Sundiata is the tale told through oral storytelling about the great king of Mali, Sundiata. This history is told by many griots in Africa, and their stories vary depending on what each griot considers to be the most important aspect in the story. In Niana’s version, we see a great deal of Sundiata’s childhood and his upbringing. We learn that Sundiata’s mother, Sogolon Kedjou, whose marriage to Maghan Kon Fatta foretells the immortality of Mali through her offspring.
When Sogolon is brought to the king by two hunters, he marries her despite her ugliness. When Sogolon becomes pregnant, she is treated with a great deal of favorability because of the prophecy. Maghan’s first wife, Sassouma Berete, became jealous of Sogolon’s and fears that her child will displace her own eight-year-old son. Sassouma later affects Sogolon’s and Sundiata’s lives when, following the king’s death, she maneuvers to have her son placed on the throne, forcing Sogolon and Sundiata to flee in exile.
But before this all happens, several things occur during Sundiata’s childhood. After Sundiata is born, he is unable to walk for many years. Sundiata didn’t walk until after his mother was admonished when she asked for some baobab leaves from Maghan, whose own son picked the leaves from the baobab tree. When Sundiata learned what had happened from his tearful mother, he strapped two iron braces to his legs, stood, then dragged a baobab tree outside Sogolon’s house.
This changed Sundiata in everyone’s eyes as they began to realize that the prophecy was true and Sundiata was destined to become a powerful and important man. This incident would lead to Maghan’s actions, who would consult with nine witches on how to handle the situation. Another incident during Sundiata’s youth was when his griot, Balla Fasseke was taken away from him. Griots are extremely important to kings for they are the public records of the noble families lineages as well the great deeds committed by members within those families. Sundiata losing his own griot was the equivalent of emasculation.
Balla is sent right before Sundiata and his mother go into exile as part of an embassy to the king of Sosso, Soumaoro Kante. When Soumaoro refuses to relinquish Balla to Sundiata years later, Sundiata wages a bloody war against Soumaoro and his kingdom. Soumaoro is a tyrant who uses the occult to oppress his people. His is renowned for having built a high tower in which he keeps the heads and skins of all the men he has killed and other magical instruments. During the great battle scenes, Soumaoro uses his magic against Sundiata and his men, but it isn’t until Sundiata’s sister disarms Soumaoro and learns his magical secrets that Sundiata is able to vanquish Soumaoro.
This version of the Mali epic plays heavily on themes such as the occult, prophecy, and epic adventure. It takes its time in telling Sundiata’s childhood, his rise to becoming a great leader, his years in exile, and his battles with Soumaoro and other enemies who cross his path.