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Sundjata Keita

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Title: Sundjata Keita  
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Sundjata Keita

Mansa Sundiata Keita
Emperor of Imperial Mali

Reign c. 1235 – c. 1255[1]
Crowned Mansa after The Battle of Kirina : c. 1235
Predecessor Naré Maghann Konaté and Dankaran Touman both as Faamas (Kings in Mandinka language - pre-Imperial Mali. As a Mansa (King of Kings), preceeded by none).
Heir-apparent Mansa Uli I
Mansa Wali Keita
Mansa Ouati Keita
Mansa Khalifa Keita
Mansa Sundiata Keita also had daughters not just sons.
Full name
Mansa Sundiata Keita
House The Royal House of Keita
Father Naré Maghann Konaté
Mother Sogolon Condé
Born c. 1217[2]
Niani, part of present-day Guinea
Religion Some claim Muslim[3][4] others Traditional African religion

Sundiata Keita (IPA (Mandinka, Malinke, Bambara): [sʊndʒæta keɪta]) (c. 1217 – c. 1255[5]) was the founder of the Mali Empire and celebrated as a hero of the Mandinka people of West Africa in the semi-historical Epic of Sundiata. The epic of Sundiata is primarily known through oral tradition, transmitted by generations of Mandinka griots (djeli or jeliw).[6] The famous West African ruler Mansa Musa was his grandnephew.[7]

The Epic

Further information: Epic of Sundiata

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).[10] Sundiata was crippled from childhood and his mother (Songolon) 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 of Kings in the Mandinka language).[11][12]

The Mandinka epic does not give us dates, but Arab and North African historians or chronologists who have visited the area about a century after the event have provided some of the dates including a genealogy. The written sources have also left out some pieces of information which the oral tradition was able to fill-in.[13]

Other names and etymology

There are variations in the spelling of Sundiata Keita's name. He is also known by different names some of which are given below:

  • Mari Djata I
  • Songolon Djata
  • Sundjata Keyita
  • Mari Djata or "Mārī-Djāta" (according to Ibn Khaldun in the late 14th century)[14]
  • The Lion King[15]

The proper English spelling of Sundiata's name is Sunjata pronounced: soon-jah-ta, which reflects the actual pronunciation and the Mandinka language. 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 for example Gambia, Guinea, Mali etc. Sundiata's name is thus a combination of his mother's name Songolon (Sun or its variation Son) and jata (lion).[16][17]

Surname (Keita or Konaté?)

Some Mandinkas have propose that, the name Keita actually means inheritor (heir-apparent) in the Mandinka language, and that Sundiata's real surname is Konaté (French spelling in Mali) or Konateh, variations: Konate, Conateh (English spelling in the Gambia where the Mandinkas make up the largest ethnic group). It is proposed that, Sundiata Keita's father, Naré Maghann Konaté took the real family name Konaté whilst his successors were "Keitas in waiting" (heirs to the throne).[18] According to others, the name Keita is a clan name rather than a surname.[19] Although in some West African societies a clan can be similar to the family name (see Joof family), such similarities do not exist between the names Keita and Konaté. Both points of contentious agree that, Keita is not a real surname, nevertheless Sundiata is referred to as Sundiata Keita in many scholarly works. At present, there is no consensus among the scholars regarding the name Sundiata Konaté.

Battle of Kirina

Delafosse previously proposed that, Soumaoro Kanté's grandfather with the help of his army and the Sosso nobility of Kaniaga captured what was left of the sacked Ghana Empire, and by 1180, Diara Kanté (var: Jara Kante), Soumaoro's father gained control of Koumbi Saleh, dethroned a Muslim dynasty and continued the Diarisso Dynasty (varition : Jariso or Jarisso) whose son (Soumaoro) went on to succeed him and launched an offensive against the Mandinkas.[21][22] Delafosse's original work have been refuted and discarded by many scholars including Monteil, Cornevin, etc. There was no Diara Kanté in the oral sources. That was an addition by Delafosee which was contrary to the original sources.[23] The consensus is, in c. 1235, Sundiata who had survived one of Soumaoro's earlier raids went to war with the help of his allies against King Soumaoro of Sosso. Although a valiant warrior, Soumaoro was defeated at The Battle of Kirina (c. 1235).[24] Soumaoro is regarded as one of the true champions of the Traditional African religion. According to Fyle, Soumaoro was the inventor of the balafon and the dan (a four-string guitar used by the hunters and griots).[25] After his victory at Kirina, Sundiata took control of the former conquered states of the Sosso and appropriated privileges among those who participated in the defeath of Soumaoro. The former allies of Soumaoro were also later defeated, in particular the king of Jolof. Serer oral tradition speaks of a Serer king of Jolof, involved in the occult (just as Soumaoro), who was later defeated by Tiramakhan Traore (one of the generals of Sundiata) after Sundiata sent his men to buy horses in Jolof. It is reported that, when Sundiata sent his men to Jolof to buy horses in a caravan loaded with gold, the king of Jolof took all the gold and horses - known among some as "the rubbery of the horses". In a revenge attack, Sundiata sent his general to Jolof to assassinate the king.[26] It is believed that, it was probably this king of Jolof (known as Mansa Jolofing or Jolofing Mansa) who sided with Soumaoro at The Battle of Kirina[27] and possibly belongs to the Ngom Dynasty of Jolof, the predecessors of the Diaw and Ndiaye Dynasties of Jolof.[28] At present, little is known about the Ngom Dynasty of Jolof.

Niane has advanced the claim that, the Jolofing Mansa sided with Sumaguru [or Soumaoro] because "like him, he was hostile to Islam." He went on to state that:

"He [the King of Jolof] confiscated Diata's [Sundiata's] horses and sent him a skin, saying that he should make shoes out of it since he was neither a hunter nor a king worthy to mount a horse."[29]


Niane alludes to Sundiata being a Muslim. According to Fage, there is nothing in the original epos that supports the claim. There is little or no reference to Islam either. Sundiata is regarded as a great hunter and magician whose subjects predominantly adhered to traditional beliefs and so did Sundiata, in order to gain their favors.[30][31][32] Others claim that Sundiata was a Muslim with syncretism practices.[33][34]Sundiata Keita's son, adopted sons and brother all had Muslim names, suggesting that he was at least a nominal Muslim, who may have complied with followers of the traditional religion to gain their favor and loyalty.

However, many of Sundiata's successors, including his son Uli I of Mali, were Muslims, Mansa Musa being one of the most celebrated.[35]

Imperial Mali


Further information: Mali Empire

After his victory at Kirina, Mansa Sundiata established his capital at Niani, near the present-day Malian border with Guinea.[37] Assisted by his generals, Tiramakhan being one of the most prominent, he went on to conquer other states. The lands of the old Ghana Empire were conquered. The king of Jolof was defeated by Tiramakhan and his kingdom reduced to a vassal state. After defeating the former ally of Soumaoro, Tiramakhan ventured deep into present-day Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea Bissau and conquered them. Tiramakhan was responsible for the conquest of the Senegambia.[38] In Kaabu (part of present-day Guinea Bissau), he defeated the last great Bainuk king (King Kikikor) and annexed his state. The great Kikikor was killed and his kingdom was renamed Kaabu.[39][40] Sundiata was responsible for the conquest of Diafunu and Kita.[41] Although the conquered states were answerable to the Mansa (king of kings) of Mali, Sundiata was not an absolute monarch despite what the title implies. Though he probably wielded popular authority, the Mali Empire was reportedly run like a federation with each tribe having a chief representative at the court.[42] The first tribes were Mandinka clans of Traore, Kamara, Koroma, Konde (or Conde), and of course Keita. The Great Gbara Assembly was in charge of checking the Mansa's power, enforcing his edicts among their people, and selecting the successor (usually the Mansa's son, brother or sister's son).[43] The Empire flourished from the 13th to the late 14th century[44] but began to decline as some vassal states throw away the yoke of Mali and regained their independence. Some of these former vassals went on to form empires of their own.[45]


Mansa Sundiata Keita died in c. 1255. This is generally the accepted year of death.[46][47] There is however very little information regarding his cause of death. Not only are there different versions, mainly modern, but Mandinka tradition forbids disclosing the burial ground of their great kings.[48][49] According to some, he died of drowning whilst trying to cross the Sankarani River, near Niani.[50][51] If one is to believe Delafosse, he was "accidentally killed by an arrow during a ceremony."[52] Others have maintained that, he was assassinated at a public demonstration.[53] At present, the generally accepted cause of death is drowning in the Sankarani River, where a shrine that bears his name still remains today (Sundiata-dun meaning Sundiata's deap water).[54] His three sons (Mansa Wali Keita, Mansa Ouati Keita and Mansa Khalifa Keita) went on to succeed him as Mansas of the Empire. The famous West African and ostentatious[55] ruler Mansa Musa was his grandnephew.[56]


Further information: Gbara and Kouroukan Fouga

A strong army was a major contributor to the success of Imperial Mali during the reign of Mansa Sundiata Keita.[57] Credit to Mali's conquests cannot all be attributed to Sundiata Keita but equally shared among his generals, and in this, Tiramakhan Traore stood out as one of the elite generals and warlords of Sundiata's Imperial Mali.[58] However, in a wider perspective of 13th century West African military history, Sundiata stood out as a great leader and a valiant warrior who was able to command the loyalties of his generals and army.[59][60]

It was during his reign that Mali first began to gain fame and notoriety as well as economic strength, a strength that his successors such as Mansa Musa improved on thanks to the ground work set by Sundiata, who controlled the region's trade routes and gold fields.[61] The social and political constitution of Mali were first codified during the reign of Mansa Sundiata Keita. Known as the Gbara and the Kouroukan Fouga, although not written and subject to alterations when they were first recorded in written form, they were part of the social and political norms of Mali. Many of these laws have been incorporated into the constitution of modern-day Mali.[62]

"By unifying the military force of 12 states, Sundiata becomes an emperor known as the Lion King of Mali, who controls tribes from the Niger River west to the Atlantic Ocean. Walt Disney Studios reprised the story of Sunditata in 1994 as an animated film, The Lion King, with animals substituting for the humans of Mali legend."

Ellen Snodgrass,[63]

Sundiata Keita was not merely a conqueror who was able to rule over a large empire with different tribes and languages, but also developed Mali's mechanisms for agriculture, and is reported to have introduced cotton and weaving in Mali.[64] Towards the end of his reign, "absolute security" is reported to have "prevailed throughtout his dominion."[65]

From a global perspective, the Epic of Sundiata and the Mali Empire is taught in many schools, colleges and universities, not just in West Africa but in many parts of the World.[66][67][68] Some scholars like Ellen Snodgrass, etc. have observed similarities with the 13th century Epic of Sundiata to Walt Disney's 1994 animated film, "The Lion King" (the inspiration behind the The Lion King's franchises such as "Lion King, the musical", etc.).[69] Disney has maintained that the film was inspired by William Shakespeare's Hamlet.[70]

See also


  1. Monteil, Charles, Fin de siècle à Médine (1898-1899), Bulletin de l'lFAN, vol. 28, série B, n° 1-2, 1966, p 166
  2. Monteil, Charles, La légende officielle de Soundiata, fondateur de l'empire manding, Bulletin du Comité d 'Etudes historiques et scientifiques de l 'AOF, tome VIII, n° 2, 1924.
  3. Robert Cornevin, Histoire de l'Afrique, Tome I : des origines au XVIe siècle (Paris, 1962), 347-48,(ref. to Delafosse in Haut-Sénégal-Niger vol.1, pp 256-257)
  4. Crowder, Michael, West Africa: an introduction to its history, Longman, 1977, p 31 (based on Delafosse's work)
  5. Delafosse, Maurice Haut-Sénégal-Niger: Le Pays, les Peuples, les Langues; l'Histoire; les Civilizations. vols. 1-3, Paris: Émile Larose (1912), (editors: Marie François Joseph Clozel)


  • Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire, p 77, Infobase Publishing, 2009, ISBN 1-4381-1906-2
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Further reading

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  • Newton, Robert C. 2006. Of Dangerous Energy and Transformations: Nyamakalaya and the Sunjata Phenomenon. Research in African Literatures Vol. 37, No. 2: 15-33.
  • . One of first publications presenting a version of the Sundiata Epic.
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  • Published translations of the epic include D.T. Niane's prose version, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Harlow: Longman, 2006, 1994, c1965: ISBN 1-4058-4942-8), Fa-Digi Sisoko's oral version, Son-Jara : The Mande Epic (Bloomington, Ind. : Indiana University Press, 2003), Issiaka Diakite-Kaba's French-English diglot dramatized version Soundjata, Le Leon/Sunjata, The Lion (Denver: Outskirts Press and Paris: Les Editions l'Harmattan, 2010).

External links

  • African Legends
  • webMande. The Mande Peoples, History and Civilization (mostly in French)
  • Outline of the Sundiata epic by Janice Siegel
  • Parallels between The Sundiata Epic and The Lord of The Rings
  • The True Lion King of Africa: The Epic History of Sundiata, King of Old Mali
  • Background information on Sundiata Sections include Geography, Religion, Society & Politics
  • History of Mali With reference to Sundiata and his successors.
Preceded by
Mansa of the Mali Empire
Succeeded by
Wali Keita

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