Sundiata An Epic of Old Mali
Life Purpose and Responsibility in Sundiata, The Lion King of Mali
In Sundiata: The Lion King of Mali, responsibility closely aligns with life purpose for those who must fulfill key roles in Malian society, and throughout the story, exemplary characters dutifully perform the obligations. Responsibility in this illustrated adaptation of Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali is confined to the roles of king, parent and griot. These roles are clear obligation which falls to the characters who fulfill them responsibly and completely. Execution of responsibility is the way in which order and structure in society are ensured and the destinies of the characters are fulfilled through the discharge of these duties. Responsibility in Mali is a defined onus which falls to those who respond and accept their roles, arising to and shouldering the demands placed on them. King Nare Maghan, Doua, King Sundiata, Balla Fasseke, and Sogolon are the leading figures of caliber and paragons of characters who devotedly do their duty and fulfill their destinies.
One of the Malian king’s responsibilities consists of “pass(ing) on (his) realm, intact if not increased to (his) descendants” (Wisniewski 1999). This onerous responsibility of kingship and of the relay of power, authority, title to an heir/successor is prime. Upon hearing the threatening, portentous news of the imminent ruin of the Malian kingdom, and the guidelines set out by the hunter to avert this event, Nare Maghan sees it incumbent upon himself to take steps, unpleasant though they may be, to spare his kingdom from overthrow and spoil. With the injunction that Sogolon “is the woman (he) must marry” (Wisniewski 1999). Nare weds Sogolon, an unsightly wraith and is instrumental in the conception of the saviour of Mali. Maghan asserts to his bride, Sogolon that he “must accomplish his mission” (Wisniewski 1999). The very fact that Maghan likens the conception of his heir to a “mission” tells us of the strong sense of regal responsibility and destiny that he has. Sundiata sees it as his duty to restore order to the empire of Mali, fulfilling as a result his destiny as a necessary responsibility he must carry out thus guaranteeing the continuity of the Malian empire. When one of his people voices that “the throne of your fathers awaits you” (ibid). Sundiata willingly shoulders the responsibility with the rejoinder that he, “the king will return (to Mali)” (ibid). Sundiata clearly sees the task at hand and is prepared to undertake it. After the political crisis in Mali, Sundiata takes further measures to strengthen his kingdom righteously and justly governing his people.
The roles of king and griot are inextricably connected. In Mali, “each king gives his successor a griot” (Wisniewski 1999). It is the king’s duty to listen to, accept the wisdom and follow the instruction of these wise seers. From the birth of the Malian empire to the time of Sundiata, “every prince has (had) his own griot”. King Maghan follows Doua his griot and in the same way King Sundiata adheres to the wisdom of Balla Fasseke his griot. Kings are responsible for griots and jealously guard them as their prized possessions as we see when Sundiata engages in warfare over the kidnapping of his griot, Balla Fasseke. It is no surprise then that since Balla performs his duty completely and honorably that King Soumaoro of Sosso kidnaps him and takes him for his own griot.
By definition, griots are “men of the spoken word who give life to the gestures of kings” (Wisniewski 1999). They recite the history of bygone kings and add to the history of events through the realities of their own time and pass this on to the next male descendent who has to fulfill the same obligation perpetuating the acts of kings through oral chronicles and upholding the strong tradition. The griot must preserve the sacred and mysterious knowledge of the ancestors and King Nare Maghan confirms this duty of the griots for “from his mouth, you will hear the history of the ancestors” (Wisniewski 1999). We see the full discharge of the Malian griot’s responsibility, the success of the griot’s discharged responsibility through the narrator of the book, Djele and the rehearsal of the story Sundiata. The paternal transmission of the kingdom’s history is traced through generations as the oratory “is the word of the father’s father” (Wisniewski 1999). Doua faithfully performs the task of griot to King Nare Maghan and Balla Fasseke his son does the same. Doua’s father was a loyal griot to Bello Bakon, Maghan’s father. Doua’s service to the king was never so marked as when he encouraged the king to keep believing in the prophecy foretold of the advent of a great king and successor. Serving the king all his days, Balla Fasseke reminded Sundiata of the history of Mali and this recital/reminder heartens and moralizes Sundiata’s troops as they heard of the glorious, magnanimous, past of Mali and her long line of brave and illustrious kings.
Sogolon’s destiny is marked by a heavy responsibility – that of bearing and raising a child, a saviour of the Mali Nation. At her wedding ceremony, her task is verbalized by an elderly woman who says that “(Sogolon) will be a mother (Wisniewski 1999).” Prior to this event, the hunters earmark Sogolon’s task, which is to “be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal” (Wisniewski 1999). Sogolon is charged with raising one of the greatest Malian rulers in a chaotic and turbulent time – an awesome commission and she dutifully fulfills till her son, Sundiata reaches the age of eighteen. At the last of her days, Sogolon, “had performed her task, she had nurtured the son…her mission was accomplished” (Wisniewski 1999). Sogolon mothers Sundiata till he attains the age of adulthood and maturity. We further see the success of her execution of her responsibility for Sundiata grows to be a just, wise and egalitarian king.
In Mali, it is incumbent on the leading figures to meet responsibility and fulfill their destiny in the process. Meeting obligations has a stabilizing effect on society and guarantees the balance of the spheres. Responsible kings, griots, and mothers all meet to produce an even story and by extension an organized kingdom. Responsibility also gives meaning for man’s existence, for without some goal to fulfill or some end to meet, what is the purpose of life?
Wisniewski, D. (1999). Sundiata: Lion King of Mali. Clarion Books.
The Epic of Sundiata: Historical Evidence?
Upon first inspection, The Epic of Sundiata seems to be a fantastical tale of witches, super human strength, and a man who cannot be deterred from his destiny. While the epic may not contain the classical makings of reliable historical evidence, it is essential to delve deeper into the story so as to explore the many facets of medieval Malian culture that are revealed. Somewhat like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Epic of Sundiata was passed down as an oral tradition through generations of Malian people. Thus, there has been artistic license taken with the story, as it was passed from one griot (or storyteller) to the next. However, the epic has more to offer than exciting storytelling techniques. The Epic of Sundiata, while not an exact and verifiable history of medieval Mali, holds historical significance because it reveals aspects of Malian religion, moral values, and beliefs on destiny.
By following Sundiata’s life and ascent to power, the epic reveals the various religious beliefs of the time, illustrating how both paganism and Islam existed in unison. In the epic, there are ample references to Allah, for example, when Sundiata finally gains the use of his legs, his mother exclaims,
“‘Oh day, what a beautiful day,
Oh day, day of joy;
Allah Almighty, you never created a finer day.
So my son is going to walk!’”
In this moment, it is clear that Sogolon is referencing a singular and Islamic god, as she uses the term to refer to God used by Muslims. Presenting a contrast to The Epic of Sundiata, Ibn Khaldun, a celebrated Arab scholar during the 1400’s, gives a much more basic and straightforward account of medieval Mali and the genealogy of the Malian kings. Khaldun’s history supplements that of the epic, and highlights the existence of Islam in the region. He writes: “Then Mansa Wali the son of Mari Jata went on the pilgrimage during then reign of the al-Zahir Baybars [1260-77].” This is important to note as Mansa Wali was the son of Mari Jata, or Sundiata, and was ruling only one generation after the founding of the Empire. Thus, Ibn Khaldun’s account works to verify the evidence of the existence of Islam in medieval Mali in the epic.
The epic also shows evidence of a belief in supernatural powers that are seemingly unrelated to Islam during the rise of the Mali Empire. Many of the elements of Sundiata’s rise to power contain magical and fantastical elements. A prime example of this is the epic’s use of “soothsayers”, or people who can see into the future. The epic explains the importance of the soothsayer,
“The hunter disappeared but neither the king, Nare Maghan, nor his griot, Gnankouman Doua, forgot his prophetic words; soothsayers see far ahead, their words are not always for the immediate present man is in a hurry but time is tardy and everything has it season”
To the Western eye the presence of super natural components within the the epic may discredit the story as whole. However, it is important to note that these elements reveal important information about the belief, and possible reliance on, such people as soothsayers in medieval Mali.
The Epic of Sundiata contains moral lessons that demonstrate what it means to be “great” in Malian culture. Sundiata was a celebrated leader, and is a figure in Malian history who is worshipped even today. His character in the epic contains many god-like features, such as his super-human strength and unmatched moral fiber. While it is uncertain whether or not this depiction of Sundiata is historically accurate, it does reveal the Malian standards of an individual considered to have outstanding moral fiber. Within the grander story of Sundiata’s life, there lie other stories which are meant to morally guide the audience. A salient example of this is Sundiata’s reaction to the witches when they attempt to steal from him,
“There he found the nine witches stealing gnougou leaves. They made a show of running away like thieves caught red-handed. ‘Stop, stop, stop, poor old women’ said Sundiata, ‘what is the matter with you to run away like this. This garden belongs to all.’”
The witches reward Sundiata’s kindness by failing to honor his step mother’s wish to harm him. This anecdote within the epic carries a message of generosity, charity, and karma. The story of Sundiata’s treatment of the witches indicates that the aforementioned qualities were important enough within the culture to necessitate their communication to innumerable generations of Malian people.
The Epic of Sundiata demonstrates the importance of destiny in medieval Mali. From the prophecy of the soothsayer through the end of the epic, destiny and Sundiata are inarguably linked. From the moment of Sundiata’s birth he is destined to become a great leader and king, and his father, King Nare Maghan, does not question this truth even when his son seems incapable of walking. Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté explains this phenomenon simply,
“God has his mysteries which none can fathom. You, perhaps, will be a king. You can do nothing about it. You, on the other hand, will be unlucky, but you can do nothing about that either. Each man finds his way already marked out or him and he can change nothing of it.”
Sundiata’s destiny proves so inflexible that even his step-mother, Soumosso, who wished to to kill him because “his destiny ran counter to that of [her] son”, could not. It is even asserted that at age 10 Sundiata, “already had that authoritative way of speaking which belongs to those who are destined to command.” As indicated repeatedly, the Epic of Sundiata provides ample evidence that destiny was a central belief of the culture in medieval Mali.
When compared to Ibn Khaldun’s account of the Mali Empire, the Epic of Sundiata seems less credible because it is not a meticulous historical account of the time period. However, the epic discloses much more than a simple or straightforward history of medieval Mali. The epic works to reveals the thoughts, beliefs, religions, and motivations of a people. Standing alone the epic cannot definitively inform a precise history of Sundiata’s rise to power, but when supplemented with other accounts, such as Khaldun’s or the journals of travelers, the Epic of Sundiata becomes invaluable. The Epic of Sundiata is rich with tradition, and to write it off as “collection of misleading fabrications” is not only naive, but also damaging to the study of medieval West Africa.
Niane, D.T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Revised Edition). Pearson Education Limitied, 2006.
Levtzion, Nehemia, and Jay Spaulding. “Ibn Khaldun.” In Medieval West Africa: Views from Arab Scholars and Merchants, 89-110. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2003.
Leadership in Epic Literature: Rama and Sundiata
Leadership is a prominent theme in both The Ramayana and Sundiata An Epic of Old Mali. A leader holds numerous qualities, whether they are skills that were developed or traits, that distinguish him or her from others. As and even before they undergo extreme situations, it is clear that both Rama and Sundiata possess the important qualities necessary in a leader – honor, altruism and the ability to form lasting alliances.
Rama behaves honorably by fulfilling his familial duties and fighting a fight fairly. King Dasaratha is renowned for staying true to his word and Rama is “blessed…to carry out his father’s command, and to live in the forests” (Narayan, 46). Although Rama’s exile is unreasonable, he still expresses gratitude to King Dasaratha and Kaiyeki because he believes that it his duty as a son to execute his family’s wishes. By carrying out this command, Rama fulfills this duty and ensures that his father does not break his promise to Kaiyeki. This is an act of honor because Rama puts his family’s needs before his own and he secures his father’s reputation. Furthermore, Rama behaves honorably on the battlefield in his fight against Ravana. Ravana has fainted in the middle of the battle and Rama says to Matali, “‘It is not fair warfare to attack a man who is in a faint”” and he waits for Ravana to recuperate (Narayan, 146). Rama had the opportunity to kill Ravana, in this moment of weakness, and end the war once and for all. However, he chooses to let Ravana recover because killing an unconscious man is neither a honorable nor moral route to victory, despite risking his own life by continuing the war.
Similarly, Sundiata demonstrates an act of honor by also fulfilling his familial duties. Due to Sundiata’s powerless legs, he is ridiculed by the people of Mali for being weak and incapable of carrying his father’s throne. But when his mother voices her shamefulness of having borne such a child, Sundiata promises her he will walk and he successfully does so while effortlessly lifting an iron bar. As a result, Sogolon “was now surrounded with much respect” and her son became “as popular as he had been despised” (Niane, 22). By proving he could walk normally and demonstrating an immense amount of strength, Sundiata not only shows that he is capable of being the heir to Maghan’s throne, but he also ameliorates his family’s reputation. This is an honorable act because as the son of a king, Sundiata is expected to carry on his father’s legacy and ensure that his family holds a respectable reputation in the kingdom and he succeeds in fulfilling this duty. As king, Sundiata effectively maintains his father’s legacy. He restores his father’s city “in the ancient style his father’s old enclosure where he had grown up” and destroys the walls to expand the empire (Niane, 81). Sundiata honors his family again by rebuilding his city according to his father’s preferences and this assures that Maghan Fatta’s legacy will continue to live on in Mali.
Rama’s altruism towards potential enemies distinguishes him from others. Rama believes that “one who seeks asylum must be given protection” even if he or she betrays them (Narayan, 132). In one instance, after Vibishana has been banished from Ravana’s kingdom, he travels to Rama’s camp seeking “asylum” and “protection” and Rama accepts him despite the potential of Vibishana being a spy (Narayan, 130). Rama, once again, prioritizes the needs of others before his own. He thinks that it is his duty to protect people and in turn, he takes a risk by assimilating Vibishana into his camp. By doing so, Rama also accepts the possibility of defeat, regardless of what the outcome may be. Additionally, rather than conquering and ruling Lanka himself, Rama bestows the crown of Ravana’s empire to Vibishana, who had no intention of being the ruler (Narayan, 155). Although appropriating other empires would have presented Rama as an even greater leader, his decision of granting Vibishana to rule Lanka instead proves that he is altruistic.
Sundiata’s altruism towards potential enemies also distinguishes him from others. Like Rama, Sundiata puts the needs of others before his own. In an effort to prove that Sundiata is deserving of death, Sassouma orders nine witches to go to his garden and pick from it. Sassouma believes that this will provoke Sundiata and cause him to beat them. Sassouma’s plan backfires when Sundiata discovers the witches picking from his garden and as they run away, he yells to them, “‘what is the matter with you to run away like this. This garden belongs to all’” (Niane, 25). Sundiata has defied the expectations of the witches by approaching and speaking to them cordially. He offers them to pick from the garden whenever they are short of condiments and his “heart full of kindness” compels the witches to ask for forgiveness (Niane, 26). Despite their unpleasant encounter, Sundiata forgives them and even offers each of the witches an elephant. These acts reveal Sundiata’s consideration for his people because his garden is not sustenance for only his family, but also for everyone else. Rama is naturally adept at forming lasting alliances. Both his true identity and morals play a role in strengthening them. Following the kidnapping of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana form an alliance with a monkey king named Sugreeva. Rama makes a pact with him to help kill his brother, Vali, if he helps him find Sita. After Vali is shot by Rama, he tells him that “Sugreeva and he will be [his] invaluable allies” and the former will always have the honor to serve Rama because he is the reincarnation of Vishnu (104). Like Vishnu, Rama believes that it his duty to protect people and restore order in the world. As a result of this, Rama’s true identity is easily identifiable and instantly garners the respect and the loyalty of those whom he encounters. Furthermore, Rama’s intentions serve a part in the creation of alliances since he believes that it is his “primary duty to help the weak and destroy evil wherever [he sees] it…[He helps] those that seek [his] help” (Narayan, 103). Regardless of the circumstances, Rama still would have helped Sugreeva in defeating his brother out of the goodness of his heart. This shows that a leader does not always have to build relationships that must be mutually beneficial. Out of respect and support for Rama, Sugreeva and his other advisors are seen by his side during his return to Ayodhya.
Sundiata possesses a similar adeptness in forming lasting alliances. After being exiled, Sundiata and his family travel to different kingdoms and build connections with the kings and their subjects. All of these kings recognize Sundiata’s destiny and aid him in fulfilling it. During his sojourn in Mema, Sundiata builds an alliance with the King, Moussa Tounkara, and leaves such a profound impact on him and the kingdom. He is considered as a son to Moussa Tounkara and thus, an “heir to the throne of Mema” (46). Sundiata’s presence also contributes to the brief period of peace in Mema. These lead to the bitter feelings Moussa Tounkara has towards Sundiata’s departure. Despite of this, Moussa Tounkara grants him half of his army, which will be crucial in Sundiata’s predestined victory. It is Sundiata’s development into a man that draws the support and loyalty of Moussa Tounkara. Following the events of Sundiata’s victory against Soumaoro, all of the allies he had made during his exile congregate in celebration. “…one by one, the twelve kings…got up and proclaimed Sundiata ‘Mansa’ in their turn” (75). The twelve kings have pledged their allegiance and sworn loyalty to Sundiata. The Mansa’s allies unanimously assimilate into his empire and this action prolongs the alliance they have all formed.
Rama and Sundiata dealt with their extreme situations with both grace and dignity. Although they undergo the ignominy of being exiled, they willingly accept the circumstances and do not attempt to orchestrate events in their favor. Nevertheless, their journeys help them achieve their destiny and become even stronger leaders.