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  • Writer's pictureEd & Phil

S05 E01 Wagadou transcript

This is the full episode transcript that goes Season 5, episode 1 of Countries That Don't Exist Anymore, Wagadou. AKA the Empire of Ghana. It's not 100% accurate as it's based on the script rather than what gets released to the public.

Welcome back to the long-anticipated series 5 of Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore. So much anticipated that our Twitter account has been inundated with messages.

Reads out messages

So this series is going to be a bit different.. (changes, 1 main ep per month, support us with donations - paypal link on our site).

It’s been a long wait but in the meantime I’ve bought and decorated a house, passed my driving test and have a fiance. Phil, what have you been up to…


Either…something very underwhelming.


Talk about your successful career, listing many achievements.


So… bugger all then. Or…”So what? I catproofed my garden..a bit.”

Anyway, series 5 kicks off with the Medieval West African empire of Wagadou, also known as the Ghana Empire.






Newsflash, Ed. Ghana still exists. What’s the matter? Don’t have any more Countries That Don’t Exist… Anymore?


Actually, modern Ghana has nothing to do with the historic Ghana Empire, AKA Wagadou. Different people, different time, different location. You see this OG Ghana was based in what’s now modern west Mali and southeast Mauritania.

And that’s not the only example in Africa. Modern Benin has nothing to do with ancient Benin. Mauritania? Nowhere near old Mauritania.


Hmm. I might have to consult Mapotron.

Ed: (cocks gun)

Drop the scart cable and step away from the Mapatron.


Easy, easy. 

So if it has nothing to do with ancient Ghana, why did modern Ghana call itself Ghana then?

Modern Ghana (formerly known as The Gold Coast) was founded in 1957 with a lot of internal divisions, so the name was borrowed from history to hearken back to a mighty African civilisation. Pretty much just to channel some of the greatness of the historic Ghana Empire. 

But even the name Ghana Empire is a tautology of sorts. Since Empire is a bunch of kingdoms being ruled by a top king and the word Ghana actually just means warrior chief or King. So when you say Ghana Empire, all you’re really saying is Kingdom of kings king.

Anyway, for the purposes of this episode, we’ll be calling the Ghana Empire what is was called by the local Soninke people, AKA Wagadou. 


Yeah all very interesting, but you’re forgetting the most important bit - the song. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?


A play on the ELO-penned Olivia Newton John hit, Xanadu - “They called it Wagadou…”


No, I was thinking…

Music: (Phil sings with annoying background noises)

Wagadou-dou-dou something something African…


cocks gun Take off the Hawaiian shirt and step away from the karaoke machine.


Easy, easy……And talking of annoying novelty songs, welcome to series 5 of…

  • THEME -

What does Wagadou mean?

Wagadou means “place of the wague.” Not Premier League football wives and girlfriends wag, but in fact nobility. So Wagadou means Lord's place.

One tradition states that Wagdou was established after a man called Dinga Cisse, who came from somewhere else far away and fathered lots of children who themselves became local rulers.


Any veracity to this account?


Well, Dinga is said to have then killed a goblin but married the goblin’s daughters and had two sons with then called Khine and Dyabe - who fought each other until Dyabe was victorious and established Wagadou.


So, no then.


Like most myths, it’s probably a bit true and probably a bit not.


It must be true. Who would brag about being related to a goblin? Except the British Royal family.

The problem with the history around the founding of Wagadou is that it’s been the preserve of  a lot of nineteenth and twentieth century European historians arguing over who the founders of Wagadou actually were. Some thought North African Berbers, others Judeo-Syrians.


And still others goblins.

Unsurprisingly, very few colonial types could stomach the idea that an illustrious West African empire could have been founded by… West Africans. But more recent archaeological work at the suspected capital city of Koumbi Saleh suggests that Wagadou may have been established and ruled by…


Local people.



I’m still leaning to this goblin theory.

Speaking of Koumbi Saleh - this was a gleaming capital of possibly more than 20,000 people which at its height, in the year 1000 AD, had twice the population of London.


Wow. London now?


No, London at the time.



That said, Koumbi Saleh had two large wells providing safe, clean water. Something that even modern London still can’t always manage.

Koumbi Saleh wasn’t just one city - it was actually made up of two separate towns, 6 miles away from each other. 


The Windsor and Slough of their day.

At its height, one of these two towns was inhabited by Muslim dignitaries, having 12 mosques and containing all the administrative functions of government.

The other town was pretty much the court of the king with his palace, sacred groves and pleasure gardens.


I don’t get the term pleasure gardens. I mean they’re all right, but what's so great about lying on grass?


Yes, this was before the comfortable sofas and large screen TVs of the late 20th century living room.

In many parts of West Africa, buildings were (and are) made of mud brick, but Wagadou had stone deposits and therefore urban houses were apparently stone structures which could be several storeys high and separated by narrow streets - with a grander avenue running through the centre of town lined with all the traders and food stalls that kept Koumbi Saleh buzzing.


I was expecting this African kingdom to be all flying cars and energy weapons.


No, you’re thinking of Wakanda. This is the Mediaeval era, so just think about agriculture, economic inequality and so forth.


With you.

Who were the Soninke?

Were and are. Since there are still 2 million Soninke in West Africa.

As well as being a dab hand with leather, iron and gold, the Soninke were quite a militaristic bunch - with high falutin ideals about fighting and chivalry, and fairly elitist ideas around caste and standing. For example, combat was only permitted between men of similar rank and was limited to a sword and spear each.

If someone lower in rank came for a fight, the higher status warrior would show their contempt by only producing a whip or saddle girth.


So if you didn’t like someone, you whipped out your girth? It really was the Slough of its day.

One reason that the Soninke were able to dominate was they may have been the first people in the region to master metal-tipped weapons - especially arrows.

Blacksmiths were highly prized in Wagadou society. Their name for forge was also the same word used for a magical egg that hatched at the beginning of creation - with all life pouring out of it. 

Blacksmiths in Wagadou belonged to  guilds and their knowledge was highly secretive and prized. To normal people, blacksmiths seemed to hold magical powers - as they were able to take metals from the earth and transform them into incredible objects.


And for my next trick, it’s… a spork.



What was it like being poor in Wagadou?

Although society was obviously stratified (what with having a gold-wearing king in charge of everything and all that) it was apparently a fairly charitable one - with the wealthy required to give away one twentieth of their income to the poor.


Wow! 5% tax. They must have had excellent accountants.

This system was called jakka - which meant that the poor, old and disabled were taken care of… a bit.


Yes, they were given jakka all.

How long did Wagadou last?

From about 300 to at least about the 1100s…and probably a little later. That’s at least 800 years of Wagadou-y goodness. It’s always difficult to say when such an ancient empire comes to an end, but by 1240, Wagadou had been fully absorbed into the Mali Empire.

And like all significant places, Wagadou didn’t just disappear into the Sahara sands – it kick started a series of wealthy empires, like the Mali than the Songhai, that lasted right up to European colonisation.

The Empires of West Africa enjoyed thousands of years of prosperity because of one shiny commodity that homosapiens can’t seem to get enough of.


Big bald heads? (or similar)

No. Gold!

Call back to Gold Rush episode:

Woohoo! Gold. I’m going to be rich I tell you. Rich!

Wagadou at its richest was stinking rich. The king was also known as Kaya Maghan (AKA King of gold). 

Clip of Lenny and Homer talking and then Homer laughing.

Think the British royal family claiming ownership of all swans is a bit overbearing? Apparently, the king of Wagadou claimed all nuggets of gold found as belonging to him, only allowing his subjects 'gold dust'.

According to 11th century Arabic scholar Al Bakri: 

It is related that the king owns a nugget as large as a big stone....


That's too vague to be impressive. How big a stone?


A smallish rock.


Oh. Like a tiny boulder?



Darth Vader:


In 951, historian Ibn Haukal wrote that the King of Ghana was “the richest king on the face of the earth".

Al Bakri described a courtly scene:

“He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the kings of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king and around him are ministers seated likewise. At the door of the pavilion are dogs of excellent pedigree that hardly ever leave the place where the king is, guarding him. Around their necks they wear collars of gold and silver studded with a number of balls of the same metals.”

I guess they were…. golden retrievers.

Bum tish


We may have had a break Ed, but you certainly haven’t lost… whatever it is you had. But hang on, with all this gold and gold wearing dogs, shouldn’t they have been worried about inflation?

Actually, according to Al Bakri, that’s exactly why the crown effectively yoinked all the gold. Even then it was supposedly understood that too much gold being allowed to flow would make it worthless.


Is that really why the king kept all the gold?


Absolutely, Phil. It's vital that there is strictly enforced economic inequality in society, because reasons.

But where did all that money come from? 

Wagadou was located on the Sahel - then a savannah region in Africa that separated the deserts to the north and jungle to the south. With plenty of grazing land for animals, fertile farmland and major rivers aplenty for irrigation and trade, the place was practically screaming out for some pretty advanced civilising. 

Agriculture had been happening in this part of Africa since at least 3500 BC, possibly as early as 6000 BC. This would put West African civilisation on par with the very earliest anywhere in the world!

Wagadou used its military to make sure it was the sweet spot for the trade in gold, salt, animal hides, copper, beads and lots of people sat around just itching to be sold into slavery – and all this was lined up with Saharan trades routes - which opened up in the 3rd century AD with the introduction of the camel to the region. And these trade routes linked the Southern tip of Africa via the Silk Road right the way over to the far reaches of China.

Wagadou's key trade was mining the loaded goldmines situated at Bambuk, on the upper Senegal River. to the south of their lands to pay for the salt that was mined in the Sahara desert to the north. And if you're thinking "why salt? You get it free in little packets" the answer is that it was a lot more scarce and hard to come by at the time. Plus the primary use of salt at the time wasn't to make chips magically delicious. It was all about food preservation.

Salt was the fridge of its day.

But whether salt, gold, brocade, ivory, copper or ostrich feathers, since Wagadou sat in the middle of all this trade, all they had to do was to tax merchants when they entered their lands and when they left them.

Sweet, sweet taxation!

What kind of government did Wagadou have?

Well, we know that the emperor of Wagadou was the king of kings, and there's no reason to think that this wasn't an absolute power deal, apart from the town basically devoted to civil servants and dignitaries.


Checks out. You know what I'd do if I had absolute power?


Make someone else do all the actual work?




Finally! Absolute power. All my years of scheming and murdering have paid off. All bow to me. You know what this means?


The once in a lifetime opportunity to shape the state in a way that makes it work for its people?


What? No. Unlimited funding for my twin passions of drinking and prostitutes. You do all the…admin stuff. Come prostitutes!

We have accounts that the emperor kept the sons of lesser kings close by to be brought up in his royal household - thus bringing them up to feel a bond to the system as well as having their neck on the line should their dear old daddies do anything crazy like go into rebellion. Whether, Aztec, Roman or British, it’s a classic empire tactic.

One thing that’s unusual about Wagadou was that the throne was inherited matrilineally. So rather than the throne being past to his own sons, it was instead past to the sons of his sisters.


Is this because African societies were incredibly progressive and enlightened?


Either that or it meant that the heir to the throne would be of the direct bloodline, meaning the King could sleep with whoever he wanted and not worry about lots of bastards claiming the throne.

Who were the kings of Wagadou?

While the historical records are too patchy to be able to have anything like a line of succession, we do hear accounts of two named kings and the suggestion that there were lots lots more. Again these comes from Muslim scholars like Al Bakri, who never actually visited the place. But a lot of his writing is based on earlier writings that were subsequently lost. So take it all with a pinch of salt.


Fridge of its day.

For example, one king known as Basi (who died in 1063) became ruler at the age of 85. According to Al Bakri, he led a praiseworthy life because of his love of justice and friendship for the Muslims. Historically objective? No. Record of Wagadou king making accommodation to the growing number of Muslims in the kingdom? Probably.

Anyway, at the end of his life, Basi became blind, but pretended he could see. When something was put before him, he said, “This is good” or “This is bad.” His ministers apparently would help the king by giving out cryptic hints.


Your majesty, I present to you a carving of your likeness.

Cough Cough


What an insult! Take him away and execute him!



Oh sorry, two coughs? I mean… this is good.

The king that followed him (and the only other we have a name for) is Ghana Tenkamanin. Apparently born in 1037 and crowned at 25. Accounts of him are hard to pin down, but a lot of trade and anti-inflationary measures were attributed to his rein. According to accounts he was also the peoples king - in that he'd ride on horseback around the kingdom listening to people's concerns.

Prince Charles:

And what do you do?


I work at the salt mines but conditions are terrible. There have been cave ins that have killed many. And they don't pay us enough. My children are starving.

Prince Charles:

How absolutely splendid. Whistle walk on.

What religion did Wagadou have?

When we’ve talk about lots of nations around at this time period - whether it's Mercia or Aksum - generally we find a transition of religion from multiple gods to monotheism. And Wagadou is no exception. Early religion was all spirits and magic animals. And later Wagadou gradually shifted to Islam.

In fact one tradition says that the wealth of Wagadou was granted by a seven headed python called Bida. Bida provided gold every time it rained.

Rumble of thunder… raining metal thuds


Ow, ow, ow.

Now Bida was said to have made a deal with the kings of Wagadou. Golden showers on the regular, but all in exchange for an annual human sacrifice of a young, virgin girl.

But one year, rather than allowing the sacrifice to go ahead, a horny local hero called Amidou actually killed the snake to have his way with the girl, causing Wagadou to be plunged into terminal depression. I’m sure “I’ve saved a girl you were prepared to sacrifice as a small price to pay for your ongoing prosperity, thus condemning you all to eternal poverty” received mixed reviews.

Alan Partridge:

Still, good news about the chocolate oranges.

But there are some interesting things to take from this myth. After all, serpent worship was once a big thing in this part of Africa. Snakes were practically divine…


 Because you have done this, You are cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring[a] and hers; he will crush[b] your head, and you will strike his heel.”


Meh. Depends who your ask.

Anyway, as well as snakes, we're told that before Islam, the people of Wagado also worshipped carvings or idols that could be kept in woods and guarded by holy men or sorcerers. We call the worshippers of this religion Animists.

Anarchy in the UK spoof

I am an animist

That's not like animee

But I worship animals

Make idols from sacred trees

Cos I want to be serpenty.

And apparently when kings were buried, they were brought on comfy beds, put into domes, which were then covered with earth. And they were buried with their servants. Who apparently volunteered for the honour.


Yes, I hope to spend eternity with my line manager too.

What did people of Wagadou wear?

Those that followed the king’s religion were apparently forbidden from wearing clothes sewn together by thread. That was reserved for royalty. Velcro was probably fine. 

All other people wore robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according to their means. The men were clean shaven while the women shaved their heads. 

The king was very finely decorated, wearing necklaces and bracelets on his forearms. On his head was a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. 

NB: This information comes from Islamic scholars from information they've gleaned, so this may just be their impression rather than a suddenly accurate account. 

However the temptation would be to think that these Islamic scholars were likely to make non Islamic religious practices and culture sound terrible given that their official "yay Islam" position. But here's the thing…there's not much here which sounds unbelievable or cartoonishly grotesque. There are definitely some stories that seem a bit fishy, but on the whole there does seem a real drive to document and record.

By 1068, Islam was a more dominating force in Wagadou. Most if not all of the top officials and aristocrats were Muslim. Not only was Islam spread on the trade routes but next door kingdoms like Takrur had made the switch. Maybe it was the undeniable truth of the Prophet (PBAH) or of a sweetener to trading relations. Or a bit of both. Anyway it seemed that…everybody was turning Muslim.

Except the King! The King and his heirs kept the old religion. A bit like how King Charles and Prince William have to be Church of England while everybody else in England are Jedi.

So when people of the old religion approached the king, they'd kneel and sprinkle dust on their heads. When Muslims approached the king, they'd just have to clap their hands.

"Oooh most glorious king." (Grovel grovel)

CLAP Aaaaaaay.


Monday Tuesday Wagadou

Tuesday Wednesday Wagadou

But here's where we have to question some of these Islamic scholars. They tell us that the Kings of Wagadou converted to Islam, but there doesn’t seem to be any proof of this.

One story goes that there was a great drought, so the King called for an imam to ask him what to do about it. He said that the king should convert to Islam, and as soon as he did, there was rain.

Now for one thing, there’s no evidence that the kings of Wagadou ever actually converted to Islam. 


Yeah and when I think of the holiest Islamic places in general I rarely think… you know what their problem is? Excess moisture.


Yes, I’d love to live in an Islamic country - but just too drizzly.

But either way, the growing influence of Islam over Wagadou is undeniable. We hear from 12th century accounts that scholars of Wagadou were being sent to Al Andalus, AKA Islamic Spain. Plus lots of the elite had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, throwing around so much gold that they generally left inflation wherever they went.

So Wagadou were clearly movers and shakers in the Islamic world. And the rulers of the follow up empires were most definitely Muslim.

Why did Wagaou decline and fall?

So there’s a commonly held idea that Wagadou was conquered by the Almoravid Dynasty.

Who were the Almoravid Dynasty?

Short answer: In the 1050s, the Almoravid Dynasty was formed in North West Africa. The Almoravids followed a very strict form of Islam and decided that it would be a great idea for everybody else too as well. In a lightning campaign they worked their way down the West coast of Africa until they were on the borders of Wagadou in 1055.

They also formed an alliance with the king of Takrur, who wasn't a big fan of fun either.

In 1076, the Almoravids took the capital after a struggle lasting a decade.


Wow! That was abrupt.


That's because it might have never happened!



Google Wagadou and most people take it as read that this is what happened, but really there's little evidence that it did. In fact there's just as much evidence to suggest Wagadou had dominion over the Almoravids.

Scholars all seem to disagree, as do historians. If there was an invasion of the capital, Koumbeh Saleh, where's the damage in the archeological record? But then what if Koumbeh Saleh, which may not have been the capital, wasn't even the capital at the time of the invasion? It's so hard to reach a conclusion with so little evidence.


Evidence? Come on Poindexter. The listeners of CTDEA don't want this shilly-shallying. They want sauce, juice, Goss. Who's bonking who? Are there any snake orgies? Which ancient king has been slagging off which other ancient king? Who conquered who? So, did the Almoravids invade and set things on fire and murder and rape or didn't they?


I don't know.


You can't spell I don't know without no. What's the opposite of no?




Exactly. So cool curvy sword conquest it is thanks very much.

Well, maybe. But let's also consider...

Climate change

Yes, good old climate change. So at the beginning of our story, Wagadou is a green oasis of river valleys and pastures between desert to the north and jungle to the south. But as we approach the first millennium, all that is changing. The climate grows hotter and drier, the Sahara creeps south, productive land becomes arid, rivers and wells dry up. The citizenry of Wagadou move south right out of Wagadou. And with a declining population, the empire lost its hold on the territories it had controlled for hundreds of years.

And the real memory of climate change also entered folklore. You remember the great snake, Bida? In the first version of the story the snake just guaranteed wealth in a non-specific way.

But in another story, Bida actually provided water. Not only did Bida live in one of the great wells, but it also caused rain to fall and (only after eating its human sacrifice) left the well thus allowing people access to it.


Great news then! Big snake is dead and therefore people get unlimited access to water.

You’d think but upon Bida’s death the well dried up and the rain stopped falling. An important lesson to us all…


Don’t kill giant snakes unless you find out how that snake is dynamically part of the water cycle first? DO IT LIKE



And although the story of Bida the python seems a bit random, there’s some sense to the legend. We’ve already talked about snake worship, but why did it happen? And why a python in particular? One reason might be that in times of drought, pythons burrow underground to water sources. So pythons were closely connected to water sources. Dead pythons meant no water. No water meant a bad time for everybody.

But with all those peasants skedaddling and the tax base eroding, the wealth of Wagadou took a big hit.

But you don't need a stable climate to mine gold. And that may have kept Wagadou afloat except that other goldmines were coming online in In the 11th and 12th century at Bure (modern Guinea) and new trade routes were opening up further east. 

And whether you buy the Almoravid invasion or not, conquest was always on the cards. In the 1190s or thereabouts, the Kingdom of Soso to the fertile south rose to prominence, and gobbled up parts of Wagadou's lands that contained iron and gold mines. Then so so about the rise of Soso, a confederation of states defeated them and formed the Mali Empire - with Wagadou as a vassal state.



And that was the history of Ghana. I mean Wagadou.


Don’t worry, Phil. It’s easy to get mixed up which is why I’ve written a catchy song to help you remember. 


You mean the one I arranged, sang and recorded?



Song: (De do do do - The Police)

Talking Wagadou

It’s not the Ghana that you knew.

One’s an ancient civilisation.

The other is a modern nation.

It doesn’t matter what you have to say.

The two are miles and miles and miles away.

Wagadou, not Ghana

Is all I want to say to you

Wagadou, not Ghana

Mediaeval not brand new.

Wagadou, not Ghana

Is all I want to say to you

Wagadou, not Ghana

Find a map, you’ll see it’s true.


Sign off.

Next ep is on the Endeavour of Fiume, a short lived experiment of free love, anarchists and pasta in 1919. This episode was requested by Brian Pritzl, who made a donation to the show at If you’ve got a country you’d like to be featured on the show, get in touch and we’ll add it to the playlist. Making a donation isn’t essential, but cash helps us pay those web hosting fees and keeps me in history books - so all contributions are greatly received.

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