What Made Sunjata Great?

What Made Sunjata, the Lion King, ‘Great’?

Robin Edward Poulton aka Macky TALL

 The true story of Sunjata Keita, the original Lion King, is the stuff of legends! He was born a cripple, yet born under the signs of the lion (his father’s clan) and the buffalo (his mother’s), Sunjata became the founder of the medieval Empire of Mali. The small son of a second wife, Sunjata grew into a great administrative lawyer who wrote a famous Constitution for his people. The way in which Sunjata built coalitions shows his leadership skills, and avoided a lot of destructive wars. Sunjata is one of the greatest and most famous of Africa’s leaders. The Disney film[1] is NOTHING compared to the original story! You can understand something of the way in which Africa works, if you understand the elements that make Sunjata one of Africa’s Greatest!




What made the Lion King ‘Great’?

Sunjata’s greatness came in part from his praise singer griot or jeli[2] – the man who composed and sang the legend of Sunjata. Throughout history – on every continent including Africa – a great king is one who chooses great ministers and whose story is told and sung (literally and figuratively – we ‘sing their praises’) across the generations. There would be no Sunjata Keita without Bala Fasé Kouyaté, the most famous historian, diplomat and praise singer of Malian history.

The wealth of Mali came from taxing Gold and Salt, and control of the Niger River. Taxes on trade made the kingdom rich. Every great West African empire needed trade, and in the days before trucks everything traveled in barges along the river. Gold was needed by the greedy European and Arab monarchs to use as money and jewelry, while salt was needed by Malians for good health and to preserve fish. At one stage, gold and salt sold at an equal value by weight in the market of Timbuktu: 1oz gold = 1oz salt.


Descended from kings, Sunjata was smart, charismatic and helped by women.

His mother Sogolon, ‘the Buffalo Woman’ was obviously exceptional, powerful and well-connected. Perhaps she was strikingly ugly, or perhaps she was so stunningly beautiful that she carried the ugly name ‘Buffalo Woman’ to fool evil spirits which are attracted to (and do mischief to) beautiful girl children: but either way her family ‘totem’ was the powerful African water buffalo and she was an important figure in Sunjata’s success story. Likewise his sister Nana was a vital partner in Sunjata’s success: she became a spy. Nana was sent to be a wife to the King of Soso, and she found out the secrets that helped Sunjata defeat Sumanguru Kanté.

The Kouroukan Fouga or Kurukan Fuga was the constitution of the Mali Empire (1235-1645). Presented to an Assembly at Kangaba in 1235, this formally established the federation of Mandinka tribes under one government and established the laws people would live by. In 1215 the Barons of England were beginning the bloody process of evolving (still unwritten) the British Constitution, by forcing King John to cede his absolute power and rule with the consent of his barons. In 1216 Magna Carta guaranteed the right of habeus corpus which forced the king to produce before a magistrate and within 24 hours, anyone he arrested. Malians in 1235 would have been horrified by Europe’s cruel, arbitrary, despotic, greedy, totalitarian monarchs.

The Mandinka clans of Traore, Kamara, Koroma, Konde, and of course Konaté-Keita, checked and supported the Mansa’s power. They enforced his edicts among their people, and selected the successor (usually the Mansa’s brother, son, or sister’s son). Power was vested not in one man, but in a system – oligarchic or democratic according to your interpretation. Perhaps it was a sort of nomenklatura like the Soviet system, or like the powerful, in-bred American clans that run Wall Street.

The Gbara or Great Assembly was the parliament, where the Mansa or King constantly renewed his legitimacy. Sunjata was not an absolute monarch, despite his conquest and the title Mansa. The Mali Empire was not an ‘Empire’ in the militaristic sense like the Persian or Roman or British Empires. Mali was a federation – more like the USA. Each clan was represented at the court and in the Gbara. This was a form of constitutional democracy. Likewise in Mali today, every family is represented in the village council where all elders meet. In modern Mali, the Village Chief dugutigi – like the mansa of old – leads by building consensus.

Sunjata was lame, but he became a fine horseman with huge upper body strength because his arms and shoulders had to compensate during his youth for his weak legs. Probably he learned to walk with iron calipers fashioned for him by a Blacksmith. Once he became an adult horseman and a powerful swordsman, the legend of his childhood handicap served to enhance his reputation as a fighter and build his magic reputation as a leader.

Sunjata’s Mali Empire rested on ancient tradition. It was built on the foundations of ancient family values, the decentralized governance systems of Wagadou, and the warrior structures of Ghana (Ghana = leader or general). Sunjata was the son and grandson of kings of Kangaba. In 1235 he took over the leadership of the Manding that was his family’s by historical tradition and imposed Manding rule in place of Soso rule. To his own people, Sunjata was a liberator.

Sunjata also had a strong spiritual basis for his rule. Islam had arrived, Sunjata’s family was Muslim, and his grandfather had made the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. But Sunjata’s real spiritual base was ancestral and rooted in the secret societies of the Manding such as the komo.[3] He was the son of his royal father, and he had defeated the sorcerer king Sumanguru, building a reputation as a man of powerful magic and luck and judgment who was restoring the glory of the Keita clan that had been usurped by the Kanté king. The griots reinforced this story: Sunjata’s praise singers used strong propaganda images!

Sunjata Keita was born circa 1212 and he died between 1255 and 1260, probably by drowning. Tradition holds that he died while crossing the Sankarini river, where a shrine remains today. He restored order, prosperity and the glories of the former Soninké empires of Wagadou and Ghana, under the name of Mali.

Three sons succeeded him as Mansa on the throne of the Mali Empire:  Wali Keita, Wati Keita and Khalifa Keita. None of them was particularly long-lived or distinguished. Abubakri II, a nephew of Sunjata, was the Malian Emperor who handed power to his brother (or nephew) Musa and set sail from the mouth of the Gambia River with 200 canoes to discover the West. He landed in NE Brazil around 1311 and established an African colony there.

The famous West African ruler Mansa Musa was Sunjata’s grandnephew (the exact relationships between Sunjata and his later successors are not entirely clear). Mansa Musa’s success and longevity was one of the factors that made Sunjata great: if your Empire disappears, you disappear with it. If a Kingdom or an Empire lasts for centuries, the reputation of the founder of that Empire grows with its success. Musa’s trans-Sahara pilgrimage haj to Mecca in 1324 created the legend of Timbuktu that filled the imagination of Europeans and helped Sunjata’s reputation.

Sunjata’s governance system guided the empire into greatness, and provided the structures for the expansion of the successor Sonrai Empire (1464-1591) that expanded north and east beyond the boundaries recognized as Mali zone of influence. Mali was less an empire of conquest than of migration and expansion. The Mandinka diaspora reached the Senegambian coast, and southwards into the lands that are now known as Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana. Sonrai reached into modern Nigeria and down as far as the Guinea Bissau coast.

Some historians see the end of Mali in 1645, but setting dates to an organic process seems so very Western! Westerners like straight lines and neat boxes. Time is continuous, but we twist history to fit our arbitrary, structural approach to life. Any good historian will see the organic evolution from Wagadu and Tekrur through Ghana and Mali to Sonrai and its disintegration, after 1591, into myriad small states that survived until the technological revolution of French and Moroccan firearms brought a change in the march of history …. And the advent of European colonial rule.


Tips for Teachers

1. Which came first, the Mali Constitution or Magna Carta?

The Great Charter that began the constitutional evolution of British and American law was signed by King John in 1215 at a time when the British Sovereign had every right and his word was law. Mali’s Kurugan Fuga was produced twenty years later, making it clear that the Emperor of Mali had to listen to his advisors.


2. Is it better to see things in a linear or a circular fashion?

Europeans and Americans like straight lines. They look neat! Africans prefer circles to squares. African houses are round, American houses have lots of sharp corners. People who live in between straight lines tend to see things the same way: rigid thought, uncompromising judgments. Americans believe in ‘winners and losers’, which – if you think about it – may be a recipe for war but is certainly not a way to ensure peace.

Africans do not sue people in court to solve a conflict by ‘winning’, because where there is a winner, there is a loser. Avoiding shame is an important part of West Africa’s value system. Africans never humiliate another person. Most conflict management in West Africa is circular, seeking compromise among all members of the community. Griots act as mediators, to avoid conflict and seek peaceful solutions. In the village, compromise is found through discussion: the Word kuma travels around the circle of elders and anyone may speak from her or his own experience. Malian attitudes to conflict and competition are very different to those of Americans.

On the other hand, in the American South people have porches with round columns and often they have hammocks. These are an inheritance from the African lifestyle, for people in the Malian Empire lived largely outside, and slung their hammocks in the shade of trees or under porches in front of their houses. If you visit Sierra Leone or Guinea, you will see that they still do.

[1] The Lion King is a film based loosely on Sunjata’s story. As usual, Disney has ‘dumbed down’ the original and removed its context. I think it is a shame that Disney has destroyed many legends, removing their moral value and turning important, traditional, educational stories into soggy marshmallows.

[2] Written in French notation as djeli the root of this word is joli or jeli meaning ‘blood’.

[3] We will look more at age-groups in the Bambara chapter. All male education used to take place through the komo initiation society that prepares each age-group to move forward every seven years towards new responsibility.