Abstract and Keywords

Beginning in the ninth century, the sahel and savannah regions of West Africa were beginning to experience a new period of prosperity and creativity that gave birth to the rise of three successive empires: Ghana (800–1070), Mali (1000–1350), and Songhay (1300–1520). Historians typically attribute the rise of these large, cosmopolitan states to the thriving trans-Saharan caravan trade in salt and gold. Prosperous market towns, such as the legendary Timbuktu, grew up on the edge of the desert to facilitate the exchange of these and other goods, and local leaders taxed the trade in exchange for providing security, law, and order. Over time, the wealth derived from commercial taxes allowed leaders to enlarge their armies, to purchase horses from North Africa to form cavalry, and to launch a series of successful conquests that created huge, tribute-paying empires. Although some leaders converted to Islam to improve their trading relations with Arabs from the north, the majority of the population continued to adhere to their traditional, ancestral religious beliefs. The wealth and prosperity of these kingdoms became well known in the Arab world, and much of our knowledge about the history of the region comes from numerous travelers’ accounts of the region.

Another kind of historical source for this region is African oral histories, which have been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. The task of remembering and recounting oral traditions in West Africa is entrusted to griots, who have also served for centuries as the musicians, historians, and trusted advisors and counselors to kings. In a culture that lacked the tradition of literacy, griots served a crucial function as the official “memory” of the past. One of the most famous of these griot-related histories is the epic of Sundiata, the founder of the empire of Mali around the eleventh century. The account that follows was memorized and passed on by generations of griots.

According to the oral history, Sundiata was destined to rise to greatness, but he first had to overcome a long list of personal challenges and adversity, including a self-imposed exile from his home. In his absence, Mali fell under the rule of the evil King Soumaoro, a cruel and despotic leader who resorted to black magic to maintain his power and oppression. When news of Soumaoro’s vicious rule reached Sundiata, he returned to Mali to claim his title and to fulfill his destiny. After a prolonged series of military campaigns, Sundiata’s forces defeated Soumaoro, and a new reign of justice, peace, and prosperity was restored to Mali.

Clearly, the tale of Sundiata told in the oral history departs from what most westerners would consider “true history.” The inclusion of magic, destiny, and superhuman feats seems to suggest that this is a tale based more on fiction than fact. Nonetheless, the tale is an important historical source for what it tells us about Malian cultural history, especially notions of leadership, virtue, and the purpose of remembered history.

D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Essex, UK: Addison Wesley Longman Limited (Longman African Writers, 1994): 2, 5–6, 23–26, 40–42, 47–48, 61–65, 81–82, 84.


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 of a hundred vanquished kings. . . .

I am going to tell you of Sundiata, he whose exploits will astonish men for a long time yet. He was great among kings, he was peerless among men; he was beloved of God because he was the last of the great conquerors. . . .

[The tale begins with the visit of a fortune-teller to the palace of King Maghan Kon Fetta, announcing the prophecy of the birth of a great leader.]

The soothsayer [fortune-teller] returned to his cowries.i He shook them in his palm with a skilled hand and then threw them out.

“King of Mali, destiny marches with great strides, Mali is about to emerge from the night. Nianiii is lighting up, but what is this light that comes from the east?” “Hunter,” said Gnankouman Doua [the King’s griot], “your words are obscure. Make your speech comprehensible to us, speak in the clear language of your savanna.”

“I am coming to that now, griot. Listen to my message. Listen, sire. You have ruled over the kingdom which your ancestors bequeathed to you and you have no other ambition but to pass on this realm, intact if not increased, to your descendants; but, fine king, your successor is not yet born. I see two hunters coming to your city; they have come from afar and a woman accompanies them. Oh, that woman! She is ugly, she is hideous, she bears on her back a disfiguring hump. Her monstrous eyes seem to have been merely laid on her face, but, mystery of mysteries, this is the woman you must marry, sire, for she will be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal forever. The child will be the seventh star, the seventh conqueror of the earth. He will be more mighty than Alexander. But, oh king, for destiny to lead this woman to you a sacrifice is necessary; you must offer up a red bull, for the bull is powerful. When its blood soaks into the ground nothing more will hinder the arrival of your wife. There, I have said what I had to say, but everything is in the hands of the Almighty. . . .”

[The king follows the fortune-teller’s advice and took an ugly common woman named Sogolon as his junior wife. Soon, a son named Sundiata was born. Initially ridiculed and scorned because he could neither walk nor talk, the young Sundiata triumphed over these adversities and won favor with his townspeople.]

Sogolon’s son was now ten. . . . [Sundiata] was a lad full of strength; his arms had the strength of ten and his biceps inspired fear in his companions. He had already that authoritative way of speaking which belongs to those who are destined to command. . . .

But Sundiata’s popularity was so great that the queen motheriii became apprehensive for her son’s throne. Dankaran Touman [the son and heir-apparent] was the most retiring of men. At the age of eighteen he was still under the influence of his mother and a handful of old schemers. The queen mother wanted to put an end to Sundiata’s popularity by killing him and it was thus that one night she received the nine great witches of Mali. They were all old women. The eldest, and the most dangerous too, was called Soumosso Konkomba. When the nine old hags had seated themselves in a semi-circle around her bed the queen mother said:

“You who rule supreme at night, nocturnal powers, oh you who hold the secret of life, you who can put an end to one life, can you help me?”

“The night is potent,” said Soumosso Konkomba. “Oh queen, tell us what is to be done, on whom must we turn the fatal blade?”

“I want to kill Sundiata,” said Sassouma [the queen mother]. “His destiny runs counter to my son’s and he must be killed while there is still time. If you succeed, I promise you the finest rewards. . . .”

“Mother of the king,” rejoined Soumosso Konkomba, “. . . [Sundiata] has done us no wrong. It is, then, difficult for us to compass his death.”

“. . . Tomorrow go to Sogolon’s vegetable patch and make a show of picking a few gnougouiv leaves,” [replied the Queen]. “Sundiata stands guard there and you will see how vicious the boy is. He won’t have any respect for your age, he’ll give you a good thrashing.”. . .

[The next day], Sundiata and his companions came back late to the village [from hunting], but first he wanted to take a look at his mother’s vegetable patch as was his custom. It was dusk. There he found the nine witches stealing gnougou leaves. They made a show of running away like thieves caught red-handed.

“Stop, stop, poor old women,” said Sundiata, “what is the matter with you to run away like this. This garden belongs to all.”

Straight away his companions and he filled the gourds of the old hags with leaves, aubergines and onions.

“Each time that you run short of condiments come to stock up here without fear.” “You disarm us,” said one of the old crones, and another added, “And you confound us with your bounty.”

“Listen, Sundiata,” said Soumosso Konkomba, “we had come here to test you. We have no need of condiments but your generosity disarms us. We were sent here by the queen mother to provoke you and draw the anger of the nocturnal powers upon you. But nothing can be done against a heart full of kindness. . . . Forgive us, son of Sogolon.”

“I bear you no ill-will,” said Djata. “Here, I am returning from the hunt with my companions and we have killed ten elephants, so I will give you an elephant each and there you have some meat!”

“Thank you, son of Sogolon.” “Thank you, child of Justice.” “Henceforth,” concluded Soumosso Konkomba, we will watch over you.” And the nine witches disappeared into the night. . . .

[But when Sundiata learns that the Queen is hatching new schemes to hurt his family, he attempts to mollify her anger by choosing self-imposed exile. For several years, he wanders the countryside, learning the skills of the warrior in the service of other leaders.]

We are now coming to the great moments in the life of Sundiata. The exile will end and another sun will arise. It is the sun of Sundiata. Griots know the history of kings and kingdoms and that is why they are the best counselors of kings. Every king wants to have a singer to perpetuate his memory, for it is the griot who rescues the memories of kings from oblivion, as men have short memories. . . .

At the time when Sundiata was preparing to assert his claim over the kingdom of his fathers, Soumaoro was the king of kings, the most powerful king in all the lands of the setting sun. The fortified town of Sosso was the bulwark of fetishism [black magic] against the word of Allah. For a long time Soumaoro defied the whole world. Since his accession to the throne of Sosso he had defeated nine kings whose heads served him as fetishes [charms] in his macabre chamber. Their skins served as seats and he cut his footwear from human skin. Soumaoro was not like other men, for the jinn [spirits] had revealed themselves to him and his power was beyond measure. So his countless sofas [regiments] were very brave since they believed their king to be invincible. But Soumaoro was an evil demon and his reign had produced nothing but bloodshed. Nothing was taboo for him. His greatest pleasure was publicly to flog venerable old men. He had defiled every family and everywhere in his vast empire there were villages populated by girls whom he had forcibly abducted from their families without marrying them. . . .

. . . Soumaoro proclaimed himself king of Mali by right of conquest, but he was not recognized by the populace and resistance was organized in the bush. Soothsayers were consulted as to the fate of the country. The soothsayers were unanimous in saying that it would be the rightful heir to the throne who would save Mali. This heir was “The Man with Two Names.” The elders of the court of Niani then remembered the son of Sogolon. The man with two names was no other than Maghan Sundiata. . . .

[When Sundiata learns of the situation back home in Mali, he returns to claim the throne. Because of the skills and generosity he amply demonstrated while in exile, he brings with him an army of loyal soldiers.]

Every man to his own land! If it is foretold that your destiny should be fulfilled in such and such a land, men can do nothing against it. . . . Neither the jealousy of a cruel stepmother, nor her wickedness, could alter for a moment the course of great destiny. The snake, man’s enemy, is not long-lived, yet the serpent that lives hidden will surely die old. Sundiata was strong enough now to face his enemies. At the age of eighteen he had the stateliness of the lion and the strength of the buffalo. His voice carried authority, his eyes were live coals, his arm was iron, he was the husband of power.

Moussa Tounkara, king of Mema,v gave Sundiata half of his army. The most valiant came forward of their own free will to follow Sundiata in the great adventure. The cavalry of Mema, which he had fashioned himself, formed his iron squadron. Sundiata, dressed in the Muslim fashion of Mema, left the town at the head of his small but redoubtable army. The whole population sent their best wishes with him. . . . Then [his brother] said to [him], “Djata, do you think yourself able to face Soumaoro now?” “No matter how small a forest may be, you can always find there sufficient fibers to tie up a man. Numbers mean nothing; it is worth that counts. With my cavalry I shall clear myself a path to Mali. . . .”

Sundiata wanted to have done with Soumaoro before the rainy season, so he struck camp and marched on Krina where Soumaoro was encamped. The latter realized that the decisive battle had come. Sundiata deployed his men on the little hill that dominates the plain. The great battle was for the next day.

In the evening, to raise the men’s spirits, Sundiata gave a great feast, for he was anxious that his men should wake up happy in the morning. Several oxen were slaughtered and that evening Balla Fasseke [Sundiata’s griot], in front of the whole army, called to mind the history of old Mali. He praised Sundiata, seated amidst his lieutenants, in this manner:

“Now I address myself to you, Maghan Sundiata, I speak to you king of Mali, to whom dethroned monarchs flock. The time foretold to you by the jinn is now coming.

Sundiata, kingdoms and empires are in the likeness of man; like him they are born, they grow and disappear. Each sovereign embodies one moment of that life. Formerly, the kings of Ghana extended their kingdom over all the lands inhabited by the black man, but the circle has closed and the Cisses of Wagadou are nothing more than petty princes in a desolate land. Today, another kingdom looms up, powerful, the kingdom of Sosso. Humbled kings have borne their tribute to Sosso, Soumaoro’s arrogance knows no more bounds and his cruelty is equal to his ambition. But will Soumaoro dominate the world? Are we, the griots of Mali, condemned to pass on to future generations the humiliations which the king of Sosso cares to inflict on our country? No, you may be glad, children of the “Bright Country,” for the kingship of Sosso is but the growth of yesterday, whereas that of Mali dates from the time of Bilali. Each kingdom has its childhood, but Soumaoro wants to force the pace, and so Sosso will collapse under him like a horse worn out beneath its rider. “You, Maghan, you are Mali. It has had a long and difficult childhood like you. Sixteen kings have preceded you on the throne of Niani, sixteen kings have reigned with varying fortunes. . . . Sixteen generations have consolidated their power. You are the outgrowth of Mali just as the silk-cotton tree is the growth of the earth, born of deep and mighty roots. To face the tempest the tree must have long roots and gnarled branches. Maghan Sundiata, has not the tree grown? . . .

“You are the son of Nare Maghan, but you are also the son of your mother Sogolon, the buffalo-woman, before whom powerless sorcerers shrank in fear. You have the strength and majesty of the lion, you have the might of the buffalo.

“I have told you what future generations will learn about your ancestors, but what will we be able to relate to our sons so that your memory will stay alive, what will we have to teach our sons about you? What unprecedented exploits, what unheard of feats? By what distinguished actions will our sons be brought to regret not having lived in the time of Sundiata?

“Griots are men of the spoken word, and by the spoken word we give life to the gestures of kings. But words are nothing but words; power lies in deeds. Be a man of action; do not answer me any more with your mouth, but tomorrow, on the plain of Krina, show me what you would have me recount to coming generations. Tomorrow allow me to sing the “Song of the Vultures” over the bodies of the thousands of Sossos whom your sword will have laid low before evening.”

It was on the eve of Krina. In this way Balla Fasseke reminded Sundiata of the history of Mali so that, in the morning, he would show himself worthy of his ancestors. . . .

[The battle was a great victory for Sundiata and his armies, although Soumaoro cowardly escaped, alive but defeated. At the end of hostilities, Sundiata returned to his native city and received a tumultuous welcome and the sworn allegiances of leaders throughout the new empire.]

After a year Sundiata held a new assembly at Niani. . . . The Kings and notables of all the tribes came. . . . In this way, every year, Sundiata gathered about him all the kings and notables; so justice prevailed everywhere, for the kings were afraid of being denounced at Niani.

Sundiata’s justice spared nobody. He followed the very word of God. He protected the weak against the strong and people would make journeys lasting several days to come and demand justice of him. Under his sun, the upright man was rewarded and the wicked one punished.

In their new-found peace the villages knew prosperity again, for with Sundiata happiness had come into everyone’s home. Vast fields of millet, rice, cotton, indigo, and fonio surrounded the villages. Whoever worked always had something to live on. Each year long caravans carried the taxes . . . to Niani. You could go from village to village without fear of brigands. A thief would have his right hand chopped off and if he stole again he would be put to the sword. . . .

There are some kings who are powerful through their military strength. Everybody trembles before them, but when they die nothing but ill is spoken of them. Others do neither good nor ill, and when they die, they are forgotten. Others are feared because they have power, but they know how to use it, and they are loved because they love justice. Sundiata belonged to this group. He was feared, but loved as well. He was the father of Mali, and gave the world peace. After him, the world has not seen a greater conqueror, for he was the seventh and last conqueror. He had made the capital of an empire out of his father’s village, and Niani became the navel of the earth. . . .

Men of today, how small you are beside your ancestors, and small in mind too, for you have trouble grasping the meaning of my words. . . . Sundiata rests [buried] near Niani, but his spirit lives on. . . .

To acquire my knowledge I [the griot] have journeyed all round Mali. At Kita, I saw the mountain where the lake of holy water sleeps; at Segou, I learnt the history of the kings of Do and Kri. . . . Everywhere, I was able to see and understand what my masters were teaching me, but between their hands I took an oath to teach only what is to be taught, and to conceal what is to be kept concealed.



  1. 1. Fortune-tellers prophesied that Sundiata was destined for greatness, yet it is also clear that he had to earn his exalted position. What is significant about this dual mode of explanation? How does it serve to legitimate his rule? According to this tale, are great leaders born or made?

  2. 2. What are the virtues that make Sundiata a great leader? What are the vices that make his rival Soumaoro a great villain? How does each of these characters serve as a role model for the listeners to this tale?

  3. 3. What does this history tell us about the role of leaders in traditional west African society? According to this account, is it better for leaders to be loved or feared?


(i) Small white seashells found along the ocean coasts of West Africa. In some African societies, cowrie shells were used in divination practices. The shells were thrown in the air by a fortune-teller, and the pattern of their fall foretold the future.

(ii) Capital of Mali and location of the king’s palace.

(iii) The first and senior wife of King Maghan Kon Fetta. By rights of age and seniority, senior wives and their children frequently had elevated status and privilege in traditional Africa.

(iv) A green, leafy vegetable used in stews and sauces.

(v) While in exile, Sundiata won the respect and friendship of the king and served in his regiments.

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