African Cultures: Soninkes & Wangaras

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Africa is amongst the most diverse continents in the world, home to many different linguistic and ethnic groups. In this lesson, we will explore the cultures of the Soninke and Wangara and discover their role in African history.

Many African Cultures

There are a lot of people in Africa. I mean, a lot. As a continent, Africa holds over 1 billion people. Of those billion people, there are over 2,000 spoken languages and over 3,000 distinct ethnic groups. As the birthplace of all humanity, it probably shouldn't be surprising that Africa is amongst the most diverse places on Earth.

So, let's take a look at some of the many cultures to come from Africa. Don't worry; we're not going to look at all 3,000 ethnic groups. Maybe we'll just start with two. The Soninke and Wangara are cultures with deep roots in African history that are still around today. They are just a few of the many, many people in Africa, but these cultures have had big impacts on a big continent.

The Soninke People

Let's start with the Soninke. The Soninke people are part of the Mandé ethnic group, one of the major groups of the central Saharan region. They speak a Mandé-based language called Soninke, and made their first major appearance in history as the founders of the Ghana Empire. This was a major trade empire that dominated West Africa from roughly 750-1240 CE.

Rulers of the Ghana Empire

According to Soninke tradition, their founder was a man named Dingha Cisse, a semi-mythical figure who seems to have united various tribal factions into a single, mighty empire. As rulers of the Ghana Empire, the Soninke controlled a major part of the trans-Saharan trade routes that cut through Africa, making them very powerful.

Although they were originally dedicated to a native African religion, encounters with the Moroccan Almoravid dynasty around 1066 CE resulted in a conversion to Islam, which connected them to major Islamic trading cities and expanded their influence.

This empire was very hierarchical, with strict divisions between the ruling class, the working class and the slave class. Your position in this society was hereditary, meaning it was passed from parent to child, and everyone was ruled by a powerful king. This king however, was limited in his power by the nobles who controlled the empire's bureaucracy.

The Soninke people controlled a powerful trade empire
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The Ghana Empire was a dominant part of Africa for almost 500 years before eventually dissolving, and the Soninke people were dispersed across it.

The Soninke Today

So, where can we find the Soninke today? In general, the modern Soninke can be found in Senegal and other parts of West Africa surrounding the Sénégal River.

They are mostly farmers, and while they traditionally farmed in their own villages have recently taken to migrant labor. In this system, the men leave home during various harvest seasons and work as laborers. Sometimes, they can be gone for years at a time. Due to the struggling economies of many Soninke communities, this is becoming more and more prominent.

Still, some things haven't changed. The Soninke are still one of the most predominantly Muslim groups of West Africa, a tradition they've maintained for almost a millennium.

The modern Soninke are found generally around the Senegal River
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The Wangara People

With a culture that became as expansive and powerful as the Soninke, it's no surprise that various factions emerged that would eventually become their own cultures. One of these is the Wangara, a subgroup of the Mandé-speaking Soninke who emerged during the Ghana Empire.

Islamic Scholars and Traders

The Wangara were originally a distinct group of professionals in the empire who specialized in Islamic scholarship and the gold trade. This made them amongst the most religiously, culturally, and economically powerful people in the empire. At the height of the Ghana Empire, the Wangara basically held a monopoly on West Africa's gold mines and reserves. Their power and influence expanded under the empire, reaching into the nearby kingdoms of Mossi and Hausa.

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