The Stallion-Riding Princess Who Saved an African Empire

The Stallion-Riding Princess Who Saved an African Empire

Why you should care

Because a princess can be powerful.

A simple cabin, somewhere in West Africa’s vast savanna. A beautiful horse stands outside, patiently waiting for its owner. Inside, there are two people. A humble man, living off the land — and a princess. They have only just met, and it was love. Instantly. Their encounter will mark the birth of a great ruling family. How did it all happen? Like this:

The 12th-century king of the Dagomba empire, which was in present-day northern Ghana, wanted an heir to the throne. But he had only one child — a girl. Since no one would be able to continue his royal line once he was gone, he decided to teach his daughter everything he knew, and that included how to ride horses, how to attack, how to defeat an enemy …

Yennenga. She is a heroine for an entire people, the much-admired icon of a nation.

It worked. She became the greatest warrior in the empire, the leader of her father’s army, riding the finest stallion from the palace stables. She was bold, feared and exquisitely beautiful. Her name was Princess Yennenga.

She expanded her father’s empire, conquering new lands, subduing new subjects and inspiring new tales of her exploits. But something sat uneasily with her in spite of all that fame and success. Yennenga wanted to be married and she wanted children. But her father would have none of it.

Up to this point the various stories concur, but now they start to differ.

François Moïse Bamba, a storyteller from Bobo-Dioulasso, in present-day western Burkina Faso, heard the story of Yennenga when he was a boy. “It was among the many that my father told us children as part of our education,” he says. “The version I like best is the one in which her horse simply went mad one night and carried her across the savanna to an unknown destination. It galloped out of the palace, it galloped out of the city, it vanished from sight — with the princess on its back. No one could stop it, not even the princess herself, until the stallion halted outside a small cabin, where a farmer lived. The princess dismounted. She looked at the farmer, and he looked back …” And the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least legend.

Another version says that Yennenga disguised herself as a man and fled the palace in the dead of night, riding her beloved horse until she found a hunter living in a cabin. Regardless of how the princess reached her destination and who was waiting for her there, the stories converge again on the next point: The couple had a son, whom they named Ouédraogo, after the stallion that brought Yennenga to the place where she found her man, her other destiny and her happiness. Ouédraogo — in praise of the sensitive stallion. To this day, the name is the most widespread in Burkina Faso.

And her father, the king? He was understandably angry about the defection of his daughter, and when she finally showed up, it wasn’t the most glorious of reunions. But once he met his grandson and the man who had made his daughter happy, his mood changed and he showered them with gifts.

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Yennenga. She is a heroine for an entire people, the much-admired icon of a nation. “We have many different ethnic groups in Burkina Faso, and they all have their own version of the tale,” Bamba says. “She is recognized in every corner of the land.”

Around 2010, one of the country’s best comedians turned the story of the princess into a theatrical production. Why? “Because it highlights a part of Africa that is hardly ever shown, and it tells the story of one of the great women of the continent,” says Roukiata, an actress and humorist who toured her adopted country, France, with her production and then brought it to her native land, Burkina Faso, to much acclaim. “And for me personally, [it was] a great source of pride — and joy.” And Roukiata’s family name? That’s right: Ouédraogo.

Horses continue to play a major role in Burkinabe public life, especially at ceremonies like the opening of Africa’s biggest film festival, the Fespaco, held every two years in the capital, Ouagadougou. The biggest prize of the festival could not be any other than Étalon d’Or, the Golden Stallion, in honor of Princess Yennenga. Another fun fact: Burkina Faso’s national football team is known as Les Étalons. The princess still rides everywhere in the nation’s heritage.

And here’s another intriguing ceremony, held every Friday morning outside the palace of the Moogo Naaba, the latest in a long line of kings — and a lone princess — who have held the same empire together for more than a millennium. Spectators watch from a distance as horses prance and cannons boom in the presence of the important chiefs of the land. It is called “the fake departure of the Moogo Naaba” — but that is another story.

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