Yennenga was an African princess who lived over 900 years ago. She was known as a brave warrior and famous for her strong spirit. Today she is considered to be the mother of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso and is has become a cultural icon.
Much of what we know about Yennenga today comes from oral tradition; stories that have been passed down through history. In some stories Yennenga is known as ‘Poko’ or ‘Yalanga’.
Yannenga was the daughter of King Nedega, who ruled over the Dagomaba Kingdom (which is now part of Northern Ghana.) Yennenga’s three brothers all commanded their own battalions, and as she grew Yennenga also learnt the skills of a warrior. She was an expert horse rider and learnt how to use a javelin, spear and bow. She was a match for any of the men in her father’s armies, and soon she led her own command.
She led her army to success in many battles, especially against the neighbouring Malinké people. Across the land she became known for her skills in battle, becoming a feared warrior. She is sometimes known as ‘Yennenga the Svelte’, as she was very tall and slim; and sometimes mistaken for a man when she rode with her battlion in her battle clothes. She was so important to her father’s battle plans that as she reached the age where most of her friends were getting married, he banned her from doing so.
Yennenga continued to be obedient to her father, but she was tired of being in battles all the time, and wanted to fall in love and marry, like so many of her friends had. No matter how much she asked, her father continued to refuse her this request.
One story tells us that Yennenga planted some wheat outside of her father’s house. When the wheat grew, instead of harvesting it she left it to wither and die. When her father angrily asked her why she had done this she told him that he was letting her rot, just like the wheat had done.
He wasn’t very happy that she had spoken to him so boldly and some stories say that he imprisoned her! Whether or not she was imprisoned by her father, very soon she escaped and disappeared into the forest on her stallion, dressed as a man so she wouldn’t be quickly found.
No-one knows for sure how long she was there, but at some point she met a well known elephant hunter called Riale. He soon discovered that she was a woman, and a skilled hunter as well. Soon romance blossomed and Yennenga and Riale fell in love and had a child. They called their son Ouedraogo, which means ‘Male Horse’ or ‘Stallion’, this was as a tribute to the horse which had taken Yennenga into the forest where she met Riale.
Ouedraogo grew to become an important leader and founded the Mossi Kingdom, which is why Yennenga is known as the mother of the Mossi people.
Today in Burkina Faso, and across the region Yennenga’s legacy remains. There are statues of her, roads named after her and even an African film award which is known as the Yennenga Gold Stallion and has a golden woman riding a horse with a spear on top. The national football team of Burkina Faso is even called ‘Les Étalons’ which means ‘The Stallions’, after Yennenga’s famous horse.
Her story has inspired many, who see her as a symbol of a woman with a strong character and an independent mind.
Find out more:
It’s quite hard to find information about Yennenga, as so much of what we know is from oral traditions.
UNESCO have a fantastic resource of their website with several interactive ways to find out more about Yennenga and her story.