Below is a summary of the story told by Djeli Mamadou Kouyate (ArtsEdge 1997), from the village of Djeliba Koro, Guinea, not far from the former capital of the Malian Empire (djele if the Manding word for griot). West African historian, D. T. Niane, published Djele Mamadou's version in 1995. Oral traditions are a form of history that cannot be judged by the same rules as our Western sense of history. Oral histories may unconsciously change over time, because memory is selective and fallible, or they may be consciously reinterpreted for political or other reasons. Even so, the story bears telling, as the griots of today are some of Mali's living art treasures -- and very much a part of their culture.
Nare Fa Maghan -- the son of a long lineage of distinguished hunters known for their skill, bravery and ability to communicate with spirits -- ruled over Mali beginning in 1200. Although he had adapted the Islam religion, he still believed in the world of spirits. A hunter from the north came with a prophecy that two hunters would come to the king with a very ugly woman whom he must marry, for she would bear him Mali's greatest king ever. Maghan's totem animal was the Lion.
When two hunters appeared with a hunchback woman, they explained to the king that this woman, Sogolon Kedju, was the human double for a buffalo that had ravaged the land of Do. The hunters felled the buffalo and brought the woman to Mali for she had extraordinary powers. Honoring the prophecy, Maghan married Sogolon and the soon conceived a child.
King Maghan's first wife, Sassouma, was jealous; she wanted her son, Dankaran Touman to claim the crown of Mali. Sassouma plotted to kill Sogolon, but the buffalo woman's powers were too great, and the boy was born. He was named Mari Diata, but people called him Sogolon Diata, and eventually, Sundiata.
Sassouma was relieved when the new child turned out to be lazy, gluttonous and ugly. Sundiata could not walk and rarely spoke. Still, honoring the prophecy, the dying king gave the boy the gift of a griot named Balla Fasseke, the son of his own griot, believing one day he would be king. However, when the king died, his first wife saw to it that her son, Dankaran claimed the throne. Sundiata, still on all fours was helpless.
One day, when Sogolon cried in anger from the insults she and her son had receive, Sundiata said, "Cheer up, Mother. I am going to walk today." Sundiata had a blacksmith make him a heavy iron rod. With trembling legs, he lifted himself, much to the amazement of onlookers, bending the rod into a bow in the process. His griot composed and sung, "The Hymn to the Bow," on the spot-- a hymn still a part of the musical epic of Sundiata sung by griots over eight hundred years later.
Now that Sundiata was capable of taking the throne he became a threat to the false king Dankaran and his plotting mother, Sassouma. Sundiata's mother decided to take her son into exile for safety until the time came for him to claim his crown. Before they could leave, Dankaran sent Balla Fasseke, Sundiata's griot, and Sundiata's half sister to the sorcerer king, Suomaoro Kante, of the Sosso who had been threatening all of the kingdoms with his growing army.
Sundiata came to manhood while traveling through kingdoms hundreds of miles away, learning to hunt, fight and wield proverbs of wisdom of his ancestors. One day in a far off kingdom of Mema, Sundiata discovered people selling baobob leaves in the market. He knew they had to be from Mali. The seller told him that the evil king, Suomaoro of Sosso, had conquered Mali and sent Dankaran into exile. On the eve Sundiata was to depart from Mema, his mother died.
All this time, Sundiata's griot and half-sister remained captives in Soumaoro's court. The brave griot entered the sorcerer king's secret chamber one day and found poisonous snakes writhing in urns, and owls standing over the seven heads of the nine kings Soumaoro had beaten. In the midst of this, Balla Fasseke saw the biggest balafon (a balafon is a wooden xylophone and probably the original griot instrument) which produced a magnificent sound that charmed the snakes and owls. When Soumaoro returned he was livid to find the griot in his chamber. Realizing his danger, Balla Fasseke improvised a praise song to Soumaoro so clever that he made Balla his griot, making war between Soumaoro and Sundiata inevitable.
On his way home, Sundiata gathered fighters, archers and horsemen. At Tabon, near the Malian city of Kita, Sundiata's army attacked Soumaoro's forces, sending Soumaoro's army into retreat. In the next confrontation, Sundiata and Soumaoro came face to face. Sundiata dominated, but Soumaoro was able to escape using his own magic. Sundiata felt despair.
As Sundiata's army grew, he summoned soothsayers to counsel him on harnessing supernatural powers. At their advice, he ordered the sacrifice of 100 white oxen, 100 white rams, and 100 white cocks. When the slaughter began, Sundiata's griot and half sister returned -- having escaped the city of the evil king. She told Sundiata, that she had been forced to marry Soumaoro, but in doing so, she had found out the secret of is magic. His sacred animal was the cock--this animal had the power to destroy Soumaoro. Armed with this knowledge, Sundiata made a wooden arrow attaching a white cock's spur to the tip.
Soumaoro and Sundiata came to battle again in Kirina. The two men observed the ritual of declaring war by sending an owl into each other's encampment, delivering messages of bravado. Having declared their intentions, the war began. During the battle, Sundiata aimed his special arrow and fired, the cock's spur grazing the shoulder of Soumaoro, and all was lost for the Sosso king. When Sundiata reached Soumaoro's city and opened his secret chamber, the snakes and owls were nearly dead.
Victorious Sundiata invited all the leaders from the twelve kingdoms of the savanna who helped him to come to Kaba, a city in old Mali. There, he told them they could keep their kingdoms, but would join in a great empire. ("Mali: Africa's..." 1996-97)
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