Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
The Epic of Sundiata Explained
The Epic of Sundiata describes the life journey of Sundiata and his quest to become ruler of the Mali Empire. During his epic journey, Sundiata (also known as the “Lion Child”) is forced into exile from his father’s kingdom by his half-brother Dankaran Touman and evil step-mother Sassouma Berete.
Fully embracing his destiny to one day rule over the Mali Empire, Sundiata embarks on a quest to stockpile occult power and forge an alliance system based upon familial and extra-familial social networks. In doing so, Sundiata establishes a base of power and support, which he uses to eliminate his former enemies.
By maintaining “a sense of honour, a concern for justice and the dignity of life,” as well as ideals of charity and generosity, Sundiata forges an alliance system that ultimately allows him to take control of Mali (Losambe, 13).
Tabon and Ghana: Forging an Alliance
Soon after being sent into exile (along with his immediate family), Sundiata begins to explore ways to form a social network of alliances. His first step at forging an alliance system involves the town of Tabon, whose “king had been for a long time an ally of the Niani court” (Tamsir, 31). While Sundiata and his family were greatly welcomed at Tabon, they could not stay long due to the king’s wish to not fall in bad favor with Sundiata’s half-brother Dankaran Touman (who ruled over Niani).
As a means of divine will, however, Sundiata comes across his old childhood companion before his departure, Fran Kamara (the son of the Tabon king). Using the encounter to his advantage, Sundiata promises to return to Tabon upon his return to Mali. Sundiata proclaims to his friend: “I will pass through Tabon to pick you up and we will go to Mali together” (Tamsir, 31–32). Realizing the power that Fran Kamara would soon be in possession of once he ascended to the throne in Tabon, Sundiata tells his friend: “I will make you a great general, we will travel through many countries and emerge the strongest of all” (Tamsir, 32).
Sundiata’s decision to gain the favor of his childhood friend is an ingenious move due to the military strength Tabon possessed with its numerous blacksmiths and Djallonkes. However, it could also be argued that Sundiata acted too quickly in his decision to make Fran Kamara a general for his future army. Without battlefield experience, his friend could have, potentially, proved to be ineffective as a military leader. Nevertheless, with the incorporation of Tabon into his alliance system Sundiata’s power, in turn, begins to grow extensively.
Respecting the advice given by the king of Tabon, Sundiata and his family make their way to the kingdom of Ghana. As in the case of Tabon, Sundiata is able to similarly incorporate the aid of Ghana. The city of Wagadou, ruled by the Cisses, had long been an important ally of Sundiata’s father, Maghan Kon Fatta. In their encounter with the king, Sogolon, Sundiata’s mother, recounts to the ruler of Ghana how her late husband (a few years prior to their arrival) had “sent a good-will embassy to Ghana” (Tamsir, 33).
The king of Ghana accepts the exiles wholeheartedly and proclaims “the friendship which unites Mali and Ghana goes back to a very distant age…the people of Mali are our cousins” (Tamsir, 34). Using the god-given occult powers in his possession, Sundiata is able to quickly gain the favor of the Ghana king. Seemingly knowing the destiny that lies before the young Sundiata, the Ghana king proclaims: “there’s one that will make a great king” (Tamsir, 34). Sundiata quickly takes full advantage of the king’s favor, and within a year’s time, he and his family find themselves “showered” with attention (Tamsir, 34). Completely “ignorant of humility,” however, Sundiata soon becomes exacting and causes the servants to tremble before him (Tamsir, 34).
The “trembling” that is mentioned, however, was not something built around fear but rather deep respect that Sundiata commands with his resilient personality. In turn, Sundiata’s ability to command greatly impresses the king of Ghana, therefore, supplying the “Lion of Mali” with an additional ally in his quest to forge a powerful alliance system. In addition, his dominant personality demonstrates to the people of Wagadou his natural ability to command. As the king of Ghana proclaims: “If he has a kingdom one day everything will obey him because he knows how to command” (Tamsir, 34).
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Due to illness on behalf of his mother, Sogolon, the family is forced to eventually leave the city of Wagadou. Acting upon the recommendation of the Ghana king, Sundiata and his family are sent to Mema, the court of Tounkara (cousin to the Cisse ruler). Once again Sundiata uses this venture as a means of adding to his growing alliances. For the first time, Sundiata is given an opportunity to establish friendly ties with an extra-familial force. As in the other kingdoms, he quickly establishes good relations with the people of Mema.
Sundiata, along with his brother Manding Bory, takes up hunting along with “the young vassals of Mema” helping to establish friends amongst Mema’s nobility (Tamsir, 36). With the great respect addressed towards the “Lion of Mali” by the king of Ghana, Sundiata gains another formidable ally with Moussa Tounkara, the cousin of Soumaba (Ghana King). In a statement to Sundiata, Tounkara proclaims: “my cousin Soumaba recommends you and that is enough…you are at home…stay here as long as you wish” (Tamsir, 36).
Tounkara is described as a great warrior who admired strength (Tamsir, 36). Because of this notion embellished by the Mema king, Sundiata is able to quickly gain his favor by joining Tounkara on a military campaign at the age of fifteen. As described:
“Sundiata astonished the whole army with his strength and with his dash in the charge. In the course of a skirmish against the mountaineers, he hurled himself on the enemy with such vehemence that the king feared for his life, but Mansa Tounkara admired bravery too much to stop the son of Sogolon. He followed him closely to protect him and he saw with rapture how the youth sowed panic among the enemy…Moussa Tounkara took the son of Sogolon in his arms and said, ‘It is destiny that has sent you to Mema. I will make a great warrior out of you’” (Tamsir, 36-37).
From this moment Sundiata became “a friend of the whole army” and one in which had gained tremendous respect from his fellow warriors (Tamsir, 37). Within three years Sundiata becomes the Viceroy of Mema and is greatly loved and feared by those who surround him. Once it becomes evident to Sundiata that it is time to fulfill his destiny, the king of Mema quickly gives Sundiata half of his army to begin his long campaign at reclaiming his throne. This is largely due to the great fear Sundiata instills within the king following his mother’s death.
Sundiata, symbolically, demands land for his mother to be buried and agrees to, in return, deal gently with the king of Mema and his family once he retakes his kingdom (Tamsir, 47). Here Sundiata demands respect, essentially, and demonstrates to the king of Mema that it is he who is now in command. While this proves to be largely successful in the long run it also, in essence, hampers the friendly ties established between Sundiata and the king. By belligerently commanding respect from Tounkara, Sundiata creates a great sense of tension between himself and the king. Nevertheless, the extra-familial ties that Sundiata establishes amongst Mema prove to be highly effective and, ultimately, provide Sundiata with his initial army to begin reconquering his kingdom.
Sundiata’s use of familial networks early on in his exile provided him with an excellent opportunity to reach other potential social networks which can be seen with his eventual ties to Mema. By establishing ties with both familial and extra-familial networks, Sundiata is able to craft a powerful alliance that eventually creates the bulk of his newfound army that he plans to use in retaking Mali from the sorcerer-king, Soumaoro Kante. While largely diverse, Sundiata is still able to use the skills of his alliance to defeat Soumaoro on numerous occasions. With each victory, Sundiata acquires newfound respect amongst nearby villages and his army quickly grows in numbers. All of this, in turn, directly resulted from Sundiata acquiring his various alliances from the onset of his exile.
“I will make you a great general, we will travel through many countries and emerge the strongest of all”
— Epic of Sundiata
Defeat of the Sorcerer King
With each victory over the sorcerer king the “Lion of Mali” also begins to further incorporate familial alliances into his army as well. Siara Kouman Konate, the cousin of Sundiata, arrives with his troops from Toron. Moreover, Faony Konde, king of the land of Do (and Sundiata’s uncle), arrives with his “sofas armed with deadly arrows” (Tamsir, 55). Several other sets of armies arrive to help support Sundiata as well: “in short, all the sons of Mali were there” (Tamsir, 55). With his tremendous army in place, Sundiata quickly defeats the sorcerer king’s army and reconquers the kingdom he was destined to command. The great Mali Empire, through the help of the alliance system established by Sundiata, is finally reclaimed.
In conclusion, Sundiata uses a variety of methods available to him throughout his early life to establish a social network based around familial and extra-familial alliances. Through his ability to make connections with former friends, family, and non-family kingdoms the “Lion of Mali” quickly establishes himself as being a strong, able-bodied leader that commands respect and is wholly capable of ruling. Through these alliances Sundiata establishes a vast and powerful army willing to give their lives to further his campaign of retaking his kingdom and fulfilling his destiny.
Losambe, Lokangaka. An introduction to the African prose narrative. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004.
Tamsir, Djibril. Sundiata: an epic of old Mali. Rev. ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman, 2006.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Larry Slawson