Sundiata epic indicates that in West African history before the arrival of Europeans, power was hereditary. King Maghan, who was the king of Niani city, had to have one of his sons as the heir of his throne. According to a prophecy that he heard from a hunter, his heir would come from a marriage with an ugly woman who happened to be Sogolon (Niane et al, p. 78). Sogolon gave birth to a son who would be the heir, but due to disability, the king was no longer sure if he will rule. The choice of an heir was confined to the family.
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Sundiata epic portrays that West African culture strongly believed in sorcery. The first wife tries to get help from sorcerers to get rid of the second wife, but they refuse. She again tries to kill her stepson SUNDIATA by assembling nine witches to help her kill SUNDIATA though the mission was not successful. This indicates that sorcery was a means used to get rid of enemies and people who created obstacles in achieving specific goals (Niane et al, p. 83). Hence witches were the assigned persons for revenge and other evil motives.
Power and magic was used for self-protection by some people in West Africa. According to the narrator, when SUNDIATA tried to throw a spear to his opponent Soumaoro at war, the spear bounces off his chest, and he disappears. SUNDIATA believes that Soumaoro is using magic hence consults soothsayers on how to defeat the magic. After being tipped by Bella Fasseke on how to beat Soumaoro, SUNDIATA shoots him, and he feels his powers leaving, and he retreats (Niane et al, p. 77). There was also a king of a region called Kita. The king is believed to be protected by an evil jinni found in a pool on a mountain.
West African communities were hospitable and welcoming to strangers. Sogolon realizing that she and her children were in danger of attack from the first wife, they left Niani to other regions like Djaba where they stayed for around two months and withdrew due to fear that the king was compromised (Makaudze, p. 35). They finally reached Wagadou in Ghana where they got a good reception and settled there. SUNDIATA and his half-brother Manding Bory were treated like royals.
According to Sundiata epic, marriage in West African culture was polygamous. King Maghan was married to three wives. His first wife was Sassouma Berete, second wife Sogolon, and third wife, Namadje (Makaudze, p. 34). Even though the first wife was jealous of the second wife since she was afraid of the son of the second wife taking over the throne, she had no choice but co-existed with them since the culture of that time allowed polygamy.
Warfare was used in West Africa to conquer and rule territories. To remove Soumaoro from power, SUNDIATA had to have his army to defeat that of Soumaoro. Leaving Ghana, King Moussa gives SUNDIATA half of his army to go with him. He also joins forces with the king of Tabon who was his childhood friend to defeat Soumaoro (Makaudze, p. 32). He recruits more people to join his army. They successfully conquer that of Soumaoro including various regions such as Kita and Diaghan. After defeating all areas, SUNDIATA created Mali kingdom and formed an alliance of his kingdoms. He gifted the kings loyal to him with new territories.
Power and leadership in West Africa was given to the male gender. In no instance was a female considered to take up leadership roles. King Maghan of Niani had a daughter but at no point was she considered as the one to assume the leadership. The kings of the various named regions such as Moussa of Ghana, Mansa Konkon and Soumaoro Kante were all male (“Social Aspects In The Kingdom Of Mali”). Sogolon also depended on his male child for protection. SUNDIATA, despite not being able to walk for seven years, he had to struggle to stand up and walk when his mother was assaulted. SUNDIATA knew it was his responsibility to protect his mother.
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The people of West Africa also believed in prophecy. King Maghan had heard a prophecy by a soothsaying hunter that his heir would be a son from his marriage to an ugly wife. When hunters brought him an ugly wife Sogolon, he believed she was the one. Sogolon gave birth to a son, and the king knew the son was to be his heir. Her son SUNDIATA could not walk or talk at the age of three (Makaudze, p. 28). The king did not go against the prophecy of the hunter and still believed in him. King Maghan even gifts SUNDIATA with his griot before his death to depict how strongly West Africans believed in prophecy and fate.
Hunting and farming was the source of food for the people of West Africa. A hunter is the one who foretold the birth of an heir to Maghan. It was hunters who brought the ugly woman whom they acquired by defeating a notorious buffalo in a faraway land. These instances show that there were several hunters in the region; hence hunting was the people’s source of livelihood (Niane et al, p. 74). Sogolon plants a garden after being banished by the first wife to live behind the palace. She also gets insulted by the first wife when she borrowed baobab leaves. These activities show that farming was practiced in the region.
Ideas of the culture and history of West Africa presented in the Sundiata epic, are in some instances different from how I had preconceived the West African culture to have been like before European inversion, and similar in some cases. I believed that the people of West Africa, like many other African communities, also practiced witchcraft and sorcery. Most African communities believed in witches and were, in most cases, banished from the city once found undertaking evil activities.
According to the Sundiata epic, the heir was the son of the second wife. I have always believed that the firstborn son of the first wife was automatically the heir to the throne. But according to Sundiata, this is not the case. Other factors, such as prophecy (or destiny), legitimacy, and intelligence, are considered when choosing an heir (Niane et al, p. 76). I also believed that disability automatically disqualified one from being a candidate of inheriting the throne. But this is not the case as depicted in the Sundiata epic. King Maghan still believes in his disabled son and even gifts him with his griot as his preferred successor.
West African people, according to the Sundiata epic, appear to be hospitable to outsiders. I never believed that was the case. I had the perception that once you move to a different community, you would be treated with contempt and hostility, and eventually sent away or killed. Ghana kingdom was so welcoming to the extent of training outsiders their warfare practices, divulging military tactics and secrets to strangers. This is a show of the hospitality that West Africans had; the ruler of Ghana kingdom not only trained SUNDIATA but also gave him half of its army to help him in war. This act was an explicit gesture of being hospitable.
Due to the primitive nature of most African societies before the coming of Europeans, I believed that the people of West Africa practiced hunting and gathering as the primary means to get food (Niane et al, p. 84). Even though the communities presented in the Sundiata epic hunted and gathered food, I didn’t expect any farming activities. The fact that Sogolon had a garden beats my expectation. I thought Europeans introduced all farming activities, but it seems that West Africans were already tillers of land before the European settlers invaded Africa. The use of crude weapons, such as arrows by the people of West Africa is in line with my expectations. Europeans introduced advanced weaponry, such as the use of guns.
My conception that the firstborn son, of the first wife, must be the automatic heir of the throne has changed. I have realized that other factors are important in determining the heir to the kingship of the community. The prophecy by a hunter guided king Maghan’s choice. He also considered SUNDIATA to be wise despite his disability. This indicates that factors such as wisdom also help in determining the heir besides the legitimacy of the heir as a son to the ruler.
Magic and power was used by some characters such as Soumaoro Kante and King of Kita. An evil jinni protects the king of Kita. The jinni’s powers are believed to be concentrated at a pool found on top of a mountain. Soumaoro, on the other hand, is protected by magic. The magic seems to work when SUNDIATA tries to hit him with a spear, it bounces back, and he disappears (Niane et al, p. 83.). This has changed my conception of magic and powers. I have always believed that magic and powers do not work.
- Makaudze, Godwin. “Literature as Celebration: The Zulu (Emperor Shaka) and Mandingo (Sundiata) Epic”. Imbizo, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, pp. 27-38, doi:10.25159/20789785/2781.
- Niane, Djibril Tamsir et al. Sundiata. Pearson Longman, 2006, pp. 60-88.
- “Social Aspects in the Kingdom of Mali through Ibn Battuta’s Book Tuhfatul Nuddar in Garaeb Al Amsar Wa Ajaeb Al Asfar“. University Of Baghdad – College Of Education for Women, 2019