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The main mosque at Jenne "Listen then sons of Mali, children of the black people, listen to my word, for I am going to tell you of Sundiata, the father of the Bright Country, of the savanna land, the ancestor of those who draw the bow, the master of a hundred vanquished kings."
13th century account handed down orally and delivered in 1960 by Mali griot, Djeli Mamdoudou Kouyate, master in the art of eloquence.

Over three thousand years ago there were two important developments in West Africa: long distance trade, and the ability to manipulate stone, clay and metals to sophisticated degree.

Against this background, there arose a number of kingdoms and empires starting in the 5th century through to the 16th century. Common to each of these great empires was extensive trans-saharan trade with the North, large standing armies and an effective system taxation.

Detail of the facade of the Palace of the Emir of ZazzauThe empire of Ghana (not to be confused with modern Ghana which is some four hundred miles south east of where it was) was first referred to by an Arab scholar in the 8th century. Two centuries later the kingdom of Kanem arose north east of Lake Chad.

In the 13th century Mali rose under the leadership of the Malinke Sundiata to become renowned throughout the Arab world for its wealth and learning. A hundred years later it fell into decline and became the target of Tuareg raids; the Songhay then took over the territory, reduced in size, under the leadership of Askiya Mohammed. Trade was revived as was the position of Timbuktu as a centre of learning. The Songhay remained in control until the Moroccan invasion.

By the 18th century the northern part of West Africa was a patchwork of city states and kingdoms; further South the Asante state (in modern Ghana) rose to preeminence. In the early 19th century Muslim reformers changed the political landscape of large parts of West Africa, most notably in what is now northern Nigeria, under the leadership of Usman dan Fodio.

Listen HereListen to The Kingdoms of Mali and Songhay, the ninth programme in the BBC landmark radio series The Story of Africa, presented by Hugh Quarshie

Listen HereListen to The Art of Ife and Benin, the twelfth programme in the BBC landmark radio series The Story of Africa, presented by Hugh Quarshie

Listen HereListen to Hausa City States & the Fulani Jihad, the thirteenth programme in the BBC landmark radio series The Story of Africa, presented by Hugh Quarshie