This story takes place during a transitional time period, when the trade network that linked towns and villages across western Africa attracted north African merchants who brought increasing Muslim influence. The Mali Empire was one of the great West African Empires. The Mali Empire was located along the western grasslands of Africa on the fertile land that lies right below the Sahara desert. The Mali Empire was greatly influenced by Islam due to past ancestors bringing the religion from the Middle East (Spodek, 356). Remaining polytheistic the Mali Empire integrated the religion of Allah into their belief system.
Mali’s founding king, Sundiata, ruled the Empire of Mali from 1235-1255. “ I am going to tell you of Sundiata, the father of the Bright Country, of the savanna land, the ancestor of those who draw the bow, the master of a hundred vanquished kings” (Sundiata, 2). Sundiata was known as a great hunter and warrior possessed of great magical powers. Although he himself observed African religious practices along with Islam, he encouraged his people to accept Islam (Spodek, 355). Islam plays an important role in this epic because it is the universal religion that is evident during the ninth century AD in Western Africa.
In the epic of Sundiata, his family lineage is traced back to an individual named Bilali who was one of the original followers of Muhammed, the founder of Islam (Sundiata, 2). The indication of religion is in the chapter, The First Kings of Mali. The Mandingo, people of Mali, came from the East. Their ancestor was a faithful servant of Islam as I mentioned earlier, and the griot traces and names his descendents. He gives special attention to Lahilatoul Kalabi, the first black prince to make the Pilgrimage to Mecca. On his return trek, he was robbed by brigands, and his entourage split.
Allah saved his life and made him a king once he returned to Mali after seven years of wandering. They state, “After seven years’ absence Lahilatoul was able to return, by the grace of Allah the Almighty” (Sundiata, 2). Another important role in this epic was the importance of long distance trade. After the exile of Sundiata it gives him a chance to learn about the trade routes and people of his region. An example of this long distance trade was in the chapter of The Baobab Leaves. Sundiata’s sister, Kolonkan, now of a marriageable age took on the role in society as a woman.
“She was at the market she noticed a woman who was offering for sale nofiola, and gnougou, condiments unknown to the people of Mema” (Sundiata, 43). She recognized the baobob leaves and many other vegetables which her mother used to grow in her garden at Niani. The merchant questions Kolonkan on how she knows about the baobab leaves, due to her offering at the market in Mema for days, but no one wanting them. While over hearing the conversation a man draws near offering the princess a cola. “We are merchants and we going from town to town”(Sundiata, 44).
The details of trade in this chapter greatly illustrate the existence of trade in the West African culture. Women played an important role in the society described in the epic. Women are responsible for raising the children, providing the sauce for the standard meal an, in a farming family, tending to the live stock. Women of royal families had a diplomatic role to play by marrying into the families of other leaders, in addition to their family responsibilities. Women were clearly influential. Women in Sundiata manage to stand out because of how they portray themselves as important, towards their children.
For example Maghan Kon Fatta marries Sogolon Djata because he realizes that she’d destined to bear a very special son (Sundiata, 12). “The child will be the seventh star, the seventh conqueror of the earth. He will be more mightier then Alexander”. (Sundiata, 6). Another example is when That first wife, Sassouma Berete, uses her connections to make Dankaran Touman the heir to the throne despite dead king’s wishes to make Sundiata as King. I learned many new things from reading Sundiata about the West African history and culture. One main key concept that stood out to me was oral tradition.
It all came back to one of the very first things we have learned and discussed in this class. Oral tradition was important in the history of West African’s. That is where the book came from being passed down and then translated into words. Another thing I learned is the concept of a new religion in Western Africa. Being raised as a Christian I was never exposed to other religions and never had much thought into it. Much less would I have ever thought that the people of West Africa would practice Islam. The epic reflects on the stages in West African traditions when different cultural influences were coming together and integrated.
This all relates to what Dr. Laumann has discussed in our class lectures. That no one religion or culture is better then the other and that chances are you’re own religion has deprived from someone else. Overall I did enjoy this book a lot more then the pass two we have read in this course. I personally think it was the layout and formatting, because it made it much more simple. This book gave me insight into the West African history, culture, and an insight on Islam. I feel as though this book has something to offer to everyone and I would recommend others to read it.