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Naaa sowhenyaaa having fun in africa

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INTRODUCTION

Africa has many known empires, but none is so well remembered as the Mali Empire. The Mali Empire founded by Sundiata Keita was the largest empire in West Africa from 1230 ce to 1670. It was known for its wealth and it ruled West Africa for the longest time. It also significantly influenced other parts of Africa through its culture, customs and laws. The empire was at its peak under the rule of Mansa Musa, the grandson of Sundiata Keita. The timeline below illustrates the major rulers and the milestones of the Mali Empire.

                                                                                  Timeline of the Mali Empire

                                                                                 Timeline of the Mali Empire

 

As seen from the timeline above, the renowned history of of the Mali Empire largely revolves around its powerful rulers. Hence, this post will shed some light about their social system and culture that is lesser known to others. This blog explores the different types of entertainment present in Mali during the 13th century. Entertainment was important in the Mali Empire because it helped them to foster bonds, preserve their identity, and spread religious ideas within the community.

 Mansa Musa, "The Lion of Mali" adorned with gold jewelry and a white coat. The image is set with an African map background and ordinary people in the foreground.

Mansa Musa, "The Lion of Mali" adorned with gold jewelry and a white coat. The image is set with an African map background and ordinary people in the foreground.

Sundiata Keita was the cultural hero of the Mande people and an inspiration of the great epic oral traditions of the community. Music, dance and storytelling served as a form of entertainment filled with drama and creativity playing an intrinsic role in their daily lives. Stage play acts usually consisted of a huge variety of traditional wind instruments, brass belts, drums accompanied stage play acting, magic tricks and music. Stage play acts and dance forms like Acrobats were famous for their unique performances which attracted a huge audience. One region that commonly engaged in music and dance was the Mali Empire that utilised such entertainments to foster bonds within the people.They considered this as an integral part of their community and used it to maintain social relations.

Much of the African history is preserved through oral traditions. Most of what we know about the Mali’s history comes from the oral accounts that were handed down through Griots. Griots is a term for singers, storytellers, and historians who traditionally retold Mali’s history. Hence, these oral traditions played a major role in the culture and traditions of the Mali community. The community has successfully preserved their identity by passing their traditional culture from one generation to the next in the forms of dance and storytelling. Furthermore, such oral epics and oral art performances integrated with religious context also played a huge role in spreading religious ideas around the region. In this blog, we’re going to explore the culture of the community as well as the role of the major storytellers referred to as Griots.


RELIGION 

 A descendant from a griot family, playing a harp - like instruments with 21 strings.

A descendant from a griot family, playing a harp - like instruments with 21 strings.

Griots, also known as bards or jali, are West African historians, praise singers, storyteller and musicians. Regarded as knowledgeable individuals and trusted by the public, most griots share special patronage relationship with nobles and religious leaders hence, demonstrating their high social status in the society. 

 

Despite the various functions credited to griots, some are specialised in only a few aspects. The special alliance shared with religious leader aid in their cultivation of knowledge about Islam. This, in turn, results in the integration of these religious context into the oral art performed by the bards. Complicated historical content were reduced to be more comprehensible.

 

Coupled with the employment of songs and basic narrative themes, the audience were able to better retain the knowledge disseminated by the Jalis. Utilising oral epics as a platform to circulate information and educate the public is effective as it reaches a wide group of audience including the illiterates.

 

Some techniques employed by bards to popularise Islam includes portraying the religious leaders as epic heroes with the context of Islamic laws being dispersed throughout the entire text. Such method allows the complicated text to be easily absorbed even by uneducated audiences. For instance, the life story of the prophet Muhammad that greatly fascinates the Manding audiences. His story was amalgamated with myths and legends by Western Sudanic bards. The portrayals of the religious leaders as heroes and the inclusion of fantasy that dramatise the plots aids in popularising the religion.

 

 Bilal ibn rabah on the Kaaba with a few followers around it

Bilal ibn rabah on the Kaaba with a few followers around it

An example of of one of the more common account narrated by jalis is the story of Bilal ibn Rabah, a former save that became a companion of the prophet  and the first mu’adhdhin (caller to prayer). Although he was born as a slave, he stayed as a faithful muslim despite torturous attempts by his master to make him renounce Islam. His resilience and faithfulness moved another muslim who helped him obtain his freedom and eventually attain the role of the first mu’adhdhin. The main idea behind the story teaches the audiences that regardless of their social status and any difficulty faced, as long as they continue to have faith in the Islam, goodness would follow. Such tales led to the popularisation of Islam in Africa so much that these religious story holds an equal standing as those of Sunjata, the founder of empire in Mali during the 13th century. Due to the high standing of Bilal promoted by the oral arts, non islamic names in the Keita patriline was less emphasized causing the abolishing of pre-islamic ancestor of Sunjata. As such, it further promotes Islam among the people. Although such oral performances may not be good historical studies due to the moulding of ancestry but it demonstrates the development of Manding tradition along with the acceptance of Islam as a local African religion.


IDENTITY

Entertainment is important in ancient Africa because it preserves their identity. It is undeniable that the Griots in West Africa played a pivotal role in the traditional African culture, preserving their identity from one generation to the next.

To start off, the Griots serve as genealogists who studied the ancestry of families in detail and educate locals in Mali empire about historical accounts. In order to preserve the cultural norms and traditions that were prevalent in past generations dating all the way back to the 13th CE, the Griots often relied on oral history, a form of oral tradition that ranged from storytelling to poem recitation. One notable form of oral tradition that they utilised was music where they sang praise songs that celebrated the heroic behaviours displayed by their ancestors.

 The Kora, is a string instrument with a round body and long neck used by the Griots who are storytellers in the Mande region from past till present.

The Kora, is a string instrument with a round body and long neck used by the Griots who are storytellers in the Mande region from past till present.

One instrument that was significant to the Griots was the Kora, a 21-stringed West African harp. Communal ceremonies were held frequently to bring the Mali community together, where the Griots sang praise songs to the tune of the Kora. It is also during these times where detailed knowledge of a family’s genealogy could be imparted to younger griots. Hence, the role of Griots as genealogists was crucial in passing on the tales to future generations, reminding them of their past achievements and preserving their identity in the long run.

Thus, genealogists inculcate in individuals, a sense of belonging to the African culture. Without the Griots acting as record keepers of the past, significant historical events worth remembering would simply fade in memory and be lost over time to future generations. Hence, the Griots played a crucial role in enabling individuals to forge strong attachments to their cultural identity and successfully preserving the African cultural identity over a long period of time.

In addition to music, the Griots also used proverbs, another form of oral tradition to preserve identity. Proverbs normally revolve around topics of everyday life, reminding the locals of the moral values and important life lessons that was central to the Western African culture. One proverb of Malian origin goes like this, “a man with too much ambition cannot sleep in peace”. Hence, proverbs serve as nuggets of cultural wisdom for both present and future generations, preserving the rich heritage and cultural traditions that exist in Mali empire and instilling a sense of identity in them.


FOSTERING BONDS

AsThe Mande culture in western Africa is home to Africa’s various savanna ethnic groups such as Bamana, Maninka, Dyula, Khasonke, Marka and the list goes on! There are way too many cultures and linguistics that dwell in this area and it will be a shame to not discuss the rich entertainment that all these groups provide. This region also encompasses the popular Mali Empire which reigned at its best during the 13th to 14th century. Even though it is popular, sadly, not much evidence of its cultural heritage has been found. However, we have done our best to discuss an important epic of that time that still has variations of it played in the region till today. It holds a special place in the hearts of the Mande people and unifies them even today.

 A cartoon image depicting Sundiata with a determined expression while riding on a horse. Image reads "Timeline, Sundiata the African King"   

A cartoon image depicting Sundiata with a determined expression while riding on a horse. Image reads "Timeline, Sundiata the African King"

 

The Sunjata (also known as Sundiata) epic (with more than 200 couplets!) is well known in the Mali Empire and the Mande region. The story revolves around a boy that is not able to walk and is ridiculed of by his peers and those surrounding him. However, without being disheartened he takes up the challenge and decides that he will start walking with the help of an iron walking stick. He eventually engages in rivalry with his fellow step brother and gets exiled but returns to the land to overthrow the King of Susu who invades the Mande region. Eventually he becomes the founder of the Mande region and serves as a cultural hero for the people and is even termed the “Lion king”. 

Why is the epic important? It serves as a recreational activity for the people of Mande as Griots use it to commence ceremonies that span over few days and celebrate their ancestors as well as welcome the new generation. Sometimes Mande people believe that they themselves are from Sunjata’s lineage, fostering a commonality among them and makes them feel united as one culture. The ceremony enables a space for people from all walks of life to rejoice and bond with their peers. The performances highlight the rich heritage of African people and how they can overcome any problem by sticking together.

 A mask of the lion king, depicting a fierce three dimensional lion face that is carved onto wood and attached to short straws to showcase its mane.

A mask of the lion king, depicting a fierce three dimensional lion face that is carved onto wood and attached to short straws to showcase its mane.

It also provides a platform for their creativity with storytelling. Some parts of the story, eg. Lion Dance has continued on till today and griots, in particular the “Diabate jeliew of Kela” still perform these in villages to entertain people. Even though the purpose and audience of the performance could have changed to become more modern, the story resonates with many Africans and continues to instill a sense of pride in them and makes them treasure their rich culture.


CONCLUSION

The Mali Empire lasted for centuries and left an everlasting effect on West Africa. It successfully managed to influence all parts of Africa with its form of entertainment and culture. Entertainment in the Mali community played an intrinsic role in their daily life which helped them expressed their sentiments and cultural pride. Oral traditions helped them conserve their identity, proliferate their religious beliefs and to fostering bonds.

The Mali country in present day is still highly associated with forms of entertainment like music and dance through music festivals and dance ceremonies. The Mali Music is ethnically diverse and is influenced dominantly by the Mandinka of the ancient Mali Empire. Griots who are also known as the "Keepers of the memories" derive the Malian music traditions. Griots still exist today in Mali and they often use musical instruments to accompany their historic stories. The Songhoy blues is a desert blues music band from Timbuktu, Mali. This band traces its background throughout the history of Mali. They produced a song called the Mali Nord which focuses on the hardships of immigrants and refugees. This highlights that music is still prevalent in helping the people of Mali to share their stories and use it as a method to keep their culture alive throughout the years.

Currently, Mali Dance is famous in the community. It uses combinations of various drums and  traditional songs. Dance in the community is frequently used to mark a milestone or to signify a celebration.

In conclusion, Entertainment has helped the Mali people spread their tradition and culture from one generation to the other.


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