On Kindness: A Lesson From the Soninke People

In Wolof (my native language), the word for foreigner is “Lacukate,” and it translates to someone who speaks a different language. Your neighbor could be lacukate if they speak a different mother tongue. In a sense, anyone who doesn't speak Wolof is a foreigner. 

My mother has shared with me her time as a lacukate, when as a young woman, she traveled to different villages in Senegal looking for work. For a time, she worked in Thies alongside a group of Soninke. 

Also known as Sarakole, Diankanke, and Wangarawa, the Soninke founded the first West African empire of Ghana, which was wealthy and powerful for centuries because of its access to gold and its geographical location, both of which opened trade routes and helped them trade freely with North African merchants and others. The empire (which was not located in present-day Ghana) was destroyed in the 10th century (source), after invasions of Muslim conquerors.Today, many Soninke are farmers and traders.

Soninke people speak a language of the same name, also called Maraka, one of the Mende languages. And while there aren’t many Soninke in Senegal (about 1% of the total population, according to the World Atlas), they’re known by Senegalese for being kind and generous. My mom, too, felt the kindness of the Soninke and still speaks about how they would go above and beyond to make her feel at home in their home. 

I think we can all learn a lesson from a group that values and displays kindness and generosity with such openness that strangers can take it with them for the rest of their lives. We should all strive to be known for such beautiful attributes and to help others feel welcome when we cross paths, regardless of our differences.  

Images of of a Soninke woman, an 1853 sketch by David Boilat