The Heritage of the Griot
French title: Keita! L’heritage du griot
Burkina Faso, 1994, 94 min.; Dir. Dani Kouyate
In Jula and French, with English subtitles
Film Plot Summary:
“Keita introduces Americans, young and old, to one of the most important works of African oral literature, The Sundjata Epic. The film frames its dramatization of this legend within the story of a contemporary young African’s initiation into the history of his family. When a djeliba, a master griot or bard, arrives mysteriously at the home of Mabo Keita to teach him ‘the meaning of his name,’ boy and griot are inevitably brought into conflict with his Westernized mother and schoolteacher, who have rejected African tradition. “The griot reveals to Mabo the story of his distant ancestor, Sundjata Keita, the 13th century founder of the great Malian trading empire. It describes the events leading up to Sundjata’s birth as the son of the ugly, hunchbacked second wife of a Mande king. Sundjata is crippled at birth by his father’s first wife, who fears a prophesy that he will displace her son as king. The film tells the story of how, from these unpromising beginnings, Sundjata first walks and gradually acquires the strength, wisdom and occult powers he will need to fulfill his destiny as one of the great leaders of African legend.” (courtesy of California Newsreel, distributor)
Read a fuller critical summary of Keita (The Heritage of the Griot) & film review excerpts
Library of African Cinema, California Newsreel:
1. Opening sequence: Wagadu
Shot of Djeliba Kouyate at home in Wagadu, sleeping in his hammock.
V.O. (Voiceover narration in Jula language), as camera pans across terrain of Wagadu:
“From chaos a new world is born. The darkness and obscurity of pre-life had just been dissipated. Wagadu was the theater of the first reunion of all the creatures of the universe. [from Mande creation belief] “In those days no one commanded men. A man Maghan Kon Fatta arose and spoke to all the others: ‘The world cannot go on this way. I wish to be your king. Do you agree?’ [shot of termites?]
“They all replied together: ‘Konate’ (trans. “No one hates you.”)
“Immediately Maghan Kon Fatta took Konate for his name and proclaimed himself King of Mande.”
End of V.O. Note that “Konate” is the clan name of Sundjata and his father’s family. Maghan Kon Fatta Konate--AKA: Naré Fa Maghan—is credited with bringing barika, or law and progress, to human society. He is descended from Islamic Prophet Mohammed. His son will prove to be Sundjata Keita, who was at least nominally a Muslim. From his father’s legacy, Sundjata will draw upon the spiritual power of barakah (Islamic concept of “grace).
2. Djeliba Kouyate goes to the Town to Carry Out His Mission
Shot of Djeliba Kouyate still sleeping. [Note: “jeli” means bard or griot; “djeliba” means something like Great Griot.] Diawara approaches him and passes his whisk across Djeliba’s face. Djeliba awakes, gets up, and prepares to leave.
[Who is Diawara, who rouses Djeliba to go to the city and initiate young Mabo Keita into the secrets of his origins? Some critics surmise he is a hunter—paralleling the Hunter of Do who will mysteriously appear nearly 8 centuries earlier to Mabo’s ancestor to foretell the birth of Sundjata to the Mande court.]
Djeliba addresses a woman ("Mamon"--his wife?) before he goes—[Note that Djeliba always speaks in Jula, his native African tongue]: “Mamon, tell my friend Diawara that I am on my way.” Djeliba tells her to see Diawara if she needs anything while he is gone. Mamon asks where he is going, but Djeliba only says, “I will return…soon,” they exchange goodbyes, and he sets off walking.
Transition Sequence: Djeliba’s long journey from Wagadu to the city. Shots of Djeliba walking, boarding a boat on the Niger River and being rowed away, walking beside a modern highway as a bus passes him. His arrival in the city is signaled by a traffic scene of cars and bikes and a jostling marketplace.
3. The Keitas’ Home in the City
A young boy, Mabo Keita, sits reading aloud from a school book in French:
Mabo reads: “Our ancestors looked like gorillas, their intelligence was not developed. Nowadays man have evolved to become homo sapiens, which is more intelligent.”
The reading lesson is interrupted; cut to: Djeliba Kouyate arrives and comes into the gate of the Keita family compound. [From an African-centered point of view, Mabo is here studying the “Western scientific creation myth,” Darwin’s theory of evolution and a universe ruled by chance and the “survival of the fittest.” In contrast the Mande creation story of Wagadu asserts the belief that human history is suffused with purpose and every person has a particular destiny within it. The film thus juxtaposes and contrasts the Djeliba’s teachings with the Eurocentric teachings of Mabo’s Westernized education.]
Djeliba greets Mabo in Jula.
Mabo asks, “Do you know me?”
Djeliba replies, “Of course.”
Djeliba asks Mabo to tell his parents that he is there, but they are still sleeping so he doesn’t interrupt them. Djeliba strings up his hammock to a shade tree in the compound, telling Mabo that he is from Wagadu. Mabo says that he has never heard of it. Djeliba replies that he is “not surprised.”
Djeliba explains that Wagadu “is where the world began,” the place where “one day your ancestor rose up to command men.”
Mabo is surprised: “My ancestor? What ancestor?”
Djeliba: “What ancestor!” a bit indignant at Mabo’s ignorance of his own family history, “Your ancestor Maghan Kon Fatta Konate.”
Mabo’s mother, speaking in French, calls Mabo to go to school. Mabo, also speaking in French to her, excitedly announces the arrival of the “incredible” old man who “knows my ancestor.” Djeliba politely greets Mabo’s mother, calling her “Orange Blossom” and relating her husband Boicar’s praise of her beauty. Mabo’s mother, Mrs. Keita, whose given name is Sitan, politely greets Djeliba and asks him to stay inside the house. However, Djeliba says he prefers to stay outside in the open air. He accepts water from her.
Cut to Mabo’s school
The teacher drills the students in military-like formations outside the classroom: instruction is conducted in French. Mabo arrives a bit late and takes his place in line; then the children file into the classroom.
Cut back to the Keita home
Mabo’s father Boicar Keita has awakened and is greeting Djeliba, using Jula language. Boicar gingerly greets and politely questions Djeliba on the purpose of his visit, since Boicar knows how much Djeliba dislikes the city. Djeliba assures Boicar that he comes “in peace” and “all is well,” but that he has come “on a mission.” When Boicar asks what the mission is, Djeliba defers the answer until later, for Boicar must go to work.
Transition shot shows Boicar stopped in noisy, honking town traffic, the driver behind him getting from his car and yelling profanities in French, at the delay.
Cut to Mabo’s school
The class is doing math problems. When called upon, Mabo goes to the board and does the problem correctly and easily, and the teacher compliments him. At the bell, Mabo is eager to return home.
Cut to the Keita home
Mabo greets his mother in French, and explains they have studied “biology and calculation” in school that day. He then wakes Djeliba sleeping in his hammock after his long journey. Mabo is eager to hear the story of his ancestor, and Djeliba is “pleased” that Mabo is “curious.” [They speak to each other in Jula.] Djeliba says he will explain why Mabo is “Keita,” but that he “can’t do it in a day or a year. It could take a lifetime. . . . Listen carefully.” [Mabo will thus embark on a quest to understand his history and his destiny, which will parallel the quest of his ancestor Sundjata.]
4. The Story, Episode #1 (sometime in the Past - ca. 13th century)
Djeliba: “Everything started with a poor antelope. Drought ruled the country. The antelope searched in vain for a waterhole when a long came a hunter. Do you follow me?” Mabo assents. Djeliba continues: “this day your ancestor Maghan Kon Fatta was resting in the court of his palace."
Mabo” “Is he a king?”
Djeliba: “A great king. The King of Mande. All his court was there . . .”
Cut to dramatized past of the story
King Maghan Kon Fatta and his court sit in the shade of the open air palace. Djeliba now heard narrating the story in voiceover (V.O.) “His beautiful wife Sassouma Berete was by his side.” A courtier plays an African lute. [Djeliba’s V.O. fades.] The Hunter of Do approaches the palace and comes before the king:
Hunter: “Honor to you, King of Mande and to all your court. I have killed an antelope on your land. According to your customs, here is your share with all my respects.”
King Maghan Kon Fatta accepts the offering with thanks: “You have respected our customs. We are very touched by this in Mande. . . . The true hunters of Do are rare. If you wish, we shall learn a lot from you.” The King lays out a stiffened skin before the hunter.
Hunter of Do: “I am not a hunter whose tongue is more agile than his arm. Thanks to the lessons of my master, I shall consult the cowries for you.” The Hunter of Do will divine the future with the cowries, which he takes from a pouch and rolls on the skin. “Hum . . . (a long pause). The world is mysterious, full of secrets. A giant tree grows from grains. This is true of kingdoms.” The King and court nod at the wisdom in these proverbial words. “A young woman arrives at your home. . . . Ah! Good Lord!” The hunter seems reluctant to continue.
King: “Hunter, your language is obscure. Make it clear.”
Hunter, slow to respond: “I see her. How ugly she is! Griot, tell the king that he should marry her.” [Close up on the face and reaction of the King’s wife Sassouma Berete.] “She will bear the son that will inherit Mande. Well, then, with your permission, I’m only a passer-by. I shall continue on my way.” The Hunter of Do leaves.
Doua, the king’s griot: “I don’t believe this hunter. He is mocking the destiny of the kingdom. I suspect a lie.”
King: “It’s possible. But let us be on our guard. The same truth can have several versions.”
V.O. Mabo: “The king was sad?”
V.O. Djeliba: “Yes, and very preoccupied.”
5. Cut back to Keita home in Present time
Mabo: “Because of the nasty woman?”
Djeliba: “Not that only.”
Mabo: “He only had to refuse.”
Djeliba: “He couldn’t. A king does not always do what pleases him. The word of the cowries is irreversible.”
A car door slamming draws Mabo’s attention. Boicar, Mabo’s father home from work, enters the compound and greets them. Djeliba happily announces that he and “the boy understand each other.” They are called in to dinner, but Mabo resists, wanting more of the story.
Djeliba defers, encouraging Mabo to go to dinner: “An empty belly has no ear,” says Djeliba, citing a Mande proverb.
Sitan, Mabo’s mother, apologizes to Djeliba for serving “a white meal” for dinner: it is spaghetti, a word Djeliba has trouble pronouncing. He calls it “sapaki” and is clearly not used to eating Western food with Western silverware. Sitan promises to serve a meal to Djeliba’s taste tomorrow night. Djeliba struggles with the Western fork and spoon, gives up, asks for water so that he can eat with his hands, a way more natural to him.
Mabo tries to continue the discussion of his ancestor at the dinner table: “Djeliba, why does history still not explain my name?”
Sitan: “Be quiet and eat!”
Djeliba, conciliatory: “Eat . . . .you can’t run and scratch your foot at the same time,” citing another Mande proverb.
Finishing his “sapaki,” Djeliba burps unaffectedly, and Mabo’s parents share a grin. Boicar again entreats Djeliba to sleep inside. Djeliba politely but firmly refuses. Djeliba then announces the nature of his “mission.” Djeliba has come to “do my duty. Mabo must know his history. I come here for that.”
Boicar: “That suits us.”
Djeliba: “Just as well. . . . Now I shall pray.” Djeliba leaves Mabo’s parents.
Mabo’s mother is upset, and begins to berate Boicar.
SItan demands: “He’s come to initiate Mabo. Is that all right?”
Boicar: “What do you have against that?”
Sitan: “Mabo is taking exams. He shouldn’t be disturbed. You know that.”
Boicar shakes his head and leaves her. Shot of Boicar lying awake in bed. Sitan goes in to check on her sleeping son. As she returns to their bedroom, Boicar quickly turns over and pretends to be sleeping. Sitan lies down beside him, also wakeful. Cut to a shot of Djeliba, outside in his hammock, sleeping peacefully.
6. The next day
Boicar and Sitan emerge from the house all dressed up, ready to go to a wedding. Djeliba declines to go with them, saying he is still tired from his journey and, since Mabo isn’t going to school, he can keep him company. After Mabo’s parents leave, Mabo asks Djeliba why he didn’t eat bread and butter with them. Djeliba explains that he prefers to eat “pap,” an indigenous food. A young woman arrives and greets the “old man” and Mabo. Mabo introduces Bintou, the Keitas’ houseservant, and gives Bintou his mother’s instructions to make a peanut sauce. Mabo explains to Djeliba that Bintou does the kitchen work and “everything”—all the housework. His mother only cooks when Bintou is sick.
Djeliba: “The world has changed. . . . In the old days, when a woman didn’t know how to do housework, she didn’t find a husband. But your mother is marvelous,” Djeliba reassures Mabo.
Mabo is eager to return to the story of “my ancestor. . . . Did he marry the ugly woman?”
Djeliba: “Of course. But you skipped an episode,” and questions Mabo, who remembers well the Hunter of Do. It is in the land of Do that the story recommences.
7. The Story, Episode #2 (sometime in the Past, ca. 13th century)
Djeliba: “In those days an angry and very fiery buffalo terrorized the whole land of Do” causing panic, killing 10 hunters a day. “No one dared go out,” so the crops dried up, and “famine and fear ruled the country. All who affronted him [the buffalo] were killed.”
[Cut to the dramatized Past; Djeliba continues narrating the story in V.O.]
Then two hunters, brothers from Mande, decided to end “the buffalo’s tyranny.” The older brother entreats his younger brother to stop. They’ve been hunting for 3 days with no result and he’s exhausted. However, the younger brother encourages his elder brother to “take heart.” Yet they do rest under a tree, and the younger brother vows to cut off the buffalo’s tail after they’ve killed him. Resting under the tree, the call of a turtle dove is heard and both brothers are immediately alert and listening: “The turtle dove speaks.”
V.O. Mabo: “Does the turtle dove speak?”
V.O. Djeliba: “Of course, Mabo, she is speaking. But only the initiated can understand.”
The younger hunter says they must go on: “the road is long.” The hunters come to a river and refresh themselves—then they hear the turtle dove call—“speak”—again.
Hunter: “There she is without a doubt. According to the turtle dove, she alone knows the buffalo’s secret.” Shot of a big woman bent over washing in the river. A brother remarks, “She seems strange to me”
Younger brother: “Hello, mother! Can we help you?”
Woman, surly: “Go away. I don’t need you.” She places her bowl on her head, walks out of the water, and goes to sit under a shade tree.
Younger brother: “We must follow her. There is no choice.”
Elder brother: “But she’s too wild!”
Younger brother: “Big brother, let’s follow her all the same.” The two hunters go and sit by her, and address her once again as “mother.”
Woman, surly: “You are not my children. I’m not your mother.”
Younger hunter: “Permit us to call you mother. You merit our respect.”
Woman: “What can you do for me? Who are you?"
Hunter: “We are of Mande"
Woman: “What are you looking for?”
The hunters respond by offering her first smoked meat, then Mande beer, then tobacco—all of which she takes roughly and without thanks.
Then she states: “You want to kill the buffalo. Isn’t that the idea? I, Do-Kamissa, know everything. But nobody can kill this buffalo. I am the buffalo!” [Do-Kamissa is the Buffalo Woman of Do: she is the mother of Sogolon and the grandmother of Sundjata Keita]. The hunters react with alarm on learning she is the buffalo, but the woman, Do-Kamissa, calms them.
Do Kamissa: “Some hunters already have failed. I’ve killed several, and wounded 77. Everything has its end. My time has come. I surrender my life to you but on one condition: when you have killed the buffalo, my nephew Do-Samo will want to reward you. Say that you want a woman. He will summon all the maidens and unmarried women. You will choose one. The ugliest, my adopted daughter. She is called Sogolon. She must bring a son into the world who will impose himself on all the savannah.”
Do Kamissa, addressing the younger brother: “You are the most courageous. Behind the big bush, there is a distaff, a stone, and an egg. You will aim at me three times, my body will tremble. I will follow you. Then you will throw these elements one by one behind you. Now give me your word.”
Hunters: “We give it to you.”
Do Kamissa: “Leave, my children, may God protect you.” Do-Kamissa leaves the hunters.
V.O. Mabo asks why they would throw the elements.
V.O. Dejliba: “It is so.”
8. Cut back to Keitas’ home in the Present
Mabo: “Why is it so?”
Djeliba: “Be patient. You’ll know everything.”
The Wedding Party:
Shot of drummers entertaining at the wedding party. Dancers move in and out of the shot. Boicar is sitting with the bridegroom and other men, telling them he must leave early in the celebration because “a stranger” waits for him at home. One of the men comments that Boicar is becoming “enigmatic these days.” Boicar congratulates the new husband and takes his leave. Cut to the women and Sitan, who is called away by her husband. The women question why she leaves the party so soon, but Sitan explains there is “a stranger” in their home and they must go. A female praise-singer follows Boicar, creating a song of him [which is not translated]. At the end of her song Boicar responds by giving her a gift [a bill].
The Keitas’ home:
Boicar and Sitan return home, exchange greetings with Djeliba, who asks about the wedding. Sitan is miffed and calls Mabo into the house. Djeliba shows no resentment, kindly encouraging Mabo to obey. Inside, his mother questions Mabo about whether he’s learned his lessons yet. Mabo must confess he hasn’t and hangs his head when Sitan asks why, angrily. Boicar interrupts, saying they will eat now and telling Mabo to go get Djeliba.
A history lesson is in progress—Western history. [Note that African history is not being taught in this Westernized school. Critics have pointed out that Keita makes the case for an "Afrocentric" education, where African tradition, not an imported Western curricula is the necessary starting point for African development.]
The teacher asks, “When was America discovered?” and many students raise their hands, snapping their fingers, eager to be called on for the answer. The teacher calls on one, who responds correctly, and then moves on to other questions about America and then France. The camera pans forward to show Mabo, who is not paying attention, dreamily in his own world. The teacher detects Mabo’s inattention and calls on him. Mabo must confess he doesn’t even know the question being asked. The teacher reprimands Mabo sharply for “dreaming,” and makes him go to the front of the room, get on his knees facing the wall, and place his hands on his head.
The Keita’s home:
Cut to Djeliba hands behind his head lost in thought in his hammock. Inside, the parents are arguing about Djeliba again.
Sitan complains that he “totally dominates you both, Mabo and you.”
In the midst of this, the teacher and Mabo arrive. The teacher greets the “Old man,” while Djeliba responds, “Hello, my son.” The teacher and Mabo go inside to speak with the parents [the conversation is conducted in French]. Mr. Fofano, the teacher, is greeted and politely asked why he has come. Mr. Fofano explains that Mabo spends his time “dreaming and doesn’t learn his lessons any more,” no longer interested in them.
Sitan blames Djeliba, explaining to Mr. Fofano that the “Old man came from the village to initiate Mabo” and now “Mabo only lives for that story.”
Mr Fofano feels she is right to be concerned, and tells “Mr Keita, Mabo has really changed.”
Boicar is defensive: “Djeliba Kouyate is the griot of my father . . . and my grandfather. For centuries the Kouyates have been the griots of the Keitas.” [Thus we learn that the Kouyates have always served as the Keitas' griots or bards--jeli--belonging to a discrete Mandi caste or endogamous—meaning inherited to the family--occupational group, who alone perform certain types of poetry and divination.]
Sitan laughs at her husband: “Times have changed.”
She and the teacher decide that the solution would be to allow Djeliba to continue the initiation during the school vacation, after Mabo has taken his exams. But Boicar objects that Djeliba will not understand this delay, nor do the teacher and Sitan understand Djeliba: “He has a mission to accomplish.” Mr Fofano suggests that Boicar himself teacher Mabo the story, since it is Mr. Keita’s story too.
Boicar sarcastically responds, “Since you don’t know, this is the griot’s function.”
Sitan, also angry: “Boicar, stop insulting people. We are not ignorant. We all have a story that we love. But that’s not the problem. It’s Mabo.”
Mr. Fofano grows impatient with this domestic dispute.
Boicar challenges him: “I’ve been clear with you . . . If Djeliba disturbs you, tell him to go away yourself.”
Mr. Fofano has had enough and takes his leave. Shot of Mabo, present during this discussion, looking down, saying nothing. Mr. Fofano walks out past Djeliba without leavetaking, but Djeliba stops him with his own polite goodbye.
9. The Story, Episode #3 (sometime in the Past)
Cut to the two Mande hunters running:
V.O.Djeliba, continuing the story: “The buffalo charged the hunters. The hunters fled.” Sound of the buffalo’s roar in hot pursuit. “At the approach of the buffalo, the younger brother threw the distaff which became a field of palm-trees.” Jump cut: Scene abruptly changes to a field of palm-trees. The hunters hide, but when they hear the approaching buffalo’s roar again, they begin to run once more.
V.O. Djeliba: “The younger brother threw the stone. They found themselves on a mountain of rocks. The buffalo stayed below.” The hunters stop to catch their breath. Too soon, however, the buffalo roars, gaining on them again, and they scramble up the rocks.
V.O. Djeliba: “He threw the egg. Yes, the egg became a great muddy swamp. The buffalo sank in it. He could no longer move. He slowly became a human being.” Shot of Do-Kamissa, the buffalo-woman, floundering in the swamp. The younger brother crouches, aims his bow and arrow, and shoots Do-Kamissa in the breast. She falls and dies.
V.O. Djeliba: “Yes, a natural death.”
Cut to the village of Do-Samo, Do-Kamissa’s nephew.
Many people have gathered to hear Do-Sama.
Do-Samo: “The buffalo is dead! My aunt Do-Kamissa is dead. Here’s his tail! Here’s the man who has freed us.” A drummer beats the message and the people cheer. The younger Mande hunter comes forward. “Ask what you desire.”
Younger hunter: “Only one thing. Yes, we only want a maiden of Do.”
Do-Samo: “Is that all?” Then he orders that all the most beautiful maidens and unmarried women be assembled so the Mande hunter can make his choice. The drummer beats the announcement, and the maidens and unmarried women of Do are assembled , the most beautiful selected out to stand before the Mande hunters.
V.O Djeliba reports that these beauties “shone like stars.” The younger hunter looks among them, then goes behind the assembled line to a seated woman, wrapped fully in white garment. The hunter asks her her name.
She replies, “Sogolon. They call me Sogolon, the ugly one.”
The Mande hunters choose Sogolon, as they had promised Do-Kamissa, the buffalo-woman, and refuse to ask for anything else of her her nephew Do-Samo. They thank him and lead Sogolon, a hunch back, away.
Cut to Sogolon and the two Mande hunters walking.
Younger hunter: “Sogolon, the King has betrayed your mother.”
Sogolon: “And you have killed her.”
Elder brother: “We didn’t kill her. We helped her die.”
Younger brother: “Come on, the road is long.”
The three find an uninhabited hut and stop for the night. Sogolon enters the hut. The two hunters then argue about which will go in to keep their promise to Do-Kamissa and “give her a child.” [Note: They have misunderstood the Buffalo Woman Do-Kamissa on this point and the hunters do not know of the cowries’ prediction. It is not the Mande hunters, but the Mande king Maghan Kon Fatta Konate who will give Sogolon a child: This child will become the future founder of the Mali Empire, Sunjata Keita.]
The younger brother argues that the elder should go for he should “marry first.” And he very reluctantly agrees, “in the name of the ancestral customs.” But from inside the hut we hear Sogolon laugh wickedly, then a buffalo roar shakes the hut. Sogolon curses and repulses the elder brother. He comes running out, exclaiming: “It’s a buffalo!”
[Note: Sogolon, like her mother, is a shape-changer. The powers of Sogolon and her mother Do-Kamissa (the Buffalo Woman of Do) are those of nyama, occult powers in traditional African belief. Their supernatural power to turn into ferocious animal “doubles” manifests the potentially disruptive and destructive effect on human society of nyama. From his grandmother the Buffalo Woman of Do, and from his mother Sogolon, Sundjata will inherit nyama and become a master of occult magic and enchantment.]
The younger brother then enters the hut and makes his attempt to give Sogolon a child, but with no more success. He emerges, exclaiming, “It’s a porcupine. She has needles!” After more arguing, the brothers decide to take Sogolon to the King of Mande.
10. Cut to Keita home and the Present time
Mabo: “Your two hunters are worthless.”
Djeliba: “Not worthless. It’s the way things go. No matter how strong you are, you’ll always find stronger than you.”
Cut to shot of Sitan, reading the paper, then listening to their conversation.
V.O. Mabo: “They are going to bring her to my ancestor?”
Djeliba: “The cowries predicted it, didn’t they?”
Djeliba says they’ll stop now for it’s time to pray. He then addresses Mabo’s parents: “I always pray alone. Will you accompany me today?”
Sitan doesn’t respond, but Boicar agrees to pray with Djeliba. But first he must find his prayer rug—clearly he hasn’t used it in a long time and is not devout. Sitan is amused when he asks her where it is, responding: “If it exists, go and look for it.”
Shot of two men with a donkey cart hauling a refrigerator.
Mabo announces that he is going to school.
Shot of Mabo enroute: He sees a bird of prey on a lamppost, which then flies away. Point of view close up of Mabo looking thoughtfully at the flying bird..
The Keita home
Mabo returns early from school telling Djeliba, then his mother, that the teacher is ill. Sitan is skeptical, promises to check whether this is really true. Released, Mabo eagerly rejoins Djeliba and asks him to continue the story.
Mabo: “Did my ancestor marry the ugly woman?”
Djeliba: “Of course. The cowries never lie.”
Mabo: “And the marriage?”
Djeliba: “Grandiose, royal! The king showed great generosity.”
11. The Story, Episode #4 (sometime in the Past)
Shot of women preparing Sogolon for her wedding.
V.O. Djeliba: “Before the wedding, the King’s sisters prepared the bride.”
The king’s 3 sisters are rubbing Sogolon with oils and giving her advice for the wedding night amid laughter:
“In bed be as sweet as honey. When a donkey tastes honey, he won’t eat anything else.”
“Be as sweet as honey but as hot as pepper for all men are the same.”
“You will know joy and sadness, but always keep a smile on your face. Don’t be afraid, it doesn’t hurt.”
Medium shot of Sogolon, looking glum.
Cut to Mabo and Djeliba in present.
When Mabo asks why they are laughing, Djeliba says, “They are happy,” but demurs on Mabo’s further questioning about “things in life you will understand later.” Djeliba continues the story: “Evening came. The sun hid itself behind the black hill.”
Cut back to past:
Early evening and wedding procession leading Sogolon to the King.
Drummers lead the singing women forward to the palace. A man appears, lifts Sogolon, and carries her inside.
V.O. Djeliba: “All started well. But by nightfall, the king ran up against resistance. He fought with Sogolon until sunrise. Sogolon invoked all her doubles to keep the king from possessing her. She transformed herself into a porcupine. The king transformed himself into a lion. She became a panther, then a buffalo. The king used all his powers but in vain. For 7 months the battle continued every night until the king was exhausted.”
Shot of King and Doua, his griot sitting in the dark. The king declares that his last attempt has been another “fiasco. What a shame. Better to die.” Doua declares that he has “a solution” and whispers it in the king’s ear.
V.O. Djeliba: “Doua was truly a great griot. Follow closely, he just found the solution which will decide the destiny of the kingdom.”
Shot of king entering Sogolon’s bedroom.
King: “Sogolon, the sand has spoken to me. Fate has led you to me. The blood of the virgin must flow. This will be an offering for the kingdom. Stand up. I shall cut off your head.”
Sogolon, affrighted, pleads with him not to kill her: “Pity, pity.” The king draws his sword, Sogolon screams, then crumples in a faint. The king turns the unconscious Sogolon and prepares to have intercourse with her.
Cut to Mabo and Djeliba in present
Mabo: “Was that the griot’s solution?”
Djeliba: “Yes, that was the griot’s advice. There were no other solutions. To chase Sogolon’s doubles, she had to faint. (pause) Sogolon was pregnant. After the first month she was enormous already. After the 6th, she was as big as a buffalo. After the 9th, she couldn’t stand upright. After the 12th, she couldn’t pass through the door. After the 15th…"
Mabo: “Wait, Djeliba. Preganancies last 9 months.”
Djeliba: “Is it your teacher who said that? . . . Well, Sogolon’s pregnancy did last 18 months. Some even say 7 years. But there are several sorts of truth. In the 18th month, the inevitable happened. The child cried out from the womb, ‘Mother, my time has come, I’m ready to come out.’”
Cut to Past
Sogolon in labor, screaming and crying in pain, attended by a midwife. A cock crows.
Cut to the king and his griot, playing a lute, waiting outside. A newborn’s cries are heard. Cut to Sassouma Berete, the king’s first wife, and her son Dankaran Touman, listening outside Sogolon’s room. The camera pans across the skies, thunder cracks, rain falls as Sogolon’s cries continue.
A woman emerges from the birth room and announces: “Sogolon has offered us a boy.” The message is spread by drummers and horns from the clifftops. The Hunter of Do again mysteriously appears and approaches the king.
Hunter of Do: “Honor to you, King of Mande.”
King: “Greetings, Master Hunter. This is your second visit here, do you come in peace?”
Hunter: “I come to pay obeisance to the newborn prodigy. The future King of Mande. Well, with your permission, I’m just passing through, I’ll go.” The Hunter of Do leaves.
King, troubled: “Doua, my eldest son, Dankaran Touman, cannot be disinherited.”
Doua, the king’s griot: “Men are like trees. The tall trees protect the shrubs.”
King: “According to our laws, the eldest is the natural heir.”
Doua: “Laws change, but predictions never change.”
Cut to women pounding grain, chanting and talking among themselves as they work:
“Do you know the news?…The child has an enormous head! His eyes are like red-hot coals.”
“He is fat and tall with a lot of teeth.”
“He spoke in his mother’s womb!”
“He is named Sundjata!”
“It’s fabulous…really amazing.”
12. Cut to Keita home and the Present time
Djeliba: “It was then that Queen Sassouma Berete became more and more jealous and unpleasant. For all the rumors pointed toward Sundjata as heir to the detriment of her son Dankaran Touman.”
Mabo’s teacher Mr. Fofano interrupts Mabo and Djeliba.
Djeliba: “I was waiting for you. I know why you are here. You want to know why I keep Mabo here. Is that right?”
Mr. Fofano says, no, he knows that, but needs to talk to Djeliba. Djeliba then asks the teacher his name.
Mr. Fofano: “Drissa Fofano.”
Djeliba: “That’s a nice name. Do you know what it means?”
Mr. Fofano: “No.”
Djeliba: “Pity you don’t know. What can you teach to children without knowing your own origin?”
Mr. Fofano: “I don’t have a griot in my service.”
Djeliba: “The griots are in the service of everyone. You should know this. They work for everybody. If you wish I can explain your origin.” But Mr. Fofano brushes this offer by, and emphasizes that he wishes to come to an “agreement” with Djeliba about Mabo.
Djeliba: “Then I will listen to you. But first it is you who will listen to me. There are 124,000 beings between the sky and the earth, who breathe like you and me. Of all these 124,000 beings I am only ignorant of two things: sheep and sorghum. So don’t tell Mabo any more that his ancestor was a gorilla! He was a king! Maghan Kon Fatta Konate, King of Mande.”
Mr. Fofano: “Ok, but if Mabo wrote this on his examination, he would fail. For your knowledge and mine are different.”
Djeliba: “My son, knowledge is heavy with sense. Knowledge is ungraspable, complex. It might be in the breath of ancestors, in millet, in sand. It passes from spirit to man, from the man to the spirit…”
Mr Fofano: “I ask you one thing: come back during the vacation. You will have Mabo more at your disposal.”
Djeliba: “Teach your things during the vacation and leave him to me now. I’ve soon finished. I’ll return him to you afterwards. I wish you a long life.”
Mr Fofano: “I don’t determine the school calendar!”
Djeliba: “Who determines it then?
Mr Fofano, exasperated: “Shit, you can’t get anything out of this old man. [To Djeliba.] The government!”
Djeliba: “What’s that?”
Mr. Fofano: “The leaders of the country! It is they who decide!”
Djeliba: “In that case, I have nothing to do with you, if you don’t determine anything. Bring them here….[in response to the teacher’s angry shock] yes, if you can. I am here, I am waiting for them.”
Mr Fofano, giving up: “It’s really a pity for Mabo” The teacher leaves, shaking his head.
Djeliba (to Mabo): “What’s wrong with you?”
Mabo: “I don’t want to return to school. The master is angry.”
Djeliba: “Lift your head, look at that bird up in the sky, it’s my totem. [Shot of the same the bird in flight that Mabo had earlier encountered on the way to school.] “He has promised me that he will watch over you.”
Mabo: “Is that true?”
13. The Story continues, Episode #5 (Mabo is now the storyteller)
Mabo is sitting under a great tree with two of his schoolmates, telling them the story of Sundjata. [NOTE: Throughout the boys speak to each other in French, whereas the characters speaking in the Past use the native African language Jula.]
Mabo: “Sundjata was born infirm. At 5 years, he still couldn’t walk. He crawled like a crocodile.” The boys chuckle.
Cut to the Past: the crippled boy Sundjata sits beside food bowls, eating.
V.O. Mabo: “All he did was eat. He was very greedy. He never spoke. Nobody played with him for he bashed his friends with his muscular arms.” Sundjata crawls out of his compound, while Sassouma Berete, the king’s first wife, watches from the wall. She calls to her maidservant.
Sassouma Berete: “Kani . . .my faithful servant, come and see this monstrous child. My misgivings are vanishing. This time the soothsayers have all lied. This little reptile will crawl all his life.” Sundjata stops and listens to them.
Kani: “Have no care, queen of queens, the ugly humpback will get out of here the same way she came.” Shot of Sogolon emerging from her hut. “Her little monster will crawl on the ground all of his life.”
Sogolon, sharply, disturbed by the watching women: “'Djata!” Her son Sundjata turns to her. “Didn’t I forbid you to go out!” Sundjata hangs his head. “Stay put,” his mother commands.
But Sundjata does not obey. After his mother goes back in, he crawls outside the compound to where several boys are playing a game. The boys taunt Sundjata.
“The infirm prince is here. Chase him.”
“What prince? It’s a worm.”
“Serpant! Caterpillar, go away!”
Angrily, Sundjata grabs one of the boys by the feet and struggles with him. The boys gang up on the crippled prince, beating and taunting him.
Cut to present: 3 abandoned school packs lay at the foot of the tree.
The camera pans up the tree to find Mabo and his two friends sitting up in the tree.
Mabo: “Ten years later, Sundjata still couldn’t walk. The king’s wife, Sassouma was extremely pleased.”
Cut back to past: Sassouma’s hut, where she and her children are resting.
Daughter: “Mama, you detest Sundjata. He’s adorable!”
Sassouma: “Go away, imbecile! You admire our enemies.”
Daughter: “Mother, Sundjata is not an enemy. He likes us. Dankaran Touman (she calls on her sleeping brother), Isn’t it true!”
Dankaran Touman: “Yes, it’s true.”
Sassouma: “Cursed children, I fight for you and you betray me.”
V.O. Mabo: “The first wife of my ancestor was sitting in her hut with the children.
Cut to present: Mabo and his audience in the tree.
Mabo: “Nana Triban, his daughter, and Dankaran Touman, the legitimate heir.”
Schoolboy #1: “Legitimate heir? How’s that?”
Mabo: “Why, yes, since he was the eldest son.”
Schoolboy #2: “You don’t understand anything” (to Schoolboy #1). “I’ll explain. There was Dankaran Touman and Nana Triban who were Sassouma’s children. Is that clear? (To Mabo) You may continue.”
Cut back to past: Sogolon sitting in her hut with her children and the half-brother Nan Boukary.
V.O. Mabo: “Sogolon didn’t lose hope. She fought for her son.”
V.O. Schoolboy #1: “Who were her children?”
V.O. Mabo: “Other children were born. 10 years have passed since. There was little Kanko, the second child of Sogolon. There was Nan Boukary, the boy. He was born to become the right hand of Sundjata.”
V.O. Schoolboy #1: “Then he was Sogolon’s third child?”
V.O. Mabo: “No, I just told you his mother died!.”
V.O. Schoolboy #1: “Oh, yes, when?”
V.O. Mabo: “It’s complicated. The king had married a girl who died. Her child was to become Sundjata’s right hand.”
V.O. Schoolboy #1: “I don’t understand your story at all.”
Shot of a child fanning flames in the blacksmith’s workshop. Blacksmith’s apprentices are at work forging a rod. The king and Doua, his griot, have come to see the blind blacksmith Noumoufari, a powerful soothsayer.
Doua: “Noumoufari, you who know everything . . . . we have come to consult you. Don’t be afraid, don’t hesitate. Don’t forget anything. Tell us the future. The king is perturbed.”
King: “Noumoufari, help me. Speak.”
Noumoufari takes magic stones from a pouch and begins rubbing them together.
Noumoufari: “The world is full of mysteries. Not everything can be seen. But everything exists.”
King: “Will he walk?”
Noumoufari: “The tree grows by pushing its roots far into the earth. Men are like trees.”
Doua: “Noumoufari, be clear. Will he walk, yes or no?”
Noumoufari: “It has to be.”
Noumoufari: “Man is always in a hurry. The stones have not told me. I only speak of what they transmit to me.”
King: “I see.” Shot of the fire and the forge, a place of dangerous power.
V.O. Schoolboy: “Why did the king say, ‘I see’?”
V.O. Mabo: “I don’t know.”
Cut to Present: Mabo and the schoolboys still up in the tree.
Schoolboy: “Do you think that Sundjata will walk?”
Mabo: “Of course. The stones just said so.”
Schoolboy: “When will he walk?”
Mabo: “I don’t know. The stones didn’t say. Five years later, Sundjata was still crawling on the ground. My ancestor was about to die.”
Cut to past: The King’s deathbed, with his people sitting in vigil.
King: “My reign is coming to an end. I shall be departing soon. All the soothsayers are in agreement to make Sundjata my heir. He has not convinced me. Nonetheless, it shall be so. I leave him a great kingdom with staunch allies. The father of Doua has been the griot of my father. Doua is my griot. The son of Doua, Bella Fasseke, will be the griot of my son Sundjata. He will teach him the laws of our kingdom and the customs of our ancestors. Now, let destiny be fulfilled.”
V.O. Schoolboy: “Is he dead?”
V.O. Mabo: “Yes, he is dead.”
Cut to Present: Mabo and the schoolboys still up in the tree.
Schoolboy #2: “Did he choose Sundjata as his successor?”
Mabo: “Yes, but that didn’t work. Sundjata still couldn’t walk. The first wife imposed her son.”
Schoolboy #2: “The griot let her do all this?”
Mabo: “He died several days after the king. . . . Yes, it’s like that. We shall jump 5 years in advance.”
14. The Story continues, Episode #6 (Mabo is still the storyteller)
Cut to past: Sassouma Berete and her women walk past seated Sundjata and his griot, Bella Fasseke, playing the lute.
Bella Fasseke assures Sundjata: “Don’t worry, it’s you the future King of Mande.”
Outside her hut, Sassouma and her son Dankaran Touman sit in conversation.
Dankaran Touman: “Mother, my father preferred Sundjata.”
Sassouma: “His griot manipulated him. Now it’s finished.”
Dankaran: ”I don’t have a griot. Without Bella Fasseke, I shall never be able to reign.”
Sassouma: “Don’t worry. I have a solution.”
Sogolon approaches them with an empty basket in hand.
Sogolon: “I’d like some baobab leaves for my sauce.”
Sassouma rises and goes in her hut, returning with a basket full of baobab leaves, which she throws all over Sogolon.
Sassouma: “Here, I never run out of them. I’ve always got plenty of them. My 7-year-old son procured them for me. Yours should do the same instead of continually crawling.”
Sogolon is deeply insulted and turns away. Dankara Touman asks his mother Sassouma why she did that to Sogolon. Sogolon rushes to her son Sundjara and his griot Bella Fasseke.
Sogolon, tearfully: “What have I done that is bad? Because of you, I have just been shamed!” When Sundjara asks her what is wrong, she replies: “You should have died rather than provoke my shame.” Further pressed, Sogolon cries out: “Sassouma just insulted me for a question of baobab leaves. . . . I can’t take it anymore. I’m tired.”
Sundjata, with new resolve: “Console yourself. I’ll satisfy you. Bella, ask the blacksmith to prepare a very solid iron rod.” Bella leaves to pursue Sundjata’s command.
V.O. Schoolboy #2: “Did he go to the workshop of the old blind blacksmith?”
Cut to the blind blacksmith’s workshop.
V.O. Schoolboy #2: “Where is the old blind blacksmith?”
V.O. Mabo: “He’s dead. His son Farakourou has replaced him. He’s as gifted as his father.”
V.O. Schoolboy #1: “It’s only dead people in this story. When are we going back to school?”
Bella Fasseke enters the blacksmith’s workshop.
Farakourou: “Don’t say anything, Bella Fasseke. It’s not necessary. I know why you are here. The great day has finally come. I have already taken out the rod. My father made it before he died. Go! My apprentices are bringing it.”
Cut to Sundjata crawling out into the middle of the compound. His sister tries to comfort Sogolon. Three of Farakourou’s apprentices arrive carrying a great heavy iron rod. All look on.
Bella Fasseke: “The great day has arrived! Get up buffalo, son of Sogolon. The stain can be cleaned, but not the insult. Get up, bellow and impose yourself!”
Encouraged by his griot, Sundjata crawls forward to the iron rod, raises the rod upright, and begins to raise himself upon it. His sister and Sogolon watch with great hope, and the crowd assembled strains forward. Midway, the great rod bows and collapses, and Sundjata collapses with it. The Hunter of Do then mysteriously appears for the third time, and approaches Sogolon.
Hunter of Do: “Bring a branch of ‘sun-sun’ to your son. He will know what to do with it.”
Sogolon follows his instructions, bringing a staff of ‘sun-sun’ to Sundjata. Drumming begins. Sundjata slowly raises himself upon the branch and stands triumphantly.
Bella Fasseke: “Men of Mande! Women of Mande! Sundjata walks!”
Sassouma Berete, alarmed, comes forward. Sogolon sings a tearful prayer to her son. Sundjata then strides away with purpose, the people following him. They come to a great baobab tree. One of the crowd calls up to the boys in the tree: “Come down, son of another. The buffalo’s son is going to act.” The boys drop from the great tree. Sundjata gives a great cry and begins to push at the trunk of the great baobab.
Cut to Present: Mabo and his audience in the tree.
Mabo explains that Sundjata went on to uproot the great baobab tree, put it on his back and carry it back to his mother Sogolon’s hut.
Schoolboy #2: “And then?”
Mabo: “I don’t know. Djeliba’s going to tell me…soon.
15. Cut to Mabo’s schoolroom
The three truant boys are being punished, while the teacher waits at his desk. Finally Schoolboy #1, who has not been very impressed with Mabo’s story, stops and approaches Mr. Fofano, confessing that “When we were with Mabo on the kapok tree . . . . he told us a story.”
The teacher with satisfaction says, “I thought so.” Mr. Fofano dismisses the other two boys and chastises Mabo for not coming to school and for leading the other boys astray as well. He gives Mabo a note to take home to his parents and suspends him from school until further notice. Mabo leaves, while Schoolboy #2, who has been caught up in the story, berates the other boy as “worthless.” Mr. Fofano assures them their parents will hear about the incident as well.
Cut to the Keita home.
Mabo returns home with the dreaded note and tells Djeliba what happened at school. He confesses that he’s afraid, but Djeliba tells Mabo not to worry.
16. The Story continues, Episode #7
Djeliba: “Sundjata has learned everything from his mother. The plants, the poisons, the best remedies, the language of the wild beasts and of the birds. From then on Sassouma Berete was very worried.”
Cut to the past: Sundjata and his “right hand” Nan Boukary.
V.O. Djeliba: “Her jealousy knew no bounds.”
Sundjata’s sister comes to tell him that his griot Bella Fasseke has been sent to the king of Sosso. Sundjata is very angry at this injustice and goes to confront his half-brother, the king Dankara Touman and Sassouma Berete, his mother.
Sundjata: “My brother has separated me from my griot. I am giving him an ultimatim. You are witnesses,” he says to the court assembled. He addresses Dankara Touman: “Elder brother, I want my griot back this very day. If not, I shall kill you. I’ll break your neck and your head.”
As Sundjata stalks away, Nan Boukary repeats Sundjata’s threat to Dankara Touman, then also departs. Dankara turns to his mother.
Dankara Touman: “Give him back his griot. I don’t want any scandal.”
Sassouma Berete: “My son, you shame me. You are just a coward. If you are afraid of reigning, hand over the power to them. I shall go into exile to avoid dishonor.”
Dankara Touman, stopping her: “Excuse me. I’m not afraid. I am the king, and I shall fulfill my duty.”
Sassouma: “Well said. By the way, Sundjata, his mother, and his family are expulsed from Mande for they menace the king with death,” she announces to the court.
Cut to Sundjata and his family preparing to leave Mande.
Sogolon (to Sundjata): “Have no regrets. Still your heart. Prudence bids that we leave from here. This exile is part of our destiny.” As they somberly depart, Sundjata confronts his half-brother Dankara Touman once more.
Sundjata: “Elder brother, Dankara Touman, out of respect for my mother, I am leaving. I am leaving, but be assured. I shall return. And on that day, come what may.”
V.O. Djeliba: “It was thus that Sundjata and his mother left Mande. Their departure was a real solace for Sassouma Berete.”
17. Cut to Present: the Keita home
Mabo: “Is that the end of the story?”
Djeliba: “Be patient. That is just the beginning of the story.”
Boicar comes in from work and greets them, then goes in the house.
Djeliba: “Do you remember everything?”
Suddenly the teacher Mr. Fofano strides into the compound followed by the other two truant schoolboys and their fathers. They barge into the house to confront Mabo’s parents. The fathers are very angry, accusing Mabo of leading their boys into delinquency and demanding that Mr. Keita keep his son in tow.
Boicar, angry: “You are the delinquents who are aggressing me in my own home. Get out!” The men scruffle. Outside, Mabo and Djeliba listen to the uproar.
Mabo: “Djeliba, I’m in for it now.”
Djeliba: “Get up and go quickly. I am here, don’t worry.” But as they get up, Sitan, Mabo’s mother, comes outside and tearfully confronts them.
Sitan demands that Djeliba “Stop the story” and “put out the fire.”
Djeliba: “My daughter, I do not have the means. This story is like the wind. You can’t stop it.”
Sitan then appeals to Boicar to make Djeliba stop the story, but Boicar says he cannot. She then turns to Mabo asking him if he no longer wants to go to school and whether he will tell Djeliba to stop the story.
Mabo: “I want to go to school, but I want the story to continue.”
Sitan then tearfully declares she herself will leave, and refuses to be calmed. Mr Fofano, the fathers, and the boys leave. Djeliba packs up his hammock and himself prepares to leave. When Sitan comes back outside, Boicar trying to stop her, Djeliba addresses her.
Djeliba: “All right, I’m going. But first, I must speak to Mabo.” (Turns to Mabo.) “Do you know why the hunter always beats the lions in stories? It’s because it’s the hunter who tells the stories. If the lion told the stories, he would occasionally win. It’s valuable for you. Think of it and be confident in the future. Always remember that it’s an old world and that the future emerges from the past. Farewell.” Djeliba departs.
Mabo is torn, then runs out of the compound shouting, “DJELIBA!”
But when Mabo looks around outside the compound, Djeliba is nowhere to be found. Instead, the mysterious Hunter of Do stands before him.
Mabo: “What are you doing here? You were in the story.”
Hunter of Do: “I am just passing by.”
Mabo: “Where is Djeliba?”
Mabo: “Hunter, he must explain my name to me.”
Hunter: “He’s gone. He is already far away. Come, let’s go.” The Hunter and Mabo walk to a huge tree and sit beneath it.
Mabo: “Hunter, since Djeliba has gone, tell me the rest of the story.”
Hunter: “I can’t. I’m not a griot. It’s not my role. You will find other griots on your road. They can tell you the meaning of your name.”
Suddenly the Hunter of Do disappears. Mabo looks around the tree for him in vain. Then, looking up, Mabo sees Djeliba’s totem, the bird. Closing shot lingers on the bird flying overhead.
V.O. Mabo: “Bird, don’t disappear. You must help me. You promised this to Djeliba.”
The Sundjata Epic, which Mabo hears, recounts the life of Sundjata Keita (sometimes spelled Sundiata or Son-Jara Keyta,) the man responsible for turning his nation into the great Malian trading empire. Set in the early 13th century, the epic provides the widespread Mandi people a legend explaining their common origin and subsequent division into castes or clan families. An oral recitation of the complete poem with musical accompaniment can last close to sixty hours. But, this film, like most performances, recounts only a part of the epic, here the events surrounding the birth, boyhood and exile of Sundjata (corresponding to lines 356 to 1647 in the standard translation of John William Johnson, The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.)
Sundjata's quest, like Mabo's, requires the successful reconciliation or integration of two types of power represented by his paternal and maternal lineages. His father, Maghan Kon Fatta Konate a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, has brought barika (law and progress) to human society, and the religious power of barakah (Islamic concept of “grace). But Sundjata’s material inheritance from Sogolon and the Buffalo Woman of Do is the occult spiritual powers of nyama. Sundjata must learn to master these paternal and maternal sources of power, as he seeks to gain political power and fulfill his destiny. The major battles described in the oral epic are not great conflicts of weaponry but battles of sorcery. Later, before his great adversary Sumamuru can be defeated on the field of war, Sundjara must learn the secret of Sumamuru’s occult powers and make counter-sacrifices to eliminate its effectiveness.
Sundjata himself, hexed at birth by his mother's co-wife, must crawl across the earth, scorned as a "reptile." A Mandi proverb explains: "The great tree must first push its roots deep into the earth." When the climactic moment arrives for Sundjata to walk erect like a man, he tries to lift himself up with a seven-forged iron rod, a product of human technology. Even this cracks beneath his strength, so the hunter reappears and instructs Sogolon to fetch a supple branch of the sun sun tree which has the nyama (occult powers) to hold Sundjata's weight. Thus, the hero must harness natural and supernatural powers to fulfill his heroic destiny. The heroic life of Sundjata can be viewed as a series of transformations in pursuit of the power and mastery he needs to fulfill his destiny. Beginning as a cripple, the limping hero goes through several transformations, each gaining him more power and mastery than the last, until finally he becomes the most powerful Mande hero to have ever lived.
Johnson explains that Sundjata’s chief adversary Sumamuru Kante was not despised in Mande cultures; his spirit is revered and worshipped today. The contrast between Sumamuru and Sundjata is not considered a question of evil versus good. A strong folk belief in Mande cultures is that each person—including heroes—has a destiny. However, that destiny is not automatically fated to come true. The hero must correctly identify and attempt to fulfill his appointed destiny. For example, if he underestimates his abilities, lacks ambition, or attempts too much too soon, he may lose his chances or be consumed by the occult powers he has or needs in order to fulfill his destiny. Heroes like Sundjata are not so much to be admired and emulated, as to be feared. For example, to gain the occult power a hero needs to fulfill his special destiny, he typically violates his society’s taboos. If the hero is strong enough—that is, if he is in tune with his destiny, his opportunities, and his abilities at that stage of the fulfillment of his destiny—he will be able to gain control over the occult power released by violating these taboos and become even more powerful in preparation for the next step on the road to his destiny.
In the film's final scene, the griot Djeliba disappears, and for the first time Mabo directly confronts the hunter. After hearing the beginning of the epic story of his ancestor, Mabo, too, has been attuned to his own destiny. The story, like the wind, cannot be stopped, and the stories of legendary and contemporary Keitas have converged. In making this film, Dani Kouyate (who shares the name of the griot, Djeliba Kouyate) succeeds in fulfilling the "meaning of his name." He has used film, the powerful 20th-century form of storytelling, to ensure that the Sundjata Epic is passed on as an inspiring force in the lives of young Africans everywhere.
The meaning of Mabo Keita’s name: Sundjata is considered the founder of a clan as well as the founder of the Empire of Mali; thus is he entitled to take a surname of his own: Keita or Keyta. “Keita” is explained as a combination of “ke” meaning “inheritance” and “ta” meaning “to take.” Thus, “Keita” means “He-who-took (stole)-the-Inheritance” (implying from Sundjata’s older brother Dankara Touman). The name “Sundjata” (Sundiata or Son-Jara) has various explanations. Some claim “Sun” or “Son” is a contraction (ie. “Soon”) of Sundjata’s mother’s name Sogolon (aka: Sugulun): it is common in Mali to prefix one’s own name with one’s mother’s name. Others define “Sun” or “Son” as “thief” (nson). “Jata” is defined as “lion.” Thus the full meaning of Sundjata Keita’s name would be: “Soon’s [Sogolon’s] Lion/Lion Thief-Who-Took-the-Inheritance.”
The film ends at the beginning of Mabo Keita’s quest to take his own cultural inheritance and fulfill the meaning of his name.
The Heritage of the Griot
HUM 211 Web Resources:
Epic Story of Sundjata | Mali Empire & Griot Tradition | African Oral Epics
Web Resources on Keita:
Keita (The Heritage of the Griot): Summary & film review excerpts
from Library of African Cinema, California Newsreel:
Hum 211 African Film Contexts: Keita
Internet Movie Database: on Keita: L'heritage du griot
. . .and on Sotigui Kouyate (who plays Djeliba Kouyate)
African Timelines Part II: African Empires
Campus Course Information
- Winter 2002
HUM 211 Home Page Syllabus Course Plan Assignments Course Pack TV Meetings
African Storytelling Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions
African Links African Timelines: History, Orature, Literature, & Film
African "Literary" Map African Films African Contexts: Film Afrique, Je Te Plumerai
Printing Announcement Student Writing Site Map
~ Film Notes
URL of this page: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/coursepack/keita.htm
Last Updated: 19 August 2004
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