The griots have been telling a 700-year-old story about a sickly boy named Sundiata, who grew up to become a great warrior, defeated a brutal enemy, and united the Mandinka people under one empire – the Mali empire. One of the most successful, wealthiest, and thriving empires in Africa. This theme of the power of ancestral knowledge will continue to resonate throughout the epic of Sundiata as you read, and it is inherent to the telling of the story. For not only is the story of Sundiata important but so is the actual telling of the story important. It must not only be studied but also told since griots maintain the history of Mali within themselves.
The father of Sundiata, Naré Maghann Konaté (also called Maghan Kon Fatta or Maghan the Handsome) was the king of the city of Niani. According to griots, a soothsayer who was also a hunter foretold that the king, Sundiata’s father will produce an heir who will be a great and mighty ruler. For that to come to fruition Maghan, Sundiata’s father will have to marry an ugly woman. Naré Maghann Konaté was already married to Sassouma Bereté and had a son by her, Dankaran Toumani Keïta. When two Traoré hunters from the Do kingdom presented him an ugly, hunchbacked woman named Sogolon, Naré Maghann remembered the prophecy and married her immediately. The hunters were said to earn her by defeating a monstrous buffalo that was terrorizing a land far away. Through showing kindness to an old woman, they were taught the secret of the buffalo and then given their choice of a woman by the king whose realm was being terrorized. The old woman told them to choose the ugliest maid, and they did. Although, Sogolon refuses to let him consummate the marriage until magic powers help him to rid her of a wraith (spirit) that was making her resistant. Upon doing so Sundiata is conceived.
Sundiata was born a cripple and was a sickly boy. In childhood, Sundiata faces two obstacles: first, because of the prophecy, the king’s first wife Sassouma Bérété spreads vicious rumors about him and his mother Sogolon in an effort to elevate her own son’s stature; and second, he is crippled and does not walk until the age of 7. Sassouma was jealous of the child and mother and would make fun of Sundiata for his inability to walk and the ugliness he inherited from his mother oft Sassouma was jealous of the child and mother and would make fun of Sundiata for his inability to walk and the ugliness he inherited from his mother often. Despite his physical weakness, the king still granted Sundiata his own griot at a young age named Balla Fasséké; this was in order to have them grow together and provide constant consultation as it was customary at the time.
The king dies (c. 1224), soon afterward and his eldest son, Dankaran Touman, the son of Sassouma Bérété King Maghan’s first wife and who is also a half-brother to Sundiata is given control by the elders, who do not see much future in the crippled boy. Sundiatas father’s wishes before he passed was for the prophecy to be respected by Sundiata being crowned the King upon his death. Rather, Dankaran Touman, assumed the throne. Sundiata and his mother, who now had given birth to two daughters and adopted a second son from Naré Maghann’s third wife Namandjé, suffered the scorn of the new king and his mother. After an insult against Sogolon, Sundiata requested an iron rod from the blacksmith Nounfari, which broke when he tried to use it in order to pull himself upright and walk. Only when he used a branch of S’ra (African baobab or Adansonian tree) was he able to walk, his strength become unmistakable. In one version of the epic, Sundiata is able to walk after his father dies and his mother orders him to do so. He then becomes a great hunter. Nonetheless, the hatred of Sassouma Bereté and Dankaran Toumani Keita soon drove Sundiata, his mother, and his two sisters into exile in the Mema kingdom.
One of the focal points in the epic story of Sundiata is the Mande people’s family structure, which has two elements—constructive (badenya) or destructive (fadenya). Fadenya, or “father-child-ness,” is the rivalry between half-siblings of the same father and is represented in the epic of Sundiata by the animosity between Sundiata, son of Sogolon, and Dankaran Touman, son of Sassouma (king Nare Marghan’s first wife). The destructive forces of fadenya eventually cause Sundiata and his mother to be exiled from Mali, in the fear that Sassouma would hurt Sogolon’s family. Frightened her own son will lose control of the kingdom as a result of Sundiata, the queen mother Sassouma Bérété orchestrated the exile of Sundiata and his mother Sogolon, and their immediate family. They will be in exile for seven years, traveling from asylum to asylum, sometimes being shown great hospitality and occasionally being mistreated by their hosts. All the while, Sundiata learns of new peoples and customs, while also impressing most of the people he meets along the way.
Badenya, or “mother-child-ness,” is the affection between children of the same mother. This is represented in the epic by the support of Sundiata’s sister, Kolonkan, in watching over her brother against Sassouma’s attempts at witchcraft, and by his siblings’ later support of him in his battle to reclaim Mali. Maternal support is also important for Sundiata to overcome his physical impairment and begin to walk in response to his mother’s pleading. The importance of the mother is underscored by the narrator, who says “the child is worth no more than the mother is worth.” Significantly, Sundiata needed both the opposing forces of fadenya and badenya to fulfill his destiny, indicating that both elements are necessary to the Mande culture. While in exile, Sundiata and his family will eventually found a new home in Mema under the kingship of Moussa Tounkara. The king granted Sundiata and his mother Sogolon and their family asylum for many years. Sundiata became his viceroy and he learns much from the king. Moussa Tounkara will help raise Sundiata and thought him the ways of war so as to potentially groom the boy as his heir. While living in the Mema kingdom, Sundiata began to grow “as strong as a lion”, and he fought with the greatest general of the Mema people, Moussa Tounkara. Sundiata became such a great warrior to the degree that he was made heir to the Mema throne. However, Sogolon encouraged him to “fulfill his destiny” and return to Mali to become king.
Meanwhile, Soumaoro Kanté, a historical leader of the Sosso people who rose to prominence after the demise of the Ghana Empire but who is portrayed in the epic as a cruel sorcerer-king, attacked the Mandinka kingdom, causing Dankaran Toumani to take flight in fear. Before reaching Mali, Soumaoro had conquered nine kingdoms in the former Ghana Empire. The oppressed Mandinka people then sent for the exiled Sundiata. Forging a coalition of neighboring small kingdoms, Sundiata waged a war against the Sosso. Though Sundiata is successful in his battles, he cannot harm the sorcerer-king because the Soumaoro has magical protection. Sundiata turns to magic for help, and through sacrifice is able to craft a magical arrow. In their largest battle, the Battle of Kirina in 1235 Sundiata nicks Soumaoro with the arrow, and the sorcerer-king loses his power. Soumaoro retreats and escapes.
Accompanied by Fakoli, Soumaoro’s nephew who revolted after being betrayed by his uncle, Sundiata pursues Soumaoro for several days. They finally trap him in a cave with nowhere to go; they have won. After his victory, Sundiata defeats the kings who stayed loyal to the sorcerer-king. He then returns to Niani and founds the Mali Empire, splitting it up to show respect for all the rulers who promise to serve him. Finally Sundiata was later crowned with the title “Mansa,” or “king of kings”, as the first ruler of the Mali Empire Mali means “where the king resides.” He soon set about organizing the nucleus of the empire, presenting the Gbara of nobles and notables at his coronation with an oral constitution known as the Kouroukan Fouga. His model for the government would guide the empire into greatness. His exploits have even been compared to those of Alexander the Great by some griots. The Manden Charter issued during his reign is listed by UNESCO as one of the intangible cultural heritage.
Sundiata proved himself to be a great warrior, but he was less interested in power than in once again making West Africa a safe place to travel and trade. Most merchants and traders in West Africa at that time practiced Islam. Sundiata became a Muslim, as a gesture of goodwill to the merchants and traders. To the Mande people, Sundiata is presented as a champion of traditional West African religion. He was also a mighty king, a champion of the people, a true warrior, and perhaps a mythical figure. Sundiata died in 1255 from an unclear cause, though some believe he was killed in an accident.