The famous epic of Son-jara explains and celebrates the exploits of the legendary founder of the old Mali which was also called the Manden about seven hundred and fifty years ago. The Son-jara epic is also referred in West Africa as the sunjata. The epic constitutes a virtual social, political and cultural society which consists of the deep rooted aspects of the Mande people. It was originally in oral form like a song until it was first written by an Arab historian in the fifteenth century.
This epic has been performed and recited by the bards of the West African people and it has also been translated but not rewritten by many scholars who engage in the studies of the West African people. The epic of Son-jara was printed by the Madinka bard called Fa-Digi Sisoko and since then it has been retold and changed so many times by different authors and scholars. What makes this epic different from other epics is that most of it is historical and not mythical
Sundiata Keita was a Muslim man from Mali. He liked to explore culture and religion and therefore he built a reputation of being a powerful magician because of his exploits in the local religion and culture. Sundiata became the ruler of the Mali Empire because of the influence he had on the Mali people. He was the founder of the Mali Empire and he ruled effectively. His way of ruling was influenced by his family ties and his religion and also his magical ability.
All these aspects enabled him to lead Mali Empire well and defeat most of their enemies. The events that happened in his life were very fascinating and made the epic more interesting. Johnson states that Sundiata got his name from his mother because in the Mali Empire, people got their names as a combination of the given name by the mother and the personal name and not forgetting the clan name. (Johnson 9) Sundiata went through a lot of struggles in his childhood and these events made him stronger and wiser and eventually enabled him to become to become the king.
He grew up at the time when the ruler of the Ghana Empire was trying to take over the Mali Empire. He therefore rose against the rule of the Ghanaian ruler by building an army to overthrow the ruler who had taken over his homeland. He had a very strong army because of his courage, influence and prowess and managed to defeat the ruler and hence he was made the ruler of the Empire. Johnson states that Sundiata ruled with the help of his mother who was a sorceress and his female relatives. (Johnson 10) He was a good ruler who ensured that the Empire was prosperous and therefore he engaged in farming activities which made the Empire of Mali very wealthy.
Sundiata also loved their culture and preserved it all the time. He was also a supporter of religion especially the Muslim religion. He adapted most of the values that help him become a good ruler from religion and culture
Son-jara is the most celebrated and respected Mali ruler in oral narrative and literature today. The society of Mali has assigned him the role of Culture hero. The epic of Son-jara is therefore very popular because it is original and shows the life of the hero as written or explained personally by him.
Its popularity has been great because of the belief that the description of a culture hero’s life in literature will change or determine the set of patterns of behavior in the society in which the hero came from. The era in which Sundiata lived and the cultural influence and religious aspects had a great impact on how he wrote the epic. The epic was written centuries ago when people were so tied to their cultures and preserved it in all ways. Centuries ago, there was very few or no writing material present and therefore the epics were orally recited. Only oral tradition was present and therefore Sundiata told the story of his life and all the experiences that he went through orally. The epic of Sundiata has been recognized as a presentation of the rich and prosperous culture and heritage of the African people.
This is because of the rich culture that was present in Mali during the era of Sundiata and the ways in which the Mali people preserved their culture. Culture played a great role in the way Sundiata ruled his people and therefore it also contributed so much in the way he narrated the epic. The aspects of culture are greatly brought out in the epic. Sisoko, Johnson and Bird state that the epic describes the traditional practices and the rituals of the people of Mali and they are all derived from the tradition of Sundiata. Son-jara was a Muslim but also an African and therefore he blended both the African tradition and the Muslim tradition into one culture version of one religion imported from another. (Sisoko, Johnson & Bird 51) This blend of culture helped him in being a great ruler because no culture felt left out.
Son-jara inherited his religion from his father who was a Muslim and whose family brought Islam to the sub Saharan Africa. He also inherited the great spiritual powers of his mother who was a pagan and a magical sorceress. He invested in these two spiritual powers from the different traditions and the blend helped him rule his people effectively and with great prowess, courage and power
The epic of Son-jara is largely the life of Sundiata or Son-jara, the struggles he went through and his life as the ruler of Mali. It was orally presented by Son-jara himself and over the years it has been adapted for performances and also it has been documented and rewritten many times. The epic is a story of Son-jara’s life, his ancestry and tradition, his life and the struggles he went through to become the ruler of the Empire. Sisoko, Johnson and Bird state that Son-jara was born out of a prophecy from a hunter who prophesized that if the king gave birth to a son with an ugly woman then the son will one day become a king. (Sisoko, Johnson & Bird 54) This prophecy was proven by the birth of Son-jara and his rise to leadership of the Empire.
Son-jara struggled through out his childhood because of his inability to walk. He fought this weakness and many other vices until he became the leader of the empire for example he requested an iron rod from a blacksmith to help him pull himself up and walk and try to stop the harsh treatment that they were going through from the new leader. In the epic, the new leader had a son with Sindiata’s mother before sundiata was born. After the death of Sundiata’s father, the new king took over the kingdom and together with his son; they ruled the Empire very harshly and unfairly. They sent the mother of Sundiata and her two daughters to exile form the country.
This troubled Sundiata and made him rise against the leader and his son by forming revolts and a strong army that was against the rule of the new leader who was called Sassouma Berete. Sundiata’s mother was a very powerful sorceress who had an account with a buffalo woman that gave her the ability to turn into a buffalo when she was in trouble. She could also turn into a talking dog and her magical prowess was also strong. After the harsh treatment from the king who took over and his son, she turned into a buffalo and started to attack men who were under the rule of the king. She was captured and sent to exile with her two daughters.
The epic describes how Son-jara came to be in power and how his cultural and religious blend had a great impact in his leadership. Clinton, Irele and James state that when the Ghanaian leader took over the Empire, the son to the former leader fled the Empire due to dear and therefore the people of Mali after going through so much struggles and harsh treatment, they sent for Sundiata to come back home and try and stop the tribulations that they were going through. (Clinton, Irele & James 1553) Sundiata came back home and formed alliances with smaller kingdoms that were neighboring the Empire to try and stop the leader from taking over his homeland. He started a war against the leader with the help of the strong army that he had formed from his people and the neighbors. He managed to defeat the leader and he was crowned the leader of the Mali Empire with a title called manta which meant kings of kings.
Sundiata set out to ensuring that his empire was successful and prosperous. In his leadership role, he applied his cultural beliefs and put his blend of religion into application. Infact the blend of religion played a major role in ensuring that he became a good ruler.
He inherited leadership qualities from his father and used the Islam spirit in making many rules and many decisions that affected the empire. His mother’s strong spirit and sorcery also helped in making decisions and in influencing most activities in the Empire for example people would come to his mother to solve cases. In the epic, the culture of Son-jara did not grant women equal power as men and they were not much respected. They therefore had to use their powers of magic and their sexual powers to get what they wanted. Son-jara was very powerful because of all the powerful magic that he experienced from his childhood. When growing up, he was taken by a genie to go and gain more magical powers. His mother also cooked special foods fro him that would increase his strength and power. He also got magic from a Muslim genie.
The achievement of Son-jara’s quest is largely influenced by the women in her life and they are his mother and sister. His mother guided him throughout his childhood with the help of her magic and his sister gave him the secret of the leader’s weakness that was a secret to the defeat of the leader by Son-jara.
Johnson, W. The epic of Son-Jara: a West African tradition. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
1992. pp. 148 Sisoko, F., Johnson, W & Bird, J. Son-Jara: the Mande epic: Mandekan/English edition with notes and commentary. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
2003. pp. 331 Clinton, W. Irele, A & James, H.
The Norton Anthology of World Literature. London: Norton & Co. Publishers. Volume1. 2009. pp. 1896