Soninke of Mali

The Soninke homeland stretches along the northwest border of Mali and Mauritania and spills over into Senegal.  The estimated population of the Soninke people is around 2 million as of fall 2011. The Soninke converted to Islam approximately 1,000 years ago as a result of the Islamic invasion from Morocco.  The Soninke are the founders of the ancient Ghana Empire. 

Our research team had driven about three hours and randomly chose what seemed to be a good village to explore. We initially decided to begin near the mosque, but the driver turned instead toward the water tower and "just happened to stop there." A man walked up and began talking to us. He explained that the tower was partially funded by Soninke villagers who had gone to work abroad. They gave some of the money, and the villagers matched it to make the 1,500-gallon water tower and pump possible.  The water from the tower is used only for human consumption.

"You are speaking with such an understanding of the situation,” I told the man. “You must be a village elder.”

With a shy smile, the man replied, "I am the chief." The location, the time, the chief and the interaction were certainly great examples of the Holy Spirit’s leadership.

The chief took us to see the mayor. He was absent so the assistant mayor welcomed us. The staff of about six sat down with us and we identified ourselves. They introduced themselves and extended a gracious welcome. Our interest was expressed, but we made it clear that at this time our visit was only exploratory.

We asked permission to pray with them for God's direction concerning our assistance to their village. We all extended our hands in the Muslim prayer fashion, and one of the team members prayed in Bambara, the national language. A bond was established with the village. Perhaps this was the group of people to whom we could offer a helping hand and thereby have the opportunity to share the gospel with them.

We stepped outside and I took a picture of all the staff in front of their newly painted sign. It couldn't have been a better visit. We got back in our vehicle and thanked God for preparing the way to make contact with the Soninke.

Soninke of Senegal

Passing through Semme, Senegal, we entered Soninke territory. Before our journey, our research team had studied about this large people group. They live on the back side of Senegal, isolated from the ebb and flow of Senegalese national life. They number 270,000 in Senegal and more than a million in the neighboring country of Mali.

The Soninke occupy a breadth of about 50 kilometers of dry, arid countryside. The Senegal River establishes their homeland's northern border. We saw some villages and cattle herds, but we were too far away from the river to observe any farmland. I definitely had the feeling of being in an isolated area, separated from fertile southern Senegal by a barren savannah section designated for wildlife game reserves.

After a two-hour drive, we arrived in Bakel, a city of 15,000 people in the heart of the Senegal Soninke homeland. The community is located on the Senegal River at the base of a high hill on which an old French lookout tower still stands. Across the river is the country of Mauritania. A few kilometers to the southeast, the river forms the meeting point of the Senegal, Mauritania and Mali borders.

At the base of the hill is the local mosque, the most prominent building in Bakel. One block away is an elementary school and near it, a youth center. We were privileged to interact with some of the youth. Though being isolated geographically, they seemed to be in touch with the outside world through education and access to the Internet.

We stayed overnight in a house overlooking the river. The view was beautiful, and it reminded us that where there is water, there is life. This isolated setting also called our attention to the absence of the presence of Jesus, the giver of spiritual life. Although the community is Islamic, the people also acknowledge, pay homage to and fear a river god. Only Jesus' power will bring them the deliverance they desperately need.

We know of only one born-again believer among the Senegal Soninke and five to ten Soninke Christians in Mali. Thank God for one witness among the Senegal Soninke. This believer in Jesus is like a flickering candle that the Holy Spirit can use to ignite a spiritual awakening to bring deliverance from sin, deception and the bondage of evil spirits. May the Lord raise up messengers to carry the good news of the gospel across Soninke territory so they will no longer be isolated from the knowledge of the truth.


Soninke Profile

Introduction / History
One of the first Soninke settlements was established in Ghana around A.D. 750. Because of persecution by the Berbers, the Soninke dispersed into small groups within the neighboring regions. The three main sub-groups of the Soninke are the Marka, Nono, and Azer. Often, these tribes are further broken into smaller clans that specialize in various crafts. Some of the most important Soninke tribes are the Sisse, Drame, Sylla, and Kante. After fleeing to Senegal and Gambia, these groups intermixed with the local Wolof, Serer, and Malinke tribes.

The Soninke live primarily along the upper Senegal River from Matam to Bakel, with some migrating to the city of Dakar. Two of their settlements are Jara and Gajaga. Due to influence by a large nomadic tribe known as the Fulani, the Soninke have become farmers and herdsmen. They speak a Mandingo language called Sarakole (or Soninke).

What are their lives like?
The social structure and organization of the Soninke are typical of the Mande-related people groups. They are farmers who raise sorghum, rice, peanuts, and their staple crop, millet. They also raise large numbers of goats, sheep, horses, chickens, and cattle. Very little fishing and hunting is done, and trade is extremely important. The Soninke trade in the local markets. They also travel to markets in other regions to trade their goods.

In the past, the Soninke men cleared the land and cultivated the crops; the women worked in the gardens. Today, however, they have one of the highest rates of labor migration in West Africa. Much of the male population is absent from the home doing migrant work, which often lasts from two to four years. With the women, old men, and children left behind, a form of matriarchal (female-dominated) society has evolved.

The Soninke live in compact villages, in which homes are built in two distinct styles. One style is round huts with brick walls and thatched roofs. The other style is rectangular houses with brick walls, interior courts, and flat terraced roofs. Houses line both sides of the main street, and a mosque is typically located in the village square.

Soninke marriages require the payment of a bride-price. In contrast to most neighboring tribes, the bride-price is given to the bride rather than her parents, and becomes part of her dowry. Pre-marital sexual relations are forbidden. Polygyny (having more than one wife) is generally accepted, with each man being limited to four wives by Islamic law.

In the past, inheritances were passed down from fathers to sons. Today, Muslim rules govern the dispersion of property: one-eighth goes to the widow, while equal shares go to each son and half shares go to each daughter.

What are their beliefs?
Most of the Soninke in Senegal are Sunni Muslims. The remainder are a mixture of various animistic religions (believe that non-human objects have spirits). The Muslims follow the teachings of Mohammed, the Islamic prophet. Their holy book, the Koran, was said to have been given to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel.

As Muslims, the Soninke adhere to the five essential "pillars", or duties, of Islam. These include affirming that "there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet;" praying five times a day while facing Mecca; giving alms generously; fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year; and making at least one pilgrimage to Mecca, if possible.

What are their needs?
Among all the Soninke in Senegal, there are only a few known Christians. Those who convert to Christianity are severely persecuted by the Muslims; therefore, evangelizing is extremely difficult. Most Soninke have not yet heard a clear presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Prayer Points
* Ask the Lord to send forth laborers into Senegal to share Christ with the Soninke.
* Pray that Christian radio broadcasts would be made available to the Soninke.
* Pray that the Lord Jesus will supernaturally reveal Himself to the Soninke through dreams and visions.
* Pray that God will give the small number of Soninke believers boldness to share Christ with their own people.
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the spiritual soil of Senegal through worship and intercession.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a triumphant Soninke church for the glory of His name!
* Pray for completion of Bible translation in this people group's primary language.

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