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Soninke people

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Title: Soninke people  
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Subject: Jakhanke people, History of Africa, Senegal, History of West Africa, Soninke language
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Soninke people

Soninke soldiers, 1890.
Total population
~ 1 million (2005)
Regions with significant populations
Mali, Mauritania, Sénégal, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau
Soninke language
Related ethnic groups
Mandinka people, Bambara people, Imraguen, Jakhanke
Map of the Soninke population centers in Mali.

The Soninke (also called Sarakole, Seraculeh, or Serahuli) are a Mandé people who descend from the Bafour and are closely related to the Imraguen of Mauritania. They speak the Soninke language, a Mande language. They were the founders of the ancient empire of Ghana c. 750-1240 CE. Subgroups of Soninke include the Maraka and Wangara.

After contact with Muslim Almoravid traders from the north around 1066, Soninke nobles of neighboring Takrur were among the first ethnic groups from Sub-Saharan West Africa to embrace Islam. When the Ghana empire dispersed, the resulting diaspora brought Soninkes to Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. This diaspora included Wangara, famous traders who spread far from traditionally Mande areas. Hence the term Wangara is used today in Ghana and Burkina Faso to describe the Soninke populations in cities and towns. Today, Soninke number around 1 million.



Descended from ancient Central Saharan peoples, the Mandé are an identifiable language family, with associated peoples spread throughout West Africa. They are known as having been early producers of woven textiles (by a process known as strip-weaving).

Archaeological evidence supports that they were early producers of stone settlement civilizations. These were initially built on the rocky promontories of Tichit-Walata and the Tagant cliffs of Southern Mauritania between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. Hundreds of stone masonry settlements with clear street layouts have been found in this area. Some settlements had massive defensive walls, while others were less fortified.

In a now arid environment where arable land and pasturage were once at a premium, the population grew. Relatively large-scale political organizations emerged, leading to the development of military hierarchical aristocracies. The agro-pastoral society had a mixed farming economy—millet production combined with the rearing of livestock. They had learned how to work with copper. They traded in jewelry and semi-precious stones from distant parts of the Sahara and Sahel. They are believed to be the first to domesticate African rice. An archaeologist described their ancient, abandoned sites as representing "a great wealth of rather spectacular prehistoric ruins" (Mauny 1971: 70).

Ancient history

The Soninke share a very conservative culture, inherited by the structural social organization from their forefather founders of the Ghana Empire. This empire constituted the major part of the Soninke history and lifestyle.

The first ruler of this empire was said to be Dingha Cisse, who it is said had a semi-divine status. He came with his people from "the East", either Mali or possibly what is modern day Senegal, and created a coalition against the neighboring tribes and “nomadic raiders”. Some believe that after long battles with the Berbers, Cisse married the three daughters of their leader and created an impressive alliance.


Soninke people today live throughout West Africa, but remain centered around the former homelands of the Ghana Empire and the valley of the upper Senegal river and along the Mali - Senegal border between Nara and Nioro du Sahel. Migrations seeking labor, encouraged under French colonial rule have led many Soninke to build communities in Dakar and other large cities in Africa and beyond. There is a large and growing Soninke community in Paris, France. Trade networks, famously led by the Wangara mercantile confederations, spread Soninke people and culture throughout most of Mali and Senegal, southern Mauritania, northern Burkina Faso, as well as parts of the Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The Maraka - Soninke merchant communities and plantations (centered just north of the city of Segou, Mali) were an economic mainspring under the Bambara Empire, and built trade routes throughout the region. Today the Soninke number above 1 million..

Diobé, ruler of Bakel, and his advisors: 1887-1888. Bakel, a cosmopolitan Soninke trading town, was a target of French expansion of the mid 19th century. This photograph was taken by members of Colonel Joseph Galliéni campaign to create French protectorates up the Senegal River into modern Mali.

Social organization and politics

The ancient Soninke empire was governed by a powerful emperor who controlled the Trans-Saharan Trade. His power was limited by nobles in charge of the bureaucracy, taxes, army, justice and other duties. The central government of the empire was composed of the emperor and those nobles who can be considered as important advisors. The peripheral courts had some freedom deciding on their interior problems however they were supervised by the imperial court concerning imperial problems as well as the army. In the time of Wagadu there was an emperor at the head of the empire followed by the noble’s families. Even after the decline of the empire the majority of the Soninke families still maintained this hierarchy in their villages. In the Soninke social organization everyone occupies a place. Being king or a smith was not by choice, it was an inherited position. This hierarchy is very important in Soninke culture and it is respected by the Soninke. This structural social organization is divided in three levels.

The first class are the ″Hooro″, the free men. They have the highest social rank. The Hooro are the rulers, they have the right to punish and dispense justice. The first class in the “Hooro” are the “tunkalemmu”, the princes. They exercise authority. Only a tunkalemmu” can become king. It's an inherited position. The next class after the princes, “tunnkalemmu”, are the “mangu”. The “mangu” are the advisors of the princes. They are their confidants. They act as mediators in conflicts between different classes of “Hooro” or free man. The “mangu” originate from the “kuralemme”, warrior class. In times of war the Mangu become heads of the army. The last class of the “hooro”, free man is the “modinu”, the priest. Their origin is from the influence of Islam in Soninke society. They dispense justice, and educate the population. They teach them Islam and protect them with prayers. They are very respected for their religious knowledge.

The second level of the Soninke organization is the “naxamala” which is also divided in many other classes. The “naxamala” are the dependent men. The “tago” or blacksmiths occupy the highest position. They make weapons and work tools. They also make jewelry. They are respected for their knowledge with iron. The next class after blacksmith is the carpenter, “sakko”. They are the friends of the inhabitants of the forest. They are the confidants and the masters of devils. They are important because of their skills and knowledge with wood. The next class is the praise-singer, “Jaroo”. During ceremonies they are in charge of animation, speaking, and singing. They are the most famous in the “naxamala” dependent class . They are the only ones authorized to say anything they want. They are the orators of the society. They tell the history of most important Soninke families. The last class in the “naxamala” class is the cobbler, “Garanko”. They are in charge of making leather shoes, saddles and saber sheaths.

The lowest level of the Soninke social hierarchy are the slaves known as ‘komo’. The “komo”, slaves work for the masters. Their masters had to take care of them but this was not always the case. The slaves have always been the major labor force in Soninke society. The prosperity of Soninke society was due to their dominance in farming. In the past there were more slaves than free-men.

People and culture


The different Soninke social classes do not marry one another. Free-men do not marry people from the dependent class or slaves. A priest can marry a princess but a prince cannot marry a priestess.

Marriage is preceded by an official courtship ritual. If a man likes a woman, he sends his parents to convince the woman's family to give her in marriage. If both families agree, the couple is engaged (i na tamma laga) in a [1]


The Soninke practice [2] The author Mamadou Soumare wrote “Above its traditional surgery, the ritual of circumcision makes in evidence, the physical endurance, the pain, the courage, in one word the personality of the child.”


The Soninke have a variety of foods. As an example, breakfast foods include “fonde”, porridge made of millet, sugar, milk, and salt, and “Sombi” porridge made of rice, millet or corn. For lunch “demba tere” and “takhaya” are very common, both containing rice and peanuts, frequent Soninke ingredients. "Dere”, a stew, is a mixture of millet and beans.[3]


The Soninke traditionally engage in both trade and agriculture. During the rainy season, men and women both cultivate. However women usually stay at home to cook and take care of their children. They also do others work, such as dyeing cotton material. A typical Soninke color is Indigo. The Soninke attained a high standard of living. Emigration took a huge place in their life. Most of the time women, children and old stay at home alone when the young men go to neighbor cities to find money. Since the 1960s, the majority of West African immigrants in France came from this ethnic group.[4] The Soninke are still now the backbone of countries like the Gambia, Senegal and Mali. Through all history they have been traders in gold, salt and even diamonds.


The Soninke originally practiced traditional animistic spirituality.[5] Since the 1076 Almoravid conquest of the Empire of Ghana, the Soninke maintained Sunni Islam as their religion.[6]

See also


  1. ^ "Culture Et Tradition". 2002. Retrieved 2006-04-05. 
  2. ^ "The circumcision among Soninke". Retrieved 2006-04-28. 
  3. ^ "Soninke Recipes". 2002. Retrieved 2006-04-05. 
  4. ^ Meadows, R. Darrell (1999). "Willing Migrants: Soninke Labor Diasporas, 1848-1960". Journal of Social History. Retrieved 2006-04-28. 
  5. ^ Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. New York: MacMillan, 2005. 83.
  6. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete. The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony. New York: Routledge, 2007. 121-2.


  • (English) François Manchuelle, Origins of Black African Emigration to France : the Labor Migrations of the Soninke, 1948-1987, Santa Barbara, University of California, 1987 (Thèse)
  • (French) M. T. Abéla de la Rivière, Les Sarakolé et leur émigration vers la France, Paris, Université de Paris V, 1977 (Thèse de 3 cycle)
  • (French) Amadou Diallo, L’éducation en milieu sooninké dans le cercle de Bakel : 1850-1914, Dakar, Université Cheikh Anta Diop, 1994, 36 p. (Mémoire de DEA)
  • (French) Alain Gallay, « La poterie en pays Sarakolé (Mali, Afrique Occidentale) », Journal de la Société des Africanistes, Paris, CNRS, 1970, tome XL, n° 1, p. 7-84
  • (French) Joseph Kerharo, « La pharmacopée sénégalaise : note sur quelques traitements médicaux pratiqués par les Sarakolé du Cercle de Bakel », Bulletin et mémoires de la Faculté mixte de médecine et de pharmacie de Dakar, t. XII, 1964, p. 226-229
  • (French) Kanté Nianguiry, Contribution à la connaissance de la migration "soninké" en France, Paris, Université de Paris VIII, 1986, 726 p. (Thèse de 3 cycle)
  • (French) Michael Samuel, Les Migrations Soninke vers la France, Paris, Université de Paris. (Thèse de 3 cycle)
  • (French) Badoua Siguine, La tradition épique des forgerons soninké, Dakar, Université de Dakar, 198?, (Mémoire de Maîtrise)
  • (French) Badoua Siguine, Le surnaturel dans les contes soninké, Dakar, Université de Dakar, 1983, 215 p. (Mémoire de Maîtrise)
  • (French) Mahamet Timera, Les Soninké en France : d'un histoire à l'autre, Karthala, 1996, 244 p. ISBN 2-86537-701-6
  • (French) Louis Léon César Faidherbe, Vocabulaire d'environ 1,500 mots français avec leurs correspondents en ouolof de Saint-Louis, en poular (toucouleur) du Fouta, en soninké (sarakhollé) de Bakel, 1864, Saint-Louis, Imprimerie du Gouvernement, 1864, 70 p.
  • (French) Louis Léon César Faidherbe, Langues sénégalaises : wolof, arabe-hassania, soninké, sérère, notions grammaticales, vocabulaires et phrases, E. Leroux, 1887, 267 p.
  • (French) Christian Girier, Parlons soninké, l'Harmattan, Paris, 1996, ISBN 2-7384-3769-9
  • (French) Rhonda L. Hartell, Alphabets de langues africaines, Unesco et Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dakar, 1993 ;
  • (French) Direction de la promotion des langues nationales du Sénégal, Livret d'auto-formation en Soninké, éditions Kalaama-Edicef, 2001.

External links

  • (French) Site of the commune of Diawara, Sénégal
  • (French) Soobe - Association culturelle de Soninké en Egypte
  • (French) Diaguily - Portail de Diaguily, ville soninké du sud de la Mauritanie
  • (English) Ethnologue - Soninké language at Ethnologue
  • (French) - Portail de la communauté soninké
  • (French) - Société et Culture Soninké - Soninké News
  • (English) - Soninke literature - free online library/bookstore
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