| The history of the Mandinka
Tribe is closely tied up with the oral
epic tale of Sundiata Keita (aka Sundjata Keyita or Mari Djata
or Jata, or Makhara Makhang Konate) who was the founder of
the Mali Empire & king of the Malinké people. Sundjata
built up a large empire that eventually extended from the Atlantic
coast south of the Senegal River to Gao on the east of the middle
Niger bend. It extended from the edges of the forest in the south
west through the savannah (grassland) country of the Malinke to
the Sahel and southern Saharan "ports" of Wallata and
Tadmekka. It included the gold mines of Bumbuk and Bure and the
legendary city of Timbuktu as well as Djenne, and Gao on the River
Niger and continued to the salt mines of Taghaza. Many different
peoples were thus brought in to what became a federation of states,
dominated by Sundjata and the Malinke people. Under Sundjata's
leadership, Mali became a relatively rich farming area.
Biography - Early Life:
According to legend Sundiata was the youngest of eleven males.
Yet another says he was the second son of a Mandingo king named
Nare Fa Maghan. Sundiata was born to Nare and his second wife
Sogolon Conde as a crippled and weak child. For this, she was
mocked by the other wives, but when Sundiata began to walk he
became leader of his age-group. Eventually, jealousies of the
deep love Nare had shown to Sogolon and Sundiata some even claim
he was designated successor in conjunction with Nare Fa Maghan's
death forced Sundiata and his mother and her other son to flee.
Since no Malinke chief would offer them refuge, all being afraid
of the wrath of Dankaran Tuman, the then king of Ki, Sundiata
was forced to Mema. It was there that Mansa Tunkara, king of Mema,
offered them refuge. He even saw and appreciated young Sundiata's
courage and gave him some important responsibilities.
The Sosso king Sumanguru of the Kante dynasty, was the last king
of ancient Ghana, had taken over the empire (Or more specifically,
what was left of it) and was trying to reestablish the Ghana kingdom.
Sumanguru Kante controlled all of the Ghana lands except for Manding.
According to one legend, Sumanguru systematically killed off all
of the sons but Sundiata, who was frail and weak. Sumanguru made
the error of leaving Sundiata alone because of this, and would
later live long enough to regret it. Another, more likely story,
says that Sumanguru had taken over Manding and the rulers there
fled or were killed, for Mandingo messengers found him in Mema
and reported what had occurred. It was time for Sundiata to reclaim
his throne and lands, and the king of Mema gave him a force of
troops to return with.
Return of Sundiata:
In the oft-cited legend, Sundiata grew stronger and began to rule
the Mali kingdom while steadily gaining power and troop strength.
It came to pass that in 1235, at the battle of Kirina, Sundiata
and Sumanguru met in battle. According to legend, both were sorcerers,
and their magic would determine the outcome. Sundiata roared at
the troops of King Sumanguru, who were terrified and ran for cover.
Sumanguru retaliated, and the heads of eight spirits magically
appeared above his own. Unfortunately for Sumanguru, Sundiata
had the stronger magic, and the spirits were defeated. Sundiata
then aimed an arrow at Sumaguru, and although it only grazed Sumanguru's
shoulder, it drained him of all magic, and Sumanguru was defeated.
A griot retells what followed:
The vanquished Sumanguru looked up towards the sun A great black
bird flew over above the fray... "The bird of Kirina,"
[the king] muttered. Sumanguru let out a great cry and, turning
his horse's head, he took to flight.
Whether or not the magical parts of the story are true, it is
known that Sundiata was able to bring great enthusiasm to the
Malinke. Every Malinke clan raised an army and principal generals.
and these added to Sundiata's forces. In the meantime, Mansa Kara
Noro led a revolt against Sumanguru, accompanied by the towns
of Moamo. Selegugu, and Tigan. Though their resistance was fierce,
betrayal by Kara Noro's queen enabled Sumanguru to win. At the
celebration, Sumanguru stole the wife of his nephew and general-in-chief
Fakoli. As a way of getting back at Sumanguru, Fakoli fled over
to Sundiata's forces. Sumanguru continued to fight and launch
attacks, but after some indecisive battles, Sundiata's armies
gained more courage.
It was at Kirina (Karina) that Sundiata and Sumanguru would fight
the decisive battle. Sumanguru had numbers and a great magician
on his side, but Sundiata regained the services of the griot of
the Keita royal family, Balla Fasseke, and also gained the key
to Sumanguru's strenght by way of his wife Nana Triban, who was
a sister of Sundiata's who was forced to marry Sumanguru. Sumanguru
was supposedly invulnerable to iron, but his totem was a white
cockspur. This having been delivered to Sundiata, Sumanguru knew
his secret was revealed and was not as confident after. According
to legend, Sundiata used an arrow tipped with the white cockspur
and struck Sumanguru with it, taking his strength away. Sumanguru
fled and the Soso were completely routed. Pursuing Sumanguru,
Sundiata went to Kulikoro, but failed to capture the fleeing Sosso
king. He marched to Sosso and burned it to the ground.
Sundiata Becomes Mansa (King):
Kirina was important militarily and it sealed the alliance which
made Sundiata reign supreme in West Africa. Sundiata continued
espansion until all of the territory of Ghana had been absorbed.
Each of the chiefs were confirmed in their provinces, but only
the chiefs of Mema and Wagadu bore the title of king. Sundiata
became the Mansa *king of kings or emperor* of Mali, which at
one time was part of Ghana, and established his capital at Niani,
on the upper Niger. He set to work on improving agriculture, with
soldiers clearing land for farming and planting rice, beans, yams,
onions, grain and cotton. This led to Mali becoming a productive
farm region, but Sundiata also recognized that the nation's wealth
depended on trade, and the wars had disrupted it. With control
of the gold mines, Sundiata set to restoring the salt and gold
exchange with Niani as the kindgom's trade centre. The Mali Empire
grew and prospered by monopolizing the gold trade and developing
the agricultural resources along the Niger River.
Like Ghana, Mali prospered from the taxes it collected on trade
in the empire. All goods passing in, out of, and through the empire
were heavily taxed. All gold nuggets belonged to the king, but
gold dust could be traded. Gold was even used at times as a form
of currency, as also were salt and cotton cloth. Later, cowrie
shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced and used widely as
currency in the internal trade of the western Sudan. Sundiata
divided the empire into provinces, each with its own governor,
and towns that were administered by a mochrif or mayor. A huge
army kept the peace, putting down rebellions in the smaller kingdoms
bordering the central part of the empire, and policing the many
trade routes. Timbuktu became a center of learning, luxury, and
trade, where river people met with the desert nomads, and where
scholars and merchants from other parts of Africa, the Middle
East, and even Europe came to its universities and bustling markets.
||Through the efforts of Sundiata and his successors,
Mali became Africa's most powerful kingdom. In addition to gold
and salt, Malian control of the copper mines at Takedda and the
discovery of new gold sources at Bure made Mali one of the world's
economic powerhouses. They were able to move gold easily on the
Niger to interested traders, and by the late 1300s, Mali was three
times as large as Ghana had been, with its borders reaching the
Atlantic in the west, and the middle Niger in the east.
Mali gold was bought by traders and merchants as far away as England
and France, as it was the West's primary gold region for centuries
to come. Mali prospered only as long as there was strong leadership.
Sundjata established himself as a great religious and secular
leader, claiming the greatest and most direct link with the spirits
of the land and thus the guardian of the ancestors. After Sundjata,
most of the rulers of Mali were Muslim, some of whom made the
hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The most famous haji (pilgrim to Mecca)
was Mansa Musa, king of Mali and grandson of one of Sundjata's
sisters. In 1324, accompanied by some 60,000 people and carrying
large quantities of gold, Mansa Musa traveled from Niani along
the Niger to Timbuktu and then across the Sahara via the salt
mines of Taghaza from oasis to oasis, to reach Cairo. From there
he went on to Mecca and Medina.
The empire of Mali reached in zenith in the fourteenth century
but its power and fame depended greatly on the personal power
of the ruler. Sundjata died in 1255 in what some say was under
mysterious circumstance. Some say that he was drowned in the river
Sankarani near Niani, in Gambia, while
others say he was assassinated during a public demonstration.
Leaving aside questions as to their origin, accounts of the first
practising griots are more clearly established, and are located
in the era of the founding of the Empire of Mali. These tales
centre upon the life of Soundiata Keita (circa 1218 – circa 1255).
The narrative of Soundiata is widely known throughout West Africa,
and it forms one of the core pieces in the epic narrative tradition.
The following version was told to me in 1997 by Sidi Suso, a Gambian
In the early 13th century King Naré Magan ruled a province of
Mali in a region controlled by Sumanguru, a ruthless warlord.
Naré Magan was told in a prophecy that he would father a son who
would become a great king. It was explained to him that one day
two hunters would bring to his court an ugly hunch-backed woman,
whom he must marry. Months later, when two hunters arrived and
presented him with Sogolon Kedju, a woman who matched the description,
he recalled the prophecy and married her. The hunters informed
the King that his new wife was the embodiment of a buffalo who
had ravaged whole communities, and that she possessed extraordinary
powers. The King’s first wife, Sassouma, was jealous of Sogolon,
and feared that her own sons would not succeed her husband. She
conspired to kill Sogolon, but failed. Later, Sogolon gave birth
to Soundiata. Sassouma, however, had cursed Sogolon, with the
result that Soundiata was born a cripple and mute. Though legend
had foretold of his greatness, Soundiata could not walk or speak
until he was 7 years old.
Upon the death of King Naré Magan, Sassouma successfully installed
her own son, Dankaran, as the new ruler. With the prophecy unfulfilled,
Sassouma still feared for her own sons, and plotted the murder
of Soundiata and his mother. Sogolon and Soundiata thus fled their
home. In exile the young Soundiata grew tired of being ridiculed,
and he willed himself to walk. He ordered a blacksmith to make
the heaviest iron rod possible, which Soundiata intended to use
a crutch. On a day which he himself had nominated, Soundiata stood
up, and such was the immense effort that he bent the iron rod
into the shape of a hunter’s bow.
Time passed and many had learned of Soundiata’s feat and of the
legend which surrounded him. He began to attract the support of
influential and powerful leaders. Sumanguru, however, continued
to expand his territory and had by now conquered the territory
held by Soundiata’s half-brother, Dankaran. Soundiata began organising
an army to overthrow the emperor. In 1235 he returned from exile
to his homeland where he met the forces of Sumanguru in battle.
Soundiata was victorious and was crowned King. His triumph was
honoured in song by Balla Fasséké Kouyaté, a court musician who
had served Soundiata’s father.
Balla Fasséké Kouyaté thus became the original griot, and he is
considered to be the founder of the Kouyaté dynasty of griots.
He played an instrument called a bala, a xylophone of approximately
19 keys. Soundiata eventually became very wealthy through the
Saharan trade of gold and salt, and through war and political
expediency he established what became known as the Empire of Mali.
He is sometimes referred to as “The Lion King”,14 and his legacy
lives on through the praise song first sung by Balla Fasséké Kouyaté.
Soundiata is thought to have died in 1255. Written sources augment
the Mande oral histories, with the Moroccan traveller Mohammed
ibn Battúta (1304-1368) and the Tunisian historian Abu Zayd 'Abd
al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami (1332-1406) both
travelling to Mali in the century after Soundiata’s death and
both providing powerful testimonies of Soundiata’s existence.
Oral methods of retention, such as story-telling and songs, however,
have been the primary methods by which the history of Mande society
has been passed down through generations. The griots’ role in
this process is crucial, for in an endogamous society it is they
alone who serve as the keepers of their culture’s history. They
have thus been called “living libraries”,16 and their role was
recognised and valued by Soundiata. According to Seni Darbo, in
A griot’s self-portrait: The origins and role of the griot in
Mandinkas became aware of themselves with the coming of Sunjata.
We know that there were griots before Sunjata, but not much is
known about them. Sunjata himself was probably instrumental in
defining and solidifying the caste system as it became known by
Mandinkas. When the time came for him to divide up his patrimony,
he asked for nothing of gold and cattle; he asked only for the
griots because he knew what he could do with them in welding a
great nation if he used them properly. (Darbo 1976: 1)
Balla Fasséké Kouyaté’s praise song in honour of Soundiata Keita
is usually referred to simply as Soundiata. At nearly 800 years
it is the oldest piece in the griot canon. It forms part of a
larger repertoire of narratives. Often epic in length and scope,
these historical tales and songs are learned by griots from childhood.
While there are areas of specialisation within their craft, a
common characteristic of jeliya, or the artistry of the griot,
is the ability to memorize and recount historical narratives.
It is this function which, above all else, establishes their role
in Mande society. In recognition of this, griots have been referred
to as “the guardians of the word”,18 for as oral historians their
knowledge of Mande history is irrefutable.