Three extracts from different versions of the Sundjata epic, which is as yet the best known and most widely admired of African epics. Sundjata is a historical figure (he died in 1255), and the Sundjata legend comes down to us from a period of turmoil in West African history when the ancient empire of Ghana was in decline. The Ghana empire (the name of which was resurrected by the modern state of Ghana at Independence, though in a different place) had existed from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, covering an area which incorporated parts of the present day Mali, Mauretania, Chad and Senegal.

I Sundjata’s Conception

After it had happened
That Sundjata’s mother had become pregnant,
When she had been pregnant for one year,
Susu Sumanguru Baamangana’s diviners by stones said to him,
‘The child who will destroy your kingship
Has been conceived within Manding.’ (1)
Sumanguru gathered together all the women of the town of Manding
And for seven years
He kept them within a walled town.
A man and a woman did not lie on the same bed,
A man and a woman did not come near each other.
As for those women who did become pregnant,
If they gave birth to a child and that child was a male,
Its throat was cut – for seven years.
When it became known that Sundjata had been conceived,
The griots composed this song:

Ah, it is of Jata that I speak, great stock,
Simbong, it is of Jata that I speak, (2)
Great stock destined for high office.

In those seven years,
Any woman who became pregnant in Manding
Was taken inside that walled town,
And this went on for fourteen years:
For fourteen years
Sundjata’s mother was pregnant with him,
But the diviners by stones foretold it;
They told Susu Sumanguru Baamangana,
‘The child who will destroy your kingship
Has already been conceived.’
Susu Sumanguru Baamangana went to the leader of the Siises, (3)
And sent him into retreat for forty days.

The child who was to destroy the kingship – Had he been born yet?
Or had he not?
Was he in Manding?
These were the questions he must answer.
He must devise some strategy
So that he can work magic against the child and so be able to kill him.
The leader of the Siises went into retreat;
He came out
And he found Susu Sumanguru Baamangana – (4)
Cut and Sirimang,
It is forging and the left hand,
Senegalese coucal and swallow,
Cut iron with iron,
What gives iron its excellence,
Big kuku tree and big silk-cotton tree,
Fari and Kaunji –
He was sitting.
He told Sumanguru, ‘I went into retreat
For forty days;
I saw the seven layers of the sky,
Right to where they finish;
I saw the seven layers of the earth,
Right to where they finish;
I saw a black thing in a pond;
By the grave of God,
The creature which comes and gives me information in the night
Came and stood beside me and said,
“Allahu ahary rajakufa mang kaana kaafa,
Ming muusi, janafang kumjai kuna”.
(5)
God declares that by his grace,
Whomsoever he has created king,
He has made in his own likeness
And nothing will be able to injure that person.
Those things which you must enjoy,
Enjoy them now before this child is born,
For after he is born
You will be powerless against him.’

II The Death of Sundjata’s Mother

Before dawn broke, Sukulung Konte died. (6)
Sundjata said that he would bury Sukulung Konte.
Faring Burema Tunkara told him, (7)
‘You will not bury her until you have bought the burial plot.’
Sundjata asked him, ‘How am I to buy it?’
He said, ’You must fit ear-rings together,
And lay one upon her forehead,
And lay one upon her big toe,
And then measure the length on the ground;
However long the chain is, that is what you must dig,
And you will bury your mother there.’
When he had done said, he put the gold ear-rings together,
And he laid one upon his mother’s forehead,
And he laid another upon her big toe,
And he measured it upon the ground.
The gravediggers were about to go,
But he said to them, ‘Wait!’
He took the gold and laid it on a new winnowing tray,
And he laid a broken pot on it,
He laid a bush fowl’s egg on it,
He laid some old thatching grass on it,
And then he gave it to Faring Burema Tunkara.
When it had been given to Faring Burema Tunkara,
One of the latter’s men was there who was called Makhang Know-All,
And he declared, ‘I know what this means.’
Makhang Say-All was there;
Makhang Say-All declared, ‘But I will say it.’
Faring Burema Tunkara ordered him, ‘Say it!’
He said, ‘What Sundjata has said here
Is that a day will come
When he will smash this town of yours just like this broken pot;
A day will come
When old thatch will not be seen in this town of yours
Because he will burn it all;
A day will come
When bush fowls will lay their eggs on the site of your deserted town:
He says, here is your gold.’
When he had done that, Sundjata buried his mother.

III The Defeat of Sumanguru

When it was evening, Sundjata’s sister came to him – Nyakhaengo Juma Suuko – (8)
And said, ‘To be sure, hot water kills a man,
But cold water too kills a man.
Leave the smith and me together.’
She left the land of Manding and went to the land of Susu.
When the woman had gone some distance she reached Susu,
She reached Susu Sumanguru.
The gates of his fortified town –
The griots call smiths
‘Big kuku Tree
Big silk-cotton Tree,
Push-in-front Expert,
And Lift the Hammer.’
Those were the names of the gateways of the fort,
They were the gateways with porches.
Whenever the woman reached a gateway,
When she knocked, the guards would ask her,
‘Where are you going?’
Inevitably, they were all smitten with love for her,
But she would tell them, ‘I am not your guest,
I am the guest of Susu Sumanguru.’
She would go and knock at another door,
Till she had passed through all the doorways.
They took her to Susu Sumanguru.
When Susu Sumanguru saw her,
He greatly desired the woman.
He welcomed her to the house,
And gave her every kind of hospitality.
Night fell,
And he and the woman were in his house.
They were chatting,
Till the smith’s mind turned in a certain direction,
And then she said to him, ‘I am a guest,
I have come to you –
Don’t be impatient.’
She said to him, ‘There is something that greatly puzzles me;
Any army which comes to this town of yours is destroyed.’
Susu Sumanguru said to her,
‘Ah, my father was a jinn(9)
When he said that, his mother heard it,
Because Susu Sumanguru’s
Mother was a human being,
But his father was a jinn
When Sumanguru said to Sundjata’s sister, ‘My father is a jinn’,
The old lady appeared,
And said to him, ‘Don’t give away all your secrets to a one-night woman.’
When Susu Sumanguru’s mother said that, the woman got up and said to him,
‘I’m going because your mother is driving me away.’
He said, ‘Wait!’
He went and gave his mother some palm wine,
And she drank it, became drunk, and fell asleep.
He said to Sundjata’s sister, ‘Let us continue with our chat,
She is an old lady.’
And she said to him, ‘Did you say that your father is a jinn?’
He said, ‘My father is a jinn and he lives on this hill.
This jinn has seven heads:
So long as he is alive, war will never damage this country.’
She said to him, ‘Your father,
How can he be killed?’
He said, ‘You must go and find a white chicken,
They must pick the leaves of self-seeded guinea-corn,
They must put korte powder in it.
If they put that on the tip of an arrow
And shoot it at this hill,
They will kill my father.
That is the only thing that will kill him.’
She asked him, ‘Supposing they kill him?’
He replied, ‘If war came, this country would be destroyed.’
She asked, ‘Supposing this land were destroyed, what would happen to you?’
He said, ‘I would become a whirlwind.’
She said, ‘Supposing people went into the whirlwind with swords?’
He said, ‘I would become a rhun palm.’
She said to him, ‘What if people were about to fell the palm?’
He said, ‘I would become an ant-hill.’
She asked, ‘Supposing people were about to scatter the ant-hill?’
He said, ‘I would become a Senegales cou-’
His heart palpitated
And he fell silent.
The woman said to him, ‘Wait,
I am going to the washplace’…

(Nyakhaleng Juma Suuko escapes and returns
to tell Sundjata what she has discovered.)

She reached Sundjata,
And she told him all that Sumanguru had said.
They went and found a white cock,
They found self-seeded guinea-corn,
They found korte powder.
That is why the members of the Kante family do not eat white chicken.
When they had prepared this arrow,
They gave it to Sankarang Madiba Konte:
It was Sankarang Madiba Konte who fired the arrow.
That is why the griots say, ‘The head and neck of an arrow both with red mananda,
Arrow on the forehead Faa Ganda.’
It was he who slew the jinn on the hill.
When he had slain the jinn on the hill in Susu,
The griots called him the red arrow firer of Manding.
Next morning, the army rose up and flung itself against the fortified town;
It was not yet two o’clock when they smashed it.
Nyakhalengjuma Suuko was with the army,
Since the soldiers were searching for Sumanguru. When the head of a snake is cut off,
What remains is just a piece of rope.
They were searching for the king;
They were engaged on that when she saw a great whirlwind arise,
And she shouted to them, ‘That’s him, don’t let him get away!’
They rushed upon that whirlwind,
Armed men were entering it when they saw a rhun palm standing.
She said to them, ‘This is him!’
They took axes, and were just about to smash the ant-hill to pieces
When they saw a Senegalese coucal fly up (10)
And go into an area of thick bush.
Manda Kante,
Saamagha Kante,
Tunkang Kante,
Baayang Kante,
Sege and Sirimang,
It is forging and the left hand,
Between Susuo and Dabi,
Frustrators of plots,
It went into thick bush.
This was how Susu Sumanguru’s career ended:
That is where my own knowledge ends.

from Sundjata: Three Mandinka Versions (1974),
by G. Innes
School of African & Oriental Studies


Notes

Three extracts from different versions of the Sundjata epic, which is as yet the best known and most widely admired of African epics. The first (Sundjata’s Conception) is by a Gambian griot called Banna Kanute, who has travelled extensively and given oral performances in a number of countries. The second and third (The Death of Sundjata’s Mother and The Defeat of Sumanguru ) are by another Gambian griot called Bamba Suso, an old man who comes from a long line of professional griots.

Another complete version called Sundjata: an Epic of old Mali ed. D. T. Niane (Longman, 1965) was recorded in Guinea, and other versions again can still be heard in many West African countries.

Sundjata is a historical figure (he died in 1255), and the Sundjata legend comes down to us from a period of turmoil in West African history when the ancient empire of Ghana was in decline. The Ghana empire (the name of which was resurrected by the modern state of Ghana at Independence, though in a different place) had existed from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, covering an area which incorporated parts of the present day Mali, Mauretania, Chad and Senegal. The first ruler to defeat Ghana was Suman guru of the Susu, but he in turn was defeated by Sundjata, Mansa or King of Mali, at the battle of Krina in 1235. From his capital at Niani on the Upper Niger, today a small village, Sundjata created the empire of Mali incorporating much the same territory as the Ghana empire had done. For the two centuries following his death, Mali was among the most important states of the medieval world. Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-25, crossing the Sahara with between 8000 and 15,000 followers, and spent so much gold in Egypt that the value of the currency there was debased by 12%! In the mid-fourteenth century, an Arab traveller through Mali commented:

The Negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. Their sultan shows no mercy to anyone who is guilty of the least act of it. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller norinhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.

In the mid-fifteenth century, Mali was itself superseded by the empire of Songhai.
The creator of the Mali empire was Sundjata, and the most significant event of his career the defeat of Sumanguru at the Battle of Krina. The different versions of the Sundjata epic, therefore, usually begin with the events leading up to his birth (as in Sundjata’s Conception) and end with the victory over Sumanguru (as in The Defeat of Sumanguru). They also include a long period when Sundjata lived in exile, driven from his home by his jealous step-mother. During the course of his travels, which included the death of his mother (as in The Death of Sundjata’s Mother), he visits Wagudu, capital of the declining Ghana empire, where he learns his military skills and much of the art of govern­ment. Whether or not this legend is historically true, it rightly emphasises the historical continuity between the Ghana and Mali empires.

The real subject of the Sundjata Epic, though, is Sundjata himself, a true hero, a man of honour and distinction. In his courage and his skill, his passion for order and his sense of justice, he is presented as the very pattern of what the ideal ruler should be like.

Footnotes

  1. Manding: the people of the region where the story takes place call themselves Mandinka.
  2. Simbon: a hunter’s title, which Sundjata gained while still a boy.
  3. The Siises: the priests and fortune-tellers.
  4. the griot breaks off to sing one of the songs belonging to the Sundjata story. Names and events are contracted into cryptic lines whose full meaning is the complete story itself.
  5. the words are deliberately meaningless.
  6. Sukulung Konte: Sundjata’s mother.
  7. Faring Burema Tunkara: Sundjata is travelling into exile at this point in the story, and is resting at a town ruled by this man who treats his great grief with discourtesy and contempt.
  8. Sundjata’s sister, Nyakhaleng Juma Suuko, suggests that Sumanguru can be defeated by subtlety as well as by war. She goes to learn the secret of his power.
  9. Jinn: in Islam, a spirit less important than the angels but possessing supernatural powers.
  10. Sumanguru’s last transformation defeats his pursuers. He is not killed but disappears from the story.