Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of Exile


Sogolon knows well that Sassouma Bérété is plotting against her family, and so she tells Sundiata they should leave Niani, since the queen mother will otherwise direct her vengeance towards his half-brother Manding Bory or sister Djamarou, who are not sorcerers and cannot protect themselves. As Manding Bory is his best friend, Sundiata finds the plan wise and agrees.

Balla Fasséké begins to plan the escape. However, Dankaran Touman arranges an embassy to be sent to Soumaoro Kanté, king of Sosso. He chooses to send the Balla Fasséké as head of the embassy. Sundiata recognizes that his brother's motive is to separate him from his griot, and he is understandably extremely angry. But Sogolon cautions patience, and assures her son that his destiny will be fulfilled.

Sundiata chooses not to use violence, but he and Manding Bory do confront Dankaran Touman about the slight. Manding Bory tells him that since he has committed such a great fault, they will leave Mali. Sundiata adds that he will return, in a tone that frightens the king. He tells his mother he wants to appease the situation, but she emasculates him with her cries and he decides to have his brothers killed if they return to his kingdom. "He would reign, alone, for power could not be shared!" Sundiata flees Mali with his mother, sisters, and half-brother Manding Bory.

Sassouma Bérété spreads the word of their exile, and many towns refuse to house the band of travelers, frightened of angering the ruler of Niani. For seven years, they travel as exiles.

After Niani, the exiles stay with Mansa Konkon, the sorcerer king of Djedeba. Sundiata and his siblings become friends with the other children there, and one day the king's daughter and Manding Bory begin to argue over whether her father (Mansa Konkon) or Sundiata is the greater sorcerer. That night, the two boys exchange proverbs to debate Manding Bory's crush on the daughter, and the griot tells us "Men's wisdom is contained in proverbs and when children wield proverbs it is a sign that they have profited from adult company."

The next day, Mansa Konkon orders Sundiata to see him. The boy walks through his labyrinthine palace to find the king in a dimly lit room with great weapons along the walls. The king sits in wait. Sundiata, impressed with the weapons, compliments them and plays with a sword. Once it is returned to its position, the king makes a proposition: they will play wori (a game that involves pebbles and sorcery), and if Sundiata loses, he will die. Sundiata requests the sword if he wins, and the king agrees.

The king goes first, improvising a poem as he plays. When Sundiata plays, his own improvised poem includes the line "but the gold came only yesterday", which angers the king. Sundiata counters, "God is the guest's tongue", but the truth is that he learned through the king's daughter that the queen mother of Niani had sent gold to the king to bribe him to kill Sundiata. Though Sundiata has won the game, the king reneges on his deal and banishes the exiles again. Before leaving, Sundiata again promises to return.

The party of exiles heads west to Tabon, the kingdom in which Sundiata's former playmate Fran Kamara is prince. But the king there, who is old, worries about incurring the wrath of Niani. He houses the exiles only a short while, in the meanwhile devising a plan to gain them travel to Ghana via traveling merchants. The king delays the merchants' exit a few days to grant the exiles rest, during which time Sundiata and Manding Bory reconnect with Fran Kamara. Before leaving, they exchange promises: on his return to Mali, Sundiata will visit Tabon and make Fran Kamara (who will then be king) a great general in his army, while Fran Kamara promises in return to pledge his military support to his friend.

On the road, the merchants are very kind to their guests, and worthwhile to Sundiata through the the many tales they share. Amongst these are stories of the ruler of Sosso, Soumaoro Kanté, the richest and most powerful king, known for his cruelty in extracting tributes from other kingdoms. It was to him that Dankaran Touman had sent Balla Fasséké.

The griot gives a short history of the dry region Ghana. Once it was the most powerful land, but when its princes broke their taboos, their power progressively declined until now even they pay tribute to Soumaoro. When the travelers arrive, they notice not only the great forest that surrounds the great city of Wagadou, but also how poorly maintained Wagadou is. They are also surprised to see a surplus of traders from other lands. Other things they notice in Wagadou is its great religious nature (represented by several mosques), a different style of house construction, and that many of the common people do not speak Mandingo.

The king is at prayer, and so the exiles are welcomed by his brother, who speaks Mandingo. When the king arrives, Sogolon reminds the brother how her late husband once sent goodwill embassies there, and in exchange, she begs asylum. Both the king and his brother watch Sundiata a while after her story; he remains collected. The king then offers them his hospitality and asks Sundiata to introduce himself. In his introduction, he introduces his entire party, to which the king replies, "There's one that will make a great king. He forgets nobody."

Sogolon recovers well thanks to the comfort of Ghana, and both she and the children are treated as honored guests. Sundiata in particular is held in high esteem by the king. However, after a year, Sogolon falls ill and the king decides to send them to Mema, the capital of a great kingdom under his cousin Tounkara, since the air in that region was reputed to be restorative.

Again, the exiles travel as guests of a merchant caravan, during which time Sundiata learned more about the world outside Africa, as well as more about Soumaoro, "the sorcerer-king, the plunderer who would rob the merchants of everything when he was in a bad mood."

A messenger had informed the royal court of Mema, so they send out a welcome party. The king is absent but his sister welcomes the guests. As with the former city, Sundiata quickly becomes a favorite amongst children in the court. He and Manding Bory are able to resume hunting too. The air is indeed nice for Sogolon's sickness, and the people are very welcoming. The king's sister shares with Sogolon that her brother is childless, and that he is currently warring against mountain tribes that otherwise raid their countryside.

Later, the king, Moussa Tounkara, returns with an impressive escort drawn from booty and slaves taken from the mountain tribes. Once he's settled, he reiterates how welcome his guests are. Moussa Tounkara takes Sundiata on his first campaign, and the boy impresses everyone with his strength and bravery. His ability in battle is matched only by his incredible gusto; the king even fears for his life, so unyieldingly Sundiata charges. Because of these qualities, the king bonds with the boy, who doesn't leave his side.

Both that strength and the "lucidity of his mind" lead the public to begin talking about whether Sundiata has been sent by God to alleviate the king's childlessness. Three years pass, and Moussa Tounkara makes Sundiata his viceroy. He grows into a man, impressing the entire community, and though he seems ready to realize his destiny, Sogolon cautions further patience since his destiny is meant for Mali.


This section sees Sundiata growing into a hero, and yet he still must stay patient. The griot's central message of destiny is extremely clear. Sundiata is growing into the man he will become not in spite of but through his patience. By allowing destiny to unfold as it will, he gathers crucial qualities: he learns about the ways of the world and other peoples from the travelers; he grows strong through myriad hunting and fighting experiences; and he gains the admiration of many cities that will be central to his defeat of Soumaoro. In a sense, there is an irony between what humans expect and what happens.

Sundiata continues to show his heroic qualities. His ability to win at wori demonstrates his intelligence, and in Mema, soldiers admire the "lucidity of his mind." But he seems to also possess a certain charisma. Kings take notice of him in their first interview, even though he says little, messengers share their stories, and he makes friends amongst the princes everywhere they stop.

However, it shouldn't be understated that despite his virtues and his intelligence, what really distinguishes the boy is his strength. His quick rise to Moussa Tounkara's viceroy is mainly due to his ability on the battlefield, and his willingness to put himself in mortal danger. After all, it is said Sundiata knows no fear, as he is confident that the prophecy of adult greatness will be true.

The importance of hospitality amongst the tribes is central to this section as well. When Mansa Konkon betrays Sundiata in their game of wori, it is a severe fault not only because he refuses Sundiata his reward but also because he was plotting the murder of his guest. Notice how important it is for all the other kings to insist upon their hospitality. The virtue of ceremony and politeness seems to maintain peace amongst various tribes. The exiles are welcomed to the kingdom of Ghana because Naré Maghan had sent gifts long before. And through hospitality do these kingdoms endear themselves to Sundiata. It is telling that the Ghana king mentions that Sundiata will make a great king because "he forgets nobody."

Remembrance of history is a crucial function of epic, and the griot makes explicit his value as a repository for the past. The history of Ghana in this section is interesting in this regard. Ghana is considered the first great empire of medieval West Africa, which fell into decline after being sacked about 200 years before Sundiata's arrival. While the remembrance of its rise and decline in this epic might seem fanciful – their decline is attributed to the princes of Ghana breaking their taboos, a supernatural prohibition – it is worth remembering that nature and the supernatural would have been understood as linked, and so the epic does fulfill its function of remembering what was.

Finally, it is in this section that the main antagonist of the epic, Soumaoro, is introduced. Notice that one of the terrible actions used to characterize him as a "cruel" sorcerer is a lapse in hospitality (he killed a traveling merchant). It's more than a little implicit that Sundiata is getting an idea about what he could do to best this supposedly unbeatable sorcerer.