The Soninke people today are probably best known for their skills as farmers and herdsmen, derived from the influence of a tribe called the Fulani, who taught them the trade.

They reside in and around Ghana, speaking a Mande language called Soninke, which is spoken in many areas of West Africa. It is thought that there are just over one million speakers of the language in countries ranging from Mali, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, toMauritania, Guinea and of course, Ghana. Soninke is, in fact, the national language in Mali, Senegal and Mauritania.

The Soninke people had their beginnings in 750 AD, when the founders arrived in Ghana and created the Ancient Empire of Ghana. The Soninke people expanded and divided into subgroups including the Maraka and Wangara, and thus numerous Soninke dialects were formed, such as the Azer, Kinbakka and Xengenna dialects.

Almost the entire population of Soninke are Malikite Muslims, Islam having a strong influence throughout Western Africa. Of almost 82,000 Soninke that reside in Gambia, there are just 16 registered Christians. It is claimed that those who practice Christianity are persecuted by Muslims, making missions to Soninke areas very difficult. It is also interesting to note that the Bible has not yet been translated in Soninke, showing a historical preference for other religions.

More about the Soninke culture

The Soninke have several cultural traditions that make their people a very interesting study. The practice of circumcising boys in groups during a special ceremony is common practice, with many boys who were circumcised the previous year organising events to help assist the new generation in the lead up to the ceremony. The act is considered to be a demonstration of endurance and courage in childhood.

Marriage for the Soninke is a highly organised affair. Parents play a large part in convincing the other party of the marriage, and upon approval the husband pays a sum of money to the wife as part of their marriage contract.
Despite having certain traditions that may seem odd and perhaps outdated to many western societies, cultural legends tell a very different story about the nature of the Soninke people.

The tale of Siya and Mamadou tells of a Soninke couple that fell in love and wished to be married. Mamadou was a military officer (so it is told in some versions of the legend) and Siya was the most beautiful and pure maiden in Ghana. Every year a sacrifice to the snake Bida, the god of the ancient Ghanaian Empire, in exchange for seven years, 7 months and 7 days of prosperity in the kingdom, which would of course be revoked, if the sacrifice was not produced. The tradition had seen many decades of good fortune for the kingdom and was accepted by the Soninke people as the just thing to do for the kingdom.

However, when the betrothed Siya was chosen, Mamadou was determined to save her from the snake. Defying the wishes of the community, and of Siya’s parents, Mamadou entered the place of sacrifice and slew the seven-headed Bida, saving his fiancé. The couple were permitted to marry, and no punishment befell them, however, the tale of Siya and Mamadou is not one of happiness, as the country suffered greatly from the promised seven years of poverty.

It is interesting to learn that, while the tale is mainly used to represent the point at which the Ghanaian Empire began to decline, it also represents a part of Soninke culture that is willing to immortalise through rhetoric, a tale which celebrates a victory in the defying of tradition and public opinion.