Article abstract: Founder of the thirteenth century empire of Mali in the western Sudan, Sundjata has become the unifying cultural figure for the Mandingo peoples of West Africa.
Sundjata is mentioned in written sources by medieval Arabs, but his life is best known from the oral epic poetry of his descendants, the Mandingo peoples of West Africa. That poetry, sung by hereditary performers commonly known as griots, or as (d)jeli in Mandingo, is filled with contradictory and mythical accounts of Sundjata’s life and deeds. While many details of this tradition must be dismissed as exaggerated, a biographical sketch of the historical Sundjata emerges from the griot’s song.
Great attention is given to names and their meanings in Mandingo epic, where names may vary in form from region to region and version to version. Sundjata’s name, for example, is alternately spelled “Soundiata,” “Sundiata,” “Son-Jara,” and “Sun-Jata.” According to various interpretations, “Sundjata” means Lion Prince or Lion Thief. In the Arabic sources, he is known as Mari Jata, or Lion Lord. Association with the lion gives Sundjata the power and authority of this beast, which is considered both physically and spiritually powerful in Mandingo culture. Other names in the tradition illustrate a similar variation and significance.
Genealogies are also important for the Mandingo. The oral tradition of Sundjata associates his lineage with Islam and with certain families, such as the Konnatés, Keitas, and Kondés, who are still prominent in the modern Mandingo world. Thus, Sundjata’s father, whose name is usually given as some variation on Maghan Kon Fatta, or Magan the Handsome, can trace his ancestry back to the African Bilali, Companion of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the first converts to Islam. The immediate predecessor of Sundjata’s father is sometimes said to have been the first Muslim ruler of the area and a maker of a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Through his mother, Sugulun, Sundjata is related to the Kondés and associated with traditional African religious beliefs, such as fetishism and animism.
Sundjata’s father was a local ruler in the Mandingo heartland on the border between the modern nations of Guinea and Mali. He took Sugulun as one of his several wives. She is described in the tradition as a deformed or ugly woman from the region of Du (Do) near the modern city of Ségou, Mali. Sundjata, born about 1215, is usually said to have been a younger son of his father but his mother’s firstborn.
In his infancy and childhood, Sundjata was a weak and crippled youth who did not walk until an advanced age and showed little promise. The death of his father during this period left the lame Sundjata and his foreign mother vulnerable to the scorn and mistreatment of his older half brothers. At the same time, his whole family suffered from the cruel oppression of Sumanguru Kanté, king of the Susu, near modern Bamako, at whose hands all Sundjata’s elder brothers are said to have been killed or defeated in battle. As a teenager, Sundjata left his home to escape either the dangers of family rivalry or, perhaps, Sumanguru. After a period of wandering, he was a guest of Tunkara, who was the king of Mema, a Soninke state located on the border of modern Mauritania and Mali.
In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, West Africa experienced a severe population upheaval and political fragmentation caused by the waning of the power of Wagadu. Located on the borders of the Sahara Desert, Wagadu is often identified with the great empire of ancient Ghana. This major movement of peoples, often called the Soninke dispersion, included the migration of the Susu from Ghana—where the ancestors of their ruler, Sumanguru, were said to have been members of the slave class. As the strongest king in the region, Sumanguru took advantage of the power vacuum, according to Arabic sources, by attacking Ghana and reducing it to slavery around 1203. He then moved to subdue the region to the south, including Sundjata’s homeland. In this conflict, Sumanguru defeated Sundjata’s older half brother Dankaran, who then sought refuge in the region of Kissidougou in Guinea, where many inhabitants still claim descent from him.
Sumanguru’s ruthlessness and cruelty is illustrated in the tradition by two crimes, the theft of Sundjata’s griot and the abduction of the wife of his own nephew, Fa Koli. Both these actions galvanized opposition to Sumanguru, encouraged Fa Koli to break with his uncle, and sent some Mandingo to seek the help of the exiled Sundjata.
From exile, Sundjata organized an army against Sumanguru. His allies included Fa Koli and Fran Kamara from the mountainous Fouta Djallon region of modern Guinea. Sundjata’s sister, Sukulung Kulukang, is also thought to have played an important role in her brother’s war by marrying Sumanguru and robbing state secrets from her husband. Around 1235, Sundjata’s army defeated...
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