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An Epic of Old Mali

“Listen then, sons of Mali, children of the black people, listen to my word, for I am going to tell you of Sundiata, the father of the Bright Country, of the savanna land, the ancestor of those who draw the bow, the master or a hundred vanquished kings. ” Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali has been transcribed by D. T. Niane and translated by G. D. Pickett.

This story is not a new one, it originated in the thirteenth century and as we are told, griots, who were a mixture of troubadours and court historians, kept the verbal tradition alive as they told and retold stories of cities and their kingdoms, battles and times of peace, kings and the members of their courts, and all that went on in the life of Sogolon Djata, also known as Sundiata, the ancient King of Mali.

Today, this region is the modern republic, but in those days, the kingdom and its people resided here, making this story a very important part of a proud ancient heritage – a heritage which is at the risk of getting extinct, because of the hustle bustle of modern civilization. The story of Sundiata: King Maghan Kon Fatta had a son with Sogolon, who was a buffalo woman, and this son was Sundiata, who has been immortalized by this transcription by Niane. The story is a powerful one as it talks about great kings and emperors and their courts and common themes the occult, prophecy, and epic adventure.

There is a lot of emphasis on narrating Sundiata’s childhood, how he becomes a great leader, the years he spends in exile, and the battles he fights with Soumaoro and other enemies who challenge him in various ways. While the King thinks his heir has already been born, the prophets predict that Sundiata will soon be born. However the King meets the buffalo woman, who will be his second wife, a long time after this foretelling and even more time elapses before Sundiata becomes king. This is because when he is born, he can not use his legs and his crippled state causes his father to never really consider him as his heir.

Thus begins Sundiata’s life where he is ignored by his father and hated by his step-mother, the first wife of the King. Slowly, he starts to use his legs as he and Sogolon go on many journeys together. Sundiata becomes more at peace with himself as he becomes older and because of his excellent capabilities as a warrior, becomes Viceroy at the court of Mema. Soon enough, he is called again to Mali. It is now that he truly exhibits his abilities in the war which forces people to make compare him with Alexander the Great.

The battles transcribed all tell the reader about how he fights with arms as well as magic, and defeats the King of Sosso, Soumaoro, who has committed the serious acts of laying waste to Mali, the capital, and even stolen his griot. Howeer, Sundiata, the hero of this story, regains “the singer who would perpetuate his memory by his words. There would not be any heroes if deed were condemned to man’s forgetfulness. ” Soon, other people hear of Sundiata’s might and bravery such as Fakoli Koroma, Soumaoro’s nephew.

Soumaoro had stolen Koroma’s wife, an act of great effrontery, and had reason enough to join hands with Sundiata. Other kings had also suffered for many years under the oppressive politics of Soumaoro, and joined Sundiata in his efforts to get rid of him. Sundiata emerged victorious, and set up an empire which was famous for justice and fairness, and which lasted for many of the following years to come. The story is one which depicts a highly patriarchal society where women are only allowed limited rights and powers and are viewed mainly with perspective of their relation with men in the society.

Their destinies and futures are controlled by the men in their life and are rarely awarded any positions of power or say in decisions regarding themselves or others. The society is male-oriented and women’s roles are confined to being child care givers and tenders of animals and gardens. On the other hand, men are the hunters, managers of family matters and the chief decision-makers regarding all aspects of life. Slaves were present in this society and most of the time, they were captives of war who were enslaved by someone they were indebted to in terms of wealth or service.

Slavery was also a means in Malinke society to provide a link between individuals and families, if no biological or marriage connection was present. This way, the slave was a “family member” and had some right. Hence, in a lot of ways this book while telling the story of Sundiata, informs and educates its readers about Islamic influences, women’s social status, African society before the European invasion and West African sorcery to name a few issues which are present in the background.

This account is truly fascinating and enjoyable for the reader because the author has given an account of a far-away land and a subject which is unfamiliar to most people in a way as to revitalize it and bring it back to our days and our society. Through the story of Sundiata, one eventually learns that greatness is not determined by how many people one kills or overpowers, but how strong and hopeful one remains in the most adverse and trying of times.

Africans and the African Diaspora consider Sundiata a great hero, and he is definitely a heroic figure. I think the author has done a great job of portraying a person whose attitude is what eventually helps him overcome the huge obstacles on his way to the throne. He is born a cripple, in a society where physical skills have great value. But he says determinedly “Very well, then, I am going to walk today,” and leans to walk. This bravery, zeal and spirit are what help him successfully reclaim Mali, the homeland he is deprived of.

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