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Title: Sundiata - Epic of Old Mali 

Author: Mamadou Kouyate (Recorder)


By Mwandawiro Mghanga

1. Introduction

I wrote this literary appreciation in the 1980s when I was a student at the University of Nairobi. Since Itikadi is a publication about socialism theory and practice, I have decided to submit it for publishing in the current issue of Itikadi not only to show the importance of using the method of historical materialism in literary appreciation but also the role of literature in the struggles for change. For literature is a weapon. In a class society, literature reflects class contradictions and struggles thereof. It can be a weapon of seeking to perpetuate the status quo or a revolutionary weapon for fighting for progressive change. The founders of scientific socialism, Marx, Engels and Lenin and other Marxists including Mao, Kim Ill Sung, Fidel Castro, Agostino Neto, Marcelino Santos, and even Mau Mau national freedom fighters, appreciated the role of literature as an art and a weapon of the struggle for the freedom and progress of society and human being. They emphasized the dialectical relationship between form and content which makes literature art that should be appreciated as such. 

The authors and books mentioned in the essay can be referred to through Google search.

The essay aims to depict the purpose of the epic as a form of literature and the work of griots in specific historical and material conditions, that of feudalism, as shown in Sundiata - The Epic of Old Mali. At the same time, I argue that the epics of Africa could be useful at the present historical period not only as a form of entertainment and reminder of the historical achievements made by African people but also of conserving the status quo or fighting against reaction.

2. The epic and the epic-artist (griot):

The epic is a literary art that uses historical material to create, recreate and even romanticize certain chosen historical facts and truths (usually of heroic nature) for clear deliberate ends. Usually, the epic takes the form of a story or long narrative poem. In this case, it is in a story form. What historical events are chosen and performed or presented as the epic are subject to the orator or creator of the epic, his or her purpose, and the objective material and historical conditions which, incidentally, give birth to the epic as a literary form?

Of course, it is not the intention or duty of the griot or creator of the epic to record and narrate historical facts truthfully and objectively, exactly as they are (or were) as he or she is not a historian but an artist. The epic performer (or griot in this context) as depicted in Sundiata-The Epic of Old Mali, does not claim or pretend to be objective. The griot is a propagandist who has taken sides in the narration of historical events in Old Mali, he uses his artistic skills of narrating historical events so successfully that the audience is convinced of the greatness of Sundiata. Like all griots anywhere in the world, he does this by 'adding salt and a lot of spices' to the tale based on the great history of West Africa. And this is precisely the objective of Djeli Mamoudu Kouyate, a 'master in the art of eloquence', to convince Niane and any other audience that, “Sundiata was the father of Mali and gave the world peace. After him, the world has seen not a greater conqueror…..”

The purpose of the epic is not the same as that of history which is more confined to being objective than subjective. So, to say that the epic is a purposeless distortion of history is to deny the very existence of the epic as a unique literary art form. For, although the epic can be a source of historical material, as epics are based on actual historical events, nevertheless it must not be forgotten that the epic is a literary art that is very much subjective to the creator or performer. As a creative artist, the epic performer or writer has the privilege of 'adding salt and spices' to his or her narrations of actual historical happenings. Only a bad historian is expected to do this.

3. The epic of Sundiata-a product of feudalism

The epic of Sundiata is a product of a feudal mode of production. Feudalism is seen as characterised by a highly centralised nobility and the king raised above the people. The economy is agricultural, mainly producing rice. They also hunt and give part of their produce to the nobility as a form of tax. Religion plays a very important part in Mali in preserving the status quo and justifying the existence of the privileged class and king. It is at the privileged class where we find Kouyates, the griots, playing a very important role as people attached to the kings of Mali with specific tasks of celebrating their military exploits, praising and romanticising their heroic and individualistic achievements, and in this way ensuring that their prestige among the ruled is always enhanced.

4. Griots

Thus the griots too were the product of the feudalistic mode of production. They (the griots) were literary artists who used their high gift and power of language- literary skills- to perpetuate feudalism by working hard towards convincing the audience to accept the ‘inevitable’, ‘invaluable’ and ‘invincible’ role of the nobility and feudalist ruling class without question.

It is important to remember that M. Kouyate is not the first griot to narrate the story of Sundiata. He himself says,

"My word is pure and free of untruth, it is the word of my father’s father. I will give you my father’s words as I received them, royal griots do not know what lying is. (pg. 1)"

Thus Mamadou Kouyate claims that whatever he is going to narrate has already been narrated for generations to the children of Mali. Furthermore, every word of the epic should be accepted as truth, the griot insists. Hence, since this particular epic has been narrated many times, it also means that it has been used many times to support the status quo by the deliberate romanticisation of Sundiata and the nobility. Mamadou Kouyate continues to brag,

"The art of eloquence has no secret for us; without us, the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; by the spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations…..history holds no misery for us; we teach the vulgar as much as we want to teach them, for it is we who keep the keys to the old doors of Mali". (pg. 1)

So the role of griots is to preserve the knowledge and history of Mali. They use their literary talents and abilities to mystify history to the ordinary people so that it can suit the purpose of serving the king and helping him rule in peace and stability. While doing this, the griots also get themselves favours from the ruling class. In this regard, they are like the modern sycophants throughout Africa who earn power and wealth by singing the praises of the ‘modern kings’ called presidents. For example, we are told that Lalla Fasseke was able to win the heart of the cruel king Soumaoro Kante Sosso by praising him to his delight and happiness.

While praising the kings (also like modern sycophants in Africa) the griots do not fail to praise themselves for self-aggrandizement,

"Kings have prescribed destinies just like men and sees who probe the future know it. They have knowledge of the future, where we griots are depositories of the knowledge of the past. But whoever knows the history of a country can read its future." (pg. 41)

5.  How history is shaped in Sundiata: The Epic of Old Mali

We see, therefore, according to Mamadou Kouyate, history is shaped and moved by individuals called kings. It is the intrigues, plots, and counter-plots of the nobility that shape the history of a people. The whole story and all the events in the epic revolve around the supernatural character of Sundiata and his struggle to regain his kingdom from the treachery of Sassouma Berete and Mai Djata and other kings and kinglets. All events in the story of the epic are directed towards the future greatness of Sundiata. The very birth of Sundiata is mystical and predetermined. The son of Sogolon, the strange buffalo woman, Sundiata has a very extraordinary childhood. His expulsion from Miana and his experiences in exile are all deliberately created by his destiny for his great future. Nothing can destroy the destiny of Sundiata of becoming a king. Even evil is directed towards his future success and prosperity. Sundiata is like Moses or Jesus Christ in that he was created by God to play a definite historical role destined for him, to create an empire, unite all small kingdoms under Mali, and establish law and order among the fighting people. He is also like Shaka and Fumo Liyongo.

6.  The reactionary role of the epic

In short, the epic played a big role in defending and perpetuating the feudalist system of Old Mali. It was used as a weapon of the ruling class against the oppressed masses.

When analysed from this point of view, Sundiata: The Epic of Old Mali, is reactionary as it teaches the oppressed to accept oppression. For if handled by critics who support the status quo of Mali or Kenya (or of any other class society) today just like in the history of Old Mali, the epic can be used to preach the falsehood that classes are inevitable and that every person’s condition in life is predetermined by God above and that the struggle for freedom and of liberation from exploitation and oppression is futile.

This reactionary role of the epic is especially effective considering that, hitherto, the concept of the state is still mystical to the masses who have been made to attribute a religious meaning and attitude to it. In Kenya, for example, just as it was in Old Mali as narrated in the epic, religion has been and is still used to achieve and retain political and economic power. The sycophantic praises by Galla Fasseke of emperor Sundiata are part and parcel of the culture of Kenyan politics.

7.  Charity, an embodiment of the morality of a class society

Just as Sundiata used to distribute rice and meat to the same people who had produced it for him, and just as he used charity and sympathy to the poor to win their love, confidence, and trust and to ensure the stability of his oppressive system, in the same way, the ruling classes everywhere amass their wealth by exploiting the poor and then bribe them (their victims) with a few crumbs of the wealth taken from them.

Charity, generosity, justice, and mercy to the poor and the weak provide the moral message of the epic. We are told that generosity and care for the poor had contributed very much to the success of Sundiata,

"Djata’s justice spared nobody. He followed the very word of God. He protected the weak against the strong and people would make journeys lasting several days to come and demand justice of him. Under his sun the upright man was rewarded and the wicked punished". (pg. 81)

We are also taught that good deeds always breed good deeds and bad deeds, in the end, destroy whoever does them. Sundiata escapes death by being kind to the witches set against him by his malicious stepmother Sassouma. Soumasso Konkomba, the leader of the witches provides the voice for giving the narrator's moral comment, "Nothing can be done against a heart full of kindness, (pg. 26)".

On the other hand, Sassouma is destroyed by her selfishness, pride, and jealousy. Soumaro Kante, the sorcerer-king, the cruelest and oppressive person mentioned in the epic, is destroyed by his evil acts despite his great magic. Perhaps this is a lesson that history is against all oppressors and that the victory of all oppressed people is inevitable.

Of course, justice, generosity, mercy, kindness, and charity are all humane attributes that all persons should embrace. But there cannot be true justice under an unjust system as that of feudalist Old Mali. It is not justice that some people should have more than they need while others are in perpetual need. After all, a person in need is a slave indeed. There is certainly something wrong with a society in which normal people have to depend on charity to live.

What Sundiata and the rich in the epic donated to help the poor was itself part of what had been exploited from them (the poor). The feudal class that controlled the basic means of production, land, amassed wealth from appropriating the product of the labour of the peasants. Their charity to the poor was, therefore, as in all class societies, a means of appeasing and enslaving their victims while cheating their consciences at the same time.  For it is not charity when one gives you part of what he or she has stolen from you. The griot, quite naturally, praises this morality as he was a beneficiary of the parasite class.  

8. The progressive role of the epic:

Yet, the epic can still be used to play a progressive role in contemporary Africa. There is the need to decolonise the minds of Africans from centuries of slavery, domination, and colonialism. In this regard, Sundiata-The Epic of Old Mali is certainly a rebuff to the racist claim that Africans were incapable of creating literature before the coming of white people. In this book, Niane has proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that African people had not only a dynamic history but also literary artists and beautiful oratures many centuries before they were invaded by colonialism.

He has done this by going to his roots and listening to and recording the epic from his people's artist, Mamadou Kouyate. When one reads the epic he or she admires the adroit use of language, choice of words, the use of repetition, ideophones, symbolism, imagery, and all the literary styles employed by the griot. The narrator, Mamadou Kouyate, succeeds to create a wonderful piece of art that captures the interest of the reader or listener to the end.

Niane summarises the purpose of his work thus:

"May this book open the eyes of more than one African and induce him to come and sit humbly beside the ancients and hear the words of the griots who teach wisdom and history". 

In East Africa, pre-Twentieth Swahili literature and orature are full of wonderful pieces of literary art in the form of epics.

There is certainly a need to take pride in our past as Mamadou Kouate says, “……whoever knows the history of a country can read its future (pg. 41)”.

After all, if it were not useful to be proud of our past, our enemies, imperialists, would not have found it necessary to try to annihilate our cultures, deny our histories, and generally distort or pollute our past before dominating us politically and economically.

Sundiata: The Epic of Old Mali, plays the role of the struggle to liberate African history and culture from imperialist distortion. This is the role played by Kunene’s (1979 & 1981) epic poems based on the dynamic history of the Zulu people of South Africa. Mulokozi’s Research of the Nanga epics of the Bahaya (1980) is relevant today for the same reason. The epic plays of Hussein (1980), wa Thiong'o & Mugo (1976), and Mulokozi remind us that we (Africans) had great heroes and heroines who led our people to struggle against colonialism. Such heroes will always inspire us to fight for total liberation. For haven't we been taught by colonial education to admire European heroes, Alexander the Great, Julius Caeser, Napoleon, Horatius, etc. while we have been driven by the same colonial education to despise our heroes? Isn't the Old Testament of the Bible, written several thousands of years ago, about Jewish epic history which continues to unite their nation to this day?

Now, Amilcar Cabral (1980:138-154) says that to dominate and colonise Africa, imperialism had to fight to destroy and distort the history and cultural heritage of the African people. He Cabral (ibid.) writes, "……For as long as part of that people can have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation. (pg. 140)”.

Cabral's views on the role of culture in the struggle for social, economic, and political liberation are echoed, elaborated, and corroborated by, among others, wa Thiong'o (1972, 1979, and 1981) whose works make a monumental contribution to the struggle for cultural, social and national liberation. He argues that the African past has been distorted immensely and that is one reason why we have been dominated economically, politically, culturally, and psychologically. The African epic can be used in the work of correcting this.

When we see Sundiata struggling courageously from hopelessness to hope, from a position of being despised to that of being respected and admired, we are inspired to also strive and struggle harder and with optimism. And, needless to say, the exile of Sundiata is very much symbolic of the exile that is being subjected to our Namibian and South Africa brothers and sisters by the racist apartheid regime in collaboration with its imperialist allies. The epic of Sundiata and that of Shaka will certainly provide them with motivation and hope in their struggle which will lead to inevitable victory.

By reading the epics of past African heroes, they will ask themselves, if our Sundiatas-our brave forefathers-were able to struggle against the tyranny of the malicious Sossouma Kante of Sosso, why can we not struggle against the racist oppressors in our country today? And if Shaka was able to unite the Zulu people in Southern Africa, if Sundiata was able to do the same in West Africa, can we not also struggle to unite South Africa and Africa against apartheid and imperialism?

The tactics of war and organisation used by Sundiata and Shaka will serve as a source of inspiration, if not emulation, to SWAPO, ANC, and PNC liberation forces. The pride of blackness and that of our rich cultural heritage will help to foster the liberation of our people's minds and it will help the Black people to start asking, “Where did the rain start to beat us?" After that, the masses will start to rally together in the struggle against capitalism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and apartheid. Pеople who do not believe in themselves cannot be able to fight for their freedom.

Even in the struggle and battles of Sundiata, and especially the war against the ferocious Soumaraoro, Balal Fassake, Sundiata's griot plays a very important role in inspiring and provoking Sundiata and his soldiers to fight bravely and fearlessly. Balla Fasseke finds it important to recite the history of Mali to Sundiata and the soldiers before the battle. Balle Fasseke says,

"Are we, the griots of Mali, condemned to pass on to the future generations the humiliations which the king of Sosso cares to inflict on our country? No, you may be glad, children of the ‘Bright Country’, for the kingship of Sosso but the growth of yesterday, where that of Mali dates from that of Bilali". (pg. 62)

Here are words pregnant with nationalism and patriotism which are very important to the national liberation movements.

The most important message of the epic is summarised by the authoritative voice of Mamadou Kouyate,

"There would not be any heroes if deeds were condemned to man’s forgetfulness, for we ply our trade to excite the admiration of the living, and to evoke those who are to come". (pg. 58)

9.  Conclusion:

So, we cannot dismiss the epic as a purposeless distortion of history because, in the feudal society, it serves a definite purpose of distorting and mystifying history in the interest of the feudal ruling class. It can be and is used by the ruling classes of the World for the same purpose today. Within the nation, for example, epic histories of various ethnic groups within the same country can be used by the oppressors to divide the oppressed along ethnic lines to oppress them more thoroughly. The bourgeoisie of the world often uses nationalism (of which an epic is an effective tool) to cheat the oppressed classes that their (the bourgeoisie's) class interests are the interests of the whole country.

Yet, in countries under imperialist domination, like Kenya and Africa, which have to fight for national liberation, epics can play the role of uniting and mobilising the people to fight for the freedom of their nation. The epic does this because it instills confidence and pride among the people of a nation by eulogizing their historical landmarks, their culture, their heroes, and most importantly- the fact that they were able to determine their destiny long before they were invaded by imperialism.

In other words, the epic, like any genre of literature or orature can be used for liberation or to fight against liberation.

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