LOCATION: Eastern Mali, western Niger, northern Benin

POPULATION: 3 million

LANGUAGE: Dialects of Songhay; French

RELIGION: Islam combined with indigenous beliefs


The Songhay established one of the three great medieval west African empires in 1463. The first Songhay king, Sonni Ali Ber, extended the boundaries of the Song-hay state. His successor, Askia Mohammed Touré, made Songhay a great empire by extending its control throughout much of west Africa. Askia's sons were corrupt, however, and the Songhay empire was weakened during the period that they ruled. By the end of the sixteenth century, Morocco controlled the northern sectors of Songhay. In time, the southern empire splintered into independent territories that were mutually hostile. However, they remained independent until coming under French colonial authority in 1899.


The Songhay-speaking peoples live near the Niger River in eastern Mali, western Niger, and northern Benin. Songhay country is situated in the semi-arid Sahel region. It consists of flat rocky plains, rocky mesas (land formations) in the south, and sandy dunes in the north. The vast majority of Songhay people live in Mali and Niger.


Songhay is a language spoken by 3 million people in the Republics of Mali, Niger, and Benin. There are several dialects of Song-hay. Because Mali, Niger, and Benin are all French-speaking nations, many Songhay people living in these states speak French.

A typical greeting is: Manti ni kaani (How did you sleep?). One usually replies, Baani sami, walla, meaning, "I slept well, in health." At bedtime, one says: Iri me kaani baani, which means "May we both sleep in health and peace."


The ancestral folk figure Faran Maka Bote is a Songhay culture hero. His father, Nisili Bote, was a fisherman. His mother, Maka, was a river spirit. Faran grew to be a giant with vast magical powers. As an adult he battled a river spirit, Zinkibaru, for control of the Niger River, and won. But he soon became overconfident. Dongo, the deity of lightning and thunder, demonstrated his anger toward Faran by burning villages and killing people. He summoned Faran and demanded that the giant pay his humble respects by offering music, praise-poems, and animal sacrifices. Dongo told Faran that if he organized festivals, Dongo would descend into the bodies of dancers and help the people along the Niger River.

Modern Songhay stage similar events, called possession ceremonies. The praise-singers, or sorko, are said to be direct descendants of Faran Make Bote. In this way, Songhay myths are kept alive through social and religious activities.


Almost all Songhay are practicing Muslims. They pray five times a day; avoid alcohol and pork; observe the one-month fast of Ramadan; and try to the best of their ability to make the hajj, the very expensive pilgrimage to Mecca.

However, Islamic practices have not excluded traditional beliefs carried forward from ancient times. Traditional Songhay life is seen as a continuous passage across dangerous crossroads. To help them, the Song-hay regularly consult diviners (fortune tellers) and other traditional religious specialists, such as sohancitarey (sorcerers), sorkotarey (praise-singers to the spirits), and zimatarey (spirit-possession priests). These specialists must serve long apprenticeships to master knowledge of history, plants, words, and practices.


Songhay people observe the secular holidays of the countries in which they live. They also celebrate such major Islamic holidays as Muhammad's birthday, the end of the Ramadan fast, and Eid al-Adha (or tabaski), which commemorates Abraham's biblical sacrifice of a ram. For tabaski, people slaughter one or two sheep and roast them. They feast on the roasted mutton and offer raw and cooked meat to needier people who come to their door.


Most Songhay rituals marking major life-cycle events follow Islamic models. However, some practices go back to the days before Islam was introduced to sub-Saharan Africa. Birth, for example, is seen as a time of danger for both mothers and their children. During and immediately following childbirth, men are kept from the mother and child. Mother and child are presented to family and neighbors for the first time at the bon chebe (literally, "showing the head"). This is when the child is named. In the past, young boys underwent ritual circumcision at a relatively late age. These days, circumcisions are performed on toddlers by physicians in hospitals.

Once a couple is ready to marry, the groom asks the permission of the bride's father. He is expected to pay his future father-in-law a bride-price, which today is a fixed sum of money. He is also expected to give his future wife and her family many gifts. The expense of marriage makes it difficult for young men to afford to marry. The marriage ceremony is marked by the presentation of gifts. There is also an Islamic contract (kitubi) that binds husband to wife.

Divorce is quite common among the Songhay. Men initiate formal divorce by consulting a Muslim cleric and proclaiming, "I divorce thee" three times. Women initiate divorce informally by leaving their husbands, who then proclaim their divorce in the wife's absence.

When Songhay die, they are buried quickly and without fanfare. Mourning lasts for forty days. The family receives regular visits from relatives and friends. During these visits people honor the person who died by talking about his or her life.


Greetings in the morning focus upon work and the health of people in one's compound. The midday greetings ask after one's afternoon. Late afternoon greetings involve questions of health. In the dusk greeting, people exchange wishes for peace and health. The Songhay are known for their generosity. When strangers arrive they are housed, well fed, and treated with great dignity—even if the hosts are poor.

Young men are supposed to be respectful of young women, who in turn are supposed to be shy around young men. This code is expressed in body language. Girls will often look at the ground when talking in public to boys.


Songhay people in rural areas live within walled or fenced compounds. These usually consist of a main house for the husband, and smaller houses for each of his wives and their children. The houses are usually made of mud bricks and have thatched roofs. More traditional homes are circular huts with thatched roofs. New houses may be made of cement and feature tin roofs. Most social activity is conducted out of doors in the compound, where food is prepared and eaten, and where people visit one another in the evenings.

Songhay in urban areas also live in compounds. The crowded conditions there tend to be less sanitary than those in the countryside.


Songhay families tend to be large. In rural areas, brothers live with their father, mothers, wives, and children in large communal compounds. In some cases, more than one hundred people might live in a rural compound. In urban areas, families are a bit more scattered and smaller in size.

Men and women lead fairly separate lives. They do different kinds of work. They eat separately. They often talk only to other people of their own sex. When a marriage occurs, a woman's primary allegiance is still to her own kin, for it is from them that she will inherit wealth. If husbands are abusive, the wife's brothers will often intervene. If a woman earns money, she will keep it for herself or share it with her blood kin.


Rural and urban Songhay men today wear a combination of traditional and Western clothing. They generally wear trousers and a loose-fitting shirt that they wear untucked. Younger men might wear used jeans and tee-shirts they buy at the market. Some men, however, prefer to wear the traditional, cotton three-piece outfit. It consists of draw-string trousers, a long-sleeved loose-fitting shirt with an open neck, and a boubou (long, full robe).

Most Songhay women rarely, if ever, wear Western clothing. They wear long wrap-around skirts (pagnes) and matching tops.

12 • FOOD

The staple of the Songhay diet is millet. It is consumed in three ways: as a pancake (haini maasa), as porridge (doonu), or as a paste (howru). Millet paste is made by mixing millet flour in a pot of boiling water until the mixture stiffens. This paste is consumed at the evening meal. It is topped by a variety of usually meatless sauces made from okra, baobab leaf, or peanuts. Songhay season their sauces with ginger (tofunua), hot pepper (tonka), and onion flour with sesame (gebu). A recipe for a meatless sauce follows.


Education takes two forms among the Song-hay: informal and formal. Mothers and fathers informally educate their children in survival skills: farming, fishing, hunting, building huts and houses, cooking, weaving, and sewing. Even though thousands of Songhay children attend elementary school, illiteracy is common. Some Songhay parents see formal schooling as a loss, because educated sons and daughters often move to towns and cities.


Peanut and Greens Stew


  • 4 Tablepoons oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • ½ cup chopped peanuts
  • 2 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 3 cups finely chopped spinach or Swiss chard (wash first and trim coarse stems and fibers)
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of pepper


  1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and peanuts. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until onion is soft.
  2. Add 2 more tablespoons of oil and heat.
  3. Stir in peanut butter, tomato, tomato paste, spinach, red pepper, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat.
  4. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Serve over millet or rice.

Adapted from Carole Lisa Albyn and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1993.

For their formal education, the majority of Songhay go through the educational systems of Niger or Mali.


The Songhay are proud of their heroic past and celebrate it in song, dance, and epic poetry. Singing, dancing, and praise-songs, performed by griots (both male and female), are central to the celebration of births, marriages, and holidays. Epic poetry is also performed on secular and religious holidays. Poetry performances are frequently broadcast on national radio.


The principal activity of most Songhay men has been millet and rice farming. Since farming is seasonal, many Songhay men have developed secondary occupations: trading, transport, or tailoring. Many spend the nonplanting season working for wages in distant cities. Most Songhay women remain wedded to domestic activities. In some cases, divorced women sell cooked foods or trade in cloth to support themselves.


Soccer is the major sport among Songhay boys and young men. Boys and men also race horses, in competitions and for fun. During secular holidays, villages sponsor horse races and present the winners with prizes.

Wrestling is the other major sport. The idea is not to pin one's opponent but merely to throw him to the ground. Songhay girls are not encouraged to participate in sports.


Religious rituals such as spirit-possession ceremonies are also occasions for entertainment. In many Songhay towns, young people stage plays at the local theater. Towns also sponsor gatherings for young people where they can dance and socialize.

Television has become an important medium of entertainment in many of the larger Songhay towns. Neighborhood chiefs, who own televisions, will invite their neighbors into their compound for evenings of television viewing.


Songhay are well known for weaving blankets and mats. The elaborate cotton blankets (terabeba) woven by men in the town of Tera are highly prized throughout the Sahel. Women living along the Niger River weave palm frond mats that feature geometric designs.


There are two great social problems facing the Songhay. The first is the ever-present prospect of drought and famine. Many devastating droughts and famines have prompted the widespread migration of rural Songhay to towns and cities.

The second principal social problem involves political instability in the Republic of Niger, home to many of the Songhay.


Charlick, Robert. Niger: Personal Rule and Survival in the Sahel. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

Stoller, Paul. Fusion of the Worlds: An Ethnography of Possession Among the Songhay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; paperback edition, 1997.

Stoller, Paul, and Cheryl Olkes. In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship Among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.


Interknowledge Corporation. Mali. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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Jun 3, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
thank u for this imformation because i needed it for my research at skool
Lulu Babe
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Apr 11, 2007 @ 7:19 pm
thank you so much for this article.
it helped me complete my history project and not fail!
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Apr 16, 2007 @ 9:09 am
Im gonna pass!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thanks so much for this cause its gonna help me with everthing i need about songhai
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Nov 26, 2007 @ 8:20 pm
Thank you so much. My teacher assigned the songhai religion to me and said we needed to be updated on it for the next class which is the next day and this just answered akk of the questions i had and some. Thank You So Much
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Dec 4, 2007 @ 1:13 pm
this helped me majorly for my project thanks so much!
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Dec 4, 2007 @ 1:13 pm
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Dec 4, 2007 @ 1:13 pm
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jessie ruben
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Jan 13, 2008 @ 7:19 pm
this site is amazing!! thank you so much for so much good information! none of the other websites on the songhay out there even begin to compare to this!!!
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Jan 27, 2008 @ 8:08 am
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Feb 13, 2008 @ 10:22 pm
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school kid
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Feb 25, 2008 @ 4:16 pm
thanks this will help with my s.s. project on songhai
Faith Stokes
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Mar 19, 2008 @ 4:16 pm
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May 8, 2008 @ 7:19 pm
Wow! this is great! it is so readable and helpful.
i was having trouble finding information on traditional songhay beliefs but my search for resources is done now! thanx for the help!
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May 10, 2008 @ 2:02 am
Thanks. this helped alot. my year long project will be complete!
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Nov 4, 2008 @ 11:11 am
This is a very nice website. This website will help many students with historical content projects or essays. Teachers should recommend this website to their students. Thanks.
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Jan 15, 2009 @ 6:18 pm
this infomation was very useful but do you no anything about wat happen during 900 to 1600AD?
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Mar 12, 2009 @ 10:10 am
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Sep 18, 2009 @ 6:18 pm
omg!!!!! you answered ALMOST all my questions. ;( but you took the time to type this stuff. so i guess i will say thanks
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Oct 2, 2009 @ 8:08 am
Love this article
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Oct 18, 2009 @ 4:16 pm
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Oct 19, 2009 @ 4:16 pm
Thank you,this is so helpful.I really need this grade.
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Nov 5, 2009 @ 5:17 pm
Thanks a lot!
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Nov 5, 2009 @ 7:19 pm
thankyou whoever put this up this really gonna help my history project thats due tomorrow. theses fact are really gooD THANKS!!=)
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Dec 11, 2009 @ 11:11 am
wow this helped so much thank you. i hope that i dont fail hahahaha i need to start on my project but this is gonna help alot
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Jan 4, 2010 @ 2:14 pm
What is the art of the songhay people i didnt seem to get that
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Jan 5, 2010 @ 4:16 pm
tyvm this really helped my project I had no idea about the song haty cultire and i thought i would fail
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Jan 5, 2010 @ 6:18 pm
kewl website i bet ill get an A++!! This was really helpful where did u get all this information from?? Also im still wondering about the artill check my email to see if u wrote back!! :) :)
tht one kid
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Feb 16, 2010 @ 11:11 am
This website will get an A++ on this project I got all the information I need thank you =P
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Feb 22, 2010 @ 5:17 pm
thanks for this information i need for my global homework is going to help me in my research and i
/my history project and not fail!
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Mar 10, 2010 @ 9:09 am
this is an amazing website thankyou so much! I will pass this assignment!
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Mar 22, 2010 @ 4:16 pm
This is a really goo website i will pass my assighnment thank you i will tell all my freinds about this website
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Mar 24, 2010 @ 7:19 pm
And this is why I'm not going to fail my global project becuase i was flipping out when i couldn't find anything! Thank you so much for this information! Wow it looks like everyone has a global project on the Songhay and mali and ghana i'm guessing... :)
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Jun 28, 2010 @ 5:17 pm
I am a student at the NFTS( national film and television school) England where i am in my final year of my Masters in Directing Documentary. i have just come back from a month in Mali with Afel Bocoum shooting my Graduation film, ( music documentary) i spent time in Bamako, Mopti and eventually after a very difficult journey i ended up in his home town of Niafunke.

My film is about the Niger river/ Afel and his relationship with the river/ the fact that the fish are less and less/ the water level is getting lower and lower each year and we even touched on the water spirits an ancestors.

Since my return i have been trying to find some folklore/ traditional stories/ poems or anything find about the Niger River and the water spirits.

if anyone has any information please feel free to contact me, i am in need of help. please

Noble Fox
C & D
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Oct 2, 2010 @ 11:11 am
This website is as amazing as the starry sky above! i thank u kindly for the epic wonderment this website has bestowed upon us.
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Oct 18, 2010 @ 7:07 am
It's actually SONGHAI, not SONGHAY... seriously. The information looks alright, though. Glad to see that it helped so many people with their projects.
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Oct 22, 2010 @ 3:15 pm
Thanxs so much it really helped with my group project in school =]
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Oct 26, 2010 @ 1:13 pm
this website gives so much information it ant even funny i stayed home for the last couple of days faking i was sick just to get this done i could not find anything that gives so much information like this
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Nov 16, 2010 @ 10:10 am
Thanks. This really helped. I just need some pictures of the ancient artifacts from the three east african kingdoms.I can't find any!!! Does anybody know any sites to go to?
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Mar 29, 2011 @ 6:18 pm
Love this website! It's awsome! I will definitely use this in the future!!!
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Jun 7, 2011 @ 6:18 pm
Thank you soo much!!! Now i may even pass my final tomorrow!!!
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Sep 13, 2011 @ 10:10 am
Thanks ! All of this information on one page is so helpful
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Sep 20, 2011 @ 5:17 pm
This helped super duper much thanks!!(: i had to do a paper on Songhai
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Oct 3, 2011 @ 10:22 pm
Great webpage! It's very helpful. My only problem is that I have to perform this in class and I may have questions and one of them I am unable to answer. That would be: what's a griot?
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Oct 4, 2011 @ 9:09 am
every time i scrolled down there was more and more facts that i needed it really helped me and my group out
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Oct 12, 2011 @ 10:10 am
my group is so thankful for you and ur info.
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Nov 9, 2011 @ 8:08 am
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Nov 9, 2011 @ 8:08 am
I really like this website and it has alot of good and great information.
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Nov 27, 2011 @ 2:14 pm
thnx so much for the info my social studies teacher wanted us to act like we been here and back and wanted us to describe life there (:
sp elemnet
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Dec 5, 2011 @ 1:01 am
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Dec 19, 2011 @ 6:06 am
Are there any informations on the Songhai Empire, not the Songhay descendents? Would be really helpful if there were any.
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Jan 12, 2012 @ 11:11 am
Is there any info on Songhay's empire? It would be really helpful for my Global history project.
chris powers
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Jan 31, 2012 @ 2:14 pm
thank you for information it helped so much. i hope others get as much of a impact as i did. thank you again
-chris :)
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Feb 2, 2012 @ 11:11 am
I would like to know the meaning of the name DALLO. Im my village anybody bearing the name Mohammed Lamin is automatically called DALLO. I want to know why ?

I am from Barkaina a village in the cercle of Bourem in the region of Gao, Mali.
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Feb 6, 2012 @ 4:16 pm
Thank you so much! I love your website, although whoever it was is right; it's Songhai, not Songhay.
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Feb 7, 2012 @ 6:18 pm
thanks alot,i got a good grade on my project.This gave me lots of imformation.
some b
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Feb 26, 2012 @ 5:17 pm
i don't know who you are, but you helped me finish my project. Thank you bruhh. You's a true nigg
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Feb 28, 2012 @ 4:16 pm
thanks this was really helpful research exactly what i needed for my project and love how you broke it donw in secectios thanks
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Mar 19, 2012 @ 10:10 am
this sites was so helpful! Thanks. I will so get an A+ on my project. You guys rock! Peace Out! I am gonna tell my teacher about this!
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Aug 20, 2012 @ 3:03 am
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Nov 2, 2012 @ 1:13 pm
What were the houses used for?? It tells you what kind but what were they used for??
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Nov 7, 2012 @ 11:11 am
Thank you so much for this info!! Really needed it!! ;D
Victoria Santana
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Nov 18, 2012 @ 10:10 am
This website is very helpful, Thank You for all the information that you provided about the People/Empire of Songhai! THANK YOU (:
Starling Susan Phyllis Montieth
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Mar 10, 2013 @ 9:21 pm
i need something about ghana and songhai housing please help
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Nov 19, 2013 @ 8:20 pm
This info helped me wit my history project at skool thx a lot
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Dec 5, 2013 @ 2:14 pm
I LOVE THIS WEB SIGHT : me and my partner jenna were doing a report on songhay and we found all the anwers we needed for this report we did 3 answers in about 5 MINUTS and its so easy it tells all so tell your friends about it
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Feb 8, 2014 @ 10:10 am
THIS WAS SO AMAZINGLY PERFECT! I am going to ace this project! thank you SO MUCH.
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May 7, 2014 @ 9:09 am
Thank you. This has lots of information, and I'm doing a school project on the Songhay Empire. This was very helpful - thank you!
christiana blessed
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Oct 31, 2014 @ 12:00 am
Wow..this is really less than a hour av got what my mates used 3 weeks to research ...this is fantastic

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