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Mali's Boy-King

A Thirteenth-Century African Epic Becomes Digital

By Ronica Roth | HUMANITIES, July/August 1998 | Volume 19, Number 4

The story begins with a hunter visiting the court of Mali. He tells the king of Mali his future: if the king takes as his second wife an ugly woman who will arrive at the court in the company of two hunters, the king will have a second son “who will make the name of Mali immortal forever.”

It is the epic of Sundiata, a story passed down for seven hundred years and now being converted to CD-ROM.

Sundiata was the boy-king who overcame great hardship to found the Mali empire in thirteenth-century West Africa. His story was put on paper by Djibril Tamsir Niane in 1960 in French. The new digital version is being prepared by scholars from Tufts University, funded by an NEH Teaching with Technology grant.

For years, Lynda Shaffer and Parker James have taught the Sundiata epic as a centerpiece to a West African unit in a world civilizations course at Tufts. “First-time readers are captivated by it, and those of us who have read it many times still enjoy reading it again,” says Shaffer, who is the project director. She said that she and James, who is serving as production director, have found the text to be an excellent introduction to West Africa’s history and culture, as separate from the rest of Africa and other parts of the world.

“We want the CD-ROM to be content-driven and need-driven,” Shaffer says. “The need is for a West African context for the epic. We want to give teachers the confidence to teach West Africa in their world history or world literature courses.”

The CD-ROM provides the images, sounds, music, and background to bring the tale to life. The disc brings to a student’s fingertips the history and culture of pre-1500 West Africa, before European contact.

As the Sundiata narrative begins, Mali is a regional kingdom on the upper reaches of the Niger River and its tributaries, in what is now eastern Guinea-Conraky and southern Mali. Mali was one of many kingdoms allied to Ghana’s imperial lineage.

As foretold in the legend of its beginnings, the woman arrives. The king makes her his second wife, and together they have three children, Sundiata and his two younger sisters.

Sundiata’s childhood is full of troubles. He is a slow developer and at the age of seven still cannot walk. At seven, the king tells Sundiata and the others that Sundiata is the true heir to the throne. Nevertheless, after the king dies, his wishes are overlooked and his first son, a healthy teenager, becomes the new king.

The first wife, who has always resented her husband’s second wife, now intensifies her efforts to humiliate Sundiata’s mother and taunts her openly about her incapacitated son.

When Sundiata realizes the extent of his mother’s suffering, he quite suddenly, with the aid of an iron bar, stands up and walks and becomes a superior child. By the time he is ten, the first wife sees him as a possible threat to her own son’s rule and, unsuccessfully, plots to kill Sundiata. Sundiata’s mother, in an effort to protect all possible targets of the first wife’s wrath, flees Mali with her children.

The exiles flee almost four hundred miles away to the court at Wagadu, which was once the grand imperial center of Ghana but now is in an obvious state of decline. After about a year, they settle at Mema, near the Niger Bend, where a cousin of Ghana’s king has his own court. Mema’s ruler, without an heir, becomes increasingly impressed by Sundiata’s abilities and eventually makes him his viceroy. The presumption is that one day he will become the ruler of Mema.

According to Shaffer, Malian children generally enjoy hearing about the period of exile, which is a happy time that includes adventures, such as seeing the sights of the old imperial capital, having an audience with the ruler of Ghana at Wagadu, and traveling by camel. Sundiata grows powerful during this exile, becoming viceroy and heir apparent to the throne of Mema, near the Niger Bend.

The rest of the epic is an account of how an empire was constructed. While Sundiata was growing to early manhood, Ghana suffered a defeat at the hands of an aspiring blacksmith king from Sosso, which, like Mali, had once been a part of Ghana’s empire. The king of Sosso then turned his attention to Mali.

The king of Mali (the older half-brother of Sundiata), having first submitted to Sosso without a fight, later joins a rebellion against him. When the revolt fails, Mali’s king flees to the south, and the king of Sosso levels the homes of all those involved, including those in Niani, and declares himself to be king of Mali. Survivors of Niani’s devastation then go in search of Sundiata, to persuade him to return home as king.

From this point on the epic is filled with tension as allies are organized, the enemy’s castle is infiltrated thereby revealing his secrets, and the battles begin. The blacksmith king runs from the battleground and disappears, never to be seen again. A celebration of the allied victory is held at Kaba, where Sundiata’s enemies swear allegiance to him, paying homage to Mali as they once had paid homage to Ghana. Thus it was that Niani became the seat of a great empire.

Through the digital project students can experience the Sundiata epic as it has existed for centuries -- as oral history. Technical advisers have devised a way to choose to have the epic’s text, which appears on the screen, read aloud. Accompanying music, still images, and film of modern West Africa recreate how the epic is traditionally performed by a griot, or keeper of oral traditions. Griots also act as recorders of deeds and lawyers, tracking arguments and agreements and transfers of land and property.

CD-ROM promises to be a particularly good medium for helping people follow the Sundiata story, which can be difficult for Americans trying to deal with unfamiliar names and places. Hypertext links throughout the text help identify the names and relationships of characters as well as the timeline of events. For example, at any point in the story, a user can click on the name Sogolon Kolonkan to bring up a screen explaining the role played in the story by this sister of Sundiata. (Many a student of War and Peace would have loved such guidance with unfamiliar Russian names.)

The CD-ROM automatically shows visual content that makes the story easier to follow and understand. While the text is central on the screen, a smaller screen will show a map. As the text scrolls, the map will automatically update to show where the action is taking place. Users also have the option to zoom in on the map for more detail. Other hypertext links go to screens that provide the historical and cultural context that add life and meaning to the Sundiata story. Collected from existing scholarship, these screens provide a rich database of information about life in medieval West Africa. Students and teachers can learn about Mali social structures, including the role of the griot, and about the Mali traditions and festivals that to this day mark the passage of time, of seasons and of life.

Perhaps the CD-ROM’s most powerful feature is its ability to provide images of West Africa itself. By providing the pictures to show where the action is taking place, the CD-ROM will mark the epic more indelibly on students’ minds. Video footage shot last year in the towns of Baro and Fadama depict modern West Africans performing ancient tasks: women make pottery; men smith metal; townspeople fish; and the whole village celebrates an annual festival with traditional song and dance and the telling of the Sundiata epic.

Most American students and teachers do not have accurate mental images of West Africa and its people. As a scholar of West Africa, Shaffer had read quite a bit before she finally visited Africa more than fifteen years ago.

“When I went there I kept being surprised by what I was seeing,” Shaffer said. “I asked myself, ‘Why? It looks just like it was described in the books.’ I realized I still had in my head those old images from Tarzan movies.”

Books -- with words but no images -- cannot erase the pictures burned into our brains by movies, magazines or television, Shaffer contends. Only new, accurate images will enable students to follow the epic unfolding in the real West Africa.

Shaffer’s generation grew up with Tarzan movies, which had nothing to do with the real Africa. James said he grew up with news photos of famine and pestilence in Africa, and with National Geographic reports on the animals of the Savannah.

The real West Africa is green and dense. It also contains urban areas, and the architectural descendants of the great medieval cities that Sundiata’s Mali empire built.

“Mali has these extraordinary medieval cities,” James said. The project team plans to load the CD-ROM with such images.

Essays, slide collections and audiovisual materials emphasizing the diversity of the region explain geography and climate, agriculture and husbandry, handicraft industries, and architecture and art. The nature and organization of work, material culture and foods are included. Sections with photographs and video material emphasize social structures such as gender roles, royal lineages, clerical lineages, griots, blacksmiths and leather workers.

Databases on the literary aspects of the epic include essays on other versions and translations of the epic, as well as discussions of issues regarding oral transmission, translation, genre, layers of meaning, crucial scenes and audiences. Databases on music provide information and examples of instrumentation and performance techniques.

According to James, the CD-ROM includes state-of-the-art digital elevation maps (DEMs). This technology for rendering three- dimensional maps is so new that the maps have not yet been created for many parts of the world. In fact, the Sundiata project are creating DEMs of West Africa for the first time.

“We are trying to get in as many visual images as we can to counteract the images people have of Africa,” Shaffer said.

Through modern video footage, they also hope to provide an image of how the griot performs the epic to this day: with children running through, with music, dancing and singing going on at the same time.

The Sundiata tale teaches about life and about West African culture. All children can identify with Sundiata’s initial struggles, Shaffer says, as he was picked on as a boy for being different. Students tend to enjoy the story’s action: the excitement of military campaigns and the soap opera quality of some of its interpersonal relationships.

Through its exciting story the epic teaches timeless life lessons (this may be why Disney loosely based its animated film The Lion King on the story). Sundiata survives childhood only because he is virtuous. At one point, the king’s first wife tries to have the nine great witches of Mali kill Sundiata. The witches report that they cannot, because Sundiata has no anger in him. They steal his mother’s spices from her garden to incur his wrath. Instead, Sundiata offers only generosity. Their black magic is useless against such virtue.

Another theme is that a person cannot triumph alone. Peer groups are an important part of West African social structure to this day. Sundiata succeeds only by using an alliance structure that he has built since childhood. He receives help from every leader who aided him during his exile. The story explains how to manage such relationships honorably: Sundiata always gives his allies their due. In one scene near the end, Sundiata is asked who he is. In reply, he introduced not only himself but also his half- brother, his sister, and each leader who is present. For this act, he is predicted to greatness.

Women, especially sisters, are an integral part of the crucial networks upon which victory depends. One of his sisters is responsible for putting Sundiata together with the Malian delegation that is searching for him. And it is his half-sister, pretending to be enthralled by the king of Sosso, who finds out where the enemy’s vulnerabilities lie. And it is a woman, his father’s first wife, who served as the first villain of the piece. The epic also provides significant vignettes revealing the important role of women in agriculture and in the markets of West Africa.

Another intriguing aspect of the epic is the role of the griot, and the power that they possess. Much like kings, griots are descended through special lineages and are taught from a young age. In fact, Sundiata’s father gives to his son the son of his own griot—a clear sign that Sundiata and not his half-brother is meant to be king.

Scholars are not sure exactly how griots have used the telling of the Sundiata epic for political purposes in the past, although they know it was done. They also do not know whether or how the story has changed over time. Scholars do know that every griot knows far more detail of the story than he ever tells. They also know that today -- as in the past -- griots adjust the telling to the circumstances. For example, if the tale is told in the presence of certain individuals, details may be left out that would aggravate an old dispute, or details of a relevant lineage might be highlighted.

The griot, implying that his knowledge is the source of his power, declares that knowledge should be a secret. In the epic, access to knowledge is not there for the taking but is doled out for the purposes of the teller.

The knowledgeable consider their knowledge so valuable that they do not leave it out where anyone can see it. In fact, because of their knowledge and their skills in keeping and presenting it, griots associated with royal lineages have been kidnapped and deployed as if they were weapons.

To bring home the point, the CD-ROM will include a game students can play in which they must convince the griot to impart knowledge to them, by showing they are worthy.

Shaffer hopes the epic will bring to light these views of knowledge as power and encourage discussions about knowledge of the past and one’s ability to use it persuasively.

About the Author

Ronica Roth is a writer in Denver, Colorado.

Funding Information

Tufts University has received $170,000 from NEH to put SUNDIATA on CD-ROM, which will be available in 1999.