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Sunjata Keita - Oral Epic
 
Mandinka History    Mandinka Tribe

Introduction:
Sunjata Keita is the subject of a great epic still sung to this day by the griots or professional praise singers of modern Senegambia. According to the legend of Sunjata the man himself must be remembered as one of the greatest patrons of the griots since his very name Sujatta Keita is derived from his relationship with the griots.

When Sunjata's father, Fatakung Makang, died Sujatta declared that the only things he wanted of his father's inheritance were his griots. He valued the griots because he knew what they could do for him. As the story goes, after Sunjata's father had died and his half-brother became king, Sunjata declared, "however extensive my father's property may be, I want no part of it except for the griots". His brother replied "You want the griots? Alright, you can have your own way. A person who has nothing will not have griots for long". Sujatta had a griot who was especially dear to him. His name was Musa. Musa's father, Nyankuma Dookha, had asked him to wait on Sujatta as he himself had done for Sunjata's father. Nyankuma Dookha was convinced that the prediction of Sunjata eventually becoming a great leader of Manding would become reality.

It was this griot who had repeatedly given assurance to Sunjata's father, Fatakung Makang, of Sunjata's great destiny. So Musa waited on Sujatta and instructed him in the history of former great kings and empires.

Sujatta's other griots assured him of their loyalty but most of them preferred a more wealthy patron than Sujatta. They agreed among themselves and decided, "since Sujatta had let all his inheritance go and say he only wants us, we will not desert him. Let us employ a stratagem, and if he dies, then we can take it easy and go to wealthy men ". They decided to humiliate Sunjata, so they went and begged from him. He did not have anything to give them, so he wend and got honey from the bush. From this the griots called him:

"Bee, Little Bee, Makhara Makhang Konate, Haimaru & Yamaru."

The next morning they begged him again. As he had nothing, he went and caught a cat to give to them. From this they called him:

"The Lion is at Narena, Cats on the Shoulder, Simbong".

When the griots came and begged from him the next day, he had nothing. He went into the bush and collected firewood to give to them. That prompted the griots to say:

"Firewood, Makhare, Makhang Konate, Haimaru and Yamaru, The Lion had fill of followers, The big-footed hunter".

The next time the griots begged from Sunjata, he was desperate, and so he stole a strip of cloth which belonged to his half brother. When he gave the cloth to the griots they said "Jatta has committed theft" meaning a lion has committed theft and from that day he was known as Sujatta. Sunjata's real name Makhara Makhang Konate, son of Fatakung Makang who reigned as King of Manding for many years.

According to oral tradition, Fatakung Makang's soothsayers had told him that if he went to Sankarang Madiba Konte and found a wife, she would bear him a child who would become King of the black people. Sankarang Madiba Konte was himself a king of famous lineage. Fatakung finally decided to visit the neighbouring king, Madiba Konte on this request. Madiba Konte was pleased to comply with Fatakung Mankang's wishes and welcomed such an alliance between their two countries.

A ceremony was held where Fatakung Makang got married to Sukulung Konte as predicted by the soothsayers. Sukulung Konte otherwise known as Sukukung Kutuma was to become the mother of Sunjata Keita

As the story goes, it so happened that Sukulung became pregnant and remained so for seven years! Meanwhile the king, Fatakung has said, "if any of my wives bears me a son, I shall give my kingship to him".

When Sunjata's mother eventually gave birth, a slave was sent to Fatakung Makang to report the arrival of a son. When the slave arrived, he found Fatakung Makang and his companions eating. They invited the slave to join them, so before speaking, he sat down to eat.

As fate would have it, just after Sunjata's mother gave birth another of the King's wives also gave birth to a boy and a griot was sent to inform him of the news. When he arrived at the compound, he greeted the company, who invited him to refresh himself before continuing with his business. But the griot refused, saying, "Nareng Daniyang Konate, your wife has given birth to a boy"

The slave who had been sitting also spoke. "They sent me first. Sukulung Konte was the first to give birth".

"The one I heard first, he is to be son and heir" proclaimed Fatakung Makang the king. Late, Sunjata Keita, the true and rightful heir to the throne of Manding was so enraged by this past injustice, that for fourteen year he refused to walk, choosing to crawl on his hands and knees in protest. He was later to stand on his feet again when it was time for his Kafo mates to go for circumcision. Sujatta was considered to be born lame and so when he rose up, after breaking some iron legs forged for him to go for his circumcision, the griots of Manding said:

"A Lion has arisen, a Manding lion has arisen, a mighty creature has arisen"

Sunjata after getting up walked to a slender baobab tree which stood in the middle of the town of Manding. The baobab produced only one fruit. All Muslim soothsayers, the cowrie diviners, the stone-diviners, and the sand diviners all declared that whoever swallowed one seed of the fruit of the Baobab would rule Manding for sixty years. Sunjata seized hold of this baobab tree and split open the baobab fruit and swallowed it, proclaiming to his mother, "Here is your baobab". With this act the fourteen drums of the Manding all sounded. From within the midst of the assembled people, the kin asked, "why did you fell this baobab tree ?". Sunjata explained "My mother went to look for baobab leaves in the town to put on the food I was to eat before going to circumcision". Sujatta explained, "but she found none... The other women told her to order me to stand and pick baobab leaves myself. That is why I felled this baobab tree and have swallowed the fruit as well". "But why did you swallow the baobab fruit?" asked king Fatakung Makang. Sunjata answered, "Now you have come to the point. I don't want any rivalry to the throne, and I don't want anything in Manding except loyalty from my son, my brother, my wife, my attendant, my griot, my smith, and my subjects".

At this point, the king and his company left. Soon after this, they all went into the circumcision shed. Soon after they came out of the shed area, Sujatta's father died, and it was Sunjata's half brother who was installed king. With the threat of Korte from the new king's mother, Nareng Daniyang Konate, Sunjata left Manding and became an exile.



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