The Wangara (also known as Wakore) were Soninke clans specialized in trade, Islamic scholarship and law (as lawyers and cadis). Particularly active in the gold trade, they were a group of Mande traders, loosely associated to the medieval West African Empires of Ghana and Mali.
A Malian source, cited in the Tarikh al-Sudan, distinguishes the Wangara on a socio-professional level from their Malinke kinsmen by claiming the latter to be princes and warriors and the former "traders who carry gold dust from country to country as the courtiers of princes".
Located in the Lakes Region at the eastern end of the "country of Wanqara" was Tiraqqa, a predecessor of Timbuktu. It was one of the great commercial centers of the region —a meeting place of caravans from Ghana and Tadmakka in the 10th and 11th centuries—and a dependency of Ghana. The geographer Al-Idrisi describes it as "one of the towns of Wanqara"—large, well populated, and unwalled—and relates that it was "subject to the ruler of Ghana, in litigation." It remained an important mart until the 13th century, at which time Timbuktu replaced it.
Not only were they gold merchants, they exercised a virtual monopoly of the world-system's gold trade. Al-Idrisi describes their land as having "flourishing towns and famous strongholds. Its inhabitants are rich, for they possess gold in abundance, and many good things are imported to them from the outermost parts of the earth... "
Gold and mining
The Wangarans kept the location a secret. In traditional stories, Wangaran gold miners would be kidnapped by merchants to reveal where the gold spot was. The miners would give up their lives to protect their secret. To this day, nobody knows where the mines are.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the Wangara extended their trade networks eastwards towards the Lake Chad basin. They also moved several hundred kilometers northwards from Koumbi Saleh where they established agricultural colonies and fortified oasis towns, which served as caravanserai. Their strategic movements were a response to increased commercial traffic along the trade routes - a consequence of Almoravid jacob and Almohad political and social hegemonies and commercial activity in the Maghrib and Andalusia (11th–13th century) and, in part, an effort to consolidate Ghana's political interests in the southern Sahara, interests that predated the 11th century.
Into Mossi Lands
Paradoxically, the infiltration of Wangara traders (also known as Marka or Yalsé) into Mossi territory seems to be a result of the Mossi incursions into the Niger valley and the Mandé city of Walata since the early 15th century, which contributed more to the decline of Mali than other factors and which provoked the Songhay usurpation in last consequence.
The Mossi (who were hostile to Islam) in earlier times raided the northern markets for trade goods, especially salt, but later permitted Muslim traders from these areas to import the desired goods into their own country. The survival of the Songhay kingdom in the eastern Gourma following the Moroccan conquest of 1592, could be explained as a consequence of the gradual and peaceful penetration of the Wangara into these eastern regions: Gourma (with Boulsa, Bilanga), Dendi and Borgou.
Into Hausa Lands
The relevant sources, the Kano Chronicle and one used by Ibrahim b. Mhd. n.Idris b.Husai, dated to 1061 (1650/51), mention that the Wangarawa—as many as 160 people—emigrated under the leadership of Shaikh Abderrahman surnamed Za(gha)iti and came to Kano and introduced Islam, according to the first source in Yaji's time (1349–1385), according to the second under Mohamad Rumfa (AH 867–904, 1463–99), after having left Mali in 835 AH (1433 AD).
The surname, derived from "Zagha" or "Zeghai", may point to the town of Zagha (Zare- or Sare-) in the Macina or Lake region south of Timbuktu. These Wangara left during a time of great insecurity due to Mossi incursions and moved to greater Songhay protection, adopted the Songhay language, and perhaps intensified the commercial contacts between Songhay and Hausa. In their eastern migration, it is believed that the Wangara split up in two groups in Gobir, one going to Kano and the other going to the Aïr. There are documented Wangara communities in Kano, Katsina and in the Borgou.
While there, they established "kingship" with royal councils of indigenous priestchiefs from among the members of local lineages. A certain Mohamed Korau, a Wangara, elected in 1492/3, became the first Muslim sarki of Katsina.
Into the Volta Basin
The Volta basin has been important for the Wangara in several respects: it comprised some of the main gold-producing areas (Lobi, Banda) while being linked to others (in the Birim and Pra and Offin river basins, and in Ivory Coast); it marks the southern end of the long-distance trade route from Djenné and Timbuktu - where precious goods from the forest zone (gold, kola) were produced; it also forms the border and link between the Mande-Dioula and Hausa linguistic and economic spheres...
In contemporary Ghana, "Wangara" refers to Mande speakers and those believed to be of Mande origin and associated with trade. Whereas the Hausa language is a lingua franca among Muslems all over West-Africa, Dioula is spoken as a lingua franca in Northern Ivory Coast, the South of Burkina Faso and Northwestern Ghana only. In Ghana, it is heard from Wa down to Wenchi, due to the close association with the important Islamic centers of Kong and Bouna. Following the familiar complex of "Market-Mosque-Medressa", the Wangara founded the colonies of Begho, Bole (Boualé), Bondoukou and others on the forest fringe, in addition to Kong and Bouna.
Leaders mentioned in the Tarikh al-Sudan include the following:
- Fodiya Mohammed Fodiki Sanou El Wankori, left his country of Bitou as a result of the internal strife and installed himself in Djenné in 1492
- el-Abbas Kibi, Oua'kri of origin, and cadi of Djenné
- Mahmoud-ben-Abou-Bekr-Bagayogo, the father of the lawyers Mohammed and Ahmed Bagayogo, cadi from 1552, and founder of a whole family of "law consultants"
- Mohammed-ben-Mahmoud-ben-Abu-Bakr (1524–1593)
- Massing, Andreas W., "The Wangara, an Old Soninke Diaspora in West Africa?", Cahiers d'Études africaines, 158, 2000, 281–308.
- Wilks, Ivor, "Wangara", Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., vol. XI, 2002, 137–8.