The Epic of Sundiata:Using African Literature in the Classroom

 

Margaret Lo Piccolo Sullivan

Introducing high school students to an “out of culture experience” can be difficult. But, as the world history curriculum broadens from its European focus to a more global one, teachers need to find ways to move beyond a “names, dates, and places” approach to non-European studies. One way of doing this is to introduce students to non-European literature. Finding a good story, as well as a historically useful one, can provoke student interest. The Epic of Sundiata is such a tale.1

 

The Grassland Empires of the Sudan

The Epic of Sundiata chronicles the rise of the Empire of Mali, one of three great Sudanic empires2 that dominated the grasslands of northwestern Africa for over a thousand years. The earliest, the Empire of Ghana, rose between the head waters of the Senegal and Niger Rivers as early as 400 A.D., as the Soninke people expanded their domination westward toward the Atlantic and northward into the fringes of the Sahara Desert. The demise of Ghana came when a nomadic Berber people of the Sahara—the Sanhaja—converted to Islam, became united militarily, and sacked its capital city in 1076. The Sanhaja, better known in European history as the Almoravids, also extended their power northward into Spain.

The Sanhaja were better conquerors than rulers, and quarrels among the Almoravid rulers allowed many small kingdoms to reassert their independence. One of these kingdoms was Mali, which had been ruled by the Keita Dynasty for three hundred years. For a time, Mali came under the control of the Soso (Sosso, Susu) Kingdom. When a prince of the Keita Dynasty, Sundiata, destroyed the armies of the Soso Kingdom at the Battle of Krina in 1234, he established the supremacy of Mali in the region. The struggle of Sundiata Keita to save his people and found a formidable Malinke empire is the subject of the The Epic of Sundiata.

Mali dominated the grasslands from the Atlantic to the great bend in the Niger River, and from the Sahara to the tropical rain forests along the Gulf of Guinea. It reached the height of its power under Mansa (Emperor) Kankan Musa (1312 to 1335), known for his elaborate pilgrimage to Mecca. After 1400, Mali began a slow decline as Songhay—a small kingdom near the great Niger bend—began its rise to power.

Songhay, which was ruled by Mali from 1335 until 1375, was the last of the great Sudanic empires to rule the broad grasslands. For almost a century, Songhay battled the declining Mali before destroying its armies in 1546 and achieving primacy in the area. But already, a change in international trade was undermining the wealth of Songhay. While the people of the western grasslands were primarily millet farmers, the wealth of the great empires rested upon control of the trans-Saharan trade. In this trade, rulers and merchants obtained gold from the south to exchange with the Berbers, who carried it by camel caravan across the great desert and returned with salt and luxury goods.

When the Portuguese began exploring and trading along the coast of western Africa, the gold-producing regions to the south had a more direct market with the outside world. Trade flowed south to the Portuguese and other Europeans who followed them, rather than north through the grassland empires. The final blow for Songhay came when the ruler of Morocco sent an army south in 1591 to destroy what remained of the empire.

Although the empires of the grasslands came and went, they all shared a common culture. Most people followed Traditional African Religion, even after Islam was introduced by traders and the Sanhaja invasions, and gradually became the religion of the merchant and ruling classes. In Mali, the first known Keita ruler, Barmandana, reportedly accepted Islam in 1050 after being told that acceptance of Allah would end a severe drought. While Islamic religious beliefs and practices appear more marginal to the rulers of Mali, the rulers of Songhay became increasingly and traditionally Muslim.

Political practices were another common cultural trait among the people of the grasslands. Rooted in Traditional African Religion, kings were a link between their people and the higher power of the spirit world. As such, the ruler had to be morally correct, or his people would lose favor with the benevolent spirits. Kings were, therefore, chosen by a royal council from among the male members of the ruling dynasty.

Each empire being the result of conquest, defeated regions took the form of vassal states, in which one member of the native dynasty swore allegiance to the emperor, followed his decrees, and sent him taxes, tribute, and soldiers on a regular basis. While theoretically each king or emperor had unlimited power, in reality this was checked by the de facto power of the bureaucracy, the nobility, the army, and the laws of the kingdom.

 

The Epic of Sundiata

Originally handed down through the generations orally, The Epic of Sundiata is the story of Sundiata Keita and the building of the Empire of Mali in the thirteenth century. Based on history, the epic was undoubtedly embellished to forge a dramatic entity. It begins with a prophecy made to Maghan Kon Fatta, the ruler of the small state of Mali. While Naré Maghan and his courtiers are sitting in his courtyard one day, hunters appear from a foreign land. They tell Maghan Kon Fatta that he will have a glorious son, but only after he marries an ugly woman.

Several years pass before a second set of hunters arrives to tell Maghan Kon Fatta an even stranger tale. Aided by a magical old woman, they have killed a buffalo that was scourging the neighboring land of Do. The old woman made them promise that, when offered any maiden in the kingdom as their prize, they would choose the ugliest. They chose Sogolon Kedjou, a hunchback with enormous eyes, but now do not know what to do with her. So they present her to Maghan Kon Fatta.

Maghan Kon Fatta already has a beautiful wife, Sassouma Bérété, and a healthy young son, Dankaran Touman. But, remembering the prophecy, he takes Sogolon Kedjou as his second wife. When Sogolon becomes pregnant, Maghan Kon Fatta awaits the great son who will succeed him. But young Sundiata, whose head is too large for his body, is lame and crawls around his mother’s hut eating voraciously. People laugh and stare—especially Sassouma Bérété, who wants her own son to become King of Mali. Thinking that the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled, Maghan Kon Fatta impregnates Sogolon Kedjou again, but this time she bears him a daughter.

Although disappointed in Sundiata, an aging Maghan Kon Fatta appoints his lame son as his heir. But after his death, the royal council of Mali overrules Naré Maghan’s request and names Dankaran Touman as ruler, with Sassouma Bérété to act as Queen Regent for the under-aged prince. She uses this power to continually humiliate both Sogolon Kedjou and Sundiata.

One day, after Sassouma cruelly berates Sogolon Kedjou because her lame son can not fetch some leaves of the baobab tree, the angry Sogolon strikes her son. Spurred into action by his mother’s despair, Sundiata sends for magical iron rods that have been waiting for just this occasion. Lifting himself and walking for the first time, he plucks an entire baobab tree from the earth and brings it to his mother. Now Sassouma Bérété, who sees Sundiata’s growing strength and popularity as a threat to her own son, plots against him.

When Sassouma tries to get the nine witches of Mali to destroy Sundiata, Sogolon Kedjou decides it is time to leave Mali. In exile, Sundiata serves other kings. In the Kingdom of Mema, he rises to become the adopted son and heir-apparent to the ruler. But while things are going well for Sundiata, the growing power of Soumaoro Kanté—the evil King of the Sossos—overwhelms Mali. He makes the weak Dankaran Touman his vassal, oppresses the people, and takes hostage Balla Fasséké (Sundiata’s griot, or tutor and advisor) and his half-sister, Nana Triban.

Mali now turns to Sundiata for deliverance. Leading troops out of Mema, Sundiata is quickly joined by his old playmates, now the chieftains of Mali. The struggle for Mali takes place on two levels, the spiritual and the military. The former will be discussed later; the latter culminates in the Battle of Krina, where Sundiata defeats Soumaoro decisively.

The epic closes with a gathering of kings near the town of Ka-ba. Here, king after king pays homage to Sundiata as the Empire of Mali is formed. In the glorious celebration that follows, all look to Sundiata to establish a period of peace, justice, and prosperity on the broad grasslands of northwestern Africa. The hero has overcome personal and public adversity to fulfill the prophecy made by the original hunters who visited the court of Maghan Kon Fatta.

 

The Meaning of Sundiata

The Epic of Sundiata points up the complexities of the thirteenth century Sudan. Scholar Nehemia Levtzion calls it pivotal in the historical traditions of the Malinke.3 It delineates the time when many small states were struggling to fill the power vacuum left by the fall of Ghana. It also marks the point at which Islam, which had slowly been spreading along the trans-Saharan trade routes, gained a firmer foothold in the region as a result of the jihad (“holy” war) of the Sanhajas. Thus, the epic records a time of both political turmoil and religious change.

The introduction of Islam into the Sudan brought a competing ideology and infrastructure into an already existing civilization. As merchant communities became Islamic, their members followed Koranic law and settled their disputes in Koranic courts sanctioned by the ruler. Rulers themselves saw the advantages of employing Muslims as literate administrators whose loyalties superseded traditional lineages. The acceptance of Islam also placed the Sudanic kingdoms and empires within the network of Islamic nations and trade patterns.

Yet this new religious ideology did not replace the old. Sudanic culture rested not only on old loyalties to lineage, but on a traditional religion that continued to attract the majority of the people. Kingship depended upon spiritual power that came from the performance of ritual duties as well as on descent from the founding ancestors. Thus, to maintain his role in traditional Sudanic society, the ruler could not abandon the old ways.

 

Competing Ideologies: Islam and the
Traditional African Religion

The Epic of Sundiata can be used on the secondary level to illustrate how two ideologies can exist simultaneously and exact competing loyalties from the same people. The epic suggests the dominance of Traditional African Religion in thirteenth century Mali, but at the same time indicates the importance of Islam in this changing society. In the dualism that existed, rulers had to walk a thin line between the two systems, in order to command the loyalties of both the Muslim merchant elites and the religiously traditional masses. The epic reveals how an astute ruler like Sundiata could use both Islam and the traditional religion as political tools, taking out the right tool at the right time for maximum effect.

Since The Epic of Sundiata is the story of both the great hero of the Malinke people and the founding of the Empire of Mali, it appeals to the particularized Malinke spirit, or in more modern terms, nationalism. However, even in this context, Islam was used to link Mali and its ruler to the international Muslim community and to provide it with a new unifying factor where old loyalties did not suffice.

The first link with the larger Islamic world that appears in the epic involves the common practice of finding Muslim antecedents for Sudanic dynasties. At the beginning of the epic, the Keita Clan claims Bilali Bounama, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, as its founding ancestor. Scholars note, however, that unlike certain other Sudanic ruling families, the Keitas named as their ancestor a black African rather than a person of Arabic descent. The work also makes numerous references to “jinn,”4 using the Islamic word for spiritual beings to refer to what are obviously traditional African spirits.5

Despite the claim that the Keitas had been Muslims for several generations, the epic does not suggest that Sundiata has a Muslim education. He learns the rules of Malinke conduct from his griot, Balla Fasséké, and the history of his family from his mother, Sogolon Kedjou.6

His long exile is also part of his education, and perhaps the root of his Islamic beliefs and practices; according to the poem, Sundiata learns of his ancestor Bilali Bounama from merchants in Ghana.7 However, only once in the poem does Sundiata engage in Muslim ritual. This occurs after he rises to the office of Viceroy and heir-apparent in the Muslim kingdom of Mema, and turns to the east to pray as his mother is dying.8 Sundiata first dons Muslim dress when leading Muslim troops out of Mema to reclaim his kingdom of Mali.9

 

Links to Traditional Africa

The links to traditional Africa in The Epic of Sundiata are much stronger than the scattered references to Islam. While Sundiata is theoretically the descendant of Bilali Bounama, he is also the seventeenth in the Keita line to rule over Mali. The epic makes special reference to Mamadi-Kani, the great hunter king who, according to scholars, used the strength of hunting clans to solidify the power of the Keita. Moreover, the connection between Keita royalty and hunting is apparent throughout the work.

It is hunters who foretell Sundiata’s greatness and bring his mother, Sogolon, to Mali. Sundiata is often referred to as Simbon, or “great hunter,”10 and on occasions when he wants to stress Malinke nationalism (such as at the Battle of Krina), he dresses as the traditional hunter-king.11 The epic makes constant reference to his parents’ lineages and their respective totems, calling Sundiata the “lion child” and the “buffalo child.” Finally, Sundiata follows the traditional African religious practice of offering animal sacrifices to “jinn.” In thanksgiving for his victory at Krina, he sacrifices at the sacred stone of Boudofou and drinks from a sacred pool that causes him to radiate “like a star.”12

Still other traditional African religious elements play significant roles in the story.13 The significance of prophecy is obvious in Sundiata’s birth and is reinforced throughout his crippled childhood—linking the hero with an African sense of destiny. As the epic states, “God has mysteries which none can fathom...Each man finds his way marked out for him and he can change nothing of it.”14 In effect, once Sundiata’s greatness has been foretold, nothing can deter him.

The traditional African concept of right action also stands out in the tale. Correct action brings rewards, while incorrect—or evi#151;action reaps ruination. At the beginning of the poem, the hunters who bring Sogolon Kedjou to Mali give an old woman food. As a result, she reveals the secrets of the marauding Buffalo of Do, enabling them to kill the buffalo and bring their reward to Mali. God gives strength to Sundiata because his mother is a good wife to Maghan Kon Fatta, and “the child is worth no more than the mother is worth.”15 When Sassouma Bérété appeals to the nine witches of Mali to destroy Sundiata, they answer that he cannot be harmed unless he commits some evil action, and then become his protectors when he treats them kindly. As their leader says, “Life hangs by nothing but a very fine thread, but all is interwoven here below. Life has a cause, and death as well. The one comes from the other.”16

Although at one point the epic casts the struggle between Soumaoro Kanté and Sundiata as involving “the bulwark of fetishism against the word of Allah,”17 traditional African magic permeates the work. Soumaoro Kanté is evil because he is an evil sorcerer. His tower is filled with magical symbols—snakes, owls, skulls, and musical instruments—
that suggest negative power. When Soumaoro disappears just as Sundiata is about to swoop down on him at the Battle of Negueboria, Sundiata recognizes that “to beat the King of Sosso, other weapons are necessary” and asks, “What is the mystery of his power?”18 In essence, however, the struggle between Sundiata and Soumaoro is a struggle between two great magicians, one connected with evil, and the other with good, forces in the spirit world. Sundiata’s magic also comes from his mother, “the buffalo woman, before whom powerless sorcerers shrank in fear.”19

At the gathering of his vassal kings at Ka-ba, the victorious Sundiata wears Muslim garb that indicates a new unity transcending the traditional family loyalties of the grasslands. Yet he acts in the traditional manner: he speaks only though his griot, Balla Fasséké; the constitution he sets down is traditionally Sudanic; and the society he reaffirms at Ka-ba is that of old Ghana.20 The dilemma that Sundiata faces in uniting competing ideologies and structures does not end with this great hero. Even after the reign of Mansa Kankan Musa and the coming of the Empire of Songhay, the question of the dual religious loyalties of rulers remained.21 v

 

Notes

1. This paper was written at a summer institute at the University of Arkansas at Monticello conducted by Professors John Short and Richard Corby and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Professor Stephen Harmon of the University of Kansas at Pittsburg directed the paper.

2. It is important to note that the Sudanic empires discussed in this article ruled over a region different from the territory of the modern state of Sudan.

3. Nehemia Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali (New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1980), 58.

4. Jinn are spirits who exist somewhere between angels and men in creation. They have the ability to assume human form, can engage in good or evil acts, and can be saved or damned. See John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 27. A short summary of the religions of Africa, useful for both teachers and students, is published by the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. See C. C. Steward and Donald Crummey, Religions in Africa (Champaign, IL: Center for African Studies, 1984).

5. D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Hong Kong: Longman African Classics, 1992), 2, 62, and footnote 4 on 85. I have used this translation of the poem because it is readily available and easy to understand. I would recommend that teachers use parts of the poem, particularly the portions on Sogolon’s coming to Mali, Sundiata’s childhood, and the struggle with Soumaro, rather than trying to maintain student interest throughout the work.

6. Niane, Sundiata, 23, 32-35. Roland Oliver and J.D. Fate, A Short History of Africa (New York: Viking Penguin, 1988), 70, suggest that Sundiata began life as a pagan.

7. Niane, Sundiata, 48.

8. Ibid., 46.

9. Ibid., 48.

10. Ibid., 2-9, 63.

11. Ibid., 63.

12. Ibid., 6, 56, 70, 72.

13. For a fuller treatment of Traditional African Religion, see John S. Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press, 1990).

14. Niane, Sundiata, 6-7, 16-17.

15. Ibid., 22.

16. Ibid., 14, 18, 22, 24.

17. Ibid., 41.

18. Ibid., 38-40, 52-53.

19. Ibid., 63.

20. Ibid., 73-78; Levtzion, 73-78.

21. See, for example, D. T. Niane, “Mali and the Second Mandingo Expansion,” in D.T. Niane, ed., General History of Africa, Vol. V (Berkeley, CA: REF,1984), 66.

 

References

Clarke, Peter B. West Africa and Islam. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1982.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Oliver, Roland. The African Experience. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

 

Margaret Sullivan is teacher and social
studies department chairperson at Parkway Central High School, Chesterfield, Missouri.

 

Teaching Activities

 

The Epic of Sundiata is more than a good story. It can bring any number of subjects into the classroom. The continual workings of prophecy and spiritual forces can illustrate Traditional African Religion. Its descriptive battles can lead to discussions of warfare south of the Sahara. The epic’s strong-willed women can provide insights into the role of women in traditional African society. And, the whole epic can lead to an understanding of Sudanic kingship and empire building.

One good focus is the comparison between Islam and Traditional African Religion. Begin with a discussion of the beliefs and practices of each religion. Then divide the class into groups to research and report on the significance of such things as Muslim vs. traditional dress, Islamic prayers vs. animal sacrifices to the “jinn,” and various fetishes and symbols in the epic. After some background research, groups may well draw some conclusions about Sundiata’s use of both Traditional African Religion and Islam to achieve and maintain power.

 

This group work could lead to more general discussions and poster models of Sudanic government. Some questions to consider might be:

> What groups or individuals held power in these societies?

> What were their sources of power?

> How was society organized?

> What dualisms besides the religious one existed?

Students could illustrate their poster board models of Sudanic government with various artistic works and appropriate African symbols. The same techniques can be applied to other areas of content derived from the poem.

Another lesson could involve a comparison of the competing ideologies found in the Epic of Sundiata with current history. The teacher might pose questions about competing interest groups involved in some conflict over public policy in the United States today. For example, What competing ideologies are involved in the conflict? How do politicians try to compromise between the interests of these groups? What factors are most important in their success or failure to reach a compromise? Questions involving personal conflicts and competing loyalties may be particularly likely to generate interest in multi-religious and multi-ethnic classrooms.