Their Commentary]  There are some things that are impossible to accomplish, no matter how long or how hard one tries.  The missionary will never become an African Songhai, no matter how long one lives in Niger, how often one wears traditional clothing, or how well one can speak Songhai....

Sasa me gu keyna ndu aljam.
The mouth of a sparrow is too small for the bit of a horse.

[Their Commentary] This proverb speaks to excesses.  It would  be used to tell a parent that his discipline is too much or in excess for the small child....
Finally....this is a page of Songhay recipes -- in light of this year's famine, I found it moving, sad, sobering, and yet the actual recipes are fascinating.

Click here for Niger



Sub-Sahara: General
Sub-Saharan Folklore
Sub-Saharan Sacred Arts

Sub-Saharan Countries and Peoples:

Niger I: The Country

Niger II: Famine 2005

Songhay People of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger,  & Nigeria

Hausa People of Niger and Nigeria
& Fulani People of Mali and Niger

Forward to ASIA

If you have comments or suggestions,
my email address will be found near the bottom of my home page.

Please note that I cannot help with homework questions -- you will find useful links with tips for doing your own web searches on my Search Engine page.  You will also find excellent resources on my General Reference page.  Good luck with your projects!
This page created with Netscape Gold 4.7
Text and Design:
Copyright 2005-2009 by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Free counter and web stats
Page begun: 30 August 2005
(Much of this was split off from Niger page when I decided to make an "African Peoples" section)
Launched: 1 September 2005;
added Wedding Blanket image 3-4 September 2005 & AnthroSource update 6 Sept. 2005.
25 July 2006: made several updates in the opening "History" section.
18 September 2009, 1am: updated Nedstat/Motigo.