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West-African Traditions in “The Epic of Son-Jara”

The Epic of Son-Jara is an epic set in West Africa in the thirteenth century. It describes the rise to power of Son-Jara, also spelled as Sundiata, who founded the Mali Empire, which was the largest and the most influential state in the region and existed for more than four centuries falling only in 1670. While its population consisted of several tribes, they were all considered part of the Manding peoples sharing similar cultures. The nobility was mostly Islamic, but most common people combined some elements of Islam with local traditions. This response will concentrate on analyzing how the beliefs and practices of West Africa are reflected in the following passage:

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“They told Sundiata many things.

Sundiata’s griot, Balla Fasséké,

told of stealing into Soumaoro’s chamber of secrets.

There he found great riches, stolen by the sorcerer

from the lands of the nine kings whom he defeated.

And in this chamber were many owls,

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and great urns full of snakes,

and the severed heads of the nine kings,

and the largest ever made by men,

and it was only by playing upon this balafon

that Balla Fasseke was able to charm the snakes

and retain his life.

And Sundiata’s sister, Nyakhaleng Juma Suukho,

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told him of Soumaoro’s evil intentions toward her,

of how he had held her prisoner and threatened to have his way with her,

but even he, evil as he was, dared not such a great offense,

for one’s deeds return upon one manyfold.”

First, it might be relevant to address the storyteller mentioned in this piece. Son-Jara, as the founder of the Mali Empire, was recognized as one of the most important heroes, and throughout the centuries, The Epic of Son-Jara was multiple times retold by griots – storytellers of the Manding people. They were mainly responsible for remembering and promoting history by orally carrying down the stories. Their performances were often accompanied by musical instruments similar to harps – they were called koras.

Griots illustrate the West-African oral tradition aimed at transmitting stories and legends, customs, and beliefs by word of mouth from one generation to another, helping preserve the connection and continuity of culture. Griots, therefore, served not only as storytellers, musicians, and observers but also as historians and advisors, holding a crucial role in the Manding society.

As they were privileged to deliver historical facts, myths, legends, proverbs, poems, and stories to the next generations, griots had to be outstanding individuals – possessing unique wisdom, amazing memory, and rhetorical talent. Their influence was also supported by mystical elements. For instance, this passage describes how intruding into “Soumaoro’s chamber of secrets” and facing “urns full of snakes”, Son-Jara’s griot was able to survive by playing “the largest balafon ever made by men”. This also emphasizes that snakes, similarly to many other religious traditions, including Christianity, were seen in Western Africa as evil creatures.

Furthermore, this passage also illustrates some cultural and social norms accepted in the Mali Empire’s society. For instance, the text indicates certain levels of social inequity allowing the reader to suggest that women were treated as inferiors. It can be clearly seen in the part where Sundiata’s sister, Nyakhaleng Juma Suukho, says that Soumaoro “held her prisoner and threatened to have this way with her”. As in many other epics of Africa and the Middle East, a woman here is presented as attractive and alluring, thus, being to some extent reduced to her body. At the same time, the male characters are mostly characterized by focusing on their physical strength or recognition.

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Nyakhaleng Juma Suukho is also seen as incapable of self-defense, as it was only the mercy of the kidnapper that spared her of rape. However, the concluding sentence emphasizes that performing an act of sexual violence towards a woman was considered “a great offense”. However, as in many traditions, the reasons may lie not in respect towards women themselves but in the perceived damage to their families’ honor.

Overall, a careful analysis of The Epic of Son-Jara can provide a lot of valuable information on the social norms, beliefs, and traditions of the Mali Empire. It can be engaging to identify both the elements that are unique for the particular culture and the ones that transcend time and space. Eventually, the reader can not only expand the knowledge regarding the Mali Empire, but also make some interesting parallels with other Eastern and even some Western traditions.

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