Sons of the Soil and Conquerors Who Came on Foot: The Historical Construction of a West African Border Region


  • Olivier Walther


This article discusses the historical evolution of Dendi, a border region now located across Niger, Benin, and Nigeria. Drawing on colonial literature and mythological accounts collected in the city of Gaya, the article shows that the two subgroups at the origin of the historical identity of Dendi were affected very differently by colonization and the independence of West African states. While Songhay chiefdoms managed to build alliances with colonial powers and have adapted to post-colonial political changes, Kyanga religious authorities have been progressively marginalized under the pressure of Islam, urban development, and the state administration. The article also shows that the historical distinction between first settlers and conquerors has been challenged since the 1980s by the arrival of businessmen from Niger and neighboring countries, which turned the Dendi into a regional economic crossroad. Some of these new immigrants have become important actors in the local urban market, challenging the distinction between the “sons of the soil” and the conquerors of aristocratic origin “who came on foot,” which had long served to define the Dendi identity.