Part I Summary: The Buffalo Woman

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After giving his lineage and justifying his right to tell the tale, the narrator begins the story of Sundiata by telling how Sundiata's mother and father came to be married. Sundiata's father, Maghan Kon Fatta, rules Mali. He has one wife, Sassouma Berete, and a son named Dankaran Touman. One day a hunter comes to Maghan Kon Fatta's court, bringing part of his catch in homage to the ruler, as was customary. The king asks the hunter, who is also a fortune-teller, to throw his cowry shells in a divination ceremony to reveal the future. Speaking in obscure language, the hunter reveals that the king's successor is not yet born, and that his heir will come from a hideous woman brought by two strangers.

Some time later, two hunters appear at court from the land of Do with a veiled woman hunchback. The brothers announce her to be a wife worthy of the king and proceed to relate how they obtained her. The hunters had gone to search for a buffalo that was ravaging the countryside of Do. Great rewards had been promised to whoever killed the buffalo. They encountered an old woman who begged for food, which they gave her. In return for this kindness, she revealed that she is the buffalo in human form, and told them the secret of how to kill her animal form. She insisted that when the hunters were offered their choice from among the local maidens as their reward, they select the ugly hunchback named Sogolon Kedjou. Sogolon is the buffalo's wraith; that is, she embodies the soul of the shape-shifting buffalo. The hunters agree to all of this.

The spirit of the buffalo makes Sogolon strong, however, and she fights off the hunter who attempts to consummate his marriage with her. Unable to use her as they wish, the hunters thus bestow her on Maghan Kon Fatta, neglecting to tell him that she will not submit to any man.

Reminded of the fortune-teller's prophecy by his griot, Gnankouman Doua, the king takes Sogolon Kedjou as his second wife. On their marriage night, however, the king tries in vain to possess her, but with the strength of the buffalo spirit, she rebuffs him. After a week of such failures, the king tells her that he has discovered that he must sacrifice her. She faints from fear and he is able to consummate the marriage. Sundiata is conceived that very night.

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Part II Summary: Sundiata's Childhood