I’ll warn you up front, the story of Yennenga the Svelte is going to feel more like a fairy tale than a historical biography. We know her story only from the oral traditions of the Mossi people, which may have some non-historical additions and embellishments. But then again, they may tell the story exactly the way it happened. Here goes.
Once, upon a time, er—in the twelfth century Madega, the king of the Dagomba Kingdom, in which is now Ghana had a daughter named Yennenga who was a talented warrior and had the potential to be a great ruler. Her people described her as the lioness with the stubborn chin and flowing mane.
In time she began to think about marriage and starting a family. Her father valued her military skills so much that he found something something wrong with all of her suitors and turned them away. (You see what I mean about the fairy tale flavor?)
Yennenga tried to make her point with an analogy. She planted a field with okra and then allowed the pods to wither unpicked. When her father asked why she was letting the crop spoil, she asked him why he was letting her wither on the vine.
The analogy did not sway her father, who apparently wanted a warlord more than a grandchild.
Finally, Yennenga disguised herself as a man and rode away in the night on her stallion. She traveled for several weeks, until she had escaped her father’s domain. On day, she came upon a hut owned by a solitary elephant hunter named Riale.* Assuming she was a man, he invited her to stay with him.
Sometime after she accepted that invitation, her disguise failed. Or maybe she revealed herself as who she was. The two royal runaways became a couple and in time they had a son, whom they named Ouedraogo, or Stallion, in memory of the horse Yennenga rode on to escape her father’s house.
When Ouedraogo turned seventeen, Yennenga took him to meet her father. Her father welcomed them into his court. In fact, when Yennenga returned to Riale, Ouedraogo remained with his grandfather for a time.
When it was time for Ouedraogo to leave, his grandfather offered to make the young man his heir. Ouedraogo refused, saying he needed to carve out his own kingdom. Perhaps Madega had learned wisdom with time. Perhaps he was willing to let a young man to go his own way even though he wanted to keep his daughter by his side.** Instead of arguing with Ouedraogo, the king gave him a small army and sent out him to make his way in the world.
Ouedraogo stopped to pay his respects to his parents and then rode north, where he founded the first Mossi kingdom.
And while they may not have lived happily ever after, Yennenga’s descendants ruled the Mossi kingdoms until the French conquered them 1895.
*FYI: Riale was also a royal heir on the run. While accounts of why he had retreated to the forest differ, they agree that his father was the king of the Mandé in what is now Mali.
**Just a reminder: he didn’t want to let her get married because she was such a successful warrior. This may be history told with a fairy tale rhythm, but it’s a fairy tale about a girl with a javelin and a spear, not a glass slipper.