Sundiata Keita: The Lion King of Mali
Sundiata Keita was the founder of the Mali Empire and is popularly referred to as the Lion King. Prior to this, Sundiata was the king / chief of a small, obscure Mandinka tribe within the Ghana Empire. With the decline of the Ghana Empire during the 13th century AD, Sundiata seized the opportunity to increase his power, and eventually subdued the Ghana Empire, turning it into one of his vassals.
Much of what we know about Sundiata’s life is derived from oral tradition, in particular one that is known as the Epic of Sundiata . Additionally, written evidence about this ruler can be found in the writings of several Muslim travelers who visited Mali.
Sundiata’s Mother - The Buffalo Woman
According to the Epic of Sundiata , the founder of the Mali Empire was the son of a king / chief by the name of Maghan Kon Fatta (known also as Frako Mahgan Keigu, meaning ‘Maghan the Handsome’), and his second wife, Sogolon Kedjou. Maghan’s territory is said to have been located in the upper reaches of the Niger River , in the north-western corner of the country known today as Guinea. In the epic, a prophecy was made which foretold the greatness that would be achieved by Maghan’s descendants and the Mali Empire.
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For this to be fulfilled, however, Maghan had to marry a woman named Sogolon. According to the epic, the ‘ Buffalo Woman’ is described as such, “She is ugly, she is hideous, she bears on her back a disfiguring hump. Her monstrous eyes seem to have been merely laid on her face.”
Maghan encountered Sogolon when she was brought by two young hunters to his court. Sogolon was supposed to marry one of the hunters, though in the end, the hunters decided to offer Sogolon to Maghan. As he hoped to fulfil the prophecy, the king married Sogolon.
Sogolon Kedjou, the ‘Buffalo Woman’. ( emaze.com)
Sundiata’s Early Years, An Unlikely Future King
Sogolon eventually bore the king’s son, and gave birth to Sundiata. Sundiata had quite an uneventful early childhood. In fact, the child seemed to have taken after his mother, and did not look like he would amount to much,
“At the age of three he still crawled along on all-fours while children of the same age were already walking. He had nothing of the great beauty of his father Nard Maghan. He had a head so big that he seemed unable to support it; he also had large eyes which would open wide whenever anyone entered his mother's house. He was taciturn and used to spend the whole day just sitting in the middle of the house. Whenever his mother went out he would crawl on all fours to rummage about in the calabashes in search of food, for he was very greedy.”
A drawing of Sundiata Keita (knowledgeisking.ning.com)
At the age of seven, Sundiata’s father died. Dankaran Touman, Sundiata’s half-brother, became king and a regency council was set up in which Saussoma, the new king’s mother, wielded undisputed power. Sundiata and Sogolon were treated harshly by Saussoma, as the late king had been fonder of them than of her.
Legend says that willpower and hard work allowed Sundiata to eventually overcome his physical challenge, i.e. he was finally able to walk. By the age of ten, the future Malian emperor showed signs that he was destined for greatness,
“He was a lad full of strength; his arms had the strength of ten and his biceps inspired fear in his companions. He had already that authoritative way of speaking which belongs to those who are destined to command.”
Sundiata Keita’s Destiny is Fulfilled – How He Became the Lion King
During this time, there was one person who still stood between Sundiata and his destiny – Saussoma. Sogolon decided that if she continued to stay where she was, her children would become Saussoma’s victims. Hence, Sogolon decided to go into exile with her children. In due course, they arrived in the court of the king of Mema, Moussa Tounkara, who granted them asylum.
Sundiata became a favorite of Moussa Tounkara, who admired his drive to overcome his hardships, and he rose in the king’s court. He was eventually appointed as the king’s viceroy and governed in the king’s absence. Yet, Sundiata’s destiny was to be much greater than this, and eventually, he returned to his homeland.
This opportunity arose when the Mandinka fell to Soumaoro Kante, the king of Sosso. Sundiata was angered by the treatment of his people by Sosso and he went to war against Soumaoro Kante with half of Moussa Tounkara’s army. The task ahead of him was not an easy one and it involved uniting various tribes to defeat a common enemy.
At the Battle of Kirina, Soumaoro Kante was defeated by Sundiata and his allies (perhaps when Sundiata shot the king with a poisoned arrow). This victory marked to first step in the rise of the Mali Empire, which would eventually become a dominant power in West Africa.
It was also the beginning of what legends say were many years of rule by Sundiata – who was now known as the ‘Lion King of Mali’. The title ‘Lion King’ comes from an alternative manner to call Sundiata, which is Sogolon Djata – with Sogolon for his mother and Djata from Jata ( Jara) “ Lion”, thus he was both Sogolon’s Lion and the king of Mali – the Lion King of Mali.
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A modern balafon. The balafon plays an important role in the Epic of Sundiata. The magical balafon belonging to Soumaoro Kante was stolen by Sundiata Keita's griot - Balla Fasseke and taken to Mandinka country. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
While the oral tradition does not mention the dates of events, based on the accounts of Muslim travelers , that the Battle of Kirina took place around 1230 AD, and it was around this time too that the Mali Empire was established. Sundiata was also the first of the Mandinka kings to adopt the title Mansa – which means king or emperor in that language.
The Story of Sundiata After the Battle of Kirina: The Lion King’s Empire
Mansa Sundiata Keita’s actions on the battlefield came to a close after he took Kumbi, the Ghana empire’s former capital and the last symbol of that kingdom’s glory. His general’s continued to expand his realm all the way north to the southern edge of the Sahara , to the Great Bend of the Niger river in the east, west to the Senegal River, and south to the Wangara goldfields.
However Sundiata himself had shifted focus to administrating the kingdom. With a good location for the gold trade , Niani (also known as Mali) became the control center where merchants flocked to the stable, profitable city. It is also generally accepted that the king also walked a fine line by both appealing to the Muslim merchant class with an official status as a follower of Islam, but maintained the respect of non-Muslims as well by completing the traditional religious expectations of a West African ruler.
Sundiata is thought to have died in around 1255 AD, though his cause of death is still disputed. Some say he was accidentally shot by a poison arrow and others suggest he was a victim of political assassination . But the most widely accepted cause of Sundiata Keita’s death is drowning in the Sankarani River, where a shrine with his name can still be seen.
The Mali Empire continued to prosper long after Sundiata’s death. One of the empire’s best-known emperors, Mansa Musa , was the grandnephew of Sundiata.
Top Image: Sundiata Keita as presented in Civilization VI. Source: CC BY NC SA 3.0
By Wu Mingren
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