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Background to
D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali translated by G. D. Pickett (Harlow, England: Longman Drumbeat, 1965, 1982), 96pp.
Prepared by Jim Jones,
West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2003)

Geography || Religion || Society || Politics || List of names || Return to syllabus


The "Bright Country": The region is only a few degrees north of the equator, so it gets strong sunlight all year. It is also very dry, so there is little cloud cover to diminish the sunlight. The soil is generally fairly light in color--yellow and red predominate--adding to the sensation of intense light.

Brightness is also a reference to a religious belief that the physical and spiritual worlds are connected through light. The "Bright Country" is the place where that connection occurs, or in other words, this region is the place where the physical world is in closest contact with the spiritual world.

The Niger River: This is the major river in the region and at 2548 miles in length, the third longest in Africa. It flows from the Futa Djalon mountains northeast to the edge of the Sahara Desert at Timbuktu, then curves southeast and flows to the Atlantic in modern Nigeria. It is divided into three navigable stretches by two sets of rapids, one of which is located near Koulikoro (mentioned in the epic of Sundiata). The navigable stretch downstream (northeast) from Koulikoro is known locally as "Djoliba," and that name appears frequently in the epic.


The Beledugu Plateau: This is a plateau of rolling hills at the northernmost area where rainfall farming is possible in the region. As a result, it is home to widely scattered villages of farmers, plus semi-nomadic groups of pastoralists. During the dry season, which can be as long as ten months in this area, both groups compete for the available water which is usually drawn from wells.

The Futa Djalon: This is a mountain range located west of the Mali that is the source of several major rivers including the Niger, Senegal and Gambia. It is much wetter and cooler than the "Bright Country" surrounding the Niger River Valley, and its inhabitants had much less contact with pastoralists throughout history. This region is the source of gold which figured so prominently in the Sahara Desert trade and in the stories of Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-1326. The "Futanke," as they are known, did not form major empires of their own, but were occasionally incorporated (after much difficulty) into empires that developed in the Niger River Valley.

The Sahara Desert: This is the large dry region that forms a barrier between the Niger Valley and the northern parts of Africa. It is the source of salt, an important, life-giving substance that provided one of the staple commodities of trade. It is also the home to nomads who challenged the northernmost settlements of farmers, although the nomads were never numerous enough to directly attack strong empires. More often, the nomads and farmers traded with each other.


Worldview: According to one author, "The Bambara . . . make of man a universe, and of the universe a system in which there is a place and a role for everything, from the stars to the objects of daily use, from the soul to the detritus. . ." In other words, to the Bambara (a sub-group of the Malinke), the physical and spiritual worlds are all part of one large, coherent universe.

The Creator: In Bambara religion, the creator of all things is named Faro. Faro is all-powerful, abstract, and too distant to humans to know. Faro presides over a universe that contains all of the physical world, plus all of the spiritual powers and beings.

All objects are invested with an inherent spiritual force called nyama. Nyama animates all living beings, including plants and animals, and controls the powers of nature itself, governing crop production and rainfall.

The Malinke people organize the practice of their religion within "secret societies." The most powerful of these societies is called Komo, and its membership is composed of all males except sorcerers. Other secret societies are devoted to civic morality and the relations between families, protection against sorcerers, inducing rain to produce rich harvests, and organizing the lives of boys prior to their initiation.

The Ancestors: The creator made the first humans out of mud and wood, and "breathed" the life force (nyama) into the resulting figures. As those humans produced offspring, became old and died, they did not disappear. Instead, they moved closer to the creator and became ancestors. The process is repeated by everyone who dies, and consequently death is viewed as a positive transition in the direction of the creator of all things.

Even more importantly, living humans appeal to the ancestors to intercede for them with the creator or to exercise power on their behalf. Consequently, a major component of religion involves ritual communication with ancestors.

The Elders: If ancestors are the intermediaries with the creator, then elders are the living human beings who are closest to the ancestors. They are also the humans with the longest memories and most experience, which earns them respect and authority.

Initiation: This is the process by which a human child becomes a full adult member of the Komo society. It involves a training period to learn the secrets of religion, and a ceremony to signify entry into adulthood. Children participate in initiation with other members of their age-class, and form bonds that remain influential in their lives for the rest of their lives. In the epic, Sundiata remains close to several members of his age-class (half-brother Manding Bory, cousin Siara Kouman Konate, friends Fran Kamara and Kamandjan) and they aid him in the final battles against King Soumaoro Kante of Sosso.

Sorcerers: These are living humans who possess special knowledge that allows them to use spiritual powers normally reserved to the ancestors. There are good sorcerers and bad sorcerers.

Islam: In the epic of Sundiata, his family lineage is traced back to an individual named Bilali who was one of the original followers of Muhammed, the founder of Islam (see "The First Kings of Mali"). Whether it was true or not, this detail shows that by the time of Sundiata, Islam was firmly established in the area.

Islam first reached West Africa south of the Sahara in the ninth century AD thanks to the arrival of traders from the north. Traders found Islam useful because it provided them with a common language and gave them access to assistance from other Muslims wherever they went. However, African leaders were slow to convert to Islam because conversion threatened to undermine the traditional religion on which their leadership was based.

Historians believe that Sundiata was not a devout Muslim, and that his descendants were the ones who made Islam the official religion of the nobility. One descendant, Mansa Musa, made a famous pilgrimage to Mecca in the 14th century, and Islam was the official religion of the empire that succeeded Mali (the Songhay Empire). Nevertheless, traditional Malinke religion survived the arrival of Mali and is still practiced in the region today.


Farmers: The farmers are the largest portion of Malinke society. They work the land and provide the economic basis for the rest of society. They also provide the source of the Malinke nobility.

Pastoralists: The area is also home to groups of semi-nomadic non-Malinke pastoralists who supported themselves by herding animals. During periods when the farmers were united, they created kingdoms and empires that protected them from competition with the pastoralists, but during periods of farmer disunity, the pastoralists were often able to gain control over villages of farmers and require them to provide food and other goods.

Castes: Malinke society also contains several hereditary castes whose position in society is the matter of some controversy. While oral traditions often refer to them as inferior to farmers, they also contain many examples where caste members exercised power over the rest of their society. For instance, the head of the Komo society (devoted to Faro) is a member of the caste of blacksmiths. The smiths, who possess the secret knowledge of metal-working, are generally considered to be the most powerful caste. Other important castes include the griots (discussed below), leatherworkers, pottery makers, and fishermen.

Gender roles: Within Malinke society, men and women have very precisely defined roles. For instance, women are responsible for raising the children, providing the sauce for the standard meal, and in a farming family, tending to the livestock. Men are responsible for providing the millet used in the meal, maintaining the structure of the house, and handling relations with other families.

Malinke society is polygamous, so children are identified by their mother, since many children can have the same father, but only immediate siblings have the same mother.

In addition to their family responsibilities, women in royal families had a diplomatic role to play by marrying into the families of other leaders.

The Role of the Family: The family is the essential element of Malinke society. It produces new humans, it is led by elders, and it provides a mans to connect every individual to the group as a whole. Individuals are identified by the names of their family (not by their profession or place of birth).

For farmers, membership in a family was essential for obtaining access to land for farming, since there was no private ownership of land. Instead, land belonged to Faro and was administered by Faro's representatives on earth (the elders) after consulting with Faro's messengers (the ancestors). The elders then distributed land to the members of their families for use.

Slaves: At the time of Sundiata, slaves were present in Malinke society. Most often, they were war captives who could not be ransomed back to their own people, but people could also be enslaved by someone to whom they owed wealth or service, or because they lost all of the rest of their family through some kind of tragedy. The conditions of slavery varied, but they had little in common with plantation slavery of American history, which treated individuals as economic units of production. Slavery in Malinke society was most often a means to connect individuals to a family where no biological or marriage connection existed. The conditions could still be harsh, but as a "member" of a family, the slave had some rights.


The fall of Ghana: In the area where Sundiata founded his empire, an earlier empire existed. The Ghana Empire was founded around 800AD to the north, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, with a capital at the important desert trading town of Kumbi-Saleh. Ghana began to fall apart in the 11th century following an invasion by the Muslim Almoravids from the north. About the same time, the Sosso empire began to develop further to the south in the Beledugu Plateau.

During the 12th century, Fulbe pastoralists managed to dominate the Malinke farming villages. Historians view the formation of Sundiata's empire (as well as the Sosso empire) as the act of farmers who united to stop pastoral raids for tribute.

Political centers: Farmers lived in villages that were inhabited by members of a few extended families. The elders of the families provided leadership in the village and the elder of the oldest family served as the head of the village. Keep in mind that families intermarried, so it is more accurate to imagine a village inhabited by people who are members of an immediate family and who are distantly related to everyone else in the village.

Threats to the village came from outsiders, most often nomadic pastoralists who entered the area to find food and water for their animals. This was most likely to occur during the dry season, when water supplies were scarce everywhere. Since this was also the period when farmers were not engaged in agriculture, the dry season was the most likely season for war.

Following the decline of the Ghana Empire in the 11th century, pastoralists moved into the area and began to compete with farmers. By the end of the 12th century, farming villages began to unite against the pastoralists and create new kingdoms. As described in the epic of Sundiata, these kingdoms were based on walled towns headed by a royal family. They were surrounded by supporting villages whose leaders provided taxes to the king in the form of gifts and service, in exchange for protection, justice, and access to the king's religious powers.

Tributary relationships: Villages formed larger political unions through the use of tributary relationships symbolized by gift-giving (tribute). This was an extension of the family relationships that were familiar to everyone in Malinke society--parents provided presents to their children on special occasions like initiation and marriage, and in return, the children provided their parents with respect and work.

Kings and councils: Hereditary kings ruled communities of farmers, but under normal circumstances, their power is mitigated by the acts of a council of elders, composed of respected members of the most important families. In this way, kings are restrained from becoming despots, and every individual in society is represented by an elder family member in the councils of power. The situation in Sosso (described in the epic) was not typical, because the King (Soumaoro Kanté) used his sorcerer's power to rule unimpeded by anyone else.

The role of the griot: Sundiata's griot, Balla Fasseke, is a pivotal figure in the story. Griots are professional historians who serve a ruler in much the same way that modern rulers are served by written constitutions, legal staff, and archival staffs. Griots recall what earlier leaders have done to advise current leaders on how to handle problems.

Griots also serve as orators who relay the words of the kings to the rest of the population, much as ancestors serve as intermediaries between Faro and living humans. One author described the relationship between griots and nobles in these terms: the griot has the power to speak, and the noble has the power to act. Since wider action requires the communication of the noble's will, the griot plays a crucial role in motivating an entire population to coordinated effort.

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