User Story: Genealogy in West Africa – the Birth of a Passion


This story, originally posted on our French blog, is a recollection from user Madame Madina Touré on how she traced her roots around Africa, and reconnected to many lost branches with her own MyHeritage family site. It is told in her own words.

I was born almost half a century ago in the middle valley of the Sénégal river, on the Mauritanian banks. My parents and two of my grandparents were also born there. This province, Kayhaydi (Kaédi, for the French colonizers), was the largest in the province of the Bosséa to which it belongs. This province is part of the Futa Toro territory, straddling both banks of the Senegal River populated mostly by Haalpulaaren (speakers of Pulaar/Fulfulde, the Fula language).

I lived in a big house with my parents, my brothers and sisters, my paternal grandmother, a Soninke woman (another ethnic group in the Valley), my paternal aunt and some of our allies. My paternal grandfather that we never knew, and who died before the age of 50, had had time to marry two women before my grandmother. Each of these two women gave him a boy. During the summer, our home hosted all my cousins (son of my paternal uncles), giving it the appearance of a summer camp.

As I was very young, I was already steeped in both the Fulani and the Soninke cultures with a curiosity above the normal. I wanted to know the identity of all the visitors from my paternal grandmother, with whom I shared the same room. Far from being annoyed, she satisfied my curiosity by giving me their names in addition to our family relation with them. So in my little head, I was recording most of the information on relatives of my grandmother, so much so that before the age of 15 I knew the number of her siblings, who their children were, and the other parents of the latter.

A hundred meters from our family home lived my mother’s family: my grandparents, brothers of my grandfather, their wives, their offspring and so on. At first glance, they seemed to outnumber us, but that was due to a phenomenon of migration more developed in my paternal family. A few blocks away lived the last wife of my paternal grandfather (who was his second widow) and his descendants, half-brothers and half-sister. This proximity between my two families and the sheer number of people in it have all immersed my siblings and myself in kinship relations from a young age.

At the heart of my mother’s family, my grandmother (a woman still illiterate) was my best mentor. A living library, she never ceased to impress me with her vast knowledge of oral traditions stored in her head. She was fluent in all the genealogy of our family and was often consulted for those of others.

My childhood, rocked by two ladies who were my grandmothers, was added to with the strong presence of a father for whom a relative never lived far away enough to not receive a visit. With sufficient funding, he traveled all over West Africa to find his family. Thus, before I was 18, I discovered family in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria to name a few.

What can explain the dispersion of your family ?

Our presence in Kayhaydi is a bit of a coincidence since my paternal grandfather was not born in the city. He originally went there to work with one of his parents, who was a shopkeeper there. As fate is a great provider, he met his stepmother there, a Soninke, mother of two of his half-sisters, married in this city. He married the daughter of the latter, coming from this second marriage. That girl became my grandmother : Mah Thilla Diagana. The other members of my family had to move for various reasons to go and relocate elsewhere.

What is the origin of your family ?

My father’s family is originally from Wocci (Wothie for the French), a village of the Laaw province, located about 85 km west of Kayhaydi. She is linked to an eponymous ancestor named Hamet Habiballah, who would be the first Wooci Ceerno, a title that we carry no matter where we live. Some members of my family come from Tor in the Sinai. Others make us Arab-Berber implanted in the Fouta following the penetration of Islam. Some chroniclers think that we are part of a group of Soninke lost by the former empire of Ghana, and which would have come to blend in among the Fulani. Anyway, we attached to Wocci where it should be noted the quasi absence of family members now. And yet, tradition remembers the Ceerno Wocci influence after more than thousand years in this province.

What can explain these migrations ?

There is a Fulani saying which says: “It took impediments in the North to come to settle in the South.” North and South refers here to the Senegal river. What are these impediments? They are certainly different levels:

– Economics: cropland and water access are key issues;
– Safety : avoiding raids on property and persons;
– Political: power struggles;
– Religion: desire to spread the divine message, to broaden the circles brotherhood;
– Family: join relatives located elsewhere

How did your family end up all over Africa ?
From Wocci, a part of my family went to live a few kilometres away on a hill called Touldé Guiro. Then, another branch of the family moved to Haayre-Laaw (Airy-Lao for the French), another to Bokki, yet another to Cilon (Thilogne on the maps), another Hunaare (Hounaré), another to Sinncu Bamambi (Sinthiou Bamambé) – all villages in Fouta Toro.

Migration outside the country will likely begin in the nineteenth century with the holy war launched by a marabout haalpulaar, El Hadj Omar Tall. He had an older sister named Fatima Adam Tall who was the mother of Jéliya Sakho. This last individual was married by Ceerno Wocci Amadou, one of the most illustrious members of my family, son of Hassan Toure Almami Siré, head of State of Fouta probably between 1825 – 1828. She had three boys: Seydou Jéliya, Moustapha Omar Jéliya and Abdoulaye Touré Jéliya. The second was my great grandfather. All three followed their great-uncle in the expansion of Islam and Tijaniyyah brotherhood.

They settled first in the country Djallonké (now Guinea) and then continued to Mali. Everywhere they left descendants: to Dinguiraye, Dabola, Conakry in Guinea, in Segou, Kayes, Barawelly, Bamako in Mali. And the list is not over. My grandfather was born in Mali during the wanderings of his parents. The end of the holy war was a debacle for the Fouta conquerors, it was run for your life under Archinard artillery fire and its allies. The Haalpulaar army dispersed on all sides. My great-grandfather Mustapha / Jéliya Omar died in Guinea where he left a posthumous son who bore his name. The latter died in 1978, left a large progeny that are found in all cities of Guinea and beyond. My grandfather, Mamoudou Aly Touré, whose mother’s family had returned to Futa, followed his footsteps and came to live with his mother (Fatima Moctar Sakho) and his uncle Amadou Moctar Sakho, who was qadi (judge) in Boghé 100 km from Kayhaydi. It is on this last recommendation that he is going to end up Kayhaydi to learn to trade from its parent Thierno Amadou Tijani Wone. This one will give him his eldest daughter as a wife, she will be the mother of my uncles and aunt.

Migration continued in my family since my great-uncle Jéliya Seydou went to die in Niger, Abdoulaye Jéliya his younger brother end his life in Nigeria. Some say it would be the grandfather of former President Babanguida. For the record, concerning the latter, a maternal great-uncle who granted me an interview for the purposes of my research told me that Baba Guida (Father Guida) is a descendant of his great Guida Ba-grandfather, who had watched El Hadj Omar Tall. We still don’t know for sure.

Like my father’s family, my mother’s also followed El Hadj Omar because with the exception of my grandfather, his older brothers were born in Mali. Their father, Thierno Bocar Ba was one of the youngest recruits of the marabout conqueror. My grandmother, much younger, spoke of the departure of his uncles and his grandfather Ba Guida, his mother’s father Kardiatou Guida. My mother’s family has provided seven of its members to the Omarian army. This explains the presence of their descendants in Mali.

The author

A master thesis entitled “Bosséa in the Omarian Jihad” I defended at the university has sharpened my curiosity about the migrations of people of Fouta and my family in particular. I started thinking about the relationship forged between the immigrants: I was a product of it. My story, the dispersion of my family, was interlinked in the emigration of people from my country in the nineteenth century. I started thinking about a reunion of this family, but how?

Family meetings?

Before the advent of the internet, I recovered the mailing addresses that my father brought back from his travels to write to my cousins. After a while, with the help of new technologies, telephone exchanges have followed and finally the emails have taken over.

We created a family site six years ago which was very well received, a forum on yahoo groups allowed us to exchange our ideas. An association is born – we meet monthly. In 2008, we discovered, which has given more visibility and more life to our family: We can not thank you enough for the wealth that you have made. The adventure continues, we discover every day new members of our family.

Ô, Quelle fierté!

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  • Madina Toure

    January 5, 2011

    I am very weak in English, so I will say one thing only: my hope (when I was composed this text) was to call all my family for unity. Excuse me if I forgot or not develop all our genealogy. I will try do it another time. Thanks

  • Robert

    January 5, 2011

    Not at all – it’s a great story and I think it offered an excellent level of detail, both on the branches of the family tree and what those people’s lives were like.

  • Dieynaba Ba

    January 6, 2011

    A great discovery for me! congratulations!!! this is a a very good work which for sure will be helpful for new generation. Thanks

  • Habibatou

    January 10, 2011

    Congrats Auntie! Thanks to you I knaw more about the Toures and other relatives and so will my children

  • Moustapha Touré

    January 13, 2011

    a Wonderful story!

  • Lois Byers/Michael

    January 26, 2011

    This was a wonderfully written story. My ancestors are from West Africa as well. They are according to my DNA test results are from the are of Mali, they were from the Songhai tribe. They did not all stay there, they moved all over, even going into some parts of South Africa and moving eastward as well. According to my DNA results done by Ethnoancestry, they also migrated into the Sahara to reach Morocco and into modern day Mozambique by the great Bantu expansions. About 500 years ago they were a part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. They were brought, I believe SC and from there moved to other parts of the South, ending up in Alabama where I was born. I am now finding other members of the Byers family. My mother and sisters and brothers have since passed on but, I am locating other memebers of those sisters and brothers of my mother and her sibblings. They were also taken to European and Asia and some parts of the Caribbean. My Haplo group is L3b. The Songhai group is Mesolithic, Cardial, Linearband, Asia Minor, Hebrew, and Palaeolithic. This is a wonderful and broad rich history to me. I have enjoyed the search through the past.

  • Madina Touré

    January 28, 2011

    Thank you Michael Lois Byers for this comment. I’m very happy to discover your story and hope for you a lot of success in your future research. In fact, Historic research is very interested. My only problem is my weak level in English. I’m so sorry….

  • Ibrahima sakho

    December 29, 2011

    Dear Madina
    My name is ibrahima cire sakho and I am based in Ottawa. I truly appreciated your article and I learned a lot on the close relationships between cerno bessomoro family and the TOure’s in one hand and with the Tall ‘s family in the other hand. Writing articles on this interesting issue and sharing knowledge on these great people are the best way, I believe, to advocate for defending our legacy and history. Therefore, as member of these families I will be delight to learn more from those who tell stories and analyze the way that these families did contribute to this collective history. Even though you are more comfortable in French, writing in English is a window of opportunity to reach more people, and believe your English is great and more importantly it is very clear.
    All the best
    Ibrahima CIRE, lamine baba, RAcky Cerno

  • Madina Touré

    May 7, 2012

    Merci, mon cher oncle pour cette contribution. Je suis reellement touchée par l’interet que cet texte a suscité parmi la famille mais surtout pour les autres. Tu as raison de dire qu’il est important d’ecrire en anglais, malheureusement, mon niveau y est très faible. Cette version est une traduction de mon texte en français dans le blog Tu pourras le consulter aussi si tu le désires, mais l’important c’est d’avoir lu et apprécié le texte. Merci et mon bonjour à ma tante Kadia et aux enfants. J’étais avec Mariam Sakho la semaine dernière à Kaédi. Bye

  • Rougui

    August 22, 2012

    This was amazing i was in tears, your english is excellent . I really want you to do farther research on your mothers side of the family. But it was detailled and well written.