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The Epic of Askia Mohammed
Narrated by Nouhou Malio
Recorded in Saga, Niger, on December 30, 1980, and January 26, 1981, by Thomas A. Hale. Transcribed by Mounkaila Seydou Boulhassane Maïga, Ousmane Mahamane
Tandina, Moussa Djibo, and Thomas A. Hale. Translated into English by Thomas Hale with the assistance of Mounkaila Seydou Boulhassane Maïga, Ousmane Mahamane
Tandina, Moussa Djibo, Fatimata Mounkaila, Abdoulaye Dan Louma, and Abdoulaye Harouna. Edited by Thomas A. Hale, published as part of Scribe, Griot, and Novelist:
Narrative Interpreters of the Songhay Empire by the University of Florida Press in 1990, and reprinted in 1996, with a new introduction, as the second volume in the African
Epic Series b Indiana University Press. This excerpt edited by Thomas A. Hale.
Thanks to the aggressive leadership of Sonni Ali Ber, the Songhay empire, based at Gao on the Niger River in southeastern Mali, expanded to absorb a part of Mali
as that kingdom, founded by Son­Jara, declined in the fifteenth century. From 1463 to 1492, Sonni Ali Ber laid the foundation for Askia Mohammed Touré, a ruler of
Soninké origin who, in turn, built a vast and complex empire from 1493 to 1528. At its apogee in the early sixteenth century, Songhay appears to have controlled in
one way or another peoples and territory covering over 400,000 square kilometers, from eastern Senegal 3,000 kilometers eastward to central Niger, and from
Upper Guinea 1,500 kilometers northward to the Mali­Mauritania­Algeria frontier region.
Our knowledge of Songhay history comes both from the Timbuktu chronicles, written in Arabic by Muslim scribes close to the ruling elite, and from griots, known in
Songhay as jesere, a term derived from the Soninké word geseré. Songhay oral narratives were originally chanted in Soninké, probably because griots from the
dispersed peoples of the much earlier Ghana empire gravitated toward a powerful ruler whose clan name, Touré, indicated a Soninké link. Today, some Soninké
phrases survive in archaic and often untranslatable form in narratives and incantations from Songhay jesere and sohanci (sorcerers).
Askia Mohammed spread Islam to new areas of West Africa by force and by other means. He also offered support to Islamic scholars in Timbuktu, made a
pilgrimage to Mecca in 1497­98, and corresponded with the North African theologian al­Maghili. It is not surprising, then, that Islam has a much higher profile here
than in epics about earlier periods. But traditional Songhay beliefs and magic play equally significant roles in the story of Askia Mohammed. Like Son­Jara and other
epic heroes, Askia Mohammed was born under extraordinary circumstances and had to overcome great obstacles. Called Mamar Kassaye (the dimunitive of
Mohammed, son of Kassaye), he appears in the epic as the killer of Sonni Ali Ber, referred to here as his uncle Si. These excerpts come from a 1602­line version
recounted in Songhay by Nouhou Malio and accompanied by Soumana Abdou, who played the three­stringed molo, a type of lute.
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Kassaye is the woman.
It is Si who is the man, it is he who is on the throne, it is he who
is the chief.
Kassaye is his sister, she is in his compound.
Any husband who marries Kassaye, and if she gives birth,
The seers have said “Listen”—they told Si it is Kassaye who
will give birth to a child who will kill him and take over
the throne of Gao.
It is Kassaye who will give birth to a child.
That child will kill Si and will take the position of ruler.
Si also heard about this.
Each of the children that Kassaye gave birth to,
As soon as Kassaye delivered it, Si killed it,
Every child that Kassaye delivered, as soon as it was born, Si
killed it.
Until she had given birth to seven children,
Which her brother Si killed.
Kassaye had enough, she said she would no longer take a
She stayed like that.
Si is on his throne,
While Kassaye remained like that.
Until, until, until, until one day, much later, in the middle of
the night,
A man came who was wearing beautiful clothes.
He was a real man, he was tall, someone who looked good in
white clothes, his clothes were really beautiful.
One could smell perfume everywhere.
He came in to sit down next to Kassaye.
They chatted with each other, they chatted, they chatted.
He said to her, “It is really true.
“Kassaye, I would like to make love with you.
“Once we make love together,
“You will give birth to a boy,
”Whom Si will not be able to kill.
“It is he who will kill Si and will become the ruler.”
Kassaye said to him, “What?”
He said, “By Allah.”
She said, “Good, in the name of Allah.”
Each night the man came.
It is during the late hours that he came,
Each time during the coolness of the late evening,
Until Kassaye became pregnant by him.
Kassaye carried her pregnancy.
Kassaye had a Bargantché captive.
It is the Bargantché woman who is her captive, she lives in her
house, and she too is pregnant.
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Page 128
They remained like that,
Kassaye kneeled down to give birth.
The captive kneeled down to give birth.
So Kassaye, Kassaye gave birth to a boy.
The captive gave birth to a girl.
Then Kassaye took the daughter of the captive, she took her
home with her.
She took her son and gave it to the captive.
So the people left for the palace.
They said to Si:
“The Bargantché captive has given birth.”
He said, “What did she get?”
They said, “A boy.”
He said, “May Allah be praised, may our Lord give him a long
life and may he be useful.”
Then they were thoughtful for a moment.
They got up and informed him that Kassaye had given birth.
They asked, “What did she get?”
They answered, “A girl.”
He said, “Have them bring it to me.”
They brought it to him, he killed it.
It is the boy who remained with the captive and Kassaye.
[By this subterfuge, Kassaye saves her son, who becomes a servant working for his uncle. Of noble origin, he must nevertheless pass as a slave.]
He became a young man, tall and very strong, a tall young
The children in the compound,
They are the ones who insult him by saying that they don’t
know his father.
Also, they call him the little slave of Si.
“The little slave of Si, the little slave of Si.”
They called him “little slave of Si,” and said, “We don’t know
your father, you don’t have a father.
“Who is your father?”
Then he came home to his mother’s house and told her that the
children in the compound were really bothering him.
They say to him, “Who is your father?”
She told him, “Go sit down, you’ll see your father.”
He stayed there until the celebration at the end of Ramadan.
It is going to take place the next day.
Tomorrow is the celebration.
Soon they will look at the moon.
The moon will appear in a short while, and they will celebrate
the next day.
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Page 129
It is in the night that the jinn came to her,
For the man is a jinn.
He is also a chief of the town under the river, his land that he
It is under the river that lies the country he rules.
That night he called her.
He came, the man came to Kassaye’s house.
He took a ring off his middle finger.
He said to her that when daylight comes,
“Give it to your son.”
He should hold it in his hand.
If he gets to the edge of the river, then he should put the ring
on his finger.
He will see his father.
She said, “So it will be.”
Daylight came.
The sun was hot, I think, the sun was hot.
Then Kassaye called Mamar.
She said, “Mamar.”
He said, “Yes.”
She said, “Come.”
He came.
She said to him, “Look, take this ring in your hand.
“But don’t put it on your finger
“Until you get to the river.
“Then you put it on your finger.
“At that moment, you will see your father.”
Mamar took the ring to the river.
Then he put the ring on his middle finger.
The water opened up.
Under the water there are so many cities, so many cities, so
many cities, so many villages, and so many people.
It is his father too who is the chief.
They too get themselves ready, they go out to go to the prayer
He said, “That’s the way it is.”
His father greets him with an embrace.
There is his son, there is his son.
Yes, the prince whom he fathered while away,
The chief’s son whom he fathered while away has come.
He said to him, “Now go return to your home, you do not stay
“Go return home.”
His father gave him a white stallion, really white, really, really,
really, really, really, really, really white, like, like percale.
He gave him all the things necessary.
He gave him two lances.
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He gave him a saber, which he wore.
He gave him a shield.
He bid him good­bye.
[Armed by his real father from the underwater spirit world, Mamar Kassaye sets out to take power from his evil uncle. He chooses to do so on a Muslim holy day.
Pretending to demonstrate his loyalty to Si, he races his horse up to the ruler three times in succession, stopping each time just before reaching his uncle.]
Si too and his people,
Si too has a daughter, two boys and one daughter that he has
He and his people go out, they went to the prayer ground.
They are at the prayer ground.
Then Mamar went around them and headed directly for them.
They were about to start the prayer.
They said, “Stop, just stop, a prince from another place is
coming to pray with us.
“A prince from another place is coming to pray with us.”
The horse gallops swiftly, swiftly, swiftly, swiftly, swiftly,
swiftly he is approaching.
He comes into view suddenly, leaning forward on his mount.
Until, until, until, until, until, until, until he touches the prayer
skin of his uncle, then he reins his horse there.
Those who know him say that he is the little captive of Si.
Actually, he does resemble the little captive of Si, he has the
same look as the little captive of Si.
Did you see him! When I saw him I thought that it was the little
captive of Si.
He retraced his path only to return again.
Until he brought the horse to the same place, where he reined
it again.
Now he made it gallop again.
As he approaches the prayer skin of his uncle,
He reins his horse.
He unslung his lance, and pierced his uncle with it until the
lance touched the prayer skin.
Until the spear went all the way to the prayer skin.
[Mamar Kassaye decides to atone for the killing of his uncle by making a pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way, he forces many peoples to accept Islam.]
In each village where he stopped during the day, for example,
this place,
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Page 131
If he arrives in mid­afternoon, he stops there and spends the
Early in the morning, they pillage and they go on to the next
village, for example, Liboré.
The cavalier who goes there,
He traces on the ground for the people the plan for the mosque.
Once the plan for the foundation is traced,
The people build the mosque.
It is at that time,
Mamar Kassaye comes to dismount from his horse.
He makes the people—
They teach them verses from the Koran relating to prayer.
They teach them prayers from the Koran.
Any villages that refuse, he destroys the village, bums it, and
moves on.
[After his return from Mecca, Mamar Kassaye continues to impose Islam on the territories he conquers. But he does not always succeed. He cannot escape the fact
that when he was an infant he was nursed during the day by a woman from another people, the Bargantché, who live in northern Benin. This milk tie is as strong as the
tie of blood that links people together in families and clans. For this reason, when Mamar Kassaye sets out to conquer the Bargantché, he encounters difficulty and
must call upon his mother for help. He sends a sohanci, who flies through the air, to see his mother and ask advice.]
His mother, Kassaye, had told him, “Long ago,
“I told him not to fight against the Bargantché.
“He cannot beat them, for he has in his stomach the milk of a
However, she told him,
Now, she took some cotton seeds in her hand and said, “Take.”
She took an egg, a chicken egg, and she said to him, ”Take.”
She took a stone, a river stone, she told him, “Take.”
“If you go,” if he goes to the Bargantché,
If the Bargantché chase him,
He should put all his horses before him and he should be the
only one behind.
He should scatter the cotton seeds behind him.
They will become a dense bushy barrier between him and
If they chop it down,
This dense bush will not prevent anything.
They will clear the bush in order to find him.
If the bush does not help at all,
This time, if they are still hunting him,
He should put all his cavalry in front of him.
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Page 132
He should throw the stone behind him.
It will become a big mountain that will be a barrier between
If the big mountain does not help them,
And if they chase him again,
He should put all his cavalry in front of him again,
Leaving himself in the rear.
He should throw the egg behind him.
The egg will become a river to separate them.
The river cannot—they will stop at the river.
That egg will become a river that will be a barrier between
Before the cocks crow at dawn,
When dawn has really come,
The sohanci returns, he lands on the earth.
He said, “By Allah, when I passed by Sikiyay I heard them say
that Sana had given birth.
“Then I said that if Sana gives birth—since Sana had given
“They should name the child Daouda.”
He is the one who is Daouda Sana.
They continued until they . . .
He escaped from the Bargantché, the Bargantché who live along
the river.
He never again fought against them.
Now, he just passed through their country, to go and start again
his reign.
[Nouhou Malio does not tell us what happened to Mamar Kassaye. But we know from the Timbuktu chronicles that he was overthrown by one of his sons, Askia
Moussa, in 1528, and exiled to an island in the Niger River. He died ten years later. For the remainder of the century, the empire experienced a series of rulers
descended from Askia Mohammed. A few, for example Askia Daouda, mentioned at the end of this excerpt, were extremely effective leaders, but most were not so
talented. On April 12, 1591, an army sent across the Sahara by the sultan of Morocco defeated the Songhay, an event that destroyed not only their empire but
marked the final chapter in the rise of a great Sahelian civilization whose stories still echo across the region in the narratives of modern griots.]
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