Re-thinking Sunjata: epics, oral literature & translation in West Africa

West Africa’s cultures have produced a long tradition of oral heroic epics which relate significant episodes of the region’s history, none more so than the Manding populations of Mali, Guinea and surrounding states, whose legends concerning the heroes Sunjata and Sumanguru have roots stretching back to the Middle Ages.

These epics are still performed today, and act as a rich cultural reservoir of values, norms, concepts and ideals, that help to knit together diverse communities across a vast stretch of West Africa through a shared history of change-leading heroes, powerful sisters and mothers, blacksmiths, praise-singers/intercessors (jèliw or griots), traders, Muslims divines and leading clans. 

The Epic of Sumanguru is one such tradition, performed in Mali in 1997 and now presented by the publisher E.J. Brill in the original Bamana text and annotated English translation, together with extracts from the musical accompaniment, a note on the language of the text, and a scholarly introduction that offers insights into the tradition’s rich and complex meanings for its audience, and its value to anthropologists and historians of Africa.

The Epic of Sumanguru Kante contains griot Abdoulaye Sako’s oral narrative of the life of Sumanguru, a familiar figure within Manding epic oral traditions about old Mali, as Sunjata Keita’s arch-adversary, but rarely the subject of an epic of his own. Sako’s performance includes hitherto undocumented episodes relating to Sumanguru’s life and role as the ruler of Soso, the little-known state said to have flourished in the western Sudan between the fall of ancient Ghana and rise of the empire of Mali.

The workshop

A half day seminar, run in conjunction with BRIHC, was held on 10 November 2017.
This explored the important role of Sumanguru, and of the blacksmith- and power-association-leading heritage he represents, through analysis of the epic, offering new insights into the well-springs of the medieval state of Mali, of Manding epics themselves, and of the roles these epics perform in Manding culture.



Grave of Dabi Ture, mother of Sumanguru Kante, Sosso, Mali, 1997 [photo copyright Stephen Bulman, 1997]

The seminar discussed the growth of local heritage in Mali and Guinea, linking epic narratives with present-day sites, including the grave of Sumanguru’s mother at Sosso (pictured above), the Sosso Balla of Sumanguru at Niagassola, Guinea, accorded status as part of the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO.

The seminar  also examined the important role the memory of Sumanguru has played at Koulikoro, Mali, since at least the 19th century, where the prominent rocky outcrops of Nyanankuru are home to a shrine to his memory, and various legends relating to the hero’s demise, attested in historical records since the 19th century.

Video's of talks

Further Information