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Sundiata Keita
 History    Mandinka History    Ethnic Groups    Mandinka Tribe
Oral Epic  
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 griot.

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 Mandinka society,

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.

 History    Mandinka History    Ethnic Groups    Mandinka Tribe
Oral Epic  


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