Soninke people


Soninke / Sarakole / Seraculeh / Serahuli

The Soninke people are a West African Mande-speaking ethnic group found in Mali, Fouta Djallon, southern Mauritania, eastern Senegal, Guinea and The Gambia.

They speak the Soninke language, also called the Serakhulle or Azer language, which is one of the Mande languages.

Soninke people were the founders of the ancient empire of Ghana or Wagadou c. 300–1240 CE.

Soninke people Map

Subgroups of Soninke include the Maraka, Wangara and Jakhanke. The Jakhanke have sometimes wrongly been described as coming from the Mandinka tribe. When the Ghana empire was destroyed, the resulting diaspora brought Soninkes to Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinée-Conakry, modern-day Republic of Ghana, and Guinea-Bissau where some of this trading diaspora was called Wangara.

Predominantly Muslims, the Soninke were one of the early ethnic groups from West Africa to convert to Islam in about the 10th century. The contemporary population of Soninke people is estimated to be over 2 million. The cultural practices of Soninke people are similar to the Mandé peoples, and those of the Imraguen of Mauritania. They include traditional Islamic rites of marriage, circumcision, and have social stratification.


Demographics and distribution

In contemporary time, the total population of Soninke people is above 2 million. Soninke people are found throughout West Africa and in France, given their migration when Senegal and Mali were a part of the French colonial empire.

Most of the Soninke people are found in the valley of the upper Senegal river and along the Mali–Senegal–Mauritania border between Nara and Nioro du Sahel. Migrations under French colonial rule led many Soninke to build communities in Dakar, other cities in Africa and in France. Soninke community were the early settlers in France, their community is found in Paris and in southern French cities, and their language is the primary dialect spoken among many Muslim communities of France. There are also many Soninke living in cities throughout Central Africa, a population that includes new migrants as well as descendants of migration dating back to the 1800s, such as the laptots who represented French mercantile and colonial interests in the region.

Trade networks 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 in the West Africa region.

Soninke people


The Soninke speak a  Mande language which belongs to the larger Niger-Congo language phylum. The Mande languages are spoken in several countries in West Africa by the Mandé people and include Mandinka, Soninke, Bambara, Dioula, Bozo, Mende, Susu, and Vai. There are millions of speakers, chiefly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast.
Mande language is of 3 kinds,  the northern group called mandé-tan, a southern group known as mandé-fu and a  third subgroup (Western) called mandé-bu.
Soninke is part of the Western Mande group, which has three main subgroups, namely:
1. The Northwestern subgroup, which includes Soninke, Boso, Samogo and Bobo.
2. The Southwestern subgroup, which includes Loko.
3. The Central subgroup, which includes Manding and Susu.


Archaeological evidence suggests that the regions where Soninke people are found were inhabited in ancient times. These stone settlements were built on the rocky promontories of Tichit-Walata and the Tagant cliffs of Southern Mauritania. Though there are no surviving records to suggest which ethnic group these people were, the settlers of this region by between 2500 BCE and 600 BCE were likely related to the Soninke people. A significant agro-pastoral society had developed in this prehistoric era.

According to Soninke oral tradition, the ancestor of the Soninke was Dinga, sometimes said to have come from the Middle East, an addition that may reflect Abrahamic religious influence. His sons included Dyabe Sisse, the founder of the Wagadu kingdom with its capital at Kumbi. Another Soninke tradition indicates that they migrated from Aswan, Egypt. However theories of foreign origin are generally doubted by scholars and are believed to result from later cultural influences. Archaeological evidence supports an evolution of the Ghana Empire and other Soninke states from roots in preceding local ancestral Soninke cultures such as that of Dhar Tichitt, rather than from North Africa or the Middle East.

The early written records about Soninke come from early Islamic historians. The Soninke, according to these records, were the founders of the ancient Ghana Empire (not to be confused with modern Ghana), also called the Wagadu Empire. This empire has roots in the 5th century CE and was destroyed by about the 12th century, after the Muslim invasions of this region started in the 10th century.

Soninke people


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. 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.


Social stratification

Soninke society, like other groups in Mande and beyond, is shaped by various forms of social stratification.

The Soninke strata have included a free category called Horro or Horon, a caste system category called Namaxala or Nyaxamalo, and slaves called Komo. In the Jaara subgroup of the Soninke people, the nobility called Tunkanlenmu was another strata. Soninke society became highly stratified after the 13th century.

The slaves were the largest strata, one at the bottom among the Soninke like other West African ethnic groups, and constituted up to half of the population. The slaves among the Soninke people were hierarchically arranged into three strata. The village slaves were a privileged servile group who lived apart from the village and took orders from the village chief. The domestic slaves lived with a family and could not be sold. The lowest level among slaves were the trade slaves who could be bought and sold. With time, each of these strata became endogamous, states Daniel Littlefield, a professor of history.

Above the slaves were the castes of Soninke, which too were hereditary, endogamous, and had an embedded hierarchical status. They included, for example, the garanke (leather workers) below the fune (bard), the fune below the gesere or jeli (griots, singers), and the jeli below the tage or numu (smiths, pottery workers).

The castes and slaves system of Soninke may be linked. According to Susan McIntosh, a professor of anthropology specializing in African societies, archaeological evidence shows that Arabs and Berbers had expanded and established an integrated sub-Saharan trade and transport network with West Africa, building upon the pre-existing trade routes through western Sudan. This trade, by the 9-10th centuries, states McIntosh, included commodities and slaves. The reach of slave trading had extended into Ghana and the western Atlantic coast by the 11th century, and slave raiding, capture, holding and trading systems became increasingly sophisticated in 13th and 14th century Mali Empire and 16th century Songhai Empire.

As the practice of slavery grew, so did the caste system. Tamari suggests that a corollary of the rising slavery system was the development and growth of the caste system among numerous ethnic groups of Africa by about the 13th century. McIntosh concurs with Tamari, but states that the emergence of caste systems likely occurred much earlier in West African societies such as Soninke, Mande, Malinke, Wolof, Serer, and others. She places the development and spread of castes in these societies to about the 10th century, because the slave capture, slave trade and slave holding by elite families was an established institution in West Africa by then, and slavery created a template for servile relationships and social stratification of human beings.

The linguistic evidence suggests that stratification structure relating to caste system and slavery likely were shared between the Manding and Soninke people, and possibly some others such as the Dogon people of West Africa. However, the linguistic differences between the caste and slave systems between Soninke and northern ethnic groups of Africa such as the Tuareg people and Moors suggests that these evolved separately.



The Soninke people were a coastal trade link between the Berber people of Maghreb and the Empires in sub-Saharan West Africa. In their early history, they helped exchange salt from the north and western coast for gold found inland. This trade brought Muslim traders to them, particularly Arab traders interested in gold, after Islam arrived in North Africa. The earliest passing mention of Soninke people's Ghana Empire is found in the works of the 8th century Arab geographer Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Fazārī and a more complete record is found in works of another 11th century Arab geographer Al-Bakri.

The rulers and Soninke people of the Ghana Empire converted to Islam in the 11th century, and they have been Muslim ever since. Some Islamic sources suggest that the conversion was triggered after the 1076 Almoravid conquest of the Ghana Empire. The Soninke people, like other Mande peoples, subscribe to the Maliki school of Sunni Islam.



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



In Senegal, as elsewhere, marriage is seen as a major family event. It is celebrated joyously. In countries Soninke , customs relating to its celebration may vary from one locality to another, but all in common that they are available murundé (research), the Tamma (symbolic franc) and futtu (the definitive agreement wedding) above the festivities. If some young people today wish to respect the traditions, heritage they try to keep jealously, modernity is gaining ground and is a serious threat.

Marriage is an act of love where everything is in the union of two people in love with each other. For many couples and their families, this event is undoubtedly one of the happiest days, if not the most beautiful of their lives. Senegal, each ethnic group has its way of conceiving marriage. In Soninke , it is sacred. Soninke countries, marriage is primarily an alliance between two clans or lineages.

The different stages of marriage are, in the case of a boy and a girl who marry for the first time, rigorously treated by parents. There is, first, murunde (research) that marks the official start of the wedding process. When the young man of marriageable age is the girl who suits him, he opens his father and he expressed his desire to take a wife. According Tapa Bathily village Tuabou , former capital of the kingdom Gadiaga the particularity Soninke environment is, first, the choice of caste. " Marriage in Soninkés is traditionally between members of the same clan. If you marry anyone, you might have problems. A bad woman is worse. Soninke environment, to get married, it is not enough to know the caste, we must also know the family. It also requires that the woman is a good family , "he says. This is not the father of the pretender to fetch the bride. He sends to the family of the girl with an emissary who is traditionally linked. This can be a noble, a griot or a slave.


The "Tamma" or agreement in principle

" When a young man is old enough to marry, he can see a girl and talk to her. Previously, parents who felt their child is old enough to marry met with other members to find a so-called good family, able to complete their family , "said Mr. Bathily.

After murunde one day is taken for symbolic or Tamma franc is now mounted to 500 francs in Bakel. " This is an agreement in principle not binding on the beautiful family. Sometimes if there is a highest bidder, the family can change your mind, which is not normal , "said Idrissa Diarra. In other countries, the date of the seizure of Tamma is considered a strong symbol guarantee the young man's determination to marry the girl. According to Mara Danthira Traoré area Modinkané , husband, after Tamma must maintain his future wife. According to him, he shall, during each lunar month, contribute to the nourishment of his fiancée. " Formerly, when the principle is stopped, the girl was in her and her parents took her to not cause a problem. For this reason we expect the day before the wedding to give dowry and celebrate the wedding the next day. Today, the situation has changed. Soon as there is engagement, it is said that the husband must maintain his future wife and take care of her. On the occasion of the celebrations Korité Tabaski and also, it must make a move , " said the lady.


Circumcision among the Soninke

Circumcision is one of the most important in the life of a boy Soninké times. Like many other communities in the world, is a practice circoncion originally unknown. As long as we go back, the Soninko have always practiced circoncison regarding young boys. Such as marriage or baptism, circumcision is a very important step in the life of young Soninke. It is simply held for life a whole age group. It gives meaning to Fedde which brings all the boys in the same age group. This age group are together birou ie the case of men. There is a life before circumcision and life after this episode. In Soninkara the word murunté means a boy who is not yet circumcised. Thus we differentiate a circumcised and uncircumcised and person. In Soninkés the word murunté part of pejorative vocabulary when it is launched in the face of someone. This step is allowing the murunté to become a man. This is the passage from adolescence to adulthood.

Soninke men often talk about their circumcision by the fact that they took the pants. Circumcision is not limited only to this surgical act tradionnele beyond its simple procedure, the ritual of circumcision highlights, physical endurance, pain, courage. This ritual reveals the intrinsic character of the child. Formerly connoisseurs repèraient future strongmen strong character. Each boy has a duty to remain stoic and enduring in pain. And he honors his family, his name and he shall be praised and sung by griots related to his family.

Ceremonies related to circumcision differ among regions and localities Soninkés. Often these ceremonies are based on one age group. Preparations and ceremonies of pre-circumcision are diverse and variés.Les boys from circumcision, accompanied by BAWO, the master of initiation, go round the family and receive gifts. The eve of the circumcision, the head of blacksmiths , the xirise withon appoints people who will be responsible for performing the operation. Men nominated should refrain from any sexual relationship overnight. The night before the operation, the boys dancing in the company of BAWO, reciting incantations protecting. The BAWO is not anyone, it belongs to a family who has the power to tell the souxouña (bloodsuckers and dotted terrible powers) and other mouno (genius who has scoured the land, retires the bottom of the water). Initiated with members of his family, they go to the bush and gather medicinal plants that are supposed to protect future circumcised bad witches and spellcasters.

The eve of the ceremony, we organize dances and future circumcised dance all night. Thursday evening we organize dance gayinde that will mobilize all young people and village elders in particular fedde concerned. Dancers (men, women, youth, combined) fall into circular line around the drummers drumming. They lead the dance late into the night. After a night of dancing and singing, future circumcised go into houses and eat everything they find. They were previously prepared the most delicious dishes.

In the morning, the boys go to the river to wash. In return, their heads are shaved and made to wear clothes circumcised. All children are gathered in one place, always led by BAWO. Adult men of the place were also present.

Once the foreskin cut, it is given to the father who gave it to turn to mom. The latter will be buried in a corner of the forest. The children then take the traditional white tunic and cap circumcised.


Female genital mutilation

The Soninke people have long carried out female genital mutilation (FGM), also called female circumcision. The prevalence rate of FGM is higher among the Soninke than among neighbouring ethnic groups such as Wolof people and others,. The practice is culturally done as a ritual of social acceptance, and sometimes assumed to be required for religious reasons. In Mauritania and Senegal, FGM of a child is illegal in contemporary law but continues because it is culturally sanctioned for young girls as young as one year old. According to the 2009 Report on Human Rights Practices by the US State Department, FGM practice among Soninke has included the most dangerous Type III mutilations.