‘Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali’: Full Novel Analysis Notes

‘Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali’: Full Novel Analysis Notes


Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali is a novel that tells the story of the 13th-century West African hero, Sundiata Keita, who found the Empire of Mali in pre-colonial Era.


This epic of Sundiata is told by the griot (storyteller, keeper of story or an oral historian) of West Africa who accompanies his or her tales with music.


The griot, Djeli Mamadou Konyate, begins the story with Sundiata`s father, Meghan Kon Fatta, who is the king of the city of Niani. One day, a soothsayer visits Kon Fatta and foretells that Kon Fatta will produce a great ruler through the marriage of an ugly woman. That ugly old woman is called Sogolon.


The king takes Sogolon for his wife. Sundiata is born. And in his childhood, Sundiata does not walk until the age of 7 which makes it difficult to fulfill the prophecy. Despite his physical disability, Sundiata is a wise son and his father sees that. But when the King dies, the eldest son, Dankaran Touman, is given control by the elders, who do not see much future in the cripple boy.

One day, when Sogolon is embarrassed by the queen mother, Sundiata uses a rod to help herself stand on two legs and from the day onwards,

Later, Sundiata stand on two legs and starts to gain. After this, Sassouma Berete exiles Sundiata his family. They travel for several years, and Sundiata learns new peoples, customs, and fighting techniques.

Finally, Sundiata gather the army, gets many allies and defeats various armies who come against him.

After defeating the enemies, Sundiata returns to Niani and found the Mali Empire.

The griot ends the epic by praising Sundiata and his rule of the golden age of the Mali Empire. 







The title "Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali" as its name suggests, it tells the history of Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire in the 13th century. The tale is an epic history recorded from oral tradition of Sundiata's early life and rise to power. It is considered an epic because it relates a mythical version of Sundiata's life, which includes magical and other supernatural elements.




The novel "Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali" is set in what was Mali Empire in pre-colonial Mali.




This novel is told by a hidden griot from the village of Djeliba Koro in the area of Siguiri in Guinea. The writer of this book has borrowed everything from this griot. The role of every griot is to keep the history, culture, and memory of the kingdom concerned. And in almost every village of old Mali, there was a griot who conserves and teaches the history and traditions of the particular village and other areas.


The writer explains that griot’s work as professional musicians these days, but in those days, they were important figures who counseled rulers, preserved constitutions, laws, and customs, and taught the princes.


Niane ends his preface by offering that his eyes have been opened through his travels and hopes that his relation to this epic tale will do the same for other readers.





In this chapter, we are told the role of the griot, Djeli Mamadou Kouyate, who introduces himself and tells us what he does and what he will do.


The griot, Djeli Mamadou Kouyate is the one who tells the story. He is the son of Bintou Kouyate and Djeli Kedian Kouyate. He derives his knowledge from his father, Djeli Kedian who also got it from his father. He says he knows all the sovereigns who succeeded the thrones. 

He introduces his ancestors and tells them that the Kouyate have always served the Keita princes of Mali. He describes their duties as harbouring old secrets, memorizing the names and deeds of the great king, and preferring the memory of mankind

He claims to know all the kings who ruled Mali, how the tribes were split and why they were harmed as they were. All information he learned from his father. He teaches the king their history so that they might use precedence to guide their choices as the future springs from the past He also preemptively explains that royal griots do not know what lying is. 

He says he is going to tell the story of the son of Buffalo, the son of the Lion. He says this because Sundiata's mother had a buffalo for a totem (or symbol) that ravaged the land of Do. The lion is the totem(symbol) and ancestor of the Keita. So, through his father, Sundiata is the son of the Lion and through his mother, he is the son of the buffalo. 

He finally introduces, Sundiata, the man of many names against whom sorcery could avail nothing. 

He lists the different names of Sundiata such as: 

The son of the Buffalo, the son of Lion, Maghan Sundiata, Man-Djata, Sogolon Djafa, Nare Magha Djata. 




As the title of the chapter suggests, in this chapter, the griot, the historian or storyteller, tells the story of Mali's last kings.


Griot tells the history of the kings who once ruled Mali. He also tells the meaning of the word Mali in which he says the word also in Mandingo means a "hippopotamus" and one tradition says that Sundiata changed himself into a hippopotamus in the Sankarani river. Some villages in Mali still have the names of Mali.

The griot also tells his audience that he will speak of Sundiata, the last of the great conquerors. But first, he wants to tell of Mali's past. He talks of many kings who ruled Mali. Some of them are Bilali Bounama who is described as a faithful servant of Prophet Mohammad. 

The people of Mali, who he calls Mandingo, came from the East. Their ancestor was a faithful servant of Islam, and the griot traces and names his descendants. He gives special attention to Lahi Latoul Kalabi, the first black prince to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. On his return trek, he was robbed by brigands, and his entourage spilt. God saved his life and made him a king once he returned to Mali after seven years of wandering.

Lahilaboul Kalabi himself had sons, who in their turn inverted the hunter's whistle (an important tool in hunting, a prevalent pasting in Mali), communicated with the join (spirits) of forest and bush, and ultimately attracted enough followers to resemble a great army. Slowly, the descent of Lahi Laboul Kalabi created a vast country. The griot then traces the lines of descent down to Maghan Kon Fatta, father of Sundiata.

He ends this address by listing Maghan Kon Fatta's family, the members of which will be introduced as they enter the narrative.


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Emmanuel Kachele

Emmanuel Kachele is a founder and Blogger of KACHELE ONLINE Blog, an educational blog where 'O' Level English - 'OLE', 'A' Level English (ALE) and other related teaching and life skills are shared extensively. This is an online center for all Tanzanian Secondary School English Language students and teachers (Forms I-VI) and all interested English Language learners and teachers worldwide.

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