NIAMEY, Niger (BP) -- Timbuktu. The name inspires images of far-away lands, mythical realms and immense wealth. Many people are unaware the city actually exists.
Timbuktu was among a myriad of splendid cities within the Songhai Empire, which ruled most of central West Africa for more than two centuries, supported by a flourishing trade in gold and salt.
"They were a rare combination of military and mystic might," says John Smythe*, an IMB missionary who's been working among the Songhai of Niger since 2006. They had great warriors along with sorcerers and magicians who claimed to control the spirits, including those of the Niger River, Smythe recounts.
Ruled by a dynasty of Muslim kings, the empire expanded through a combination of pragmatic politics and holy war. The meteoric rise of the empire was matched by its sudden invasion and downfall in 1591.
Today's Songhai are mainly subsistence farmers, coaxing millet and rice out of the clay of the river valley. It's a land of flat-topped hills and wide washed-out valleys, with deep rain-cut channels between. Pale red clay and dark brown stone contrast oddly, like a bizarre sand painting."Community is life"
Songhai villages consist of mud-brick houses; walls surround spacious, if bare, yards. Trash litters the streets -- there is no other place for it. Animals wander wherever acacia fences do not keep them out. Village life is highlighted by scent. The heat bakes out the odor of moist sand and green growth. The smell of sweat and wood smoke is prevalent.
"Community is life" to the Songhai, Smythe says. "They understand that tomorrow 'I might not have enough rice to feed my family, so I'd better rely on the community.'"
While officially Muslim, the Songhai generally practice animism -- alongside daily prayers and reciting the Quran. "There's still spirit-possession ceremonies. ... They are involved in all sorts of witchcraft," Smythe says. Less than 1 percent of the Songhai are Christian. Read More