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Africa is a big place. In fact, it is the second-largest continent on earth. Only Asia is bigger. This vast land is shaped roughly like a soup bowl. Forming the bowl’s northwestern rim are the Atlas Mountains. The Drakensberg range forms the southeastern edge. In eastern Africa mountains extend alongside great rifts. These rifts are long, deep valleys formed by the movement of the earth’s crust. From all these mountains the land dips into plateaus and wide, low plains.

The plains of sub-Saharan Africa, or Africa south of the Sahara, are crossed by mighty rivers. Among the main rivers are the Congo, the Zambezi, and the Niger. Along the Niger River in West Africa great civilizations arose. The role this river played in the development of civilizations is one example of the way the physical geography of West Africa affected history there.

Look closely at the map below and find the Niger River. As a source of water, food, and transportation, the river allowed many people to live in the area. Along the Niger’s middle section is a low-lying area of lakes and marshes. This watery region is called the inland delta. Though it looks much like the area where a river flows into the sea, it is hundreds of miles from the coast. Many animals and birds find food and shelter in the area. Among them are crocodiles, geese, and hippopotamus. Fish are also plentiful.


Four different regions make up the area surrounding the Niger River. These regions, which run from east to west, are like broad bands or stripes across West Africa. The entire area is warm, but rainfall varies from north to south. The amount of rainfall each region gets has an impact on what vegetation, or plant life, exists there.

The northern band across West Africa is the southern part of the Sahara. This huge expanse of sand and gravel is the world’s largest desert. Temperatures can climb above 120°F. Rain is very rare. The next band is the semiarid Sahel (sah-HEL), a strip of land that divides the desert from wetter areas. Although the Sahel is fairly dry, it has enough vegetation to support hardy grazing animals.

Farther south is a band of savannah, or open grassland with scattered treesgrassland with scattered trees. Tall grasses and shrubs also grow there, and grazing animals are common. The fourth band gets heavy rain. Near the equator are rain forests, or moist, densely wooded areas. The Impact Today They contain many different plants and animals.



West Africa’s land is one of the region’s resources. With its many climates, the land could produce many different crops. Among the traditional West African crops are dates raised in desert oases and kola nuts, used for medicines, from the forests’ trees. Along the Niger, farmers could use the water to grow many food crops.

Other resources were minerals. People who live mainly on plant foods, like many early Africans, must add salt to their diets. The Sahara was a source of this precious mineral. When ancient lakes there dried up, they left salt behind. Workers mined the salt by digging deep into the earth.

Gold was another mineral resource of West Africa. Although gold is soft and therefore useless for tools or weapons, it makes beautiful jewelry and coins. Gold came from the southern forests. Miners kept the exact locations of the gold mines a secret. To this day, no one knows exactly where the mines were located, but gold became a valuable trade good.



Thousands of years ago, West Africa had a damp climate. About 5,000 years ago the climate changed, though, and the area became drier. As more land became desert, people had to leave areas where they could no longer survive. People who had once roamed freely began to live closer together. Over time they settled in villages. At the heart of village life was the family.

Families, Villages, and Loyalties

A typical West African family was an extended family. Usually the extended family included the father, mother, children, and close relatives in one household. West African society expected each person to be loyal to his or her extended family.

In some areas people took part in another type of group. In these groups—called age-sets—men who had been born within the same two or three years formed special bonds. Men in the same age-set had a duty to help each other. Women, too, sometimes formed age-sets.

Loyalty to family and age-sets helped the people of a village work together. Everyone had specific duties. The men hunted and farmed. Among the crops that men tended were millet and sorghum. These hardy grains grew well in the savannah in spite of the poor soil there. After being harvested, the grain could be made into a thick paste or ground into flour to make bread. Cattle could eat the grain. Farmers also raised goats and sheep.

Like the men, West African women worked very hard. They farmed, collected firewood, ground grain, and carried water. Women also cared for children. Even the very young and the very old had their own tasks. For example, the elders, or old people, taught the family’s traditions to younger generations. Through songs, dances, and stories, elders passed on the community’s history and values. Among the values that children learned was the need for hard work. Children began working beside older family members as soon as they were able.

Religion and Culture

Another central feature of village life was religion. Some religious practices were similar from village to village. A traditional belief showed the importance of families. Many West Africans believed that the unseen spirits of their ancestors stayed nearby. To honor these spirits, families marked places as sacred spaces by putting specially carved statues there. Family members gathered in these places to share news and problems with the ancestors. Families also offered food to the ancestors’ spirits. Through these practices they hoped to keep the spirits happy. In return, they believed, these spirits would protect the village from harm.

Another common West African belief had to do with nature. We call it animism—the belief that bodies of water, animals, trees, and other natural objects have spirits. Animism reflected West Africans’ dependence on the natural world for survival.

Technology and Change

As time passed, the people of West Africa developed advanced and diverse cultures. Changes in technologyAfrica_-_Nok.jpg helped some early communities grow.

Sometime around 500 BC West Africans made a discovery that would change their region forever. They found that they could heat certain kinds of rock to get a hard metal. This metal was iron. By heating the iron again, they could shape it into useful things. Stronger than other metals, iron was good for making tools.

One of the earliest peoples to use this new technology was the Nok. Living in present-day Nigeria, the Nok made iron farm tools. One iron tool, the hoe, allowed farmers to clear the land more quickly and easily than they could with earlier tools. As a result, they could grow more food. The Nok also used iron tips for arrows and spears. Iron weapons provided a better defense against invaders and helped in hunting. As better-equipped farmers, hunters, and warriors, the Nok gained power. They also became known for fine sculptures of animals and human heads they made from clay.

Iron tools also provided another benefit. They helped West Africans live in places where they couldn’t live before. Iron blades allowed people to cut down trees to clear land for farms. Because they had more places to live and more farms for growing food, the population of West Africa grew.

Trade and West Africa

As the people of West Africa grew more food, communities had more than they needed to survive. West Africans began to trad
the area’s resources with buyers who lived thousands of miles away.

For a long time, West Africans had ventured into the desert for trade. However, those early travelers could only make short trips from oasis to oasis. Their horses couldn’t go far without water. In the AD 200s, the situation changed. At about that time, Romans started to use camels to carry goods throughout northern Africa. These long-legged animals could store water and energy in their bodies for long periods of time. They could also carry heavy loads. With camels people could cross the Sahara in two months. Traders formed caravans to make the trip. A North African people called the Berbers used their knowledge of the desert to lead the caravans. Even with camels and the Berbers’ skills, crossing the Sahara was dangerous. Supplies could run out, thieves could attack, and caravans could lose their way.

Despite these dangers, West Africa’s gold and salt mines became a source of great wealth. Camels carried salt from the mines of the Sahara to the south to trade for gold. Traders then took the gold north, to Europe and the Islamic world. Along with gold and salt, traders carried cloth, copper, silver, and other items. They also bought and sold human beings as slaves.

Some of the places where people gathered to trade grew into towns. Timbuktu (tim-buk-TOO), for example, began as a camp for traders in about 1100. Within two centuries, it would become a bustling city and a center of culture and learning. It would lie at the center of great empires that rose to power through the riches of the trans-Sahara trade.



For hundreds of years, trade routes crisscrossed West Africa. For most of that time, West Africans did not profit much from the Saharan trade because the routes were run by Berbers from northern Africa. Eventually, that situation changed. Ghana (GAH-nuh), an empire in West Africa, gained control of the valuable routes. As a result, Ghana became a powerful state. As you can see on the map below, the empire of Ghana lay between the Niger and Senegal rivers. This location was north and west of the location of the modern nation that bears the name Ghana.

Beginnings of Ghana

Archaeology provides some clues to Ghana’s early history, but we do not know much about its earliest days. Historians think the first people in Ghana were farmers. Sometime after 300 these farmers, the Soninke (soh-NING-kee), were threatened by nomadic herders. The herders wanted to take the farmers’ water and pastures. For protection, groups of Soninke families began to band together. This banding together was the beginning of Ghana.

Once they banded together, the people of Ghana grew in strength. They learned how to work with iron and used iron tools to farm the land along the Niger River. They also herded cattle for meat and milk. Because these farmers and herders could produce plenty of food, the population of Ghana increased. Towns and villages grew.
Besides farm tools, iron was also useful for making weapons. Other armies in the area had weapons made of bone, wood, and stone. These were no match for the iron spear points and blades used by Ghana’s army.



Ghana lay between the vast Sahara Desert and deep forests. In this location, they were in a good position to trade in the region’s most valuable resources—gold and salt. Gold came from the south, from mines near the Gulf of Guinea and along the Niger. Salt came from the Sahara in the north. People wanted gold for its beauty. But they needed salt in their diets to survive. Salt, which could be used to preserve food, also made bland food tasty. These qualities made salt very valuable. In fact, Africans sometimes cut up slabs of salt and used the pieces as money.
The exchange of gold and salt sometimes followed a process called silent barter. Silent barter is a process in which people exchange goods without ever contacting each other directly. The method made sure that the traders did business peacefully. It also kept the exact location of the gold mines secret from the salt traders. In the silent barter process, salt traders went to a riverbank near gold fields. There they left slabs of salt in rows and beat a drum to tell the gold miners that trading had begun. Then the salt traders moved back several miles from the riverbank. Soon afterward, the gold miners arrived by boat. They left what they considered a fair amount of gold in exchange for the salt. Then the gold miners also moved back several miles so the salt traders could return. If they were happy with the amount of gold left there, the salt traders beat the drum again, took the gold, and left. The gold miners then returned and picked up their salt. Trading continued until both sides were happy with the exchange.

As the trade in gold and salt increased, Ghana’s rulers gained power. Over time, their military strength grew as well. With their armies they began to take control of this trade from the merchants who had once controlled it. Merchants from the north and south met to exchange goods in Ghana. As a result of their control of trade routes, the rulers of Ghana became wealthy.

Additional sources of wealth and trade were developed to add to Ghana’s wealth. Wheat came from the north. Sheep, cattle, and honey came from the south. Local products, including leather and cloth, were also traded for wealth. Among the prized special local products were tassels made from golden thread. As trade increased, Ghana’s capital grew as well. The largest city in West Africa, Koumbi Saleh (KOOM-bee SAHL-uh) was an oasis for travelers. These travelers could find all the region’s goods for sale in its markets. As a result, Koumbi Saleh gained a reputation as a great trading center.

Building An Empire

With so many traders passing through their lands, Ghana’s rulers looked for ways to make money from them. One way they raised money was by forcing traders to pay taxes. Every trader who entered Ghana had to pay a special tax on the goods he carried. Then he had to pay another tax on any goods he took with him when he left.
Traders were not the only people who had to pay taxes. The people of Ghana also had to pay taxes. In addition, Ghana conquered many small neighboring tribes, then forced them to pay tribute. Rulers used the money from taxes and tribute to support Ghana’s growing army.

Not all of Ghana’s wealth came from taxes and tribute. Ghana’s rich mines produced huge amounts of gold. Some of this gold was carried by traders to lands as far away as England, but not all of Ghana’s gold was traded. Ghana’s kings kept huge stores of gold for themselves. In fact, all the gold produced in Ghana was officially the property of the king. Knowing that rare materials are worth far more than common ones, the rulers banned anyone else in Ghana from owning gold nuggets. Common people could own only gold dust, which they used as money. This ensured that the king was richer than his subjects.

Ghana’s kings used their great wealth to build a powerful army. With this army the kings of Ghana conquered many of their neighbors. Many of these conquered areas were centers of trade. Taking over these areas made Ghana’s kings even richer. Ghana’s kings didn’t think that they could rule all the territory they conquered by themselves. Their empire was quite large, and travel and communication in West Africa could be difficult. To keep order in their empire, they allowed conquered kings to retain much of their power. These kings acted as governors of their territories, answering only to the king.

The empire of Ghana reached its peak under Tunka Manin (TOOHN-kah MAH-nin). This king had a splendid court where he displayed the vast wealth of the empire. A Spanish writer noted the court’s splendor.

“The king adorns himself…round his neck and his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold.”

Ghana's Decline

In the mid-1000s Ghana was rich and powerful, but by the end of the 1200s, the empire had collapsed. Three major factors contributed to its end.
The first factor that helped bring about Ghana’s end was invasion. A Muslim group called the Almoravids (al-moh-RAH-vidz) attacked Ghana in the 1060s in an effort to force its leaders to convert to Islam. The people of Ghana fought hard against the Almoravid army. For 14 years they kept the invaders at bay. In the end, however, the Almoravids won. They destroyed the city of Koumbi Saleh. The Almoravids didn’t control Ghana for long, but they certainly weakened the empire. They cut off many trade routes through Ghana and formed new trading partnerships with Muslim leaders instead. Without this trade Ghana could no longer support its empire.

A second factor in Ghana’s decline was a result of the Almoravid conquest. When the Almoravids moved into Ghana, they brought herds of animals with them. These animals ate all the grass in many pastures, leaving the soil exposed to hot desert winds. These winds blew away the soil, leaving the land worthless for farming or herding. Unable to grow crops, many farmers had to leave in search of new homes.

A third factor also helped bring about the decline of Ghana’s empire. In about 1200 the people of a country that Ghana had conquered rose up in rebellion. Within a few years the rebels had taken over the entire empire of Ghana. Once in control, however, the rebels found that they could not keep order in Ghana. Weakened, Ghana was attacked and defeated by one of its neighbors. The empire fell apart.



Like Ghana, Mali (MAH-lee) lay along the upper Niger River. This area’s fertile soil helped Mali grow. In addition, Mali’s location on the Niger allowed its people to control trade on the river. Through this control of trade, the empire became rich and powerful. According to legend, Mali’s rise to power began under a ruler named Sundiata (soohn-JAHT-ah).

Building the Empire

Since written records about Mali are scarce, the details of its rise to power are unclear. Many legends about this period exist, though. According to these legends, Sundiata, Mali’s first strong leader, was both a mighty warrior and a magician. According to the legends, he had to overcome great hardships before he could build his empire.

Sundiata was the son of a previous king of Mali. When he was a boy, however, Mali was conquered by a powerful king who treated the people of Mali badly. Sundiata grew up hating him. When he reached adulthood, Sundiata built up a huge army and won his country’s independence. Then he set about conquering many nearby kingdoms, including Ghana.

After Sundiata had conquered Ghana, he took over the salt and gold trades. He also worked to improve agriculture in Mali. Sundiata had new farmlands cleared for beans, onions, rice, and other crops. He even introduced a new crop to Mali— cotton. People used cotton to make clothing that was comfortable in the warm climate. Realizing its value, they also sold cotton to other people. To help feed the people of his new empire, legend says that Sundiata put some soldiers to work in the fields. Once Mali’s enemies had been defeated, the soldiers didn’t need to fight, so they worked alongside slaves on large farms. Using conquered people as slaves was a common practice in the kingdoms of West Africa.

Under Sundiata’s guidance, Mali grew into a prosperous kingdom. To keep order and protect his authority, Sundiata took power away from local leaders. These local leaders had borne the title mansa (MAHN-sah), a title Sundiata now took for himself. Mansas had both political and religious roles in society. By taking on the religious authority of the mansas, Sundiata gained even more power in Mali. The religious role of the mansa grew out of traditional Malian beliefs. According to these beliefs, the people’s ancestors had made an agreement with the spirits of the land. The spirits would make sure that the land provided plenty of food. By keeping in touch with their ancestors, the people could contact these spirits.

Sundiata died in 1255. His son, who was the next ruler of Mali, also took the title of mansa, as did the empire’s later rulers. Unlike Sundiata, though, most of these later rulers were Muslims.


Mansa Musa

Mali’s most famous ruler was a Muslim king named Mansa Musa (MAHN-sah moo-SAH). Under his skillful leadership, Mali reached the height of its wealth, power, and fame in the 1300s. Because of Mansa Musa’s influence, Islam spread through a large part of West Africa. Mansa Musa ruled Mali for about 25 years. During that time, his army captured many important trade cities, including Timbuktu (tim-buhk-TOO), Gao (GOW), and Djenné (je-NAY). These cities became part of Mali’s empire.

Religion was very important to Mansa Musa. In 1324, he left Mali on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Making such a journey, or hajj, is a spiritual duty of all Muslims. Mansa Musa’s first stop on his hajj was Cairo, Egypt. According to one account, he arrived in the city with nearly 100 camels, each loaded with 300 pounds of gold. Some 60,000 men traveled with him. About 10 years later, a historian spoke to an official who had met him:

“He did me extreme honor and treated me with the greatest courtesy. He addressed me, however, only through an interpreter despite his perfect ability to speak in the Arabic tongue. Then he forwarded [sent] to the royal treasury many loads of unworked native gold and other valuables… He left no court emir nor holder of a royal office without the gift of a load of gold. The Cairenes [people of Cairo] made incalculable [uncountable] profits out of him.”

This historian says that Mansa Musa gave away so much gold in Egypt that gold was no longer rare there, even 10 years later! As a result, its value dropped steeply.
Through his journey, Mansa Musa introduced the empire of Mali to the world. Before he came to power, only a few people outside of West Africa had ever heard of Mali, even though it was one of the world’s largest empires. Mansa Musa made such a great impression on people, though, that Mali became famous throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Just as he supported his faith, Mansa Musa supported education. In his first years as ruler, he sent scholars to study in Morocco. These scholars later set up schools in Mali for studying the Qur’an. Timbuktu became famous for its schools. Mansa Musa wanted Muslims to be able to read the Qur’an. Therefore, he stressed the importance of learning to read and write the Arabic language. Arabic became the main language not only for religious study but also for government and trade.
Mansa Musa wanted to spread Islam in West Africa. To encourage this spread, he hired architects from other Muslim countries to build mosques throughout his empire. Elaborate mosques were built in Timbuktu, Djenné, and other cities.

Mansa Musa hoped that people would accept Islam as he had, but he did not want to force people to convert. Still, during his reign Islam became very popular in Mali. Following their king’s example, many people from Mali went to Mecca. In turn, many Muslims from Asia, Egypt, and other parts of Africa visited Mali. These journeys between regions helped create more trade and made Mali even richer.


The Fall of Mali

Mali’s success depended on strong leaders. Unfortunately, some of Mali’s leaders were not strong. Their poor leadership weakened the empire. When Mansa Musa died, his son Maghan (MAH-gan) took the throne. Unlike his father, however, Maghan was a weak ruler. When raiders poured into Mali, he couldn’t stop them. The raiders set fire to Timbuktu’s great schools and mosques. Mali never fully recovered from this terrible blow. Weakened, the empire gradually declined.

One reason the empire declined was its size. The empire had become so large that the government could no longer control it. Parts of the empire began to break away. For example, the city of Gao declared its independence in the 1400s.

Invaders also helped weaken the empire. In 1431 the Tuareg (TWAH-reg), nomads from the Sahara, attacked and seized Timbuktu. Soon afterward, the kingdom of Takrur (TAHK-roohr) in northern Mali declared its independence. Gradually, the people living at the edges of Mali’s empire broke away. By 1500, nearly all of the lands the empire had once ruled were lost. Only a small area of Mali remained.


Even as the empire of Mali was reaching its height, a rival power was growing in the area. That rival was the Songhai (SAHNG-hy) kingdom. From their capital at Gao, the Songhai participated in the same trade that had made Ghana and Mali so rich.

By the 1300s the Songhai had become rich and powerful enough to draw the attention of Mali’s rulers. Mansa Musa sent his army to conquer the Songhai and make their lands part of his empire. As you have already seen, Gao became one of the most important cities in all of Mali.

Birth of the Songhai Empire

Songhai did not remain part of Mali’s empire for long. As Mali’s government grew weaker, the people of Songhai rose up against it and regained their freedom. Even before they were conquered by Mali, the leaders of the Songhai had become Muslims. As such, they shared a common religion with many of the Berbers who crossed the Sahara to trade in West Africa. Because of this shared religion, the Berbers were willing to trade with the Songhai, who began to grow richer.

As the Songhai grew richer from trans-Saharan trade, they expanded their territory. Gradually, they built an empire. Songhai’s growth was largely the work of one man, Sunni Ali (SOOH-nee ah-LEE), who became the ruler of Songhai in 1464. Before Ali took over, the Songhai state had been disorganized and poorly run. As ruler, he worked constantly to unify, strengthen, and enlarge it. Much of the land that Sunni Ali added to his empire had been part of Mali. For example, he conquered the wealthy trade cities of Timbuktu and Djenné. In 1468 the rulers of Mali asked Sunni Ali to help fight off Tuareg invaders who were about to capture Timbuktu. Ali agreed, but once he had driven off the invaders he decided to keep the city for himself. From there he launched attacks against Djenné, which he finally captured five years later.

As king, Sunni Ali encouraged all people in his empire to work together. To build peace between religions, he participated in both Muslim and local religions. As a result, he brought peace and stability to Songhai.


Askia the Great

Sunni Ali died in 1492. He was followed as king by his son, Sunni Baru, who was not a Muslim. However, most of the people of the empire’s towns were. They were afraid that if Sunni Baru didn’t support Islam they would lose power in the empire, and trade with other Muslim lands would suffer. As a result, they rebelled against Sunni Baru.
The leader of the people’s rebellion was a general named Muhammad Ture (moo-HAH-muhd too-RAY). After overthrowing Sunni Baru, he took the title askia, a title of high military rank. Eventually, he became known as Askia the Great.

Like Mansa Musa, the famous ruler of Mali, Askia the Great took his Muslim faith very seriously. After he defeated Sunni Baru, Askia made a pilgrimage to Mecca, just as Mansa Musa had 200 years earlier. Also like Mansa Musa, Askia worked to support education. Under his rule the city of Timbuktu flourished once again. The great city contained universities, schools, libraries, and mosques. Especially famous was the University of Sankore (san-KOH-rah). People arrived there from all over West Africa to study mathematics, science, medicine, grammar, and law. In the early 1500s, a Muslim traveler and scholar called Leo Africanus wrote this about Timbuktu:

“There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers and priests, all properly appointed by the king. He greatly honors learning. Many hand-written books imported from Barbary [North Africa] are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce [trade] than from all other merchandise.”

Djenné also became a center of learning, especially for medicine. Doctors there discovered that mosquitoes spread malaria. They even performed surgery on the human eye.

Timbuktu and Djenné were centers of learning, but they were also trading centers. Merchants from distant lands came to these cities and to Gao. Most of Songhai’s traders were Muslim, and as they gained influence in the empire so did Islam. Askia the Great, himself a devout Muslim, encouraged the growth in Islamic influence. Many of the laws he made were similar to those of Muslim nations across the Sahara.

To help maintain order, Askia set up five provinces within Songhai. He removed local leaders and appointed new governors who were loyal to him. One such governor ran the empire for Askia when he was away on pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned, Askia brought even more Muslim influence into his government. Askia also created special departments to oversee certain tasks. These departments worked much like government offices do today. He created a standing professional army, the first in West Africa.

Fall of Songhai

After Askia the Great lost power to his son in 1528, other askias ruled Songhai. The empire did not survive for long, though. Areas along the empire’s borders started to nibble away at Songhai’s power.

One of Songhai’s northern neighbors, Morocco, wanted to control the Saharan salt mines. To get those mines, Moroccan troops invaded Songhai. With them they brought a terrible new weapon—the arquebus (AHR-kwih-buhs). The arquebus was an early form of a gun. The Moroccans wanted control of the salt mines because they needed money. Not long before the fight over the mines, Morocco had defended itself against huge invading armies from Portugal and Spain. The Moroccans had eventually defeated the Europeans, but the defense had nearly ruined Morocco financially. Knowing of Songhai’s wealth, the Moroccan ruler decided to attack Songhai for its rich deposits of salt and gold.
The Moroccan army set out for the heart of Songhai in 1591. Not all of the troops were Moroccan, though. About half were actually Spanish and Portuguese war prisoners. These prisoners had agreed to fight against Songhai rather than face more time in prison. Well trained and various disciplined, these soldiers carried weapons, including the deadly new guns. The Moroccans even dragged a few small cannons across the desert with them.

The Moroccans’ guns and cannons brought disaster to Songhai. The swords, spears, and bows carried by Songhai’s warriors were no match for firearms. The Moroccans attacked Timbuktu and Gao, looting and taking over both cities. The Moroccans didn’t push farther into Songhai, but the damage was done. Songhai never recovered from the loss of these cities and the income they produced.

Changes in trade patterns completed Songhai’s fall. Overland trade declined as port cities north and south of the old empire became more important. For example, people who lived south of Songhai began to trade along the Atlantic coast. European traders preferred to sail to Atlantic ports than to deal with Muslim traders. Slowly, the period of great West African empires came to an end.



Although cities like Timbuktu and Djenné were known for their universities and libraries, writing was never very common in West Africa. In fact, none of the major early civilizations of West Africa developed a written language. Arabic was the only written language they used. Many Muslim traders, government officials, and religious leaders could read and write Arabic. The lack of a written language does not mean that the people of West Africa didn’t know their history, though. They passed along information through oral histories. An oral history is a spoken record of past events. The task of remembering West Africa’s history was entrusted to storytellers.


West African story tellers were called griots (GREE-ohz). They were highly respected in their communities because the people of West Africa were very interested in the deeds of their ancestors. Griots helped keep this history alive for each new generation.

The griots’ stories were entertaining as well as informative. They told of past events and of the deeds of people’s ancestors. For example, some stories explained the rise and fall of the West African empires. Other stories described in detail the actions of powerful kings and warriors. Some griots made their stories more lively by acting out events from the past like scenes in a play.

In addition to stories, the griots recited proverbs, or short sayings of wisdom or truth. They used proverbs to teach lessons to the people. For example, one West African proverb warns, “Talking doesn’t fill the basket in the farm.” This proverb reminds people that they must work to accomplish things. They can’t just talk about what they want to do. Another proverb advises, “A hippopotamus can be made invisible in dark water.” It warns people to remain alert. Just as it can be hard to see animals in a deep pool, people don’t always see the problems they will face.

In order to recite their stories and proverbs, the griots memorized hundreds of names and events. Through this memorization process the griots passed on West African history from generation to generation. However, some griots confused names and events in their heads. When this happened, specific facts about some historical events became distorted. Still, the griots’ stories tell us a great deal about life in the West African empires.


Some of the griot poems are epics—long poems about kingdoms and heroes. Many of these epic poems are collected in the Dausi (DAW-zee) and the Sundiata. The Dausi tells the history of Ghana. Intertwined with historical events, though, are myths and legends. For example, one story is about a terrifying seven-headed snake god named Bida. This god promised that Ghana would prosper if the people sacrificed a young woman to him every year. One year a mighty warrior killed Bida. But as the god died, he cursed Ghana. The griots say that it was this curse that caused the empire of Ghana to fall.

Like the Dausi, the Sundiata is about the history of an empire, Mali. It is the story of Sundiata, Mali’s legendary first ruler. According to the epic, when Sundiata was still a boy, a conqueror captured Mali and killed Sundiata’s father and 11 brothers. He didn’t kill Sundiata because the boy was sick and didn’t seem like a threat. However, Sundiata grew up to be an expert hunter and warrior. Eventually he overthrew the conqueror and became king.


Like most peoples, West Africans valued the arts. The art they produced took many forms. Common West African art forms included sculpture, mask- and cloth-making, music, and dance.


Of all the visual art forms, the sculpture of West Africa is probably the best known. West Africans made ornate statues and carvings out of wood, brass, clay, ivory, stone, and other materials. Most statues from West Africa are of people—often the sculptor’s ancestors. In most cases, these statues were made for religious rituals, to ask for the ancestors’ blessings. Sculptors made other statues as gifts for the gods. These sculptures were kept in holy places. They were never meant to be seen by people.

Because their statues were often used in religious rituals, many African artists were deeply respected. People thought artists had been blessed by the gods. Long after the decline of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, West African art is still admired. Museums around the world today display African art. In addition, African sculpture helped inspire some European artists of the 1900s, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.


Masks and Clothing

In addition to statues, the artists of West Africa carved elaborate masks. Made of wood, these masks bore the faces of animals such as hyenas, lions, monkeys, and antelopes. Artists often painted the masks after carving them. People wore these masks during rituals as they danced around fires. The way firelight reflected off the masks made them look fierce and lifelike.


Many African societies were also famous for the cloth they wove. The most famous of these cloths is called kente (ken-TAY). Kente is a hand-woven, brightly colored fabric. The cloth was woven in narrow strips that were then sewn together. Kings and queens in West Africa wore garments made of kente for special occasions.


Music and Dance

In many West African societies, music and dance were as important as the visual arts. Singing and dancing were great forms of entertainment, but they also helped people honor their history and were central to many celebrations. For example, music was played when a ruler entered a room.

Dance has long been a central part of African society. Many West African cultures used dance to celebrate specific events or ceremonies. For example, they may have performed one dance for weddings and another for funerals. In some parts of West Africa, people still perform dances similar to those performed hundreds of years ago.