Sundiata is an epic novel documenting the unification of Mali. The story follows Djata, an outcast child, on his journey from mediocrity to greatness. Sundiata represents Djata’s destiny fulfilled.
Fourteenth century Africa was denied access to television, Internet, or even books for that matter. Every story, event, or battle was told through the memory of griots. Passed down through the lineage, infinite life-altering epics were spoken of. Sundiata is just one of those countless quasi-divine legends. There is something to learn from every one of these accounts, whether it be historical or ethical. Sundiata, set in pre-colonial Africa, contains moral significance that breaches all barriers. The tale of Djata is as significant to modern audiences as it was in the fourteenth century because of its attention to destiny and righteousness.
Djata’s transformation to heroic sovereign in this epic confirms the power of destiny. As a child, the son of Nare Maghan, previous king of Mali, was weak and handicapped. “At the age of three he still crawled on all fours while children of the same age were already walking” (15). Although he was destined for leadership, “malicious tongues began to blab,” (15) an initial obstacle for Djata.
In fact, Nare Maghan’s previous wife even banished Djata and his mother, Sogolon, to a back yard of the palace. It was this persecution that initiated Djata’s transformation into a strong and heroic figure. At his mother’s wishes, the boy began walking. “His first steps were those of a giant” (21). Miraculous deeds followed Djata wherever he traveled from that day on. When Sogolon requested baobab leaves, “[Djata] tore up the tree and put it on his shoulders and went back to his mother” (22). The people were powerless against destiny, and once they recognized his power, Djata developed a following.
The all-loving child accepted these disciples with open arms. One later devotee, Fran Kamara, went on to proclaim, “I pledge myself to conquer or to die by your side” (58). In almost a Christ-like fashion, Djata converted the citizens of Mali to accept righteousness. “Everyone bowed before him and he was greatly loved.
Those who did not love him feared him and his voice carried authority” (37). This was a far cry from Djata’s early days of maltreatment and exile, another Christ-like attribution. Even with the power to command, Djata respected those who trespassed against him, declaring, “this garden belongs to all,” (25) when nine witches attempted to steal gnougou leaves. “I bear you no ill-will,” (26) said Djata before offering them elephants from his hunt. This absolute altruism, and other fundamental aspects of his life, connects Djata with Jesus and Buddha, who happen to be mysteriously similar themselves.
The omniscient narration in Sundiata enables even the most classified of details to be reported, granting the reader a vividly descriptive rendition of the saga. The narrator is all knowing of the past, present, and future, but ironically is a factual person. “I am a griot. It is I, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate, son of Bintou Kouyate and Djeli Kedian Kouyate, master in the art of eloquence” (1). After this introduction, the narrator never mentions himself in context of the story. The future of Mali is already determined as this legend is being told, assuring the reader of Djata’s lasting affect. “After him many kings and many Mansas reigned over Mali and other towns sprang up and disappeared” (83).
The narrator also declares that, “Mali is eternal,” (83) and advised the reader to visit present-day Africa to see its progress. The omniscient narration also allows for metaphors to be developed concerning characters and setting. The most significant depictions are trees linked to kingdoms. “Kingdoms are like trees; some will be silk-cotton trees, others will remain dwarf palms” (5). Djata’s character is judged against the silk-cotton tree all through the epic. “Djata, like a young tree, was shooting up to the sky” (28).
This is said about the son of Nare Maghan when he begins displaying miraculous deeds throughout Mali, a foreshadowing of what is to come. “You are the outgrowth of Mali just as the silk-cotton tree is the growth of the earth, born of deep and mighty roots” (62). This reveals the gratitude shared by every citizen of the newly liberated Mali. Following the climactic battle, Djata looks across the plain of Sounkarani, “the site of the young baobab tree,” (80) a symbol of newly established order. References are also made to Djata’s animal spirit. “Listen to the story of the son of the Buffalo, the son of the Lion” (2).
Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate mentions this description because of Djata’s lineage, but the son of Nare Maghan soon shows all of Mali how deserving he is of the titles. “You have the strength and majesty of the lion, you have the might of the buffalo” (63). These are hereditary values that Djata has enhanced in his quest toward sovereignty. The lion is meant to signify his leadership qualities, while the buffalo represents his power and battle skills. One scene in the epic presents Djata and Soumaoro Kante, the Sorcerer King, exchanging daunting animal metaphors.
“I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit.”
“As for me, I am the ravenous cock, the poison does not matter to me.”
‘Behave yourself, little boy, or you will burn your foot, for I am the red-hot cinder.’
‘But me, I am the rain that extinguishes the cinder; I am the boisterous torrent that will carry you off.’
‘I am the mighty silk-cotton tree that looks from on high on the tops of other trees.’
‘And I, I am the strangling creeper that climbs to the top of the forest giant.’ (60)
The argument is a bit immature, but it shows how important metaphors are in this epic. Essentially, Djata and Soumaoro are verbally assaulting each other, creating a type of foreshadowing for their future battle. Nature metaphors are also used to describe the land and kingdoms of Mali. “The bourein, the tree of desolation, spreads out its thorny undergrowth and insolently grows in Soumaoro’s capital” (70).
This tree serves as a reminder of the evil that once ruled Mali. Following the battle between Djata and Soumaoro, “the silk-cotton trees and baobabs that you see in Mali are the only traces of extinct cities” (83). Another case of remembrance lies in, “a linke tree planted [in Ka-ba], perpetuating the memory of the great gathering which witnessed the division of the world” (78) Without these metaphors, made possible by omniscient narration, the epic might not attain its majestic feel.
The climax of Sundiata shows the protagonist’s superhuman powers in fulfilling his destiny. Although the common folk did not believe in Djata when he was a boy, everyone in Mali rejoices with him once he restores peace and righteousness in the land. The battle against Soumaoro proves to be strenuous.
“The king of Sosso and his son Balla seemed to have fresher horses” (66-67). “How can I vanquish a man capable of disappearing and reappearing where and when he likes? How can I affect a man invulnerable to iron?” (52). Any obstacle Djata could imagine is thrown at him, but he finds comfort in his destiny. “Words are nothing but words; power lies in deeds” (63). The son of Nare Maghan is prepared to battle for the liberation of his people. The conflict between Djata and Soumaoro represents the struggle against evil held by all citizens of Mali. “From the east to the west, from the north to the south, everywhere his victorious arms have established peace” (74).
Emancipating his people from the grasp of evil is symbolic of cleansing each individual soul. The people, for the most part, embrace Djata once he liberated Mali. “Sundiata did not take one prisoner at Kita and the inhabitants who were Kamaras, became his allies” (71). “From Ghana in the north to Mali in the south and from Mema in the east to the Fouta in the west, all the lands had recognized Sundiata’s authority” (72). In return, his people are granted prosperity. “Vast fields of millet, rice, cotton, indigo and fonio surrounded the villages” (81). This affluence represents the reward of righteousness, as well as the beginning of a new regime. Djata is extremely democratic during his reign. Even during the battle, Djata comments, “I have my lieutenants about me and I would like to know their opinions” (61).
It is obvious that Djata could have gone to battle alone and still prevailed, but he requests the assistance of allies. Djata’s altruism shines when he says, “Fran Kamara, my friend, I return your kingdom to you” (77). Djata could maintain control of all the land in his kingdom, but instead he distributes it among his allies.
“One by one all the kings received their kingdoms from the very hands of Sundiata” (78). Possibly the most amazing aspect of this epic is that even though others doubted, Djata never conceded his destiny. “If it is foretold that your destiny should be fulfilled in such and such a land, men can do nothing against it” (47). This was the viewpoint of fourteenth century Africans. “The silk-cotton tree emerges from a tiny seed” (16). Djata is granted such prosperity, not only in fulfilling his destiny, but also in rebuilding a civilization, because of his trust in patience.
Even though Djata knew the way in which he would unify Mali, the son of Nare Maghan never under-exerted himself. Essentially, Djata could have continued crawling on four limbs for the rest of his life, and fate would somehow happen as expected. One could argue that destiny is not literal, but rather an incentive for a person to succeed. Literal or not, destiny exists. Whether a lifeline is predetermined or a prophecy provides the motivation to accomplish a task, it can be called destiny.