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The river Niger is of life importance for western Soudan; the savannah and plains sandwiched between the Sahara desert to the north and the tropical rainforest to the south. The upper course of the river flows mainly through modern Mali.

Now a developing country it formed the foundation for several different kingdoms with a important and superior African cul-ture ever since the Middle Ages. Important written sources in-volving these kingdoms are the reports form Arabic travelers and scientists, who traveled from North Africa with camel cara-van routes through the desert to visit ‘the most powerful nation of Black Africa’. The writings of Ibn Haukal (970 A.C.), El-Bekri (‘Book of Roads and Kingdoms’ dating from 1067 A.C.), Abu Abdullah ibn Battuta of Tangier (Travels of Ibn Battuta) about his travels in 1329, 1331 and 1352-1354, El-Kati (Tarikh al Fettah’ uit 1520 A.C.) en El-Sadi (Tarikh es Sudan’ dating 1656 A.C.) form the scarce sources of information about the successive kingdoms in the western Sudan.

Europeans believed that “Africans had no history, and therefore Africans were not properly human, and could not be left to themselves, but must be led towards civilization by other peo-ple, by the people of Europe.”
(George Hegel, German philosopher in 1830).
At the end of the 18th century the first explorers became intere-sted in the western part of the Sahel or Sudan, starting the Scot-tish explorer Mungo Park.

1785: Mungo Park, Scottish explorer in search of the source of the river Niger.
1820-1824: Hugh Clapperton, English explorer: visited Tripoli, Libië and traveled across the Sahara desert to Lake Chad.
1826: Gordon Laing, English explorer: traveled to Timbuktu
1826 René Caillee, French explorer: the Niger cities and across the Sahara desert.

Since about 1900 African historicans, archeologists and anthro-pologists pieced together the proud history of the ancient king-doms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay. Throughout the ages, the village griots (masters of words and memory), have delivered an oral account of the history of Africa. The oral tradition turns out to be incredibly accurate.

Supposedly during the second or third century A.D. the Soninke peo-ple settled along the upper course of the Niger, the river of Black people. So called by the Romans; ‘Niger’ means ‘black’ in Latin. Later the Spaniards used the word ‘Negro’ which means ‘black’ in Spanish.

The Soninke commanded an isolated oasis along the important north-south caravan routes through the Sahara desert from North Africa to the Gulf of Guinee and to the east to Lake Chad.

The Soninke imposed heavy taxes on mercants traveling this route through Soninke territory. Thus the foundation was laid for the wealth of Ghana, the first kingdom at the upper course of the Niger, which flourished between 750 till 1076 A.C.

The first Soninke king succeeded in uniting the many different So-ninke tribes under his leadership. The Soninke were mainly farmers living in scattered villages. They grew enoug food to feed them-selves and their families, with a little left over for trade. Some fami-lies specialised in certain occupations like blacksmiths or fishermen, leatherworkers or weavers.
Along the banks of the river and the trade routes large cities deve-loped, some with thousands of inhabitants, who concentrated on crafts and trade. They bought their food from farmers. Because they concentrated themselves on one type of craft and because they passed on their knowledge and experience to their family members, the Soninke reached great skill in metalworking and leatherworking, making tools, jewelry and weapons.

Camel caravans crossing the Sahara brought to Ghana many goods from North Africa and Europe, the Middle East and even countries near the Indian Ocean. In the trade cities Timbuktu, Djennée and Kumbi slaves, cows, sheep, honey, flour, grapes and dried fruits, ivory and pearls were traded. The most important source of wealth for the kingdom were the taxes raised on salt and gold.

The Soninke king (kaya maghan or ‘king of the gold’) was religious leader, chief of army, highest justice and economic leader of the em-pire. The taxes paid by mercants enabled him to secure an efficient government and a large army, whose job it was to protect the trade routes. Ever more tribes and territories were incorporated to the an-cient Ghana. At its height of power Ghana controlled territories from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the great bend of the Niger River in the east, and from the Sahara in the north to the lands south of the Niger.
The most important cities were the Islamitic trade centre Kumbi and its twin city El-Ghaba, only six miles from Kumbi. El-Ghaba was the centre of government and (animist) religion. Kumbi was inhabited mostly by Arab and Berber mercants, all Muslims. The city counted twelve mosques which were also the centres of learning. Kumbi was surrounded by “wells of fresh water from which they drink and near which they grow vegetables”, according to the Arab scientist El Bekri in 1067 A.C.
Its twin city El-Ghaba he described as follows: “around the king’s town are woods where live the sorcerers of the people, the men in charge of the religious cult. These woods are guarded and no unau-thorized person can enter them.”

El-Ghaba means ‘forest’. The legend tells that the spirit serpent Ouagadou-Bida, guardian of Ghana’s wealth lived in these woods.

The legend of Ouagadou-Bida.
The spirit serpent Ouagadou-Bida, responsible for the prosperity of the country, lived according to the oral tradition in a cave in a sacred grove of trees just outside the city walls. This grove was fiercely guarded by priests. Intruders who dared enter the sacred grove were never seen again. The king himself was allowed te enter the sacred grove on only two occasions; the day of his crowning and the day of hit death, when he was buried in the royal tomd within the grove.

Every year a beauty contest was held. The prize for the most beau-tiful girl was death. It was considered a great honor, for she was to be offered during a big ceremony to the sacred snake. One day priests selected the beautiful Sia from Kumbi for this sacri-fice. Only Sia was much in love with the brave warrior Amadou Se-fedokote. He in his turn loved her with all his heart and could not bear to see her die for the snake.

On the eve of the sacrifice, Amadou stole into the grove and hid be-hind a tree. When Ouagadou-Bida emerged form the cave, Amadou drew his sword and cut off in one fluent strike the snake’s head.

But Ouagadou-Bida possessed magical powers. His head flew high through the sky, far away and landed outside the kingdom in the city of Bambuk. Immediately the people of Bambuk found their pockets full of gold.

Ouagadou-Bida grew a new head, and Amadou severed it once more. This time the head landed in Bure. Its streets were filled with gold. Again and again the serpent grew a new head and every time Ama-dou sliced it off. Only after the seventh head OUagadou-Bida’s magic powers were exhausted, and the spirit snake lay down and died. Amadou fried his bride from the sacrificial altar and togehter they fled the country.

The people of Ghana wept and cursed Amadou, for they knew with-out Ouagadou-Bida their kingdom was doomed. Shortly afterward, their kingdom suffered a terrible drought.
The crops died on the one fertile lands, the cattle and goats died of thirst and starvation. Terrified of the curse that had afflicted their land, the people fled. They took with them what few belongings they possessed and wandered als nomads through western Sudan. With the death of Ouagadou-Bida, the great kingdom of Ghana had come to an end.

The fanatic fundamentalistic Muslim Abdullah ibn Yasin and his followers, who called themselves ‘el morabetin’ (men of the mona-stery) but were called ‘the Almoravid’ by westerns historians, started a jihad, a holy war agains the kingdom of Ghana. the fall of the city of Kumbi in 1067 A.C. announced the end of the oldest West Afri-can kingdom.

After Kumbi was conquered, one revolt after another broke out. Many rebellious subkingdoms saw their chance to try and break free from the Soninke domination. The empire fell apart in many small kingdoms. The Almoravid lacked a well-organised government and military force necessary to hold on to the once great kingdom of Ghana. Taxes on trade goods gave the Soninke king enough spen-ding power to ensure both, but the jihad of the Almoravid had dimi-nished trade till non-existent.

Although the Soninke were able to reclaim Kumbi after the death of Abdullah ibn Vasin in 1087 A.C., the glory of the old kingdom had faded. The trade route had become extremely dangerous, and as a re-sult the Muslim mercants had simply packed up and left. So trade, the lifeblood of the empire, began to crumble. A terrible drought finished it off. The people, tired of enless battles and with empty sto-machs, fled in search of more peaceful land.

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