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Sunday, May 19, 2024

In search of great Mandinka women: The rise of snakes and how the surname Saho/Sakho/Sisawo came about

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Miniyang Ba

Two types of snakes are very important to Manding culture and history. The first snake we will feature today is Miniyang Baa or the Big Snake. This snake is no other than a boa constrictor or by some translation, a big python. Either way, it is a large snake. History has it, that during the Wagadu dynasty or the Ghana Empire, the people had annually dedicated a young girl to the big snake in exchange for protection of the people of the kingdom. Readers who followed my series would recall that Wagadu was Ceesay territory and who have ruled the kingdom for many years as early as 790AD.

This annual sacrifice continued for many years until the snake was killed by a father who would not allow his daughter to be killed as sacrifice. We will get there later. First things first.

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Legend has it that there once lived a man called DingaCeesay who migrated from the east, into what is today Mauritania among a group of hunters. Some say Dingawas from Egypt and later in his life, a son of his called Dyabe ( probably where the Jabbi came from) moved further west to what was Wagadu where he, through special powers received information from the hyena and the vulture, two great creatures still revered as having special powers. Perhaps this is why, in the days leading to the 2016 elections, the vulture kept appearing in Sarahulecountry of Basse or recently as we watched a video of a vulture believed to have been a woman who transformed herself into the bird. These two animals are still associated with mythical powers and through them, one can channel mischievous acts. Let’s not digress.

Dyabe then made a covenant with the Big Snake of the country that every year he would sacrifice the most beautiful girl to the “Beedaa” or Miniyangba, or Saabaaor Wagadu Saa Baa. 

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There are oral accounts that this was an annual event but others gave a more frequent account of the service, either way, it appears that there was some sort of sacrifice in the state associated with the snake.

The young victim was dressed in white clothes and rode on a horse to the site where the snake lived and the event was officiated by the King or Kaya Maghan himself.

A Mandinka version has it that the snake lived in a well and all the clans of the kingdom would in turn provide a girl from among them for the annual sacrifice in rotation. The only exception was the Waguey/Waggeh clan (a popular Sarahule clan) because, according to tradition, the Waguey considered the big snake as their father and as such, they cannot participate. I guess the Waggeh were just too clever and society then fell for their claim.

So when the girl is brought to the well, the snake would raise its head high above the well twice and the third time, it would lower it in acceptance of the sacrifice and would consume the victim. The Waguey are said to be the ancestors of the Komma, Janneh, Cisse, Berete, Tourayand Soukona lineages who, from their sisters’ sides and will later meet at the Kurukan Fuga in 1235 as the religious clerics of Manding. The “Ngara Naani” (four clans of griots) apparently dropped the Soukuna which could likely be a Sohkna of today; perhaps branched off into the Wolof territory but who originally could have been nephews of the Sarahule.

Death of the snake

There are two versions of the death of the snake. One version has it that it was the suitor of one of the girls to be sacrificed who killed the snake because of love as the snake was about to kill his fiancée. Another version has it that it was the father of the girl who refused to have his daughter killed by the snake. Either way, the snake was killed for love of a daughter or a fiancée. That is why in matters of love, the Mandinka have an apt advice: “Niibeh dunna kanumaal temma, kana taa eesisola, nyengkeleng” (If you ever have to cause mischief between loved ones, don’t go full force. Be careful because when they reconcile as they most often do, you will be on the dinner plate to be talked about. In short, in matters of love, it’s best you stay away). How apt.

In the version that said it was the fiancé of the girl, the man was called Amadi Safedoukhote and the girl SiyaYatabere. This version has it that when the snake was about to swallow Siya, her fiancé who had long been hiding near the cave, rushed to cut the head of the snake and while dying, the snake cursed the state of Wagaduthat there will be seven years of drought which according to tradition is the cause of the Sahara desert. 

It is said that the debris of the snake fell all the way to Bambouk and Boure and turned into gold mines of the great Ghana Empire.

The second version has it that it was a father named Yiramakan who refused to allow his daughter killed and so while on horseback, Yiramakan rushed just as the snake was about to kill his daughter and cut it into three pieces. The part of the head flew and landed in Boure and became the gold mine there, the middle section also flew and landed at Djabe and became a gold mine as well. The tail section coiled out of the well and laid by the well and rotted. Out of this grew a grain called “saa nio” (snake millet which is to be differentiated from “soo nio”). Soo nio and Saa nio are similar grains but slightly different. 

It is this Yiramakan who is said to be the ancestors of the Sakho lineage, a prominent family in our Senegambia region. Sakho/Sawo simply means “the lineage that was born after the death of the big snake”.  

Saa Ko (Saa meaning snake and ko can also mean “after” or “behind” or “back”: a reference to an after effect).

The Sakho were known snake killers and developed a potent for killing snakes and for keeping snakes away from their homes.

I started this series to showcase the sacrifice of our women who kept these Empires flourishing but have never been seriously recognised. The cases of women being sacrificed so that the general society can prosper have been seriously underreported in historical accounts. That is a selfless sacrifice that men were not willing to take. And so, my hat off to those great women who took on greater causes than themselves so the majority could prosper.

And to Siya, I have one thing; I hope you loved Amadi as much for he defied society at a price just to see that you lived. Love is powerful and unless you know it, you can never realise how dangerous it is.

It is as a result of this sacrifice of young girls in Wagaduthat the song “Miniyang Baa” was composed to keep alive the sacrifices of women:

“Miniyang ba

Saabaa miniyang baa

Miniyang ba

Ning moteh momeng feh, saa ba miniyang…”

No wonder in Manding folklore, the hyena said he will never eat the flesh of a human who ventured into the night on foot visiting his wife because while everyone stayed safe in their homes, love drives him out of his village at great risk. For the hyena, such men are not with their senses and so it would not take the blame of eating someone who was willing to die for love. Even the hyena is cautious in matters of love.

Love heals the world.

In our next article, we will profile another snake called “Tuto” or the puff adder and how it became mainstream especially among the Jarra clan of Segu and the length at which women go to have a child.

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