Ancient Africa Mali History: The legend of Sundiata Mali is located a few degrees north of the equator and gets a lot of sunlight. It's a very dry region and is overly hot year round. The Beledugu Plateau is at the northern part of the region which farms are scattered though out, plus nomadic groups of people which are located here because it gets the most rain fall out of the whole area which keeps them competing for water because there is usually a 10 month dry spell without water. Also in this region, the Sahara Desert was a very large area that was again very dry but hosted a commodity for trade which is Salt. Salt was traded for gold because the people of the Sahara had such a plentiful amount of it they could trade straight up for gold with the westerners of Africa. There is a mountain range called Futa Djalon, "this a mountain range located west of the Mali that is the source of several major rivers including the Niger, Senegal and Gambia.
It is much wetter and cooler, then the "Bright Country," surrounding the Niger River Valley, and its inhabitants"1. Mali had different surroundings with Mountains Rivers and desert depending on which way you traveled you would come to one of these geographical features. Known as the "Bright Country" which was made reference too earlier "Brightness is a reference to a religious belief that the physical and spiritual worlds are connected through light. The "Bright Country" is the place where that connection occurs, or in other words, this region is the place where the physical world is in closest contact with the spiritual world"2.
The religion at this time was Islam; it reached West Africa in the 900 AD from the traders of the north. Islam was found to be useful because it provided a common language for them and proved to help the traders gaining assistance from other Muslims were ever they went. "In the epic of Sundiata, his family lineage is traced back to an individual named Bilali who was one of the original followers of Muhammad, the founder of Islam and one of the first Kings of Mali whether it was true or not, this detail shows that by the time of Sundiata, Islam was firmly established in the area"3.
Sundiata was a great hunter king and one of the greatest of all times "the story of him who, by his exploits, surpassed even Alexander the Great"4. The great epic story of Sundiata is as follows.
Maghan Kon Fatta the king of Mali at that time was One day sitting below his silk-cotton tree with him one of his sons who was eight beside him was taking there usual position under the tree when approached by a man dressed as a hunter came by saying he was chasing game and it died near the walls of his kingdom which in turn he brought a portion to Maghan as a sign of recognizing a custom of there's. The kings Griot Gnankouman Doua took the portion and handed it to the king and upon this saying to the hunter "stranger, whoever you may be you will be the king's guest because you respect custom; come and take your place on the mat beside us"5. When the hunter sat down the kings Griot said that hunters from Sangaran where believed to be the greatest soothsayers, which is one who can tell the future. The king agreed and the hunter reached into his pack and pulled out some cowries which he jumbled around and then the king noticed that the hunter was left handed which is to represent evil but were also thought to be the best at telling the future. The Hunter looked up at the king and said, that Mali has been passed down from generation to generation and that he will soon come to pass, and the fate of the empire rests on his unborn son. He explained there would be a woman coming here with two hunters that he would have to marry and she would bare his unborn child. But he exclaimed, "Oh, that woman! She is ugly, she is hideous, and she bears on her back a disfiguring hump. Her monstrous eyes seem to have been merely placed upon her face, but, mystery of mysteries, this is the women you must merry, sire, for she will be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal for ever"5. The Hunter left and the king never for got his words of the woman that was supposed to be brought to him. Some time passed and one day two hunters brought by a girl that was from Do and was recognized as the woman told about by the Hunter that came by, Maghan then married Sogolon.
The king Maghan all ready had three wives, his first wife Sassouma Berete was worried that there first son of eight wasn't going to get the throne and Maghan was giving all his attention to her giving her jewels and fine loin cloths so she had Sogolon ordered murdered. But the sorcerers that she ordered to kill her couldn't do it, so Sundiata was then born. "He was named Mari Diata, but as the son of Sogolon, people later took to calling him Sogolon Diata, and eventually, Sundiata"6.
Sundiata had a slow childhood he seemed to be lazy and at the age of three he still crawled on all fours and "had nothing of the great beauty of his father Nare (king) Maghan. He had a head so big that he seemed unable to support it; he also had large eyes which would open wide whenever anyone entered his mother's house"7. Being of the same age as the other kids which were walking by know, was giving his parents worries on wither he could be king or not. Sogolon would have other children come to play with Sundiata hoping to have him see his peers walking and would egg him on to do the something but he being of great strength in his arms would only hurt the others and they wouldn't go near him anymore. By now Maghan's first wife Sassouma was happy that to see that Sundiata had a handicap and was hoping that her son Dankaran would become the king. Sogolon tried everything that was in her power as a sorcerer to bring life to her son's legs such as rare herbs, but had no affect. Losing hope the king maghan and sogolon had another child but it was a girl named Kolonkan. The king really discouraged, "debarred Sogolon from his house and she lived in semi-disgrace"8. Maghans Griot kept reminding him what the soothsayer said about "The Almighty has his mysteries"9, and "the silk-cotton tree emerges from a tiny seed"10. The king one day came across the blacksmith seer of Niani, he was an old blind man, but had great wisdom and with his words giving the king some assurance he then brought Sogolon back in is favor and they then had another child which was another girl. But on King Maghan last days he tells his son Sundiata that he had a gift for him which was his own Griot. This was his son of his own Griot, his name was Balla Fasseke and the king replied, "Be inseparable friends from this day forward. From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors, you will learn the art of governing Mali according according to the principles which our ancestors have bequeathed to us"11.
Shortly after the king died and the council of elders meet and decided to have the half brother Dankaran have the throne giving Sassouma the power of queen mother. They wouldn't give the throne to a king that had no use to his legs so Sassouma banished Sundiata and his mother to an old hut that was a wood shed before, because the king Maghan gave her more attention than his other wife, when he was alive. Sogolon and Sundiata where the recipients of slander though out the town because he was seven years old and still crawled around.
One day Sogolon needed some Baobob leaves for here cooking and went to get some from Sassouma she told her that she had plenty and that she had pity for her because her son could walk at seven and he was the one that went to get her things and that Sundiata was an un equal to her son then just laughed at Sogolon. She left and went home very angry and hurt when she got home she hit Sundiata with a piece of wood and he asked his crying mother what the problem was, she said to him, "I have just suffered the greatest affront of my life! What have I done, God, for you to punish me in this way".12 she told him what had happened and he told her to cheer up and she said I can't. Sundiata replied, "Very well then, I'm going to walk today"13. Sundiata said to have his father's blacksmith make the heaviest iron rod he could, and bring it to him. "Mother, do you want just the leaves of the Baobob or would you rather I brought you the whole tree"14. Later the iron bar was brought back to the hut and with such a great sound alerted everyone that the day has come to have the great sudiata to walk. As he got up using the great big bar his legs trembled and the iron bar bent into the shape of a bow, everyone stood silent as he arose to his feet. When he got to his feet he began to take his first steps, his Griot Balla said, "room, room, make room! The lion has walked; hide antelopes, get out of his way".15 Sundiata went over to the Baobob tree and picked the whole thing right out of the ground and brought it back to his mother and placed it at her door step. This gave him great popularity among all his peers which gave him a higher respect among the people of the city. From that day Sundiata loved to hunt as he sharpened his skills and became very good with his bow. Sassouma was feeling worried that Sundiata will pursue his destiny of being king. For fear of Sundiata's life Sogolon took him to live in exile, but Dankaran fearing the loss of the throne, he had Balla and Sundiata's half-sister on a mission to go see the evil sorcerer king Soumaoro of Sosso. This made Sundiata mad for the loss of Bella his Griot, he promised to come retake the throne of Mali, then he disappeared into exile.
Sundiata traveled hundreds of miles a way from his home, "along the way, he learned the aspects of trade, to fight, and to weild proverbs containing the wisdom of his ancestors"16. One day on his travels he came upon a market in the kingdom of Mema, which someone was selling Baobob leaves but there are not any leaves in Mema they must have come from Mali. While at the market, Sundiata caught word that Soumaro had conquered Mali and sent Dankaran into exile. Balla and his half-sister were captives of him also, Sundiata got an army together to go reclaim Mali. On the night before his voyage back to Mali Sogolon died, Sundiata then returned to Mali. Balla was in the chambers of Soumaoro which he saw all of the king's heads that he had conquered and poisonous snakes. He was caught by Soumaoro and in there and thinking quick Balla did a song for him and this made him rage less and made Bella his Griot. Sundiata was making his way back to Mali and on his way he gathered forces and finally met Soumaoro on the battlefield Sundiata's army had a lot more tactical fighting than Soumaro's army, but through Soumaro's magic he fled the scene. Knowing that he needed more power to beat his magic Sundiata "summoned soothsayers to council him on harnessing supernatural powers"17, by sacrificing one hundred oxen. After Sundiata was reunited with Balla and his half-sister because they escaped from the evil sorcerer king, they told him of the secret of Soumaoro's magic. Sundiata was told that the cock was the sacred animal of Soumaoro and it harnesses all of his power. Sundiata then manufactured a wooded arrow with a cock's spur as its tip. Finally the great battle between the two came at Kirina. The night before the battle the too had pre-war rituals. The two sent messages to each other, Soumaoro's read, "I am the wild yam of the rocks ,nothing will make me leave Mali"18. Sundiata replied, "I have in my camp seven master smiths who will shatter the rocks. Then, yam, I will eat you"19. The next day the battle began and Sundiata fired his special arrow at Soumaoro and striking him, making him powerless and never was seen again. Then Sundiata and his army went to Soumaoro's city to unlock his chambers to find all his evil symbols were dying, thus Sundiata invited the twelve kings of Savanna held captive to come and have there kingdoms in Kaba which is a city in old Mali. This created the empire of Mali which Sundiata ruled until his death in 1255. Then this great epic comes to a close with the empire of Mali lasting for more than two centuries.
Notes 1. 1. "Background to the epic of Sundiata Keita" James A Jones, Ph.D "www.http//courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his311/notes/sundiata.htm" 2. James A Jones, Ph.D 3. James A Jones, Ph.D 4. 4. Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro. The Humanities. Cultural Roots and Continuities: Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, New York. C2001 sixth edition, pages 390-407 5. Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro 6. "The Legend of Sundiata" .The Kennedy Center African Odyssey. www.artsedge.kennedy-center.org/aoi/events/theater/sundiata.html 7-15. Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro 16-19. "The Legend of Sundiata" .The Kennedy Center African Odyssey Bibliography 1. Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro. The Humanities. Cultural Roots and Continuities: Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, New York. C2001 sixth edition, pages 390-407 2. "Background to the epic of Sundiata Keita" James A Jones, Ph.D "www.http//courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his311/notes/sundiata.htm" 3. "The Legend of Sundiata" .The Kennedy Center African Odyssey. "www.artsedge.kennedy-center.org/aoi/events/theater/sundiata.html"