One of the sources the artists drew on for this show is D.T. Niane‘s, Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali (Longman African Writers). This book is based largely on the work of a griot from Guinea, Mamadou Kouyaté. Griots are the oral historians, storytellers, praise singers and poets – who keep the history of the people and are often associated with a particular king or village.
Listen to my word, you who want to know; by my mouth you will learn the history of Mali. Listen to the story of the son of the Buffalo, the son of the Lion… the man of many names against whom sorcery could avail nothing. (Mamadou Kouyaté, quoted in preface)
Sundiata’s maternal line is represented by the buffalo
The first character we meet is Koné, the old woman of the title. She’s been abandoned by her community, who no longer share alms or ‘jaka’ with her. She turns her rage into an immense buffalo which terrorises the community of hunters.
Next, we meet her grand-daughter, Sogolon Kédjou. Sogolon is known as the ‘buffalo woman’ for the hump on her back, her stoop and disfigured complexion and ridiculed for it. Yet, she also holds within her the secret of Mali’s potential future, as the mother of a prophesised king who can bring the twelve kingdoms of Mali together.
Sundiata’s father, King Maghan Kon Fatta, is represented by the lion
Sundiata himself is known by many names, as is demonstrated in the words of the song which is sung at his naming, ‘Mari-Djata’, ‘Sogolon Djata’, ‘Manghan Djata’ – (Djata is ‘lion’, so Sogolon’s Lion, in effect). He comes to be known as the Lion of Manding.
Outside these relationships, much to her chagrin, is Sassouma Berété, first wife to King Maghan Kon Fatta. She has her own son, first in line to the throne and therefore has a vested interest in trying to prevent the prophecy of Sundiata’s elevation to the kingship from coming about.
As leader, Sundiata was to go on to preside over the largest West African state in history, the Malian empire. In this story of his early life, we move between the small village of Segou where Sundiata’s grandmother lives to the city of Niani, home of King Maghan Kon Fatta and eventually to Mema, a place of exile for Sundiata and his mother. In choosing to tell about the beginnings of Sundiata’s life, and his maternal ancestors, the artists focus on different locations and events than battles and imperial conqust.