In the poem, which existed mainly in the oral tradition and then written by Arab scholars, attention is paid to several features of the traditions and history of both Mali and all of West Africa. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali tells the story of Sunjata Keita, who “led Mande resistance and created the kingdom of Mali during the first half of the thirteenth century” (Iliffe 2007, 52). The state was located in the West of Sub-Saharan Africa and, according to historians, was ruled by the real king Sunjata from 1235 to 1255 (Niane 2006). The story focuses on the unification of the disparate chiefdoms of Mande and the decline of Ghana, as well as the development of trade routes. The spread of Islamic culture and religion, along with the existence of traditional African beliefs, is also the theme of the story. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Mali was already officially an Islamic state (Iliffe 2007). Thus, the narrative unfolds in the background of complex cultural, social, and political events of that time.
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To analyze how the poem reflects the features of the society in Mali and West Africa, it is necessary to consider the plot briefly. The story begins with Maghan Kon Fatta, the king of the small Mali state, receiving a prophecy from hunters who arrived from foreign lands. They say that the man will have an excellent son, but only from an ugly woman. Several years later, the hunters again came to the Maghan Kon Fatta to tell about the buffalo they killed in the lands of Do. As a reward, at the behest of the mysterious old woman, they chose “Sogolon Kedjou, or Sogolon Kondouto, because she is a hunchback” (Niane 2006, 8). The king already had a beautiful wife and son at that time, but, remembering the prophecy, he married Sogolon Kedjou. Soon the woman gave birth to a son; however, the expectations of the king were not fulfilled since he “had nothing of the great beauty of his father” (Niane 2006, 15). Sogolon Kedjou became pregnant again, but a girl was born, which, nevertheless, did not dissuade Maghan Kon Fatta of the truthfulness of the prophecy.
Despite his disappointment with his son Sundiata, the king appointed him as his heir. However, after Maghan Kon Fatta’s death, the council passed power to his first son and wife, who began plotting against Sundiata. All changed one day when Sundiata, crawling on his four limbs before, “picked up the iron bar without any effort and stood it up vertically” (Niane 2006, 20-21). The boy became stronger and began to pose a threat to the reigning queen and prince. Maghan Kon Fatta’s first wife tried to destroy Sundiata, then Sogolon Kedjou decided to leave Mali with him. In his exile, the boy serves various kings, earning their trust and support. However, during this time, his homeland was oppressed by Soumaoro Kanté. With the support of the allies, Sundiata liberates his country, defeating the invader and establishing independence and peace in Mali. The narrator notes that rulers like Sundiata are “feared because they have power, but they know how to use it, and they are loved because they love justice” (Niane 2006, 82). Thus, the poem tells the story of the transformation of a weak heir into a hero-liberator, who united the chiefdoms of Mali into a single state.
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali illustrates numerous features of the culture and traditions of both Mali society and West Africa in general. First of all, the poem describes an early political structure in which “stateless societies themselves were diverse” (Ilifee 2007, 78). Members of the various chiefdoms lived in scattered villages ruled by leaders, and power was inherited. The need for a diverse population and establishing ties with neighbors led to the existence of marriages between residents of different villages (Niane 2006). In the poem, Sundiata is called “the son of the Buffalo, the son of the Lion” (Niane 2006, 2). Thus, it illustrates his descent from representatives of two different chiefdoms: the mother totem of the buffalo from the lands of Do and the father totem of the lion from the lands of Mali. This detail refers not only to the traditional totem animals of different states of West Africa but also to the tendency to unite clans into a single state unred the Sundiata’s ruling.
Another element of the same plot illustrates the features of the society of West Africa and Mali in particular. The land was not subject to disputes and was available to everyone; therefore, “there was no need to hold it within the family through monogamous or endogamous marriage” (Ilifee 2007, 96). Thus, the land was not kept within the family but was cultivated by wives and children, who provided “the economic basis for the rest of society” (Niane 2006, xi). However, female fertility and women’s possession played a key role, which led to the spread of polygamy and various traditions of buying brides from families or forcing them to marry (Ilifee 2007). The poem also illustrates this through an episode in which Maghan Kon Fatta adopts Sogolon Kedjou as the second wife. The inheritance through the male line and the exclusive role of patriarchy are also described through the appointment of an heir and the regency of the mother under the minor prince.
The poem also contains many references to the religious and spiritualistic beliefs of West Africa. One example is the African belief in various wraiths or doubles, which are mentioned several times in the narration. While women’s fertility was important in society, giving birth to a not normal child-like Sundiata was condemned, which is illustrated in the poem. In most cases, such an event was associated with the activities of witches since spiritualistic cults were common in the traditional religion of West Africa (Iliffe 2007). The poem also contains evidence of this assumption because Sogolon Kedjou refers to his child as the “son of misfortune” (Niane 2006, 19). The poem mentions the detail that Sundiata comes from a family of followers of Islam. Thus, the unification of the country served to recognize the religion as noble and the main one in the state, even though Sundiata “was not a devout Muslim” (Niane 2006, xi). the eclectic religious beliefs of West Africa thus explain the spread of Islam in the region. Missionaries often associated local beliefs with manifestations of the devil and evil, which made local people accept the new religion.
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali illustrates many features of the social, political, and religious life of Mali and West Africa. The poem is important for studying the history of the development of the entire region. First of all, due to the description of the process of unification of the state, as well as the system of chiefdoms that preceded it. The narrative also tells about the family structure of local people, hierarchy, and inheritance. The importance of trade routes and connections between disparate villages, as well as the role of religion in people’s lives, is especially emphasized. Moreover, the poem explains the spread and assimilation of Islam on par with existing religious traditions.
Iliffe, John. 2007. Africans: The History of a Continent (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Niane, Djibril. 2006. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (rev. ed.). Pearson Longman.