Sunjata Summary



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Sunjata Summary

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Sunjata, also known as Sundiata, is an epic poem telling the story of the Malinke people and of Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire. There is no single definitive source or version of this story, as it has its roots in an oral tradition dating from the 14th century. The poem tells of early West African traditions and first appeared in written Arabic in the late 1800s. French and German versions were published just prior to the start of the twentieth century, while West Africans began writing variations by the 1930s. Modern versions likely stem from material amassed in the 20th century in French-controlled Sudan.

Sunjata lived in the 13th century and was a leader of great Western African empire. Legend has it that the Mandinka king Maghan Kon Fatta, or Maghan the Handsome, was told by a seer that if he married an ugly woman they would have a son destined to become a powerful king. Although already married and the father of a son, Maghan was presented with an ugly woman with a hunched back. He recalled the prediction of the soothsayer and married this woman, Sogolon, with whom he had another son, Sunjata.  When Maghan died in around 1224, his first son, Dankaran Tuman ascended to the throne in defiance of his father’s call for Sunjata to become king and thus fulfill the prophecy.

Because of Sunjata’s being born unable to walk and because of his Sogolon’s ugliness, both were subject to the ridicule of the new king and of his mother. At one point, after an insult toward Sogolon, Sunjata obtained an iron rod from Nounfari the blacksmith. He attempted to use to rod to walk, but it broke. Ultimately, he found that he could only walk when using a branch from a S’ra tree. There are varying versions of the story. One has Sunjata able to walk after his father’s death, after which he becomes a successful hunter.  Dankaran eventually drives Sunjata and his mother into exile. Although many kingdoms in the region are fearful of Dankaran’s wrath and refuse to take Sunjata and Sogolon in, the Mema kingdom offers them asylum.

During his time in the Mema kingdom, Sunjata grows and is said to develop the strength of a lion. He serves under the great general Moussa Tounkara and works his way into the position of the heir to the Mema throne. However, Sogolon, wants him to return to Mali and claim his rightful throne there. Back in the Mandinka realm, Dankaran has fled after an attack by Soumaoro Kante, the cruel king of Sosso who had already captured nine kingdoms in the Ghananian empire. The people of Mandinka send for Sunjata. Sunjata declares war against Soumaoro and eventually is made king of the Mali empire. He establishes a government that would prove a successful foundation for the future. So important were his actions that Sunjata has been compared to Alexander the Great.

It was during the reign of Sunjata that Mali first became an economic and agricultural force. Much of this was a result of Sunjata’s ability to rule effectively in spite of the diversity of his subjects, who were from many tribes and spoke a variety of dialects. Various versions of the Epic of Sunjata are widely taught and circulated. Some academics point to the themes and events in the literary classic as inspirations for the 1994 Walt Disney film “The Lion King” although the Disney corporation cites Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the source material.

The historical accuracy of the Sunjata epic is open to debate, like any work of art preserved initially through oral tradition. Nonetheless, the historical significance is clear. The conflicts between kings of West Africa and the growing influence of Islam are exemplified. This story was forged in a time when cultural traditions were merging. The theme of good versus evil themes give the narrative a heroic epic quality that adds to its timelessness. The legend/history of Sunjata/Sundiata remains an indelible part of Mande culture and is perpetually retold and performed. It is part of the official national mythology of Mali, Gambia, Guinea, and Senegal.  Sunjata’s historical importance remains at the forefront of West African history.  He led his people to victory in the Battle of Kirina and established a powerful central monarchy, ruling for a quarter of a century. He built a strong economy through trade routes and gold fields.  Additionally, he allowed for freedom of religion even though he was personally a Muslim.  More than seven centuries later he remains a national hero.