Historical Context

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Sundiata's Dynasty: the Keita Clan
Sundiata was not the first Keita to rule the Malinke people. The Keita dynasty began sometime in the eighth century and continues into the late twentieth century: the Keita are still chiefs of the Kangaba province. Rule passes from father to son, but if the child is too young to rule, a close family member from the father's side will rule until the child is of age. This appears to have been the case with the son of Sundiata himself. Manding Bory, Sundiata's step-brother and best friend, ruled Mali for a period of time after the death of Sundiata in 1255.

Islam was introduced into Mali with the conversion of a Malinke king around 1050, and Malinke griots have long claimed that the Keitas descend from Muhammad's companion Bilal ibn Rabah, the first mu'adhdhin (the man who issues the call to prayer). Forming a link between the Keitas and the companion of the Prophet makes their rule seem divinely ordained. According to the griots, the grandson of Bilal ibn Rabah came to Mali and was the first of the Keita.

The Rise of the Empire of Mali
Until the time of Sundiata, Mali was a minor kingdom owing allegiance first to the King of Ghana and later to the king of Sosso, Soumaoro Kante. Most of the history that is available to the present comes via the epic Sundiata in its many forms and across many nations. Over the years, many additions have been made to the Sundiata story, giving him credit for the actions of previous or later Malinke kings. One story tells that Sundiata was the twelfth son of Maghan Kon Fatta. Soumaoro Kante is said to have killed the other eleven, leaving the sickly Sundiata alive because he did not appear to be a potential threat. In this version, Sundiata recovers the use of his legs just in time to defeat Soumaoro at the battle of Krina.

The battle of Krina is estimated to have taken place in 1235. With this battle, Sundiata became the leader of a vast empire that covered much of present-day West Africa. Less clear is what happened to Sundiata following the victory at Krina. Some say he was killed by an arrow at an exhibition of arms while others relate that he was drowned near his home-town of Niani. Also unknown are the exact descendants of Sundiata. In order to please the patrons of a performance, griots will often add the names of those in the audience to the list of Sundiata's sons. In this way, a prominent family can gain even more prestige by claiming to be descended from the great Sundiata himself.

Sundiata's Times: 1230-1255
Sundiata played such a vital role in the history of Mali that the entire thirteenth century is referred to as "Sundiata's Time" by the Malinke. After the battle at Krina, the conquered countries were divided into administrative units. Soumaoro's people were made slaves. Some of them took flight, settling in what later became Ivory Coast. Some of the Keita clan remained loyal to Sundiata's half-brother Dankaran Touman, and these peoples fled to the south. Sundiata's empire spread the Malinke language throughout West Africa.

Life at Court
The extended family has always formed the basic social unit of the Malinke. The head of the family filled many roles. Among them, he had certain priestly powers and acted as judge, administering communal property and making decisions on relationships within the family. The head of the village was simply the head of the family that was thought to have been in the village...

(This entire section contains 978 words.)

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for the longest period of time. He performed as village chief and priest. Different villages were also sometimes linked into one group, as was the case with the Keita clan. With time, the leader of a large group of villages became called a king. He usually had several wives, with the senior of them receiving the most societal respect.
Commoners paid great respect to their king. The king usually ate in private, his meals surrounded by mystery. When a subject was in the royal presence, he or she would lie prostrate and put dust and ashes on his or her head. The king had a spokesman who did all of his public speaking. The etiquette of the court demanded distance and respect from the king's subjects.

Subjects could appeal to the king for justice. The court usually had scribes, but most of the king's decrees were transmitted orally. The king consolidated his strength by making sure that his vassals paid him strict obedience. The sons of vassal kings were often sent to court to live, as seen in Sundiata at the court of Mema. The court was filled with slaves loyal to the king, and at times the slaves were given positions more powerful than some of the noblemen. Another caste important to the court were the jelis, or griots. These men served as close confidants to the king and transmitted the oral history of the monarch.

Economy and Daily Life
Salt and gold mines brought wealth to the people of Mali. Generally, the king exacted a tax from the miners, often enough to make him quite rich. Mali was an important trading center during Sundiata's time. Most of the populace, however, were farmers and had little to do with external trade. Some of their crops included millet and sorghum. Often the slave caste worked the land. Another of the castes were the blacksmiths, but they were noblemen. Other artisans such as tanners and carpenters were also respected. Textile manufacture eventually developed into an art form. Along with gold, cowry shells were used as currency in Mali. By the time of Sundiata, some historians believe that the kola nut, which when chewed has the effect of a stimulant, had already attained the ceremonial significance that it enjoys today in West Africa.

Literary Style

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The story of Sundiata has been handed through generations of griots. These oral historians form their own caste, and they alone are authorized to tell the history that has been entrusted to them by their forefathers. The griot Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate, who recounted the version of Sundiata transcribed by D. T. Niane, claims descent from Sundiata's griot Balla Faseke.

Young people from this caste are screened for storytelling and other performance abilities and taught to sing or speak tales or play musical instruments. Women can also be griots. The spoken word is considered suspect in Malinke culture, because language can be used to distort or misrepresent the truth, so griots have an ambiguous place in society. They are entrusted with history, yet their words are never fully believed. Each griot possesses a precious secret: the truth of history; yet each is known to intentionally modify each story in the telling, in order to make the story appeal to a particular audience. The story of Sundiata enters into the historical and fictional realm simultaneously, and these two aspects of the tale cannot be separated from each other.

Form and Style
Like many epics, Sundiata is meant to be sung and performed. The role of the griot in the production of the epic is paramount; he or she must embellish the language and make the story pleasing to the listeners. Sundiata does not appear to adhere to any regular meter of stresses or syllables, and most versions are told in everyday vernacular language. The audience does not participate, except to honor the griot with gifts at the end of the performance.

The story of Sundiata appears in the oral literature of many West African tribes and in many languages. Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate recounted the tale to Djibril Tamsir Niane in Malinke, or Mandingo. Niane wrote down his words in that language, then translated the tale into French for its initial publication in 1960. G. D. Pickett translated the epic into English in 1965, working from Niane's published French text as well as his original Malinke transcription.

Point of View
The point of view of the narrator, griot Mamoudou Kouyate, plays a crucial role in the epic. He states again and again his inherited right to tell the history of the Keita ruler, because he is descended from the griot who served Sundiata. Several times in the course of the story, the griot makes reference to himself and to the importance of the griot's art. The griot functions as an omniscient narrator, able to adopt shifting points of view, to describe the thoughts and feelings as well as the actions of every character, and even to step back and comment about the meaning or importance of what is unfolding.

The technique of literary foreshadowing is used to hint at something that is yet to come, preparing the reader or viewer for later revelations. In Sundiata, prophecy plays a similar but even more direct role. Most of the major events are foretold by seers or fortune-tellers before they take place. One tells the King of Mali that his heir will be born of an ugly woman who will be brought to his court. Other soothsayers tell the king that his crippled son is the future savior of Mali, unlikely as that seems. Prophecies do not hint at what is to come the way that foreshadowing does. Rather, these prophecies indicate the path of destiny. The king may choose not to follow the path indicated, but then he will not produce the heir that had been predicted. Further, indigenous African cultures are replete with cautionary tales about the bad luck that commonly befalls those who chose to disregard such prophecies and to forge their own destinies in defiance of what has been foretold.

Elements of the grotesque play a role in the epic. Sogolon's deformity, a hump that makes her resemble a buffalo, makes her repulsive to men. Nonetheless, she is the only woman who can transmit the spirit of the buffalo to the son she will bear. Soumaoro's chamber of fetishes also enters into the grotesque. The heads of the kings he has conquered as well as human skins of his victims line the chamber. Soumaoro derives his magic power from these symbols or emblems of evil. This power, however, is not permanent; more magic can break its spell. The grotesque images in the epic serve to cover forms of power: Sogolon's serving good and Soumaoro's pledged to do evil.

Imagery and Symbolism
Animals serve as symbols for many of the characters in the tale. Sogolon is the Buffalo Woman, strong and unattractive. Maghan Kon Fatta is compared to a lion, and he is handsome and a good hunter. Sundiata combines the qualities of his two parents and of the animals that represent them. Soumaoro's den of fetishes includes a giant snake, a sign of evil. Owls represent the night-flying witches of Mali.

Compare and Contrast

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1200s: Sundiata consolidates a vast empire stretching over most of West Africa and including many different peoples.

1900s: A colony for many years, Mali receives her independence from France in 1960. The former French colonies are divided into many different countries, often with disputed borders. An ongoing border conflict with Burkina is not resolved until 1986.

1200s: The Keita clan rules the Malinke people, and Sundiata's empire includes many ethnic groups throughout West Africa. Sundiata divides Mali into administrative regions, remaining chief ruler of the region.

1900s: Members of the Keita clan remain chiefs of a province in Mali, but the government is now a republic.

1990s: President Alpha Oumar Konare is elected in 1992. Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita heads the government elected in 1994.

1200s: Mali is largely an agricultural state, with gold and salt mining later providing additional trading materials. The unit of exchange is most often the cowry shell, occasionally gold.

1900s: Mali remains an agricultural state, with gold, cotton, and livestock being the main export commodities.

1990s: The currency used in Mali today is the CFA, shared with most countries in the former French West Africa.

1200s: Hunting is the main occupation of the ruling class. The Keitas are known to be great hunters, and Sundiata and his father are often referred to as "lions'' for their hunting ability.

1900s: Expanding human population, over-hunting, and poaching by Africans and Europeans depletes much of Mali's wildlife.

1990s: Significant conservation efforts, including two national wild game preserves, aim at preserving Mali's wildlife heritage.

Media Adaptations

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The story of Sundiata is told in part by a master griot in the film Keita! The griot teachs a young boy his own worth by sharing with him the story of his ancestor, Sundiata. The 1994 motion picture directed by Dani Kouyate is available on videocassette from California Newsreel. The film is in Jula and French with English subtitles.

A children's retelling of the epic, Sundiata: Lion King of Mali, was written and beautifully illustrated by David Wisniewki in 1992. It was published by Clarion Books.

The Disney full-length animated movie The Lion King incorporates many elements of traditional African oral narrative. The cartoon's plot resembles that of Sundiata in several respects.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources for Further Study
Biebuyck, Daniel P., "Heroic Songs of the Mande Hunters," in African Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson, Doubleday, 1972, pp. 275-93. Biebuyck explores Sundiata and other African epics in detail.

Camara Laye, The Guardian of the Word: Kouma Lafolo Kouma, translated by James Kirkup, Aventura, 1984, 223 p. Examination of African oral traditions, forcusing on the role of the griot in Mandingo culture.

Imperato, Pascal James, Historical Dictionary of Mali, Scarecrow Press, 1996, 362 p. Many of the characters in Sundiata are included as entries in this dictionary. Imperato's chronology of Mali shows the political and social changes that have taken place in Mali from its early history The Introduction supplies information about present-day Mali, including data about resources, economy, and politics.

Levtzion, Nehemia. Ancient Ghana and Mali , New York, NY, Africana Publishing Company, 1980, 289 p. One of the few sources on the historical period of Sundiata written in English. Levtzion treats all aspects of society, from life at court to the economy and religion.

Miller, Christopher, "Orality Through Literacy: Mande Verbal Art after the Letter," in The Southern Review, Vol. 23, no. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 84-105. Miller explores the role of the griot in Malian society and as represented in various versions of Sundiata.

Niane, Djibril Tamsir, Recherches sur l'Empire du Mali au Moyen Age, Presence Africaine, 1975, 112 p. This short book, as of 1997 only available in French, gives an account of Niane's historical research before his eventual transcription of Kouyate's version of Sundiata. He chronicles the history of the Keita dynasty and the impressive accomplishments of Sundiata.

Pickett, G. D., translator, Sundiata: an epic of old Mali. Longman, 1973. Pickett translated the epic from D.T. Niane's French version with reference to Niane's original Malinke notes. He includes a short preface from Niane's edition that explains the art of the griot.

Shelton, A. J., "The Problem of Griot Interpretation and the Actual Causes of War in Soundjata'' in Presence Africaine, n.s. 66, 1968, pp. 145-52. Contrasts the historical and literary accounts of Sundiata's battles.




Critical Essays