Maimuna Darari, cave goddess, wards off invading king

The following story is set at the beginning of the Kanem-Bornu empire in Central North Africa. It uses the Hausa word mai for “king” to describe Dugu Bremmi, the legendary founder of this empire. The M’bum were pagan people, says my source Richard Palmer, but then at this time, circa 700 CE, the Hausa were too, as was most of Central Africa. 

It was told that a king on his way to invade Yeri Arbasan led his armies through the country of M’bum (in Cameroon). He met a wonderful woman who stood at the opening of a cave in the rocks. The king desired her and, wanting to make her his wife, sent his messenger to her for that purpose. She replied that if the king wanted her, he must leave behind his followers and come to her alone. She led him through the cave into a country with no rocks or trees, but only the appearance of a river. She said that she would lead him to water for his people, and that only then she would tell him her name if he wanted to marry her. But as they went on, the river did not appear and the maiden vanished. 

So the king retraced his steps, and found her again at the cave entrance, this time with a waterfall running behind her into the rock. He asked her name, and she told him that she was called Maimuna Darari. He continued pressing her to become his wife, but she refused, and told him instead to go to Wagara Dubusa and make a city there, with a temple. That she was not a mortal, but a jinnya (spirit). He asked her for water, and to open a passage for his army to return to his kingdom. 

She retorted, “There will be no returning, for you have done wickedly in this affair. How dare you try to wrong this land and attack it, when the people were under my protection. Therefore you will not return to your homes… your character and purpose are both bad, and you have ruined your people. As for us jinnan, if a mortal sees us and asks for money or help he obtains them; but if he is bent on strife, we are to him an occasion of death and ruin. You will perish, you and your people, because you have attacked people under my protection—the people of M’bum.” [Palmer, 106] The story goes that she killed Mai Dugu Bremmi and his sons, and killed his army.

Another story about the same mai who lived in the seventh century tells how he saw a young woman, named Fana Duniya this time, and married her, but she left his house and ran to Yeri Arbasan, the country which the mai in the previous story had tried to invade. She climbed a bori tree (author describes as “a witch tree,” but bori means “spirit” in Hausa). The mai was sitting under that tree, which split and swallowed them both up. 

Palmer, Herbert. Sudanese Memoirs. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2019.

Palmer, Herbert Richmond. The Bornu Sahara and Sudan. United States: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

Palmer, Herbert Richmond. The Bornu Sahara and Sudan. United Kingdom: J. Murray, 1936. [This is the version I copied from, but the pagination is from the first source listed]

Here's another, not-so-mythic account of the same invasion, and its failure:

There's a lot of complexity to this history, a mix of many ethnicities. The earliest source for it is the Girgam, or the Royal Chronicle. Map here: "The Kanem–Bornu Empire existed in areas which are now part of Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. It was known to the Arabian geographers as the Kanem Empire from the 8th century AD onward and lasted as the independent kingdom of Bornu (the Bornu Empire) until 1900.

"The Kanem Empire (c. 700–1380) was located in the present countries of Chad, Nigeria and Libya.[2] At its height, it encompassed an area covering not only most of Chad but also parts of southern Libya (Fezzan) and eastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon. The Bornu Empire (1380s–1893) was a state in what is now northeastern Nigeria, in time becoming even larger than Kanem, incorporating areas that are today parts of Chad, Niger, Sudan, and Cameroon.

"Kanem was located at the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade route between Tripoli and the region of Lake Chad. Besides its urban elite, it also included a confederation of nomadic peoples who spoke languages of the Teda–Daza (Toubou) group.

"In the 8th century, Wahb ibn Munabbih used Zaghawa to describe the Teda-Tubu group, in the earliest use of the ethnic name. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi also mentions the Zaghawa in the 9th century, as did Ibn al-Nadim in his Kitāb al-Fihrist in the 10th-century. Kanem comes from anem, meaning south in the Teda and Kanuri languages, and hence a geographic term. During the first millennium, as the Sahara underwent desiccation, people speaking the Kanembu language migrated to Kanem in the south. This group contributed to the formation of the Kanuri people. Kanuri traditions state the Zaghawa dynasty led a group of nomads called the Magumi. This desiccation of the Sahara resulted in two settlements, those speaking Teda-Daza northeast of Lake Chad, and those speaking Chadic west of the lake in Bornu and Hausa-land ...

"The Kanuri-speaking Muslim Saifawas gained control of Kanem from the Zaghawa nomads in the 9th century. This included control of the Zaghawa trade links in the central Sahara with Bilma and other salt mines. Yet, the principal trade commodity was slaves. Tribes to the south of Lake Chad were raided as kafirun [infidels, non-Muslims], and then transported to Zawila in the Fezzan [Libya], where the slaves were traded for horses and weapons. The annual number of slaves traded increased from 1,000 in the 7th century to 5,000 in the 15th."

This wiki account speaks only of kings and generals, but there's more to this history. This account alludes to the Magajiyyar (queens) of Kanem-Bornu:

"The largest empire in the region was Kanem-Borno, which flourished across modern-day Niger, Chad and southern Libya for nearly 1000 years. Mai Dugu was the first king of Kanem-Borno, living around 800 AD. He founded the Dugawa Dynasty which ruled the empire for nearly 300 years as the kingship was passed down the generations. Each ruler of the empire was given the title “Mai” to signify their position.

"The people of this kingdom wore leathers and skins made from various animals. Clothing made from leopardskin and even crocodile skin was common. The royal family wore silk and wool. Farming was of great importance in Kanem-Borno, as paid workers would grow millet, beans, and wheat for the empire. Trade was also important, as the empire exchanged goods such as horses, fabrics, and copper with other regions of Africa.

"The highest governmental positions in Kanem-Borno were held by two women; the Queen Mother and the Queen Sister. Each of these women had their own court and officers at their disposal. The highest position for men was that of the provincial governors. These men were responsible for the north, south, east, and west portions of the empire respectively. Although there was a divine ruler, they did not exercise absolute power over the empire, they would consult the entire government before making most decisions."

However, this second article elides the slaving and other negative developments under this empire. I'll have more about the Magajiyyar (queens) in a later post.

While searching for images of the Magajja (queen mother or queen sister), I found this singer titled Magajjiya Danbatta. Her sound has similarities to Southern Amazigh / Tuareg music.

Modern Kanuri women, NE Nigeria, near Cameroon.

Complete and Continue