"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Surprising American Cousins Through My Mother’s Ancestry

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Surprising American Cousins Through My Mother’s Ancestry

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

My fascination with and curiosity about America started at the inchoate stage of my educational career. The elementary and high schools I attended were established by American Baptist missionaries. And in my first semester of elementary school at age 5 in my hometown in Kwara State, I had an American Baptist missionary kid by the name of David Burkwall in my class. He later left for Jos. 

But I had not the foggiest inkling that I would have hundreds of blood relatives in America, relatives that I’ll probably never meet physically until I die, courtesy of my mother.

My serendipitous discovery of my American cousins (most of whom are Black, a few of whom are white) came about because I did an ancestry DNA test for my mother who visited me here between 2017 and 2018. I did the test not to fish for American relatives (whom I’d never have guessed I had in my wildest dreams) but to resolve a longstanding argument she and I had had about her distant Malian ancestry.

 I had told her that based on the patronyms her parents bore—which are Manneh and Toure—her ancestors were most likely originally Mandinka from the ancient Mali Empire.

The Mandinka, also known by several names in West Africa such as Mandingo, Malinke, Soninke, Wangara, Dioula, Bambara, etc. (who belong to what linguists call the Mande language group), are West Africa’s second most widely dispersed ethnic group after the Fulani.

They are found in large numbers in such countries as modern Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, Mauritania, etc. They are also found in (northern and western) Nigeria (and are credited with being the most important proselytizers of Islam in these parts), Benin Republic, and Niger Republic, but they’ve lost their language and identity in these places.

In both Nigerian and Beninese Borgu, the Mandinka/Wangara still identify with their patronyms such as Manneh, Toure, Cissey, Taruwere (Traore), Fafana (Fofana), and Daabu (Darboe) even though they neither speak the language nor identify with the ethnic group.

 Because Manneh and Toure are well-known patronyms among the Mandinka, I told my mother that her family couldn’t possibly be identified with the names by accident, more so that her family has centuries-old historical association with Islamic proselytization, which the Mandinkas are identified with. 

My mother disputed my suggestion that some of her ancestral roots are traceable to Mali, insisting that her grandparents never once mentioned that to her. She had never even heard of Mandinka—or any of the other names by which the people are known.

 As I pointed out in my August 7, 2009 column titled “In Search of My Maternal Roots in Parakou, Benin Republic,” even my mother’s maternal relatives in Benin Republic trace descent from Borno and Katsina.

“My maternal grandmother, for instance, always told us she was part Katsina and part Kanuri (or Baribari, as she often said) …,” I wrote. “My mom’s cousin in whose house we stayed told me exactly the same thing. He said the traditions of their origins are handed down to them through a folk song, which he sang for me—in Dendi, which I don’t understand for the life of me. The only words that were intelligible to me in the song were ‘Katsina’ and ‘Borno.’”

However, some years ago, I read an interesting journal article by Andreas W. Massing titled “The Wangara, an Old Soninke Diaspora in West Africa?” in the bilingual French journal Cahiers d'Études africaines that resolved this issue for me. Using various primary and secondary historical sources, Massing showed that the Wangara migrated from Mali to Songhai (in present-day Niger Republic), abandoned their language, adopted the Dendi language (a dialect of Zarma), and moved further south to Borno, Hausaland, and Borgu as Dendi people.

Apparently, the folk memory that my mother’s grandparents had of their ancestry stopped at the time they came to Borno and Katsina, which makes sense because they had renounced their language, which is an important receptacle of identity. However, they retained their Wangara/Mandinka names.

To test this, I bought an Ancestry DNA kit for my mother and me. We spat into it and sent it off. The results came back a month later and showed that my hunch wasn’t groundless: we both have significant Malian bloodline even though our Nigerian ancestry is the predominant one. My mother was shocked.

She was even more shocked to discover that she—and I—also had some Asante ancestry. I got to know this because AncestryDNA matched her with a fourth cousin whose last name is Acheampong. I reached out to him and found that he is a Ghanaian from Accra who lives in New York. No one had ever told my mother that she had any consanguineal affiliation to the Asante.

 But the most shocking surprise for us was that AncestryDNA’s database matched us with hundreds of cousins who turned out to be mostly Black Americans—and a few white Americans.

In the case of my mother, she had up to five fourth cousins who are Black Americans. That means she shares the same great-great-great grandparents with them. That touched her noticeably. She would look at their photos on AncestryDNA’s database and get misty-eyed.

Not being literate, she hadn’t known, until I told her, that Black people had been enslaved in America centuries ago. She had thought that every Black person in America was a recent immigrant like me. Before taking the ancestry DNA test, and after learning about the enslavement of Black people in America, she would always ask me if certain Black people we saw when I took her out were from “home” or “my mother’s children.”

“My mother’s children” was how she called Black Americans. One day I got curious and asked why she called Black Americans her “mother’s children.” She said it was just her visceral feeling.

 After the AncestryDNA results showed that she had hundreds of 5th through 8th cousins—and five fourth cousins—among Black Americans, she reminded me that she was probably referring to these relationships without realizing it.

But more was to come. As we went through the photos of hundreds of distant cousins that AncestryDNA’s matches showed, she was struck with astonishment to find lily white people as her eight cousins. She asked how that was possible. I explained to her that in the American South, where most Black people were enslaved, many slavers sexually exploited the enslaved, the consequence of which DNA results are now revealing.

As an example, the professor who supervised my master’s thesis—with whom I’ve become family friends—found out that he has up to 5 percent bloodline from Mali when he took an ancestry DNA test years back. And he doesn’t have the slightest phenotypic Black African feature.

 After he shared his AncestryDNA results with me, I jocularly said to him, “Hi bro!” and he responded, “Hello blood!” It was his lighthearted way of acknowledging that more connects us than we realize and admit. We might not be mere “brothers” in the non-familial sense of the word; we could very well be distant cousins for all you know.

I didn’t prepare for what awaited me after letting my— and my mother’s—DNA be part of AncestryDNA’s database. Several of our Black American cousins sent me private messages asking to know what our ethnic groups were so they could determine from us what West African ethnic groups they might be descended from since AncestryDNA only shows estimates based on modern countries. 

Well, my mother and I, we discovered, embody multiplicities of West African ethnicities, and it would be inaccurate to claim just one ethnic identity as our authentic ancestral provenance. The language we speak and the ethnic group we identify with is Baatonu/Bariba found in Nigeria’s Kwara State and Benin Republic’s Borgou, Alibori, and Donga provinces. 

And several of my mother’s Black American cousins share a common Malian ancestry with her, but she didn’t know she was even remotely Malian, which I suspect is Mandinka/Wangara based on the names of her ancestors. So how could I possibly help my cousins without misleading them?

Whatever it is, my discovery of my distant American relatives—and my knowledge that their ancestors helped to build America with free, forced labor—deepened my emotional investment in my American citizenship. 

8 comments:

Moukhtar Kofa said...

Reading your write ups, especially those about 'ethnic identity' is always a delight.

Your piece, "In search of my maternal roots in Parakou, Benin Republic," spoured me to dig deep to find out who I am, ethnically.

Hausa/Fulani has been used as our ethnic identity right from birth, but I have never been comfortable with it from when I became aware of the possibilities of us not being Hausa/Fulani we've identified with for years.

I asked my father to tell me what our true ethnicity is, he always answered that we are Tuareg. If I further ask why we have been using Hausa/Fulani,his response never satisfied my curiosity.

My discovery, through a radio programme on one of Kano's FM stations, that most residents of Kofa town of Bebeji local government are immigrants from Niger, Mali and other West African countries, coupled with the fact that my father never told me where his grandparents came to Kofa from, and the revelation that Mandinka/Soninke/Wangara people dropped their ancestral language and adopted Dendi, and having lived in some parts of Niger Republic, Katsina and Borno, I have been suspecting we might be Wangara ethnically.

I look forward to coming to America one day, to do this AncestryDNA test to unravel my true ancestral ethnicity.

Jazakal Lah for the knowledge you've tirelessly been feeding us with.

Unknown said...

Insightful

Camara Pore said...

We are all connected in Africa. My ancestors were one of the first rulers of the Mande Kingdom
The Camaras

Farooq A. Kperogi said...

There was a massive migration of the Wangara into Kano. They were the ones that introduced Islam to the Hausa people. You're most probably Wangara. The Tuaregs are what Hausa people call Buzu, who are part of the Berber cluster in North Africa.

Tony Odiadi said...

Surprisingly, it has been found that Fulani Fulfude as a language has deeper roots in West Africa than Hausa which Nilo-saharan. It may be that Hausa being a later language displaced some originally indigenous languages of the sahelian tribes. As for DNA, the mix of origins suggests one ancestral tree for most southern Nigerian, even middle belt groups. Tests and authentication will in due course reveal that truth. For now, Nigerians look more to political claims and convenience, not scientific parameters, to guess or assert their origins

Farooq A. Kperogi said...

Hausa is Afro-Asiatic, not Nilo-Saharan. I'm not sure any linguist dates languages the way you have. Hausa belongs to the Chadic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, and Chadic languages are indigenous to West Africa.

Unknown said...

If such an ANCESTRY DNA Test is conducted on a good sample of people from Mali, Niger republic, Katsina, Kano, Kwara yorubas, Oyo/Ogun yorubas plus the Benin republic peoples,all this talk of 'settlers' , indigenous people would be a thing of the past as AncestryDNA will reveal their 'real' identity and genetic connections.May Allah (SWT) make your (our) traducers realize your worth as we do now .

The Venetian said...

Prof Kperoogi yes it is Chadic. It is Kanuri that is Nilo Saharan. Interestingly, most Nilo Saharans ended up adopting Chadic tongues, but not befoe they themselves lent key phrases to their adopted Chadic tongues.

Have you read "Searching For Boko Haram" ? It is a very interesting work on ethnography history and prehistory of the Lake Chad basin. Reading your blogs, reminds me of it.