Oumarou Sambo




Sambo’s ethnic group, the Kurtey, is known as a subgroup of the Songhai based in and around the Niger River. Their trademark plus sign, scarred into the ball of the cheek, easily identifies them. Sometimes living on islands in the river, a group of those that have mastered the mysteries of the water, known as Sorko, maintain magic spells and stories of a spirit world beneath the river, one they visit as much as they are visited. Confusingly, sorko is also the word used for a fisherman as well, although the differences between the two sorkos are quite clear.

Sambo is a particular type of sorko known as a Dow. Historically they are powerful individuals that have inherited rich traditions, often from various elders. Sambo himself travelled extensively, even far from the river, to learn from other spiritual leaders of various ethnic groups as well.

Incantations can be used for protection, casting spells, praising, possession and a rare recording of an incantation presents the mystery of power hidden within what can sound like jibberish, even to native-speakers. Sambo doesn’t seem to have any work per se but always seems so busy, walking back and forth within the bigger neighborhood and the river and beyond.

With a large, cheap cellphone which has a big speaker, Sambo walks around joking and laughing with the cellphone blasting three-sting mollo lute music while walking or relaxing. During his interview, Sambo speaks of his life, chuckles telling stories about the Niger River underworld, and shares some proverbs.

Many of the short phrases, the easiest to hear, seem like a recipe for some Niger River concoction involving hippos, manatees, and crocodiles. The hippo and the manatee are the largest mammals in the everyday life of Niger River dwelling families. Therefore hearing about crocodile eggs and hippo tusks is not foreign and strange but powerful and even mysterious. The lyrics serve as great triggers for individuals to recall life experiences. The crocodile and manatee are almost at extinction, but hippos are protected now and easy to find.

The riverain dialect and the super-positioning of a Niger River underworld, with markets and villages, spread the density of information found in these incantations to include zoology and spiritual mapping. Other unintelligible words are meant to have power in their sound or in their physical effect on the body of one praised by a skilled sorko practitioner. The power of words to change a person’s state of mind, spiritual understanding, everyday knowledge, and to heal, comes from a sorko’s private knowledge of sacred words, more powerful and dangerous than words understood by everyone.

  • Oumarou Sambo
  1. Incantation example – 4:56
  2. Sambo Amadou interview – 26:53
  • Ethnic Group: Songhai (Kurtey)
  • Language (dialect): Songhai (Kurtey)
  • Country: Niger
  • Recording date: August 12, 2015
  • Recording location:
    Windi Beri neighborhood, Niamey, Niger
  • Total Recording time: 31:49
  • Technician: Brian Nowak
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