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Sundiata Keita or Sundjata Keyita or Mari Djata I (c. 1217 - c. 1255) was the founder of the Mali Empire and celebrated as a hero of the Mandinka people people of West Africa in the semi-historical Epic of Sundiata. It is said that he was a strong Oware player.

Sundjata is also known by the name Sogolon Djata. The name Sogolon is taken from his mother, the buffalo woman (so called because of her ugliness and hunchback), and Jata, meaning "lion". A common Mande naming practice combines the mother's name with the personal name to give Sonjata or Sunjata. The last name Keita is a clan name more than a surname.

The story of Sundiata is primarily known through oral tradition, transmitted by generations of traditional Mandinka griots.

Sundiata's Life

As a young boy, Sundiata experienced a harsh ruler take over the Mali empire. He devoted his life to building an army to overthrow the cruel king and taking back his home land for freedom. When he was older and had a strong army, Sundiata did overthrow the king and became king of the Mali Empire. He understood that if he were to have a kingdom, he'd need it to be prosperous as to keep strong. He had crops such as beans and rice, grown and soon introduced cotton. With the crops selling, the Mali Empire became very wealthy.

Sundiata supported religion and soon took the title Mansa. Mansa showed the religious authority Sundiata had. After he died, many rulers also took the title mansa, to show their role and authority in society.

The Epic of Sundiata

In the Epic of Sundiata (also spelled Son-Jara or Sundjata):

Naré Maghann Konaté (also called Maghan Kon Fatta or Maghan the Handsome) was a Mandinka king who one day received a divine hunter at his court. The hunter predicted that if Konaté married an ugly woman, she would give him a son who would one day be a mighty king. Naré Maghann Konaté was already married to Sassouma Bereté and had a son by her, Dankaran Toumani Keïta. However, when two Traoré hunters from the Do kingdom presented him an ugly, hunchbacked woman named Sogolon, he remembered the prophecy and married her. She soon gave birth to a son, Sundiata Keita, who was unable to walk throughout his childhood. Despite his physical weakness, the king still granted Sundiata his own griot at young age; this was in order to have them grow together and provide constant consultation as was custom. With the death of Naré Maghann Konaté (c. 1224), his first son, Dankaran Tuman, assumed the throne despite Konaté's wishes that the prophecy be respected. Sunjata and his mother, who now had given birth to two daughters and adopted a second son from Konaté's third wife Namandjé, suffered the scorn of the new king and his mother. After an insult against Sogolon, Sundiata requested an iron rod from the blacksmith Nounfari, which he used to pull himself upright and walk for the first time. Nonetheless, the hatred of Sassouma Bereté and Dankaran Toumani Keita soon drove Sundiata, his mother, and his two sisters into exile in the Mena kingdom.

Meanwhile, Soumaoro Kanté, cruel sorcerer king of Sosso, attacks the Mandinka kingdom, causing Dankaran Toumani Keita to take flight in fear. The oppressed Mandinka people now send for the exiled Sundiata. Forging a coalition of neighboring small kingdoms, Sundiata wages war against the Sosso, finally defeating Soumaoro Kanté at the Battle of Kirina (c. 1235). Soumaoro Kanté disappears in the Koulikoro mountains. Sundiata is later crowned with the title "Mansa," or "king of kings," as the first ruler of the Mali Empire. He soon sets about organizing the nucleus of the empire presenting the Gbara of nobles and notables at his coronation with an oral constitution known as the Kouroukan Fouga. His model for government would guide the empire into greatness and beyond its zenith toward its eventual dissolution in 1645. His exploits have even been compared to those of Alexander the Great by some griots.

Historical Context and Significance

The epic of Sundiata has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. Although some information on 13th century Mali is available from Arabic sources like Ibn Khaldun, there is a severe limitation of written documentation on this period. Therefore the oral evidence of ancient Mali is especially critical. Although Western historians have traditionally given preference to written records, oral traditions including the epic of Sundiata have recently gained recognition as important demonstrations of Africa’s rich cultural heritage and as legitimate literary constructions. It reflects the early stages in West African traditions when different cultural influences were still coming together. Our knowledge of 13th century Malian history is in large part derived from the Sundiata tradition. The epic of Sundiata is still an integral part of Mande culture. Ethnographic research has shown that the story continues to be retold by griots and through masked rituals performances. Today the epic of Sundiata has become part of history lessons in primary schools in Mali, the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea.


Sundjata Keita established his capital at his home village of Niani, Mali, near the present-day Malian border with Guinea. Though he was a Muslim, Sundiata also exploited local religion, building a reputation as a man of powerful magic.

Sundjata 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. The first tribes were Mandinka clans of Traore, Kamara, Koroma, Konde, and of course Keita. The Gbara of Great 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).

Sundiata Keita died in 1255, probably of drowning. Tradition holds that he died while crossing the Sankarini river, where a shrine remains today. He had three sons who succeeded him to the throne of the Mali Empire: Mansa Wali Keita, Ouati Keita and Khalifa Keita. The famous West African Brady ruler Mansa Musa is his grandnephew.

Sundiata is also known as Mari Djata or Marijata according to Arab historian Ibn Khaldun in the late 14th century.

External links


  • Biebuyck, Daniel P. "The African Heroic Epic" Journal of Folklore Institute Vol.13, No.1. (1976), pp. 5-36.
  • Conrad, David C. "Searching for History in the Sunjata Epic: The Case of Fakoli". History in Africa, Vol. 19. (1992). pp 147-200.
  • Davidson, Basil. Africa in History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
  • Gilbert, E. and Reynolds, J.T.: "Africa in World History". Pearson Education, 2004.
  • McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. Sagebrush: 1995.
  • Niane D.T. "Sundiata: an epic of old Mali". Longmans, 1965.
  • Ancient African Legends
  • Well known translations of the epic include D.T. Niane's prose version, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Harlow: Longman, 2006, 1994, c1965: ISBN 1405849428) and Fa-Digi Sisoko's oral version, Son-Jara : The Mande Epic (Bloomington, Ind. : Indiana University Press, 2003).


Adapted from the Wikipedia article, "Sundiata Keita", used under the GNU Free Documentation License.