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  Songhai woman  

Songhai is a general term for the West Africa people groups who are descendants of the great Songhai Empire which flourished around the largest bend in the Niger River between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most historians agree that there are three major modern-day groups within the Songhai—the Zarma, the Dendi, and the Songhai. The Songhai who live in Niger call themselves the Kaado Songhai. Many of them fled to their present home after the breakup of the empire in 1591.


The Kaado Songhai live in Niger. Other sub-groups of the Songhai live in Mali, Burkina Faso and other West African countries.


From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the Songhai created a thriving culture, controlling much of the gold and salt trade across West Africa. At the height of their power, between 1464 and 1591, they ruled over a vast region covering most of what today is Mali, Burkina Faso, and western Niger. The great cities of this empire were renowned for their universities and libraries.

An assault in 1591 by Moroccan forces equipped with firearms was the final blow from which the Songhai state never recovered. Though the empire no longer exists, the descendants of the Songhai still live on and around the Niger River, and still retain a large amount of political power. This has resulted in tensions with the Hausa who claim more than 50% of the territory of Niger.


Songhai Features and Clothes - Tamajaq people are known for their veils and the Fulani are tall and slender with distinctive hairstyles. But to the casual observer, it would seem the Songhai do not have any features that distinguish them from other West Africans. This is not true.

Most have beautiful smiles, lacking the dental problems that come with having a mouth too small for one's teeth. Many Songhai have small tribal marks: either a small "x" on both cheeks or two small slashes on the upper cheekbone beside the eyes. Many outsiders would not even notice these marks.

Songhai women

The women wear their hair in whatever style is fashionable throughout West Africa at the time. A woman may spend hours reclining with her head in the lap of another woman while her hair is intricately braided. If it can be afforded, many women like to have extensions added to their hair.

After spending hours having her hair done, you would expect the woman to show off her hairdo. But going about with one's head uncovered is considered immodest, and so a woman always wears a scarf when she leaves her home. Many women also wear a sheer veil that covers their heads and is wrapped around their shoulders. A few wear more traditional Muslim coverings.

A woman wears a zara and a kaay, a wrapper and a blouse. The wrapper is a straight piece of cloth, about a yard long, which she wraps around her waist. This is convenient as it easily expands into a maternity skirt! Blouses come in a huge variety of choices limited only by the creativity and talent of the tailor. When a friend has a blouse a woman likes, she borrows it and has her tailor make her one like it. Most Songhai women are extremely poor and so they usually have one every day outfit and one dress-up outfit. If a woman works outside the home, she has numerous outfits.

  Two Songhai young men, dressed in western style  

Songhai men usually wear modern Western clothes, but they seldom tuck the shirt into their trousers. It is considered immodest to show the shape of the behind, so they prefer long shirts. Many wear drawstring pants, rather like pajama trousers, with a long straight shirt reaching to the knees or the ankles. Only a few wear the long flowing robes of the Hausas. A simple embroidered hat tops off traditional outfits, but men often go without a hat when wearing Western clothes. A man probably has one outfit for work and one for dressing up. If he has steady employment, he likely has several outfits.

Children usually wear what would appear to be rags. They get one or maybe two new outfits a year. These outfits are played in, slept in, worn to school, washed and rewashed until they are quite literally threadbare. Their clothes are mostly western style.

SIM Involvement

SIM began work in 1924 at Zinder and now ministers in 15 locations. The mission began serving the Kaado Songhai in Niamey in 1989. Much work is still needed as only one of every 3,400 Songhai claims to be Christian. Church-planters work among them, some are doing Bible translation, and others are planning to increase the availability of gospel recordings and begin radio broadcasts.

The Songhai of Niger are open to hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, but the close-knit society and pressure to conform makes it hard for them to accept Christianity. A Songhai who converts to Christianity may be accused of being a traitor or of having taken a bribe from a Christian.

Scripture Availability

Bible portions have been translated into the Songhai dialect since 1928. The entire New Testament was printed in 1936.



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