Kanembu people

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The Kanembu are an ethnic group of Chad, generally considered the modern descendants of the Kanem-Borno Empire.[1] The Kanembu number an estimated 655,000 people,[2] located primarily in Chad's Lac Prefecture but also in Chari-Baguirmi and Kanem prefectures.[3] They speak the Kanembu language, from which is derived the Kanuri language, with many speaking Arabic as a second language.

Kanembu traditional dance


Kanembu chief, ca. 1851

For over a thousand years the Kanem-Bornu Empire exerted its influence over central North Africa. Its influence covered eastern Nigeria and Niger, the northern half of Chad and Cameroon, and Libya. It traded with Egypt and sponsored Islamic schools as far as Alexandria. It's camel caravans reached the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Until the beginning of the 1900s and the French conquest of this area, the Kanem-Bornu Empire was the major power in the heart of north central Africa.

At the end of the twelfth century, the Kanembu moved into what is today Kanem Prefecture. They gradually became sedentary and established a capital at Njimi; at the same time, they continued to expand militarily establishing the Kanem Empire. The peak of this early kingdom came with the rule of Mai (King) Dunama Dabbalemi of the Sayfawa dynasty, who reigned from 1221 to 1259. He was the first of the Kanembu to convert to Islam and he declared jihad against the surrounding tribes and initiated an extended period of conquest. After consolidating their territory around Lake Chad they struck north at the Fezzan and west at the Hausa lands.

By the end of the fourteenth century, however, internal division had severely weakened the Kanem empire, forcing the Sayfawa dynasty to relocate to Borno on the western shore of Lake Chad. The intermarriage of the Kanem with the local people of this area created a new ethnic group, the Kanuri; the Kanembu retain close family ties with the Kanuri to this day.[1]

Today the Kanembu people are one group of the descendants of this once great empire, and their sultans and traditional rulers are still more influential than government authorities. Along with the related language group Kanuri, they make up the majority population found in a band between the northern shores of Lake Chad and the Sahara Desert. Living in mud brick houses, their culture, and clothing much the same as in ancient times.


The Kanembu are Chad's merchant tribe. 75 to 80% of all merchants in Chad are Kanembu, making them, in a relative way, one of Chad's wealthiest groups. They are a sedentary group who also engage in agriculture and raising livestock. Wheat, millet and corn are raised near the lake, but with the country being landlocked and having a poor road system, little agricultural trade has developed. Living on the edge of the Sahara, famine is also a frequent threat with rain only coming during July, August and part of September.


For most of its history the Kanem-Bornu Empire has been Muslim, adhering to the laws of Islam. Today, this has mixed with traditional African beliefs and has become a ritual conformity to Islamic worship, but depending on spiritism to meet daily problems. Men, women, and especially infants can be seen wearing small leather pouches or amulets containing special verses of the Koran or cowry shells to ward off evil. Marabous, spiritual teachers, are often sought for their healing power or for their ability to communicate with the spirits.

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