Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of The Buffalo Woman


Maghan Kon Fatta was both a beautiful man and beloved king, who ruled his people from his capital city of Niani (also called Nianiba). He frequently would sit at the foot of a great silk-cotton tree and reflect, surrounded by his kinsmen and his eight-year old son Dankaran Touman.

One day, while sitting under the tree, the king and his companions see a man approaching. Both the man's clothing and his bow speak to his position as a hunter. The man addresses the king and shares that he is a hunter who has traveled from his home in search of game. Having killed a great doe in the borders of Maghan Kon Fatta's kingdom, he wishes to share a portion. The king's griot, Gnankouman Doua, then speaks, and tells the visitor that since he respects their custom, he will be allowed their hospitality. He is invited to sit and then asked to share stories of the lands he has visited. The king agrees, especially because he is told that the hunters of Sangaran (from which land this man hails) are the "best soothsayers" and hence might the man teach them great secrets.

The man accepts the invitation to sit and share, and though he apologizes for his lack of eloquence, he boasts of being "a seer among seers." He then removes from his bag 12 cowries (snail shells) and uses them for to soothsay. As he performs his magic, the king's griot points out to the king that the man is left-handed, which is can be a sign of evil but also great skill in divination.

After rolling the shells around and muttering some words, the visitor addresses the king. He evokes the mysteries of the world and shares that "Kingdoms are like trees; some will be silk-cotton trees, others will remain dwarf palms." Nobody can know who will be great. However, he is able to see two visitors approaching, which confuses the audience who sees no one on the horizon. The visitor tells them that Mali will soon "emerge from the night," at which point the griot asks him to be clearer in his predictions.

The visitor then says that the king's great successor has not yet been born. Instead, he will come through the aid of two hunters who will one day bring with them a hideously ugly woman with "monstrous eyes" and a humpback. The hunter tells the king he must marry this woman, for she will give birth to his successor, who will wield "more might than Alexander." But in order to enable this chain of events, the king must sacrifice a great red bull. The hunter then ends his address and returns the cowries to his bag. After a quick farewell, the hunter leaves.

One day the king and the griot are sitting under the great tree when they see a woman being escorted by two men, both of whom appear to be hunters. The men greet the king, introducing themselves as Oulamba and Oulani, two Mandingo who are returning from travels to the land of Do. They have brought from Do a woman they believe would make a fine wife for the king. All try to see the woman, who hides her face in supplication but who cannot hide her hump, her "muscular arms, and her bulging breasts pushing stoutly" against her clothing. Remembering the soothsayer's words, the king silently expresses embarrassment to Gnankouman Doua, who understands. The griot then invites them to sit, drink, and tell their tale.

They tell of how, once the harvest was complete, they set out on adventures and hear of a monstrous buffalo that was ravaging the countryside near Do, taking several lives daily in its rampage. The king of Do had promised great reward to whoever killed the buffalo, and the young men decided to try their luck. While exploring the land, they came across a distraught and starving old woman by a river. She had been ignored by all others, but they are moved and share with her their food. After she ate, she told them she knows of their intentions and would help them defeat the buffalo as a reward. She confessed that she herself is the buffalo, and has been vanquished by their generosity. She gave them a staff and an egg and sketched out the following plan: when they see her transformed, they must first use the staff to point at her three times. This will make her susceptible to their arrows, which they will then fire. She will fall but rise again, and then pursue them. They then must throw an egg behind them, which will cease her charge and allow them to kill her. They can then cut off the buffalo's gold tail to bring to the king as proof. She ends by sharing her reason for punishing Do: she was the sister of Do's king and was robbed of her inheritance.

The young men were glad to accept the staff and egg, but she adds one final condition. When the king offers them their reward – which has been advertised as choice of any woman under his rule for a wife – they must search for the ugliest maid in the crowd, one with a hunchback. She is called Sogolon Kedjou, and will serve as the buffalo woman's "wraith," or spiritual double. The old woman promises that Sogolon will bring greatness. The young hunters agree to this condition.

They traveled to the plain that the old woman had specified, and there followed her instructions to vanquish the buffalo. When they brought its tail to the king, he called a great assembly, and offer them their choice of women. They searched the crowd for a wife, and amongst all the beautiful women, they identified Sogolon and chose her, which caused much laughter and mockery.

The hunters complete their story, and the king decides to fulfill his marriage to Sogolon quickly so as to assure the soothsayer's prophecy. A large wedding is planned. In the meanwhile, Sogolon lives with an old aunt of the king's. She stays hidden there despite the public's desire to inspect her. Before the wedding, the king's first wife, Sassouma Bérété, begins to spread ugly rumors about her.

On the day of the wedding, the celebration begins with drumming. In the aunt's house, Sogolon is distraught. The king's sisters are cruel and suggest her youth is over, while her hairdresser argues she will become queen and mother, which is most beautiful of all. Outside in the square, dancers and musicians from throughout the king's lands perform for the king. When night comes, Sogolon is brought out and the party reaches its apex as more dancers perform through the ceremony.

That night, the king is unable to consummate his marriage because of her refusals. When his griot finds him exhausted the next morning from his efforts, the king confesses he is also frightened by her long hairs. He tries to call upon his own wraith to aid his efforts, but he cannot overcome hers. The king remains hidden from the populace for a week, trying to consummate the marriage, and the public is confused by his absence.

One night, the king arises and attempts to find a message from some divining sand. When that doesn't work, he meditates until a vision comes to him. He takes his sword and wife and tells her that he misunderstood the prophecy – she is the virgin he was meant to sacrifice, not the wife to bear his child. In fear, she faints and thereby releases her wraith. Maghan consummates the marriage and when she awakes, she "was already a wife" and conceived that very night.


In this section, the story of Sundiata truly begins. There is much in this chapter that conforms to the purpose of epic: to glorify the civilization of which it speaks. The depiction of Maghan Kon Fatta certainly reflects the impulse for glorification, as his reign is praised so highly. But more than this, what is exhibited in this section are the many customs and beliefs of the Mandingo.

Destiny is perhaps the most central theme here. The words of the soothsayer hunter are quite telling. Before giving the prophecy, he speaks of how nobody can know what will be. His example is that the smallest seed can engender the largest tree. What emerges is a distinction between how things appear physically and what they truly are spiritually. This idea of opposites will continue to resonate through the epic, and is clear here in the tale Sogolon. Her ugliness makes her undesirable as a mate, and yet she has within her the seed of Mali's great ruler. There is then the implicit reminder that we ought not assume our eyes can capture the truth of the world, since the destiny of each of us is far more profound.

There are other magics that surface in this section, and it indicates how important magic is to the Mandingo. It's worth thinking of their magic as being inexorable from the natural world, which explains why certain landmarks – like the silk-cotton tree under which the king sits – are so important. Other magic in the chapter includes the soothsayer's prophecy, the relevance of his left-handedness, the agency of Maghan's and Sogolon's wraiths, and the old woman's power as a buffalo changeling. None of these elements are considered supernatural; on the contrary, they are simply a part of the natural world that lies behind that which the eye can easily see.

Of course, because magic is part of the natural world, human qualities do have some effect on it. Seen is this chapter are two Mandingo virtues. The first is strength. Hunting is clearly indicated here as a superior pursuit, understandable since hunters would be largely responsible for feeding their tribes. Another custom emerges in this regard: that of young men who travel seeking adventure and hunt after the harvest was complete. This tradition indicates the value of strength.

But perhaps equally important is the virtue of generosity and hospitality. The impulse to share what one has and to expect reciprocation is represented in this section. Most obvious is the old woman who helps the young men defeat the buffalo because of their generosity. But the virtue is also expressed in the visitors to Maghan Kon Fatta. Once they offer their presents, they are invited by the griot to join the king's entourage, for by valuing the "custom" of giving gifts to their king, they can expect the reciprocity of his hospitality.

One final element observed here is the importance of music. The long description of the singing and dancing that precedes the wedding ceremony (a full day!) reveals how important music was. Also, the central place of Gnankouman Doua amongst the king's entourage reinforces the griot's importance.

Lastly, one theme of the epic surfaces here, though it will be clearer later: the fickleness of the public. One of the epic's most central themes is that of heroism, and how heroes unite people. On several occasions, the griot will reveal how the public in general does need such guidance. Here, they are represented as something of a mob, easily led to believe the rumors spread by Sassouma Bérété.