The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.” However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire. The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel. Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.
E. Ann McDougall
The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves. Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another. Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.
The Soninke are an ancient West African ethnicity that probably gave rise to the much larger group that is called the Mande of which the Soninke are part. The Soninke language belongs to the northwestern Mande group but through the dynamism of its speakers has loaned many words and concepts to distant ethnic groups throughout the West African ecological zones. Mande groups such as the Malinke and Bambara may be descendants of the Soninke or a Proto-Soninke group. The Soninke are the founder of the first West African empire, Ghana, which they themselves call Wagadu, from the 6th to the 12th centuries ad Ghana was wealthy and powerful due to its access to gold, its geographic location between the Sahara and the Sahel, and its opening of trade routes from these ecological zones into the West African forest. Long distance trade contributed to the development of an ethos of migration among the Soninke, arguably making them the most traveled people of the whole continent. As they embraced Islam, some Soninke clans became clerics and proselytizers and followed the trade routes, sometimes becoming advisers to kings and chiefs. By the time of Ghana’s fall, the Soninke diaspora and trade networks were found all over West Africa. At present, pockets of Soninke, small and large, are found on all continents.