Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of Soumaoro Kanté, the Sorcerer King, History, and The Baobab Leaves

Summary of Soumaoro Kanté, the Sorcerer King

While the exiles are away, Mali has fallen to Soumaoro despite Dankaran Touman's attempt to appease him by sending an embassy. Soumaoro has kept Balla Fasséké and Sundiata's half-sister Nana Triban. The griot tells of the cruel king – he is descended from a line of smiths that had harnessed fire, and with this power turned Sosso from a small village to the seat of Ghana's power. His fetishes (singular items with magical significance) allow the king to intimidate other kings and cause death by touch.

One day, Balla Fasséké finds his way to the king's secret chamber when the king is away and there he finds Soumaoro's fetishes. They include: walls covered in human skin; a skin throne; the heads of nine kings killed by Soumaoro; and a monstrous snake that Balla Fasséké puts to sleep. There is also a great balafon (an instrument played by the griots) that the griot cannot help but sample. The sound is unmatched, and finds in Balla its master. From his music, the fetishes transform.

Unfortunately, Soumaoro is so in touch with his fetishes that he is aware someone is playing the musical instrument that only he has played. He rushes home and surprises the griot, who improvises a song to save his neck. The flattery wins over Soumaoro, and he decides to keep Balla as his own. "In this way war between Sundiata and Soumaoro became inevitable."

Summary of History

This section begins what the griot calls "the great moments in the life of Sundiata. The exile will end and another sun will rise. It is the sun of Sundiata." The griot sings the praise of griots, who rescue the "memories of kings from oblivion, as men have short memories."

There follows an interesting attack on written history; here the griot sings of "dumb books" that "killed the faculty of memory among them." The griot – Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté - introduces himself again as heir to the griot tradition, and swears what he speaks is truth.

He speaks more on how terrible Soumaoro is. He is the "bulwark [defense] of fetishism against the word of Allah." He is "an evil demon and his reign had produced nothing but bloodshed." The griot reflects on how terrible man can be, and is grateful man does not possess divine power, since he would surely destroy the world. He tells how Soumaoro steals the wife of his own chief general and nephew, Fakoli Koroma.

In retribution, Fakoli Koroma frees himself from obligation to the sorcerer king, and makes public his intent to defeat his uncle. "It was like a signal." Men throughout the land answered the call to rebellion, including Dankaran Touman. For his betrayal, Soumaoro burns Niani to the ground and the king flees. Mali lives under Soumaoro Kanté's tyranny, and while the soothsayers continue to predict the great king and rightful heir will arrive, nobody has heard from Sundiata since in seven years. A search party which includes Kountoun Manian, an old griot from Naré Maghan's court, and Mandjan Bérété, brother of Sassouma, decides to go out into the world and find where their Sundiata has gone.

Summary of The Baobab Leaves

In Mema, Sundiata grows unhappy and restless. Not only has he heard about the fall of Mali and the nascent rebellion led by Fakoli Koroma, he must contend with his mother's recurring illness. Meanwhile, his sister Kolonkan has grown older and is now of a marriageable age. One day, while at the market, she sees merchants selling baobab leaves, which are unknown this far from Niani. She and the merchant converse about them, and the merchant presses for personal details, including the name of her brother.

A man asks if they could present a cola to her mother, and, excited, Kolonkan runs home quickly to inquire. Sogolon appreciates the scent of the baobab leaves, and agrees to receive the merchants. She calls the boys in to await the visit of their guests. When the guests arrive, Sogolon recognizes them immediately not as merchants, but "eminent members of her husband's court." They speak not only the news of Mali's fall, but also of how they have traveled from royal court to royal court hoping to attract the exiles by offering the Mandingo vegetables.

Mali stands defeated and without a king, but the jinn has reminded them that the son of Sogolon is destined to rule them. They bow before Sundiata and recognize him as the destined king of Mali. Sundiata accepts the role and decides to ask immediate leave from Moussa Tounkara.

Moussa Tounkara returns from a trip that night, so he cannot make his plea immediately. Instead, he spends the evening with his sickly mother, and asks God for her to pass so he may bury her at Mema. She dies the next morning, and it is while giving his condolences that the king hears Sundiata's plea to be released from his duty as viceroy. The king reacts poorly to the request and accuses Sundiata of being ungrateful. He does not understand why Sundiata needs to return when he already has earned a spot as heir to Mema. He grants Sundiata's request, but spitefully refuses permission to bury Sogolon there unless he pays the "price of the earth where she will lie." Sundiata asks that he be allowed to pay the price later, but the king refuses him an extension.

Sundiata leaves and returns with a basket full of broken pottery, bird feathers, and wisps of straw, offering it as payment. The king tries to kick him out for such an insulting gift, but his Arab adviser stops him and explains to Moussa Tounkara that the basket is a symbol indicating that if his request to bury his mother is denied, Sundiata will return and make war on Mema. The king understands and grants Sogolon burial rights.


These sections read as though they might have come after an intermission in the griot's tale. Not only do the first two sections remind the reader of details already shared, but they ramp them up significantly, as though to excite the audience. In his namesake section, Soumaoro is portrayed in much darker tones than he has thus far been presented. He is described as an "evil demon" and established as the "Untouchable King." It is a reminder of the performative quality of the griot's story that he so strongly pushes the antagonist to ratchet the tension and create a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for the hero Sundiata.

Likewise, the griot takes time in these first sections to fortify his centrality to Mandingo tradition and history. He reintroduces himself by name and reminds his listeners than men in general "have short memories" and so would be rudderless without the steady memory allowed by the griot. His attack on written history is worth reading in full:

"Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past any more, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice. With them everybody thinks he knows, whereas learning should be a secret. The prophets did not write and their words have been all the more vivid as a result. What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books?"

Was the griot just trying to keep his distracted audience in line, or is he riled up considering how poorly Mali would fare if they forgot about the good-will engendered by Sundiata's rise? Regardless of the answer, it is a reminder that the history protected by the griot has a practical human value; by reminding people of alliances and friendships once made, the griot insists peace can be maintained if both parties continue to honor such friendships. This call for peace amongst tribes continues in the section. The sin that causes a rebellion to finally rise against Soumaoro is not his myriad murders, but his incestuous fault against a family member. Moussa Tounkara, similarly, is praised until his lapse in hospitality.

Of course, Moussa Tounkara's anger at Sundiata's request for leave is understandable if we remember that the people of Mema (and the king himself) had begun to see Sundiata as an heir that he could not otherwise produce. It is a reminder of how important legacy is to these tribes. For a people so obsessed with remembering, the dying out of a royal line would be a blow to its legacy; there will be no descendants left to remember those who came before. So while Moussa Tounkara might seem a bit petulant, his behavior is grounded in an honest fear that his greatness will be swallowed by the time that swallows all whom the griot does not preserve.

The first section here is also a great testament to the importance of music and magic. The two are explicitly linked together when, in Soumaoro's secret chamber, the griot's song transforms the fetishes. It even brings the heads of the dead kings briefly to life so that they too can listen. Soumaoro is renowned for his unmatchable sorcery, and his status as The Untouchable King illustrates how important magic is to the Mandingo. And yet his magic can still be bested by song – for Balla Fasséké saves himself solely through the strength of his voice and lyrics. The griot tells us when Soumaoro's anger is sated here: "Kings are only men, and whatever iron cannot achieve against them, words can." What's more, what makes war "inevitable" between the sorcerer king and the buffalo's son is the robbery of Balla Fasséké by Soumaoro. Again, it's perhaps an effort by the griot to overstate his value, but it also serves as another reminder of how important music is not as entertainment but as history and weapon.

Throughout the epic, Sundiata learns about other people, and the compassion and understanding this knowledge engenders in him will make him a great king. And yet "the son of another is always the son of another." The griot reminds us at the end of The Baobab Leaves that it is more than just destiny that ties us to our legacy and homeland. Sogolon, in the throes of sickness, is comforted by the smell of her native leaves, in the same way that Sundiata will reach his greatness only when he returns to Mali. It is easy to link the connection to homeland with the insatiable need to be remembered as a man with great destiny that runs through Mandingo custom, since both concern realizing one's inherent greatness rather than finding it through trickery or luck. We are born great or small, but we must realize that about ourselves amongst our own people, and hope that our history helps us to better understand ourselves.