The Empire of Mali
The Empire of Mali was a West African empire of the Mandinka people and emerged around 1230 AD. The empire was founded by the great warrior-diplomat, Sudiata, who reigned from 1230 to 1255 A.D. Stories of the great warrior Sudiata could be read in a tale titled, Sudiata: Epic of old Mali, by D.T. Niane. This tale tells of Sundiata, the great thirteenth-century ruler of Mali. The story comes to us through the centuries from a long line of oral historians, or griots, who are charged with keeping the memories of the past alive. The Epic of old Mali is a first hand source and brings the reader into the society of Mali. Through the tale we find that the Empire of Mali is rich in culture and diverse in many way. Oral traditions, religion, influences in society, cultural elements such as totems are many aspects that enhances the understanding of this West African civilization.
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In the story titled, “ The Buffalo Women,” tells a story of Maghan Kon Fatta, Sudiata’s father and how he met a hunter. The hunter is from the land of Sangaran and his people are famous for their ability to read fortunes. It was common for Mandinka people to believe in prophecies. For Fatta, his future consisted of marrying a ugly women who will bear his son, who will become the greatest king of Mali. In reality, people wouldn’t take prophecies lightly because it was part of their belief and culture. The title, Buffalo Women, refers to Sogolon, the mother who will bear Sudiata. She is named buffalo because a buffalo was running rampant, killing villagers and destroying crops and animals. The buffalo happens to be Sogolon but she was possessed by ghosts.
Out of this story, listeners learn a great deed. The tale addresses the idea that kindness is more important than strength and anger. The two travelers are rewarded not for their bravery or their ability to kill and hunt but for their kindness to a stranger.
In the chapter, “Nana Triban and Balla Fassyky,” sacrificial offerings were also a dominant part of the Mali culture. “Djata had to sacrifice a hundred white bulls, a hundred white rams and a hundred white cocks” (Niane 1965). That is three hundred animals that could have been used for other resources. Making a sacrifice this large shows how serious they are when it comes to pleasing their deity. Magic and supernatural power were also predominate throughout the story and is true in Mali society. Magic and supernatural events surround Sundiata even before he is born. Soothsayers predict the circumstances of his parentage and birth, and that he will become Mali’s ruler. Sundiata’s parents are brought together by the hunters of a supernatural buffalo, and his mother magically partakes of the spirit and strength of the buffalo. In an attempt to stop Sundiata’s predicted destiny and ensure that her own son will inherit the throne of his father, Sassouma hires witches to kill him by supernatural means. Her plan backfires: their malevolent powers cannot work against anyone with a truly pure and good heart. The sorcerer king Soumaoro derives his evil power from his room of magic fetishes, and Sundiata eventually overcomes him with the aid of magic. Before Islam took full reign of the religion, for the Mandinka, their religion was a mixed of tribal beliefs and Islam.
In the third chapter of the story titled “The Lion Child” tells of how Sogolon is the second wife of the king. Maghan Kon Fatta’s first wife, Sassouma, is concerned that the child of this ugly woman might disinherit her own son. As we find out, men in the culture of Mali are allowed to have up to four wives. “The Malinke practice polygamy, and Islam permits men to take up to four wives” (Moss and Joyce 1991). Having more than one wife, not only provides an opportunity for succession of the throne but women were also important in society. They were the caregiver of multiple children and tended to needs of their husband and household. Most of the women who appear in Sundiata are defined by their relationships to men. Then-actions are considered important chiefly for the ways that they impact male characters.
In the chapter titled, “Fougan or The Division of the World” the chapter is very rich in detail in describing the ceremonies and customs of the different lands. The griot describes the rituals used to divide the world and acknowledge sovereignty. Twelve kings of the nations of the savannah congregate at Ka-ba. As the story continue, we learn that Sudiata was truly a great leader. His empire was large, “Sundjata built up a vast empire that stretched eventually from the Atlantic coast south of the Senegal River to Gao on the east of the middle Niger bend” (WorldNet 2002). Through these vast amount of land were twelve provinces that originally made up Mali. These twelve provinces had different customs and celebrations. In the chapter, it says that everyone celebrates with war dances, songs, and amazing performances by the different nations. “The musicians of all the countries were there. Each people in turn came forward to the dais under Sudiata’s impassive gaze” (Niane 1965). A that great cultural exchange takes place and all the people are very happy. This is unheard of, if this type of event was compared to previous civilizations. Neighboring tribes and city states would usually battle against each other and try to dominate. But the Empire of Mali was different. Sudiata was not only a warrior of strength but a warrior of passion and kindness.
Sudiata was a man who encompasses most, if not all qualities of a superior leader. The first part of this epic concerns itself with the journey, both physical and spiritual, that Sundiata makes as he grows from a child into a man. While Sundiata always has the strength of a ruler within him, as was predicted from before his birth, he must change in several ways in order to claim that power. He must first learn to walk, and to lead his peer group in such traditional activities as hunting. Lame from birth, he finds the power within himself to stand up and walk in order to avenge his mother’s honor. Made to leave his own country by the mother of his half-brother, Sundiata must learn how to be a warrior. He excels at hunting, and his feats in battle lead one foreign king to regard the exiled prince as his own. Then, called to lead his people in a time of great trouble, Sundiata must leave this comfortable position and go forth on his own as a ruler. Finally Sundiata must learn when to make his stand, as he does on the battlefield.. The warrior-king who emerges from this process is strong and wise, admired by all.
West African civilization has so much history, it is difficult to keep physical record of it. That is why oral traditions has been a main part of African or tribal cultures. The Epic of Old Mali, is not only a story about a great man. The tale remains a an important piece of history about African civilizations. The story itself is history, a primary source, and is a glimpse into the past. By making reference to the present within the past, history becomes alive. The ability for the historical events to change with each telling is part of what makes oral history fascinating. Our text of Sundiata is simply one version, embedded in a specific time and place. If and when oral history disappears from Mali, it will be a truly great loss.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Africans South of the Sahara . Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Niane, D.T. Sudiata: an epic of old Mali. London: Longman Group Ltd., 1965.
Thompson, Carol. Empire of Mali. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.
WorldNet Virginia. “Mali: Ancient Crossroads of Africa.” Virginia Department of Education . http://mali.pwnet.org/history/history_mali_empire.htm (17 November 2009).
Every Culture. “Japan to Mali : Malinke .” Advameg Inc. http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Japan-to-Mali/Malinke.html (17 November 2009).
West African Civilization
Empire of Mali
Dr. R. O. Mekenye
November 19, 2009
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