Everyone knows of the classic Disney movie, The Lion King. But did you know that this movie, with its heartwarming plot, was based on a true event? Surprise surprise! Yes, The Lion King was based on an old African king based in the kingdom of Mali which was founded in 1235. At it’s peak in the 1300s, Mali was one of the largest empires in the world. The Mali Empire was located along West Africa, along the Niger River. In terms of today’s geography, it covers Mali, Niger, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea and The Gambia. Mali owes its success to none other than Sundiata. However, because of the oral tradition of the epic, some versions deviate from one another, affecting the accuracy of the story.
The epic of Sundiata outlines events that may have happened leading to the rise of Mali. He overcame childhood physical disabilities and life in exile, then fought back to regain control of Mali. But what if these events did not happen? Would Mali still be the Mali that we know today?
The Lion King managed to get a few aspects of Sundiata’s life right. Like Simba, Sundiata was to be the next great ruler of the kingdom. However, there were drastic differences between Simba and Sundiata. For starters, Rafiki, the shaman baboon for Pride Rock in the Lion King, was according to the epic, a passing hunter and seer. He prophesied that Maghan Kon Fatta, the King, would have a son “more mighty than Alexander”. The only catch? He had to marry Sogolon, a maiden "hunchbacked and ill-favored".
Maghan Fatta married Sogolon, and with much difficulty, Sundiata was born. However, Sundiata’s childhood was very different from Simba’s. Sundiata was born with physical disabilities - a head too big, mute and lame - until he was seven years old. No magic or herbs seemed to work –Sundiata could not be cured. He was shunned from society and not revered, unlike Simba.
Maghan Fatta’s first wife, Sassouma Bérété, 1 became the laughing stockof the kingdom because the King favoured Sundiata, a mute and crippled son, over her own able-bodied son. This drove Sassouma nuts, and she brimmed with jealousy.
Fast forward a couple of years – Sundiata now aged 7, had learned to talk, but he was still unable to walk and crawled around the house. Maghan Fatta appointed Sundiata as his heir, but upon his death, the royal council deemed Sundiata unfit to rule and Maghan Fatta’s decision was ignored. Instead, the council appointed Dankaran Touman, son of Sassouma, 3 to be the new King, and Sassouma ascended to becoming Queen Regent since Touman was still young. 2
The Queen Regent did not let Sundiata’s family live in peace. She constantly ridiculed and publicly humiliated Sogolon and Sundiata. 4 The ridicule on Sogolon had become so bad that Sundiata, now aged 7, had had enough. 5 He pulled himself up onto his own feet using nothing but strong rods, and could walk from then on. 6 Sassouma grew terrified of Sundiata and ordered a kill strike. Thankfully, the attempt failed. Fearing for the safety of her children, Sogolon exiled herself together with her family until Sundiata was strong enough to claim back what was rightfully his.
What if Sundiata had never faced such traumatizing childhood experiences?
If Sundiata was truly able bodied, unlike in the epic, the throne might have been passed down to him instead of Touman when Maghan Fatta died. The country might not have been invaded by Soumaoro Kante, and thrived instead.
Things could have gone the other way round as well. Mali might still have been invaded and Sundiata would be powerless to prevent it from happening because he was still young and did not know how to fight. Either way, if Sundiata was born able bodied, the Mali that we know today would be drastically different.
Sassouma had a huge role to play in shaping how Sundiata turned out to be as a ruler. Sassouma was of a well-established and respected family before she married Maghan Fatta. She had been his only wife for a long time and she knew the politics of the country and the royal court well. After the death of Maghan Fatta, she ruled in stead of Touman as the Queen Regent and there was peace for a short amount of time because of her influence. In Africa, knowing your family’s background and the family you are born into is of utmost importance. 7
Sologon was all but a common peasant. She had no respected family to back her up and no resources to call her own. What would happen if she had become queen regent instead? Other countries would not hesitate to invade and take over Mali, even though Sundiata was king. Even though Sassouma was not the kindest to Sundiata and his family, she was still an important role in the epic of Sundiata, for she shaped the kind of person Sundiata aimed not to be. Without her around to degrade Sundiata and his family, he would not have had the drive to improve himself and prove to those around him of his power and strength.
In other sources, King Touman gathered the council together and suggested Balla Fasseke 9 - be the head of the embassy that would be sent to Soumaoro Kante, king of the Soso. Sundiata learned of this decision made by the council after his griot had been taken away from him and “flew into a frightful rage”.
Sundiata, together with Manding Bory went to look for their half brother king Touman, to question him about the decision he made. Feeling disrespected and unappreciated, Sundiata told King Touman that he would exile himself from Mali. However, before leaving he tells king Touman in a spirited tone - more like a threat, really - that he would return.
His Journey in Exile
Living in the wilderness, Sundiata formed a private army and made good relations with other rulers. Despite being in exile and away from civilisation, Sundiata grew well. He was recognised as brave and smart leader . They travelled as sojourners 10 and arrived at the kingdom of Djedeba.
In Ghana, Sundiata made fast friends with the King of Ghana and even garnered support from the peasants by being modest and humble. He was so favoured by the King that he commented that he would respect Sundiata as a ruler, should he ever rule.
Unfortunately, Sogolon’s health plummeted. The King recommended that they leave for Mema where she could get properly treated. It was from this that he learned about Soumaoro, the sorceror-king, who was so evidently feared by everyone. Sundiata did not know this at that time, but Soumaoro was not going to be someone he would readily be friends with.
As soon as they arrived in Mema, a huge welcoming was held for them - almost as if they were royalty of Mema. His sister, Massiran,3 had organised the whole celebration. Her hospitality was so warm and kind that Sogolon recovered from her illness. This could also be due to the fact that the air and water in Mema was really fresh.
The king allowed Sundiata to stay for as long as they wanted. He even took Sundiata along for his expeditions where Sundiata became very likeable among the men in the army.
After three years of working closely with the King of Mema, Sundiata was promoted to his Viceroy11. The men in the army and the people of Mema were all agreeable to this as they knew of how great he was as a person. They had no qualms of him standing in the same light as their king. It was at this moment that Sogolon knew that it was time to return to Mali to gain back his land. But before that, there were a few things - or people - that he needed to deal with.
Sundiata and Soumaoro Become Enemies
Remember when King Touman ‘stole’ Sundiata’s griot Balla Fasseke? The Balla Fasseke that everyone wants? Here we go.
Balla Fasseke travelled as the head of the embassy to meet Soumaoro Kante, king of the Soso. When they met, Soumaoro “demanded that Mali should acknowledge itself tributary to Soso.” Soumaoro “threatened to destroy Niani if Dankaran Touman did not make his submission” and kept Balla Fasseke as his own griot. Touman surrenders Niani to Soumaoro in fear of “The Untouchable King” and sends his sister, Nana Triban to please him. It is inevitable now that Sundiata would have Soumaoro Kante as his archenemy after taking away his griot given to him by his father 12 and also gain control of his homeland, Mali, in which he was the rightful ruler of.
Mali Flourished Under Sundiata’s Reign
If Sundiata did not exist, Soumaoro would have been the king overtaking the throne in Mali, for he would have murdered all the other eleven princes who would have been in line for the throne. The only reason Sundiata was not murdered by him was because he was disabled. Had he not existed, Soumaoro would be king of Mali, after successfully killing all the other princes.
Also, if Sundiata hadn't existed, there wouldnt have been a unification of all the smaller nations.There would have probably still been individual nations on their own, though peaceful, there would be diplomacy only to a certain extent. Since Sundiata was an amiable person, his ability to work well with the other more developed nations helped Mali with their own development in terms of trading and wealth. If Sundiata was not around, Mali would not have progressed and developed as a nation as their diplomacy would not have been as successful as when Sundiata was around.
On his return to Mali, Sundiata established a Mali Empire that was located strategically well for trade and on land that was extremely fertile for cultivation.
The Malinke were able to capitalize on their strategic location along the Niger River where most of the trading activities passed through. Because of this, Sundiata was able to gain control over the gold and salt trades along the trans-Saharan trading routes.
Sundiata not only focused on trading gold and salt but also recognized that The Mali Empire could benefit from the agricultural activities. It was said that Sundiata encouraged the cultivation and weaving of cotton into the region. Consequently, most of the Malinke worked as farmers.
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Walinskl, G. (1991). The image of the ruler as presented in the tradition about Sunjata. Unwritten Testimonies of the African Past: Proceedings of the International Symposium Held in Ojrzanów N. Warsaw on 07-08 November 1989, 2. Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 1991.
- She’s an important character in the epic! Take note of her. ↩
- Thought question: could Sassouma had been in cahoots with the council to get rid of Sundiata? ↩
- Here we see the classic example of the phrase “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. ↩
- Here versions of the story deviate yet again. One version stated that Sundiata’s mother became so frustrated at being ridiculed by Sassouma that she hit Sundiata, and this pushed him over the edge. ↩
- This was justified as to how Sundiata lived up to his reputation of being the prophesied great leader because let’s face it, who else can do that without all the technology and medicine that we have today? Yeah, sounds like fluff, we know. But keep in mind that was written as an epic, much like the Epic of Gilgamesh that we learnt in class. ↩
- Basically, if you were born into a well-respected family, like Sassouma, people respected you enough to not cause any havoc. ↩
- Note, in past times children were recognized by their mothers as men tend to have many wives. ↩
- Sundiata’s griot that was given to him by his father honoring the prophecy that one day Sundiata would become the great ruler of Mali.
- People who lived in places temporarily. ↩
- This meant that if the King was not around, Sundiata would be in-charge of the city. ↩
- although it was his half brother that surrendered Balla Fasseke to Soumaoro. ↩