Discussing Medieval West African with Documents

American students should learn more African History. Medieval West Africa is an excellent place to begin. Studying the West African trading empires—Ghana, Mali, and Songhai—presents students with an opportunity to engage with issues of sourcing. Uncovering the history of these societies requires combining a variety of sources: written accounts by outsiders written in Arabic, oral tradition, architecture, and West African writings in Arabic.

Image of Mansa Musa, Catalan Atlas, via Wikipedia

I have used the set of three documents here, all examples of Arabic writers describing West African kingdoms, as the basis for an online discussion in Moodle. Students can also use the famous detail from the Catalan Atlas portraying Mansa, along with images of mosques, such as the Sankore mosque and madrassah, and manuscripts from the library at Timbuktu. As always, students need to analyze sourcing and corroborate evidence.

Students could also use these resources to answer a document-based question.

Possible topics for discussion or writing: 

  • How does the sourcing affect the texts or image?  
  • What can we learn about the writers‘ cultures?  
  • What can we learn about West African Kingdoms?
  • What other sources might be available to corroborate the Arabic sources?

Additional Sources

Detailed overview slides

Another Possibility

Several years ago I curated resources for students to use for project-based learning. Here is the PBL question and project that I drafted. I would still like to try it!

Use historical thinking skills to create a resource that demonstrates how West African civilizations c.800-c.1500 CE fit into world history. Specifically:

  • Briefly describe and locate Ghana, Mali, and Songhay.
  • Use and cite primary sources to create a story about the past.
  • Analyze these sources in your project.
  • Assess how features of civilization developed in West Africa.
  • Demonstrate how Medieval West Africa connected with the rest of the world through trade and religion.


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