This Mali epic as we have it now is the consummation of a collecting together of oral legends. The legends are based around King Sundiata Keita, who consolidated and expanded the Mali empire; his period of governance was 1217 to 1255.
It is shocking on reading the story, how short people’s lives were.
The role of the griot is central to the story. The griot is the King’s counsellor, he keeps the tribal customs, histories, and musical and oral traditions. To be granted a griot is to be accorded great status. Sundiata is given Balla Fassekeas as his griot. Balla is captured by the sorceror King Soumaoro Kante’, however, before Sundiata comes into his power.
On one level it is a straight forward story of a king growing to greatness, overcoming a formidable enemy, and consolidating a mighty empire.
The telling of the story, however, reveals many levels and complexities.
To give an example of the complexity of storytelling let me show you the finding of Sogolon, Sundiata’s mother:
a soothsayer turned up at the village of Niani and prophesied to King Naré Maghann Konaté that he would father a great warrior king. Some time later two hunters and a young woman came across King Nare’ and company as they were out hunting. They approached the king and told him this tale: as they were hunting they came across an old woman weeping, she begged them for food, which they shared with her. For their kindness she informed them that she was the spirit of the Buffalo of Do, no warrior could kill her; and she had already killed 77 warriors. There was only one way to kill her, which she told to the hunters, and gave them the requisite tools. They were to take the body to the local king who would be overjoyed and grant the one who killed the buffalo a choice of a wife amongst the women-folk of his town. But, the old woman said, they must only choose the ugly one with the hunchback; she also was an aspect of the buffalo woman. This woman would give birth to a warrior king. After telling the King this they presented him with the woman, Sogolon Konde. She was the one the old woman said; the king married her.
As you can see from this we have a story within a story within a story: three levels of story. Add onto this the symbolic level: the Lion king marries the Buffalo woman.
The whole movement of the epic is based on two arcs superimposed and conflicting with each other, one where we build up to Sundiata’s eminence, is contrasted with his unfortunate beginnings: we have the auspiciousness of his prophecy and the inauspiciousness of his actual childhood.
Sundiata grows up unable to walk; the King in desperation marries another wife. This sets up all sorts of jealousy and supremacy problems between the wives. Sundiata is seven before he can stand and walk. Just before this time the King has died, and Sundiata who is supposed to be his choice, is judged physically incapable, and he and his family relegated, ridiculed, and subjected to mockery and increasing hostility.
As soon as Sundiata can walk he quickly learns hunting skills, warrior skills. All along his mental acuity has been high, his kindness supreme. The old kings’ new wife plots against him: she hires nine witches to catch him out and curse him; his kindness towards them, not knowing who they are, wins them over. He is warned of the plot.
Sogolon takes her family away for safety. She finds that many tribal kings have been bribed to turn them away. They travel out of Mali and into Ghana. There they meet kindness. It is when the travel to Mema that the old King takes them in. He has no children himself, and warms greatly to Sundiata. In all they spend six years with him. Sundiata grows into a strong and tactical warrior.
While in exile, however the sorceror King Soumaoro Kante’ has grown strong, attracted many followers, and moved in on the Mali tribes, and capital Niani.
Representatives from old Niani travel around in search of Sundiata. When they find him at Mema they tell of what has befallen Mali. Sundiata vows to return and destroy Soumaoro. The old king refuses to let him go. It is at this time that Sundiata’s mother, Sogolon; dies. The old king accuses Sundiata of being ungrateful, and a turncoat. Sundiata is a very powerful warrior by this time and commands most of the old king’s men. He has to let him go back. He takes half the king’s men with him.
As he returns many tribal people who resisted Soumaoro join with Sundiata. There are three main battles (and one night sorte), each time Sundiata is victorious but Soumaoro escapes using sorcery. The pursuit is long and bloody. It is only when Nana Triban, Sundiata’s half sister by his father’s new queen, and his own griot, join him, that he learns the way to defeat Soumaoro’s sorcery.
He is defeated, but not captured. Sundiata levels his city of Sosso; he re-enters Mali a victor and grants land and livings to all loyal tribes, shows mercy to the defeated, and rebuilds Niani on a greater, grander scale.
When we understand the dynamics of the story it shows itself as structured as a classic ring:
The First Kings of Mali - Eternal Mali
Buffalo Woman - Niani
Lion Child - The Division of the World
Childhood - Krina
Lion’s Awakening – Nana Triban and Balla Fasseke
Exile - Return
The turn is: Boabab Leaves
These chapter headings will not mean anything to anyone who does not know the story (except perhaps Buffalo Woman, as outlined above).
The First Kings of Mali explores the history of old Mali prior to the period of the story. Eternal Mali follows up into the future, following this period.
Buffalo Woman (above) is paralleled with the chapter Niani, which deals with Sundiata’s rebuiling of his birthplace on a grander scale. Both his mother’s origins, and his birthplace of Niani, show the disparity of tribes and people’s they contained; and how all divided peoples are reconciled in the rebuilding of Niani on a scale that can incorporate all.
Lion Child deals with the auspicious signs around the birth of Sundiata: the coming of Sundiata. The Division of the World with the coming into power of the prophesied King in his home land, his justice and his mercy.
In the Childhood chapter we see the humiliation and loss of prestige of Sogolan Konde in the Kings’s household, his taking of another wife; then, after the sayings of a soothsayer, the return of Sogolon to favour. I parallel this with Krina, the last battle fought against Soumaoro because it is here Soumaoro at last openly declares war on Sundiata, as his father’s other wife does on his family. In this declaration of war there is a ritual verbal humiliation contest between both sides. This is similar to the constant humiliation and comments Sogolon and family undergo. And it is here that Soumaoro at last loses his sorcerer’s power to Sundiata and retreats, similar to Sogolon choosing exile.
Lion’s Awakening sees Sundiata’s family relegated from the main house, on the King’s death: their final humiliation, and Sundiata’s rise. Sologan accuses Sundiata on the basis that he cannot bring her boabab leaves as other children to their mothers as a token of love, honour. Sundiata at last rises, stands upright for the first time, and instead of leaves, brings her the whole tree. Already we see his prodigious strength, as well as sense of honour. In parallel, when Nana Triban come to Sundiata, she brings recompense for his years of humiliation: she believed in him despite being married off to Soumaoro, and to spite her husband brought the secret of his undoing to Sundiata. With the return of his true griot Balla Fesseke, Sundiata attains his true station, his completion as Warrior King.
Exile sees the family flee from danger at the new wife’s court in Niani. They have to leave Mali altogether because all local kings have been bribed to reject them. We see here, also, however, lasting friendships being made which pay off on his return. Return sees the return of the true King, with mighty army, and joined by the friends made in his youth and journey out.
The turn, Boabab Leaves has a very neat framing device. We see them received at the Mema court at the end of Exile. All are well received, Sundiata especially. The King actually speaks the Mandingo language, the same as Sundiata and family. This is important, it emphasises the connection. The King has no sons of his own, and Sundiata becomes a surrogate of sorts. It is here he learns the arts of warfare, shows his already latent skills, is even made a Viceroy. At the end of Boabab Leaves we see this warrior who the King has fostered and helped develop, want to leave. He refuses him the right.
From eager reception to bitter refusal of permission, and recrimination.
At the centre of this are the two representatives from old Niani, searching for Sundiata to deliver Mali from Soumaoro. They find him through the device of offering boabab leaves for sale in the market. They are unknown/not valued in Ghana. But they are in Mali. And so Sundiata learns the news. Sogolon dies here; there is a wrangling over her grave site. This focuses the theme on the importance of one’s home, home ground. The need to return.
We see in the storylines the conflicting themes of greatness, and humiliation, reflected on both Sogolan’s family, and on the city of Niani, as it is destroyed by Soumaoro: each reflects the other. This is a standard device in high story telling.
I think I have made a strong argument for a reading as a ring structure.
Mary Douglas’ argument was that such structures could be seen to be organic, in that the patterning of parallels, and rings, is due to the organising structure of our brains.
I cannot go along with this; for me it must be cultural. What connections can there be, then, between the predominantly middle-east cultures who used these structures and, say, a Mali epic? This was my question when I chose this work.
The writer references Alexander the Great throughout the piece as the acme of the Warrior King. The organising of the piece was by a writer familiar with some form of cultural, written, historical diversity. And a middle-eastern one at that.
It was shortly after the time of Sundiata that Mali expanded further, taking in among many areas the city of Timbuktu. In later years this city was to be become a major trading centre, and centre for Islamic culture and learning. The whole area fell to Moroccan invasion in the sixteenth century.
In the nineteenth century Mali became part of the French colonial expansion, only gaining final independence in nineteen-sixty.
As can be seen Mali’s sharing in the culture and fortunes of the Islamic, as well as the Western world, has been long and influential. Mali has been part of the sphere of literacy from early times.