Encyclopedia Womannica

Warriors: Yennenga

Episode Summary

Yennenga (12th century) was a warrior princess from northern Ghana who became a founding mother and laid the foundation for the Mossi Kingdoms in modern-day Burkina Faso.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today we’re talking about a warrior princess and founding mother who laid the foundation for a new culture. This is the story of Princess Yennenga.

Yennenga was born in the early 12th century, in what is now northern Ghana. She was the daughter of a king in the Mamprusi tribe, and she soon became renowned for her beauty, strong will, and talent on the battlefield. 

From age 14, she showed great skill with a variety of weapons, and a particular talent for taming wild horses. She joined her father in battles against a neighboring enemy tribe, and even commanded her own battalion. At such a young age, Yennenga was a force to be reckoned with, riding the finest royal stallion.

Yennenga’s father was very proud of his daughter’s martial abilities -- but he was protective of her, too. He refused to let Yennenga choose a husband.

Determined to find a way to show her father that she wanted to get married, Yennenga decided to take action. She planted a field full of wheat. Her father praised her agricultural prowess. But when the field was ready for harvest, Yennenga let the crops rot.

When her father asked her why she wasted these resources, Yennenga responded that being barred from marriage made her feel the same way as the rotted wheat. Yennenga’s father wasn’t pleased.  Enraged, he imprisoned her to ensure that she would never find a husband.

After several weeks, one of the king’s horsemen started to sympathize with Yennenga’s plight. In the dead of night, he helped disguise her as a man and smuggled her out of the kingdom. Together, they rode north.

The duo was soon attacked by an enemy tribe, and Yennenga’s companion was killed. Yennenga  continued riding north. 

One night, Yennenga found herself lost in a forest, where she met a lonely elephant hunter named Riale. When Riale discovered Yennenga’s true identity, they fell in love, and Yennenga got the husband she always dreamed of. Riale and Yennenga had a son named Ouedraogo, which means ‘stallion’. 

Yennenga’s son went on to found the Mossi Kingdom in modern day Burkina Faso. Yennenga’s story forms the foundational legend of the land. To this day, Ouedrago is still a common surname among the Mossi, which is the largest ethnic group in the country.

Yennenga’s drive to pursue what she wanted in life defied gender roles at the time, making her a model for pursuing dreams in the face of resistance.

Today marks the final day of our Warriors month. But join us on Monday for the start of our Feminists theme. We’ll be celebrating the women who made strides for the rights of other women everywhere.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to  you on Monday!