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The Epic of Sundiata

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1159
  • Category: Africa

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The Epic of Sundiata is a West African tale that tells the story of the rise to power of Mali’s greatest king, Sundiata (Son-Jara). In this epic, the griot Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate begins the story from the humiliating childhood of Son Jara (Sundiata), to the jealousy between his stepmother Sassouma and his half brother Dankaran Tuma, to the continue conflicts with the great sorcerer Soumaoro and the later achievements of Sundiata for his fatherland and his people.

The Empire of Mali rose out of what was once the empire of Ghana. Mali had been a state inside of the Ghana Empire (Goucher, 232). Ghana was the first empire to emerge in West Africa around the 6th century C.E. (Goucher231). Ghana used the strategic position taxing the desert nomad traders of the north and the gold producing people of the south (Goucher, 131). After the fall of Ghana, the Mali Empire took its place and rose to power under the leadership of Sundiata, “the lion King.” Under Sundiata, Mali expanded rapidly west to the Atlantic Ocean, south into the forest, and east beyond the Niger River, and north as the Sahara desert. The Mali Empire dominated the vast interior of West Africa, a mostly region of mountains, savanna, desert, and forests. Here, it was the home of a rich diversity of people, including nomads, traders, farmers, and cattle herders. Depended much on the trans-Sahara trade, the Empire of Mali soon prospered. The Mali Empire was organized as staging posts in the long distance caravan trade and trading centers for the various West African products (Goucher, 234). The Mali Empire lasted from 1235 until about 1468.

West African was the center of trading in this period. Merchants from different locations would come to West Africa to trade goods and exchange their beliefs. In the book, when Sundiata and his family went to exile, they would travel with a caravan of merchants to Ghana using the trans-Sahara trade route. The Sundiata gives details about trading in the city of Ghana. There were a lot of white traders; tethered camels and donkeys signified the transportations of the traders going in and out the city of Ghana. The book gives details about the trading items such as gold, salt, iron, slaves, and ivory. Gold and salt were very important trading items in West Africa. With great merchandises being trade, city and states in West Africa soon prosper. In Sundiata, it gives details about how the people of Mali wore their festive dress with gold shone in their hair and wrists with heavy silver bracelets on important activities (Sundiata, 9). The book also referred to some biggest sacrifice being made, “…a hundred white bulls, a hundred white rams and a hundred white cocks” (Sundiata, 72). This signified that West Africa had numerous resources and they can get it easily through trades.

There are two religions represented in the Sundiata; Islam and Niger Congo religion. In the story, the griot Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate referred to past ancestors of the Mali Empire. The ancestors played an important part in the Mali culture. The people of Mali worshipped their ancestor Kings and worshiped the nature spirits. They respected some animals as gods. For example, Sundiata’s mother, Sogolon was the Buffalo and Sundiata as the Lion Child. The Sundiata gives details about the Niger Congo religion by the art of drumming. “The king had the drums beaten and before midday all the inhabitants of the country were gathered in the main square” (Sundiata, 8-9). Also, when Sundiata was born, the king announced the birth of his son by the hasty beats of the royal drum. Drumming was used to pass out news, meeting with the king, gathered the people of Mali, etc. The Empire of Mali also had soothsayer or diviner. The smith, Farakourou, was the soothsayer in the Empire of Mali. He knew about Sundiata fatal legs and how he will overcome his tragic childhood by making the iron rods, which later assisted him on his first step.

Islam was also an important religion for the Empire of Mali. The Sundiata stated how Lahilatoul Kalabi, the first black prince to make the Pilgrimage to Mecca and the prince Bilali Bounama; a devoted servant of the Prophet Muhammid (Sundiata, 2). Because of the trans-Sahara trade, merchants soon introduced Islam into the Empire of Mali rapidly. The city of Cisses was a very religious city; there were numerous numbers of mosques, which signified that Islam was being practiced.

In Sundiata women were not as equal as men. The gender male seems to have more power and more control over the female. Men were able to have many wives and women cannot do anything about it. For example, the Maghan King had three wives and the sorcerer King; Soumaoro had up to hundred of wives. Women were usually slaves and labor workers. They were also associated with cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children. Some were cruel and evil for example, Soumosso Konkomba the first wife of King Maghan Fatta. Women were also played the role of sisters, mothers, merchants and sorceresses.

As far as females were concerned, their activities were in the house. Cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children occupied the majority of the time of the women, and occasionally they would be called upon to farm the fields.

Because West Africa did not have writing system during this period, oral tradition played an important part for its history. In Sundiata, it stated that in Mali, every King and Prince have there own griot. The griot served to pass down the history of there past ancestors. “From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors; you will learn the art of governing Mali according to the principles which our ancestors have bequeathed to us” (Sundiata, 17). Without the griots, the history of Mali would be lost and the younger generations will not know about their ancestors or their great empires. Griots are the memory of mankinds; their words bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations (Sundiata, 1). Griots are the only person who would remember the ancestors and many great things about their people. “Griots teach kings the history of their ancestors so that the lives of the ancients might serve them as an example, for the world is old, but the future springs from the past” (Sundiata, 1).

The Sundiata is a story of the young prince Sundiata who brought together the Empire of Mali. He destroyed the great sorcerer Soumaorp Kante and followed his father footsteps as King of the Mali Empire. Under his power, the Mali Empire prospered due to the trans-Sahara trade and the great resources that were found at Mali. The Epic of Sundiata still plays an important role in West Africa today. It relives to tell the story of their past ancestors and how rich their empires were.

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