The Epic of Sundiata Keita

Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali

by D. T. Niane, translated by G. D. Pickett

An epic about the founding of the Empire of Mali in circa.1230 A.D. by Sundiata Keita.

Mali was an extremely rich – culturally and monetarily – empire in West Africa. And although it’s extent is not completely equivalent to modern Mali, it did include the very literate and cultural nexus of Timbuktu (♥). It also had contact with Islam, which had come into northern Africa since at least circa 700 A.D., shown most explicitly through Mansa Musa.

Basically it’s awesome and I’ve loved it’s history since high school.

Ahem.

So, the epic was really good.

But then, I’ve discovered when I read Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Iliad that I am moderately excited by narrative combat (One Piece is a good example of this: dynamic fights, excessive odds, failures, character personality expressed through action or voice rather than internal thoughts – basically a lot of what I consider “Epic” mainstays)

But see, I really liked Sologon Djata (as he was more regularly called in the text). And, yeah, I know I usually end up liking the main men in epics (I even liked Achilles), but Djata “was taciturn and used to spend the whole day just sitting in the middle of the house. Whenever his mother went out he would crawl on all fours to rummage about in the calabashes in search of food, for he was very greedy” (15).

I’m fascinated with the question of whether he was born non-abled but learned to overcome it because of his staff or if, since he had such a great destiny to form the Empire of Mali, it took him longer to reach the expected stage most children had reached by seven. Because, as the text says, his roots were so deep, it took him longer to grow up.

And then when he does finally decide to stand up and walk (at age seven, I might add), he does it to relieve his mother’s ridicule. Oh, and to make her happy.

“Cheer up, Mother, cheer up.”“No. It’s too much. I can’t.”

“Very well then, I am going to walk today” (19).

So he’s a playful gourmand who wants to right wrongs, especially cruel ones. And he’s nice. Of course, he’s also a good hunter and isn’t fazed by anything. Apparently his unflinching command means he’ll be a good king.

Yeah, I love him.

Speaking of her, I loved his mother, Sologon Kedjou, if only because she was constantly praised as exemplary and a source of empathy despite being a hunchback and conventionally ugly. So that was nice.

I also loved his sisters a whole lot.

In particular, I really liked Kolonkon, Djata’s full sister, who, “without caring about the scandal of the viceroy’s sister being seen running across the market-place, had knotted her long dress about her middle and was running at full speed towards the royal enclosure” (44). (she’s just met a woman selling foods from her homeland). She’s just so lively. Plus, she’s a sorceress and looks out after her older brother.

Also I was way beyond pleased when his half-sister, Nana Triban, was the one to discover Soumaoro Kanté’s secret weakness. So yay! for his sisters.

And speaking of the sorcerer king Djata (and the other armies) fought – whoa, Soumaoro Kanté sacred me. like a lot. I know Ravana’s supposed to be menacing and a threat to the world because he’s a tyrant, but he’s got nothing on Soumaoro Kanté. Case in point: “The walls of [his secret] chamber were tapestried with human skins” (39) and “he cut his footwear from human skin” (41).

Additionally, “[h]is 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” (41).

Basically, there’s nothing redeeming about him. Ravana at least got his power and strength because he was a devout believer. Soumaoro Kanté literally just terrorizes everyone.

There was also the oral tradition underpinning the entire epic which was lovely and different from what I usually read. In particular, the text is actually a transcription of a griot telling the epic.

Overall, I loved it and I’m definitely planning on re-reading it again. Not only did I enjoy it, it’s short, too. Also, it’s given me some new information to start researching. Yay! for epics! ♥

Works Cited:

Niane, T.D. Sundiata: an epic of old Mali. Trans. G. D. Pickett. Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 2006, Print (revised edition)

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