Humanities 211
Culture(s) & Literature of Africa
(Oral Arts &  Film)
Cora Agatucci

6 October 1998: Learning Resources

The Epic of Sundjata
Short Cuts:  On Translating Orature into Literature |
Summary of the Epic Story of Sundjata

Backgrounds for Keita: The Heritage of the Griot  

On Translating Orature into Literature

There is no single definitive version or “text” of the Sundjata epic story.  Various versions of the Sundjata story have been and continue to be told, sung, performed by various African griots or bards (like Djeliba in the film Keita).  Oral performances vary and change over time, even when performed by the same singer-storyteller.  Content and performance traditions vary locally and regionally across the Mande cultural world of West Africa, as do the styles and interpretations of individual Mande griots (professional bards).  You may note differences between the summary of the legend of Sundjata given below and the version told in the film Keita.  To ask, “Which is the right version?” is a very Western question, but historical accuracy or a definitive literary (written down) “text” may not be particularly important in African oral traditions--for example, the Mande peoples, who reverence Sundjata as a great cultural hero and continue to celebrate his memory in many and various oral epic performances of his story.  In any case, the similarities in these versions generally count for more than their differences.

The version of the Sundjata epic offered by African Odyssey Website [see below] relies principally on the story as told by Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, from the village of Djeliba Koro in present day Guinea, not far from the capital of the old Malian Empire.  Djeli Mamadou's version was translated into French and published as Soundjata ou Epoque Mandiginue in 1960, by one of West Africa's foremost historians, D. T. Niane (and this version was later translated into English by G.D. Pickett and published in 1965).

Another important version of the Sundjata epic available in English translation is that of Mandinka bard Fa-Digi Sisoko, from a performance he gave in Kita, Mali in 1968.  The oral performance was recorded, transcribed, translated and later published in English in John William Johnson’s The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986).

Variant translations & spellings of African names can be confusing.  Sundjata” is the spelling used in the English subtitles of the film Keita, but you will run across many other variants, such as “Sundiata,” "Sunjata," and “Son-Jara.”  Why so many variations?  Consider the many layers of "translation" and "transliteration" that have been at work to produce English translations of African oral "texts."  The number of languages spoken in Africa today is estimated at between 700 and, at the high end, up to 2,000; and most of these are oral-based languages. Typically, a translator knows a language that already has a written language (such as French or English)--and will render into a romanized written alphabet that African oral language.  Such a translator's "ear" is attuned to the spoken sounds of French or English.  Let's say that the translator's "ear" may not pick up certain African language sounds embedded in a name: thus, because  translators did not at first "hear" the muted "g" sound in Igbo, they translated the name of Chinua Achebe's ethnic group as "Ibo."   

Consider, too, that our imagined  translator is attuned to the ways pronunciation of spoken sounds are rendered or written down in French or English, depending on the language of the translator's intended audience.  When African languages have been written down or transcribed by English- or French-language scholars (whether by non-Africans or by Western-educated Africans), they typically “English-ify” or “French-ify” the spellings to approximate the native pronunciations: e.g., one African name is spelled “Segu” by the English translator but spelled “Segou” by the French.  We, too, "Americanize" foreign words, and it is also done to us:  We say we speak “English,” but the French say we speak “l’americain."  Comprehension in the familiar language of the translator's intended audience introduces changes like these: Spanish speakers translate "The United States" as "Los Estados Unidos," while U.S. maps name as "Spain" a country whose own people call it "Espana."  Different African peoples also call each other by names that may be different from the names a particular group calls itself.  Translators' and sources' intercultural perspectives, as well as their languages, are responsible for introducing more variant spellings and names into written translations.  The Fulbe people call Mande people “Malinke.”  A French-language translator working with a Fulbe informant may thus render as "Malinke" what another group names "Maninka."  The Fulbe themselves are variously known by other African groups as Fulani, Fula, Poular, and Peulh; for example, the Bambara call the Fulbe the “Peul” in the film Yeelen (a Bambara-language film with English subtitles).  Yet in many English-language transcriptions, you will find the variant spelling "Bamana" used instead of  “Bambara."

Summary of the Epic Story of Sundjata
[AKA: Sundiata; ca. C.E. 1210? – 1255 or 1260?]

  Part I: An Extraordinary Childhood

Naré Fa Maghan [Maghan Kon Fatta Konate in Keita], ruled over the small kingdom of Mali, beginning ca. C.E.or A.D. 1200.  [“Nare” is a place name in Mali, one of the capitals of the Kings of Mali.  “Maghan” or “Magan” is a given name Sundjara and his father share; some say it means “master.”  “Konate” is the clan name of Sundjara and his father’s family.]  King Maghan was the son of a long lineage of distinguished hunters, known for their bravery, skill and their ability to communicate with jinns, spirits that hold influence over human lives. At this time, Manding [or Mande] rulers like Maghan had adapted the religion of Islam, but the new faith from the north had not altered their belief in the world of spirits. So when a hunter from the north came to Maghan and made a prophecy, the king and his griot took it very seriously. The prophecy said that two hunters would come to the king with a very ugly woman. Despite her ugliness, the hunter said, the king must marry this woman, for she would bear him Mali's greatest king ever.

Sure enough, two hunters later appeared with a hunchbacked woman. They explained to the king that this woman, Sogolon Kedju, was in fact the human double of a buffalo that had ravaged the land of Do, killing hunters and citizens alike. Armed with secret knowledge, these two hunters had felled the buffalo and brought the woman to Mali. Hideous and wild, Sogolon was also endowed with extraordinary powers.  She had been the hunter's prize, and now they were offering her to the king of Mali. Honoring the prophecy, Maghan quickly married Sogolon, and they conceived a child.

King Maghan's first wife, Sassouma, was jealous. She has always assumed that her son, Dankaran Touman, would claim the crown of Mali. Now this interloper stood to threaten what she felt was her son's destiny. 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 as the son of Sogolon, people later took to calling him Sogolon Diata, and eventually, Sundiata [AKA: Sundjata].

Having feared the new arrival, Sassouma was relieved when the new child turned out to be lazy, gluttonous and ugly. At three years old, Sundiata could not walk and rarely spoke. Even at seven, the boy still crawled, spent all his time eating, and had no friends. The king was deeply disturbed. How could this pathetic child become a great king?  Still, honoring the hunter's prophecy, the dying king gave his seemingly crippled son a gift that signified his desire that the boy should become king after all. That gift was a griot named Balla Fasséké, the son of the king's own griot [Bella Fasseke in the film Keita].

However, when king died, his first wife saw to it that her son, Dankaran, claimed the throne.  Sundiata, still on all fours, could do nothing about it.  One day, Sundiata's mother needed some leaves from the mighty baobob tree for her cooking, and she asked Sassouma if she could borrow some.  Sassouma agreed, taking the opportunity to insult Sogolon's useless son. At last, Sogolon could take no more. She returned to her son, crying and angry, and told him about Sassouma's insult.  Looking up, her son then said, "Cheer up, Mother. I am going to walk today."  Sundiata then told a blacksmith to make for him the heaviest possible iron rod, and then, with trembling legs and a sweaty brow, he proceeded to lift himself up, bending the rod into a bow in the process. Before an a crowd of amazed onlookers, Sundiata thus transformed himself. And his griot composed and sung "The Hymn to the Bow," on the spot. That hymn remains a part of the Sundiata musical epic still sung by griots over eight-hundred years later.

Part II: Exile

Now that Sundiata was fit to claim the throne as his father had wished, he represented a great threat to the false king Dankaran, and his plotting mother Sassouma.  Sundiata's mother decided to take her son into exile for their safety, but before they could leave, Dankaran sent Balla Fasséké, Sundiata's griot, and also Sundiata's half-sister, on a mission to the sorcerer king, Soumaoro Kanté. Soumaoro was the king of the Sosso, and he had been threatening all the kingdoms in the region with his growing army.  Sundiata was furious at the loss of his griot, but his mother convinced him that the time to set things right would come later. Promising he would return to claim his crown, Sundiata went into exile with a small entourage, not to return for many years.

Here’s the rest of the story that remains untold in the film Keita:

Sundiata came to manhood while traveling through kingdoms hundreds of miles from his home. Along the way, he learned to hunt, to fight, and to wield proverbs containing the wisdom of his ancestors.  One day, in the far off kingdom of Mema, Sundiata discovered people selling baobob leaves in the market. They had to be from Mali, for there were no baobob trees in Mema. The baobob sellers came to Sundiata's home and told him that the evil Sosso kin Soumaoro had conquered Mali, sending timid Dankaran into exile. At once, Sundiata began to gather a force of fighters, the core of his future army. Sundiata was determined to reclaim his kingdom, Mali. Sadly, on the eve of his departure from Mema, his mother Sogolon, the once powerful buffalo woman, died.

Meanwhile, Sundiata's griot and his half-sister remained captives in Soumaoro's court at Sosso. The brave griot, Balla Fasséké one day dared to enter the sorcerer king's secret chamber while the king was away. There, the griot found poisonous snakes writhing in urns, and owls standing watch over the severed heads of the nine kings Soumaoro had beaten. In the midst of this ghoulishness, stood the biggest balafon that Balla Fasséké had ever seen. Any ordinary mortal would have died instantly in this chamber, but the young griot had sorcery of his own, and even ventured to play the king's balafon, which produced a magnificent sound that charmed even the snakes and owls.

Soumaoro returned livid to find the griot in his chamber, but Balla Fasséké, thinking fast, improvised a praise song to Soumaoro that was so clever it disarmed the evil king. Soumaoro then declared Balla his griot, making war between Soumaoro and Sundiata inevitable.

Part III: Return of the King

As Sundiata made his way homeward, he passed through all the kingdoms he had come to know during his exile, gathering fighters, archers and horsemen as he went. At Tabon, near the Malian city of Kita, Sundiata's army launched a surprise attack on Soumaoro's forces. Though a smaller force, Sundiata's side prevailed, sending the Sosso army into retreat. At the next battle, Sundiata and Soumaoro came face to face. Again, Sundiata's forces dominated the field through superior tactics, but Soumaoro escaped using his own formidable magic. One moment, the Sosso king stood before Sundiata on his black-coated horse, his tall helmet bristling with horns. But a mere instant later, Soumaoro stood on a far distant ridge. Sundiata despaired, feeling that his enemy's magic made him invincible.

Even as Sundiata's army grew, he knew he would need more that might to defeat Soumaoro. So he summoned soothsayers to council him on harnessing supernatural powers.  Following their advice, Sundiata ordered the sacrifice of 100 white oxen, 100 white rams, and 100 white cocks. As the ritual slaughter began, Sundiata's griot and his half-sister arrived at his camp. They had escaped captivity in Soumaoro's city.

Sundiata's half-sister then told him that she had been forced to be Soumaoro's wife, but that in doing so, she had learned the secret of his magic. Soumaoro's totem, his sacred animal, and so the source of his amazing power, was the cock. This animal had the power to destroy Soumaoro. Like Samson losing his long hair and with it his strength, like Achilles with his vulnerable heel, Soumaoro too had a weakness that his enemy could exploit. Armed with this knowledge, Sundiata fashioned a wooden arrow with a white cock's spur as its tip.

The great showdown between Soumaoro and Sundiata came at the battle of Kirina. On the eve of the battle, the two men observed the ritual of declaring war. Each sent an owl to the other's encampment, and the owls delivered messages of bravado.

"I am the wild yam of the rocks," boasted Soumaoro,  "Nothing will make me leave Mali."

               Sundiata replied, "I have in my camp seven master smiths who will shatter the rocks.  Then, yam, I will eat you."

The verbal jousting continued. Soumaoro said, "I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit."

And Sundiata replied, "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 creeper."

Having thus declared their intentions, Sundiata and Soumaoro made war at Kirina. In the midst of full battle, Sundiata aimed his special arrow and fired. The cock's spur grazed Soumaoro's shoulder, and all was lost for the Sosso king. By the time Sundiata's victorious forces entered Soumaoro's city and opened his secret chamber, the snakes there were almost dead and the owls lay flopping on the ground.

Victorious, Sundiata invited the leaders of all the 12 kingdoms of the savanna to come to Kaba, a city in old Mali. There, he told them they could keep their kingdoms, but that all would now join in a great, new empire. From that day forth, Sundiata's word became the law respected throughout the 12 kingdoms. The Empire of Mali was born, stretching from the forests of the south far into the Sahara Desert, north of the great Niger River bend.  Sundiata ruled over this massive, thriving empire until his death in the year 1255. His empire survived for more than two centuries.

"Mali is eternal," says the griot Mamadou Kouyaté, concluding his account of the Sundiata epic. "But never try, wretch, to pierce the mystery which Mali hides from you. Do not go and disturb the spirits in their eternal rest. Do not ever go into the dead cities to question the past, for the spirits never forgive. Do not seek to know what is not to be known."

Plot summary courtesy of Banning Eyre/World Music Productions
From: [accessed July 1997]
based on the story as told by Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, from the village of Djeliba Koro,
in present day Guinea, not far from the capital of the old Malian Empire.
Djeli Mamadou's version was translated into French and published as
Soundjata ou Epoque Mandiginue in 1960, by D. T. Niane
(later translated into English by G.D. Pickett and published in 1965).

More HUM 211 Course Pack Web Resources on Keita:

Keita: Film Notes


Backgrounds for Keita:  The Heritage of the Griot
Epic of Sundjata | Mali Empire & Griot Tradition | African Oral Epics


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