Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali

Published: 2021-06-22 05:10:07
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D. T. Niane’s book Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali tells the history of Mali’s former ruler from the perspective of a royal griot, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate of the village of Dejliba Koro (Siguiri) in Guinea. According to Niane, he is not trying to write a traditional history book, rather, he is trying to present the history of Sundiata’s empire through the traditional African form of memory using oral tradition as his only sources. He claims that the West has taught historians to avoid oral traditions and to rely instead primarily on written documents.
However, Niane disagrees with these methods and claims that much can be learned from the stories and traditions passed from generation to generation through spoken word. He makes a wonderful case for the problem of Westernization of the historical discipline; stressing that it is important to understand the people being studied on their own terms, instead of viewing their histories from Eurocentric perspectives. The story of Sundiata begins before his birth. In the beginning, the griot establishes his authority on the subject by claiming that he was entrusted with these stories from his father and his father’s father.
The griot also explains that griots take an oath and are unable to lie. According to tradition, Sundiata came from a long line of Malian kings. His father was a great and handsome man who was loved by his people. One day, Sudndiata’s father, Maghan Kon Fatta received a visiting hunter and soothsayer, who foretold that the king would one day have a son, that son would become a great ruler. However, the stranger informed Maghan Kon Fatta that in order for these things to come true, he must marry an ugly woman that would bear him this child.
The woman eventually came in the company of two hunters; she was known as the buffalo woman and would become Sundiata’s mother. After the king Maghan Kon Fatta married the buffalo woman, Sologlon Kedjou, she became pregnant with a son, Sundiata. The king was overjoyed and upon the birth of the son, his first wife, Sassouma Berete, became increasingly jealous of Sologlon and her son. The child was named Mari Djata and will later be called Sologlon Djata and eventually Sundiata. However, Mari Djata failed to live up to his father’s high hopes as a child. He was unable to walk or talk at age three.
Nonetheless, the king Maghan Kon Fatta entrusts the child with his griot, Doua to pass on the traditions and stories of Mali. Soon after, the king dies and so does Doua, the griot. At this point, the jealous first wife sends Sologlon, Mari Djata and his sister, Sogolon Djamarou, out of the palace and her son Dankaran Touman takes his father’s place as ruler of Mali. Sologolon is embarrassed because of her son and is taunted by Sassouma. One day, she returns from the palace crying and Sundiata hears his mother’s sobs. He decides to have a blacksmith create him an iron rod.
He uses this rod to prop himself up and stand for the first time. Upon seeing him stand and walk, his mother and the whole city cheer and rejoice. This frightens the jealous Sassouma who convenes with a group of witches to plot out Sundiata’s murder. However, the witches refuse to follow through with his murder because of his kind nature. Unable to kill Sundiata, the queen mother, Sassouma exiles the family from Mali and they travel from city to city and kingdom to kingdom seeking refuge. Sundiata swore that he would return and take his proper place on the throne. As the years passed, Sundiata grew up.
He was a great hunter and became very close friends with his half-brother Manding Bory. For a long time, the family stayed in Mema where the king, Moussa Tounkara, became very fond of Sundiata and trained him as a warrior and even made him heir to the throne of Mema. However, during this time the king of Sosso, Soumaoro Kante, had taken over Mali. Sundiata knows that as a man he must return to Mali and defeat the sorcerer king. Bella Fasseke, the griot, son of Doua belonged to Sundiata and was prisoner of Soumaoro Kante along with Sundiata’s sister Nana Triban, who had become one of the king’s many wives.
Sundiata was a brave and fierce warrior and was able to defeat Soumaoro after several battles and was able to return his sister and his griot from under the power of Soumaoro. Sundiata became the rightful ruler of Mali and expanded Mali’s Empire far through conquering many lands. He was a kind and just ruler, loved by all. For the people of Mali, Sundiata is a national hero. This story is important to the identity of these people even today as a way to define themselves outside of their colonial status.
Sundiata provides an example of greatness for the people to cherish and aspire to. Sundiata, like Mali, is eternal. This book does an excellent job at portraying the life of Sundiata. However, it is not a traditional history book, meaning that it relies primarily on oral rather than written primary sources. Also, the author, Niane, does not present an argument, he simply retells or translates a story that is highly based on magic, superstition, and biased facts. Thus, while this book is an excellent story, it may not be totally objective or historically accurate in some of its assumptions and claims.

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