Epic of Sundiata
The oral traditions relating to Sundiata Keita were passed down generation after generation by the local griots, until eventually their stories were put into writing. Sundiata was the son of Naré Maghann Konaté (variation: Maghan Konfara) and
Sogolon Condé (variations: "Sogolon Kolonkan" or "Sogolon Kédjou", the daughter of the "buffalo woman", so called because of her ugliness and hunchback). Sundiata was crippled from childhood and his mother (Sogolon) was the subject of ridicule among her co-wives. She was constantly teased and ridiculed openly for her son's disability. This significantly affected Sundiata and he was determined to do everything he possibly could in order to walk like his peers. Through this determination, he one day miraculously got up and walked. Among his peers, he became a leader. His paternal half-brother, Dankaran Touman, and Dankaran's mother, Sassouma Bereté, were cruel and resentful of Sundiata and his mother. Their cruelty escalated after the death of Naré Maghann (the king). To escape persecution and threats on her son's life, Sogolon took her children, Sundiata and his sisters, into exile. This exile lasted for many years and took them to different countries within the Ghana Empire and eventually to Mema where the king of Mema granted them asylum. Sundiata was admired by the King of Mema for his courage and tenacity. As such, he was given a senior position within the kingdom. When King Soumaoro Kanté of Sosso conquered the Mandinka people, messengers were sent to go and look for Songolon and her children, as Sundiata was destined to be a great leader according to prophecy. Upon finding him in Mema they persuaded him to come back in order to liberate the Mandinkas and their homeland. On his return, he was accompanied by an army given to him by the King of Mema. The warlords of Mali at the time who were his age group included: Tabon Wana, Kamadia Kamara (or Kamadia Camara), Faony Condé, Siara Kuman Konaté and Tiramakhan Traore (many variations: "Trimaghan" or "Tiramaghan", future conqueror of Kaabu). It was on the plain of Siby (var: Sibi) where they formed a pact brotherhood in order to liberate their country and people from the powerful Sosso king. At The Battle of Kirina, Sundiata and his allies defeated the Sosso king and became the first Emperor of the Mali Empire. He was the first of the Mandinka line of kings to adopt the royal title Mansa (king or emperor in the Mandinka language).
The Mandinka epic does not give us dates, but Arab and North African writers who visited the area about a century after the epic's events documented on paper some of the information, including dates and a genealogy. Conversely, the written sources left out other pieces of information that the oral tradition includes.
- Songolon Djata
- Sundjata Keyita
- Mari Djata or "Mārī-Djāta" (according to Ibn Khaldun in the late 14th century)
- The Lion King
The proper English spelling of Sundiata's name is Sunjata, pronounced soon-jah-ta, approaching the actual pronunciation in the original Mandinka. The name Sogolon derives from his mother and Jata means lion. It is the traditional way of praising someone in some West African societies (Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Guinea in particular). The name Sundiata praises him through his mother which means "the lion of Songolon" or "Songolon's lion". The name Jata derives from Jara (lion). Jara and many of its variations such as jata, jala or jada are merely regional variations, from Gambia, Guinea or Mali, for instance. Sundiata's name is thus a derivation of his mother's name Songolon (Son or its variation Sun) and Jata (lion).