The Tribe of Dan in West-Africa
The puzzling existence the tribe of Dan in Ivory Coast
Also read the first part of this article : Hebrews in Africa
More about the tribe of Dan can be read in the published French article Les secrets du peuple Dan
Dan in Ivory Coast
In West-Africa lives a tribe with the name of Dan, mainly in Ivory Coast. In Ivory Coast they count maximum 3,7 million people if we include all related tribes. The core group of the tribe of Dan counts less than 1,5 million people, 5,9% of the population, with smaller segments in Liberia (250.000) and Guinee (60.000). Besides the tribe of Dan there are related tribes, speaking about the same language. The name is intriguing when we remember that the Beta Israel (Falashas) from Ethiopia seem to descent (mainly) from the tribe Dan. Is this a coincidence?
It is difficult to find much information from the elders of the tribe of Dan themselves. Their oral history is quite vague. There are no written documents and most of the older people are illiterate. The tradition does not tell us anything about a Hebrew/Jewish background. They have no holy books. They have no language with clear Hebrew influences. They do not know anything about a history of theirs that started in Israel or even Egypt. Most of their culture or religion is animistic in its tenets
The Torah and the traditions of the Ivorian tribe of Dan
The number of ‘coincidences’ grows, when we know something about the beliefs and culture of the tribe of Dan. There are a number of elements that are in line with what we find in the Thora and what we know about the early days of the people of Israel.
- The name of the tribe: Dan. The name of their language is Yacouba (Jacob?) The tribe members call themselves quite often as well Yacouba.
- The observance of the Shabbath, starting from Friday at sunset till the sunset of Saturday. That day they do not work, and it is the day for the offerings. They gave it the name: Sabayi. Originally, they were not allowed to walk that day more than a distance of about 7 kilometers and in old days the soldiers of the army arrested those working on that day.
- They believe in one God. They call Him: Yahweh (!), Creator and Almighty, amidst other appellations.
- They follow nearly exactly the instructions of Leviticus 1 in bringing their offerings, especially meant for big sinners who need forgiveness. This is different from all surrounding tribes.
- Other elements in their culture that draw the attention are: personal names like Atanai (=Adonai?) and Yeuvah (Jehovah?), and also the levirate marriage.
- The original official coat of priests and tribal leaders is long and white with a limited number of vertical blue stripes. Is it hazardous, or does it show influences of a Jewish past? Those robes are not so different from the West-African traditional robes, except for the blue stripes. That is a bit akin to the Jewish prayer robes. Originally those robes were only meant for the priests.
- They bring the first fruits of their agricultural work to the priest, before consuming anything of the harvest themselves.
- They have holy places hidden in the woods. These are no buildings, but they discern in between a general accessible area for tribal members, a holy place for the chieftains and priests and a most holy place where only the high priest is allowed for the purpose of offering. (Like the composition of the tabernacle/temple)
- The Danites in Ivory Coast do expect a Savior who will bring happiness and wellbeing for them. (He carries the name ‘Ah’).
Even if not every point supports as strong as some others a Biblical influence in the religion of the tribe of Dan (however mixed with and hidden under loads of animism…), this is more than mere coincidence. Those people, hardly knowing anything of the Bible, have preserved during the ages a religious heritage, of which they themselves forgot the source. 1/
The tradition of the tribe of Dan about their historical itinerary
The oral tradition of the West-African tribe of Dan tells at least a little about their history. They came from Mali, by Senegal and Guinee to the place where they have finally settled just before 1900. Before Mali, they came from: ‘The Mountains in the East’. Several tribal leaders told the same thing. One expressed himself, saying: “We come from the mountains where the sun rises, and travelled to where the sun goes down.” These high mountains are not found in the vicinity of Timbuktu nor in Senegal or Guinee. Is this a vague memory of their descent from the high mountains in the North-Western area of nowadays Ethiopia?
Combining the little that we know, we may come to the conclusion that the Dan tribe in West-Africa has split off from the Beta Israel in Ethiopia. This, at least, seems to be a logical thesis. When? Why? Many answers are possible. Of course, we know more about their stay in Guinee and Senegal than about their time in Mali, and even nothing about the earlier times. But if we have no direct proof, could we at least find some indirect proof? If we can’t find the wine, can we probably find empty bottles? Can we find an historical mall, suitable for the history of the people of Dan? This will increase the probability of my thesis: The West-African tribe of Dan stems from the Beta Israel in Ethiopia.
A reconstruction of the possible past of the Ivorian tribe of Dan
Even if most of the history of the tribe of Dan is hidden behind the clouds, we can at least find some evidence that makes it possible for us to reconstruct a logic itinerary. Let’s follow their journey back into history from where they are now, in the western part of Ivory Coast where the country is bordering Liberia and Guinee. Just before the year 1900 they did arrive there. Their elders show yet the hill where they first settled down. (This is one of the stories; but there are some other stories as well. They give the impression that the tribe did not migrate at once, but bit by bit and group by group). They came side by side with another tribe, living just south of them, the Gueré.
- Why did they leave their land and houses in Guinee? This is due to great trouble with a violent Muslim warrior, Samory Touré (1830-1900). He belonged to the violent Tidyaniya sect in islam. He had founded the Wassoulou empire, a violent, jihadist country on the territory of Guinee, Mali, Burkina Faso and the northern part of Ivory Coast. Whole tribes, regions and villages had fled for his violence. 2/Everyone with a deviating opinion was killed. Finally, he was arrested by the French colonial army in September 1898. Before that time many people had fled to the regions controlled by the French to save their lives. That is how the Guéré and the Dan tribes found their new living areas in Ivory Coast, in a hardly populated area in its western regions (partly due to the tribal wars due to the slave trade).
- Before settling down in the central areas of Guinee, the tribe of Dan had been living for a few hundred years in Senegal. Why did they leave there? Can we find any reason for it? We even know that they left Senegal after the year 1800, so they have lived only during one or two generations in Guinee. What do we know about that time in Senegal? Already before 1800 we see the beginnings of the Tijanniyya Jihad State in the central areas of Senegal and South Mauretania. In the second part of the century this became a mighty empire under the leadership of Segu Tukolor, who liked to use his Arab name: El Hadj Omar. He reigned from 1861 – 1890. Big parts of Senegal, Guinee and Mali were conquered. It was a Fulani (Fulbe) nation, violent against every non-Muslim. Because of its main leader, they received the French name: Toucouleurs. They were feared everywhere around. This will have caused the involuntary evacuation of the tribe of Dan. And why did they not travel to the north or the east? Because the people threatening them were living there. There was no room for them (a mainly agricultural tribe) in the more populated western part of Senegal. So, they went to the parts of Guinee that were free from the influence of the Toucouleurs.
- And before that? Before settling down in Senegal, the (Ivorian part of the) Dan tribe lived in the region of Timbuktu (Mali). If this part of their historic memory is correct, it is quite well possible that they left there in 1590/1, when king Ahmed Al Mansour declared the jihad against any non-Muslim. 3/But the history of Islamization starts earlier.
In about the year 1077 the town of Timbuktu was founded by the Tuaregs. They (a Berber tribe) had left Morocco due to the Muslim armies that had conquered their area. The first group of them left the Magreb under the fifth Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik (685-705). There are reasons to believe that there were strong Jewish influences in the society and the beliefs of the Tuaregs. (I will touch that point later). But Islam had already entered into the Timbuktu region after the year 1000. There were times of forced Islamization under king Mansa Moussa, who is the most famous among its rulers (he died in 1233; he may have been the richest man ever in history).
- Why did one part of the tribe of Dan settle down in Timbuktu? And when? There have been big wars in the Horn of Africa, where we found at the time Jewish kingdoms. Other kingdoms were Christian, animist or Muslim. There have been many violent clashes among them. Many people have been killed due to their faith or country. Was it a war that forced people to move from Ethiopia, was it a famine or were there other reasons? We know that the Tuaregs were influenced by the Jewish religion, and groups among them seem to have followed the Jewish religion. Some sources tell us about a Jewish dynasty in the region of Timbuktu and even about three Jewish villages. 4/Has that been a reason for the Danites to find their refuge in that place? It was a kind of melting pot of Jews from different directions, who settled down there, including European and Arabian Jews. Was it because they found coreligionists able to protect them? They had probably escaped East Africa because of their religion. In that case, they may have arrived somewhere in between 700 and 1300 in the Timbuktu area. Very uncertain indeed…
We can’t escape making a reconstruction. Nobody knows what really happened in the past of the Dan tribe. So, we have to live with uncertainties and hypotheses. Has there been one major migration or were there several migrations? Has it been one group or are there more? (Groups originally from East-Africa, Yemen, Portugal, Spain and the Maghreb?) How far is the final result a mixture of many nations, people, cultures and religions? Ethnologists and linguists consider the tribe of Dan as belonging to the Mandinga, not to the Nilotic or Semitic peoples. But part of their culture does surely not find its origin among the Mandinga. However, interestingly, several elderly tribal leaders tell us, that at their arrival in Ivory Coast the Danites were more akin to the East-Africans they are then nowadays, with straight noses and a light skin. Today, most of them are really like ‘everybody’ in West-Africa, with the traits of the Sudanese blacks.
Other traces of Jewish presence in West-Africa?
The first Senegalese president Léopold Senghor (1906-2001) had Hebrew roots. 5/ His ancestors have been converted by force to Islam in the 18th century, and they are living till today among the Wolof tribe. Senghor told this to the Israeli president Shimon Peres.
In Mauritania, we find a group of people that claim a Jewish descent, mainly blacksmiths. Till 1950 they carried the name Ihud (=Jew).
What to do with the information about a Jewish dynasty in Mali, or even a Jewish group living in Niger? In the 14th and 15th century, groups of Jews fled from Spain, due to the pogroms, to Timbuktu. But in 1492 an edict was proclaimed that forbade non-Muslims to live in that region. 6/ In the ‘Encyclopédie Berbère’ writes J. Oliel under ‘Judaïsme – Kabylie’ that different groups of Tuaregs have Jewish roots. 7/ Some clans stem originally from the Jewish town of Touat in Algeria. The Jews had to leave that town due to a pogrom in 1490. Very interesting is, that the Touaregs consider Ya’couba as their ancestor. This is mentioned in the book of Jaques Hureiki: ‘Essai sur les origins Touaregs’, éd. Karthala, Paris, 2003 (p. 520). He claims that the Touaregs stem originally from Yemen, that they show as well old Mandese influences (Middle East) and that they use up till today the old Tifinagh script (Old Lybian). They speak a Berber language. 8/
Many other tribes may have Jewish roots or do claim so, in different countries all over Africa. Probably they have no historical connection to the Beta Israel of East-Africa or the tribe of Dan in Ivory Coast. But all this put together gives us the picture that much of a rich Jewish and Hebrew tradition got lost in Africa, mainly due to the growth of Islam.
Tribal relations and covenants
Many tribes are related to other tribes, from which they have split or with whom they shared a common history. The tribe of Dan has a number of that kind of relations, and the leaders of the different tribes are well aware of it. On one occasion, the relationship is very clear. The tribe of Mahou has split from the tribe of Dan because of internal troubles. Their language and culture are quite the same as those of the tribe of Dan. They are located in Ivory Coast, north of the tribe of Dan and count about 200.000 people.
The most interesting relationship is the covenant with the Fulani or Fulbe tribe (in French: Peul). The Fulani may have left Egypt or Sudan in the 6th century b. C. This tribe has been a motor in the dispersion of Islam in West-Africa, quite often by violence. They have formed several Jihad States in Africa in the 19th century. The Fulani count about 35 million people distributed all over West- and even Central Africa. The largest groups are found in Nigeria (19,5 million) and Guinee (over 4,7 million). As well in their oral history as in the history of the Dan tribe, it is recorded that those two tribes have formed once a unity. This is the reason for their bond.
Questions and a conclusion
Many of those groups were in touch with Jews elsewhere. Even under heavy oppression something of their past will survive. Can we find (and where do we find?) remnants of this antiquity. Do we find anything of the rich Jewish past of Africa? What has been conserved? Are some groups, with an old Hebrew history, yet discernable in between the masses of people living in so many countries?
With these questions in mind, we enter into a hardly known world. The answers that we find, may influence many millions of members of those tribes and may even have a lot of cultural and political consequences.
However, the ‘coincidences’ are too many and the remnants of old Jewish faith are too special, to be put beside. The tribe of Dan in West-Africa testifies of an old Hebrew, Biblical culture that has been preserved, deformed, but undeniable in my eyes.
- The Nubians – who are they?
We have found a connection of Ethiopia and Judaism/Hebrews. But what about a relation in between the Nubians and Hebrews? There are some reasons to ask this question. 1. The names Nubia and Aksum are quite often mixed up. Both are strongly related. 2. Where did the Jews of Elephantine settle down, after they left Egypt?
Sometimes the kingdom of Aksum is called: Kingdom of Nubia, or its king the king of Nubia. This happens for example in the ‘Chronicle’ of John of Nikiû, a bishop of Upper-Egypt. He wrote about 570/580 about the Christianization of the kingdom of Aksum, using for the same region many names: Kush, Nubia, India and Ethiopia. Kush is the same as Nubia and India has been used in those days for South-Asia, the southern Arab peninsula and black Africa as well. 9/ Claudius Ptolemy was the first to mention the Aksumites as one of the people of Ethiopia. Heliodoros describes in ‘Aethiopica’ in the third century the Aksumites as friends and allies of the king of Meroë (Nubia). 10/
One of the hypotheses is: the Egyptian Jews went southward to Nubia. Ibrahim Omer 4/ sees a lot of evidence that Jews migrated from Egypt to the Sudan. He speaks about the ‘Jewish kingdoms of Kush’. In those days, before the start of our calendar, the name of this part of Africa was Kush. The name is often mentioned in the Bible, and in many inscriptions as well. Secular history speaks about them and their living area has been, without doubt, in nowadays Sudan. Later the name Nubians became common for the same people or at least for a great part the same people. Quite often the names Kush and Nubia are mixed up.
- Other Hebrew traces in Africa
Many tribes with a supposed Jewish/Hebrew origin, trace back their starting point to North-East Africa (from Egypt down to Ethiopia). This is the case with the Baluba (Luba tribe) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Tutsi from Uganda/Rwanda (who call themselves Kushites!) as well as the Hema tribe from East Congo, the Dan tribe and interesting enough the Fulani tribe (see next paragraph). 11/
Another interesting feature is found in the ‘Tarikh es Sudan’ (author: Abderrahman ben Abdallah es-Sadi in 1650: “… a Jewish community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who had travelled to West Africa through Chad…” Jews were probably travelling in all directions in Africa. This has happened, according to this source, about the 6th century BCE. 12/ Jews from many parts of the world tried to find safety in Timbuktu, known because of its tolerance and prosperity. But the year 1492 meant a turning point. Exactly in the same year of the big pogroms in Spain/Portugal, king Mohamed the first told those living in his kingdom that they had to leave or to convert to Islam… Again, in the ‘Tarikh es Sudan’ we find mentioned Jews living during hundreds of years in the town of Koukiyo on the Niger. They had their own kings. Their dynasty of 14 kings is known under the name: Zuwa rulers (originally from Yemen). The last of them converted to Islam in 1009/10.
- Benjamin of Tudela about ‘Ganah’
Benjamin of Tudela reports c. 1175 about a town Chalwah in Sudan, the starting point of the caravans to a country: “which is the Havilah of the Scripture, which is the country of Ganah’. He seems to talk about the old, mighty West-African kingdom of Ghana. (It is impossible that he is talking about the regions south of Sudan, because the main ‘road’ to these areas was the river Nile. This shows a frequent contact in between West- and East-Africa.
Also read the first part of this article : Hebrews in Africa
1/ A lot of the oral tradition of the tribe of Dan is found in a book of Rév. dr. Yayé Dion Robert , Louamy Gué Sosthène, La tribu Dan, ses origines, Éd. CICOMIS, Abidjan, 2004; Les Danites d’Eburnie, Éd. CICOMIS, Abidjan, 2008. See also: Louamy Gué Sosthène, Dan de Côte d’Ivoire, qui es-tu et d’où viens-tu?, Éd. Edilis, Abidjan, 2007
2/ See Andurain, Julie d’, La capture de Samory, éd. Soteca, 2012
3/ Ahmed al-Mansour was a Moroccan king, from the time that Morocco invaded central-Africa. He dreamed about reconquering Spain and even a jihad in the whole world, including the American continent.
5/ Nouhou, Alhadji Bouba, Israël et l’Afrique, Éd. Karthala, Paris, 2003, page 35
6/ Sefardi.over-blog.fr, article 22728724
7/ The Jewish Talmud has several references to Jews in Morocco. According to the information about Moroccan Jews on: www.dafina.net is it clear that Jews have been around in Morocco since the 4th century b.C. Great parts of the Moroccan society were Jewish or strongly influenced by Judaism before the arrival of Islam. In: ‘De Joden van Marokko’ (The Jews of Morocco; a book published in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2006) writes Heidi Verdonck about those facts.
8/ The Arabian historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) writes that some Berber tribes were originally Jewish and later converted to Christianity.
9/ Is there any historical difference in between Nubia and Axum? Or are they related? There exists an interesting historic piece of information from the hand of John of Nikiû (bishop in Upper Egypt), who wrote in 686 A.D. a World History. He deals with a war in between the (Christian) king of Nubians and king Dhu Nuwas from a country located in nowadays Yemen (in 525). But about 100 years before him the same history was mentioned by a certain Malalas, who spoke not of Nubians but: The king of Axum. Also, John of Ephesus writes c. 580 A.D. about this same war. He speaks about 4 Ethiopian kingdoms and 3 Indian; the Indian being Yemenite kingdoms. This shows the difficulty of well defining the location of those countries in historical times. Even more puzzling geographic descriptions are found in the World History of John of Nikiû. He mixes Axum – Ethiopia – India – Kush and Nubia… Those names were quite often in history mixed and mutually used for the same region(s)/state(s). (See: www.medievalnubia.info with many more examples. This site and these studies are conducted by the Jesuit University of Fairfield, U.S.A., Connecticut. Much later Benjamin of Tudela writes about the country Ma’atum, also called Nubia, … and the inhabitants are called Nubians.” This confusion of names has a long history. Already in the 5th century BCE the Greek historian Herodotus (‘The Father of History’) wrote about Meroe as the capital of Ethiopia, not: Nubia. Interestingly the name of Dhu Nuwas appears also in the Tarikh Es-Sudan, where we find that large numbers of inhabitants of his Yemenite Himyar Kingdom, after being defeated by the Axum Kingdom, have been deported to Timbuktu. That has happened even before the arrival of the Tuareg tribes.
10/ General History of Africa II, ed. G. Mokhtar, publ.: Heinemann-California-UNESCO, Paris, London, Berkeley 1990, chapter 15 written by Y.M.Kobishanov
11/ See: www.kulanu.org
12/ Another historic document, stemming from the second part of the 17th century, is the Tarikh al-Fattash, composed in the second part of the 17th century and describing the events in the Soghay Empire from 1464 - 1599. Timbuktu belonged for a long time to this empire. It talks about a Jewish state with its own dynasty of 7 generations Its inhabitants came from Morocco, Portugal and Egypt.