Sundiata

Sundiata The Buffalo Woman Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Maghan Kon Fatta is known for being incredibly handsome and a good king. In his capital city, Nianiba, he often sits at the foot of a silk-cotton tree. His first son, Dankaran Touman, regularly joins him. One day, Maghan Kon Fatta sees a hunter coming towards him. The hunter bows to Maghan Kon Fatta and tells him that he's come to give the king the customary leg from the doe he shot outside the city walls. Gnankouman Doua, Maghan Kon Fatta's griot, invites the hunter to sit with the king and courtiers, and asks the hunter to tell the court of the lands he's visited.
Here, the "grandfather" of the Mali Empire (Maghan Kon Fatta) sits at the base of a silk-cotton tree, signaling that his empire is at the beginning of its growth and descent. In this situation, storytelling is cast as a method for getting to know someone and build community. It's an alternative to small talk and it’s also a way to hint at how large the empire is.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
The hunter sits down and says that he isn't good at telling adventure stories, but he is a great seer. He pulls out a bag of cowrie shells, jumbles them in his hand, and mutters as he arranges them. Gnankouman Doua points out that the hunter is left-handed, which is a desirable trait in soothsayers. The hunter suddenly addresses Maghan Kon Fatta and says that the world is mysterious, and the silk-cotton tree grows from a tiny seed. He continues that kingdoms are like trees; some grow large and some remain small, and that he sees two strangers coming towards the city. The hunter says that Mali is about to become great. Gnankouman Doua asks the hunter to "make his speech comprehensible."
The hunter very bluntly conflates trees with empires, and particularly with the Mali Empire. The relative incomprehensibility of his speech illustrates that fate and destiny aren't always easy or straightforward to understand. Such truths require translation, if one chooses to believe one's destiny at all. We do see, however, that Maghan Kon Fatta and Doua take these words seriously and believe that the hunter is telling them something worthwhile.
Themes
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
The hunter tells Maghan Kon Fatta that his successor isn't born yet. He says that two hunters are traveling towards the city with an exceptionally ugly woman, and Maghan Kon Fatta must marry this woman. She will be the mother of the child who will make Mali great, and this child will be greater than Alexander the Great. He instructs the king to sacrifice a red bull before her arrival. The hunter packs his cowries, says his farewells, and leaves the city.
Remember that Dankaran Touman, Maghan Kon Fatta's first son, already spends a great deal of time with his father learning how to be a king. This translated speech from the hunter suggests that Dankaran Touman is not the proper heir to the empire. This begins to complicate Maghan's family situation, while necessitating the marriage to the ugly woman.
Themes
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
Maghan Kon Fatta and Gnankouman Doua never forget the hunter's words, because soothsayers see far into the future. One day, as the king and his court are again seated under the silk-cotton tree, they see two handsome hunters coming towards them with a young girl between them. The brothers introduce themselves as Oulamba and Oulani, and they say that they acquired the maid during their travels in Do. The brothers decided that she's worthy of being a king's wife and wish to gift her to Maghan Kon Fatta.
Notice here that the maid is treated as little more than currency. She's a gift to a king, just as one might gift gold or animals. While the brothers might not know it, she's also a gift that's already highly valued, as it's already been foretold that she will bear the future king of Mali. Thus, she's not just currency; she's a vessel for great men who then do the work of building an empire.
Themes
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
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Maghan Kon Fatta and his courtiers try to look at the girl, but her face is covered with a kerchief. The hump on her back is obvious, however. Maghan is embarrassed. Gnankouman Doua invites the brothers to sit and tell the story of their adventures in Do.
Maghan Kon Fatta evidently feels he has no choice but to marry her because of the prophecy. This again asserts the power of destiny, as it's obviously more powerful than Maghan's emotional desires.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Oulamba and Oulani say that they left their village to hunt game, and their travels led them to Do. On the way they met a wounded hunter who told them that a buffalo was terrorizing Do, killing people daily. The king of Do, Do Mansa-Gnemo Diarra, promised rewards to whomever could kill the buffalo, and the brothers decided to test their skills. As they approached Do, they came across an old woman weeping and hungry next to a river. They offered her some food and after she ate, she informed the brothers that she knew they were going to try to kill the Buffalo of Do.
The old woman obviously has magical powers. This initial meeting with the old woman begins to develop the idea that magic and power are things that should be earned, not just taken by brute force. Further, the kindness that Oulamba and Oulani show to the old woman here will mirror the way that Sundiata triumphs later in the epic.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Magic and Religion Theme Icon
The old woman continues and says that many hunters have died, but because of the brothers' generosity, they will be successful in killing the buffalo. She says that she herself is the buffalo. She instructs the brothers on how to kill her, and then tells them to take the buffalo's golden tail to the king of Do. The brothers are joyous, but the woman says there's one condition: though the king has offered the hand of the most beautiful maid of Do to the victor, Oulamba and Oulani must choose an extremely ugly maid, Sogolon Kedjou, for this maid is the buffalo woman's wraith (spirit). The brothers swear and continue their journey.
Again, there are rules, regulations, and deals to be made and followed regarding magic and power. Oulamba and Oulani must do exactly as the woman tells them in order to succeed. The fact that the brothers agree to choose Sogolon from the maids of Do indicates that magic and prophecy shouldn’t be taken lightly. There's no indication that they hesitate to agree, suggesting that hesitating in that way is out of the realm of possibility.
Themes
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Magic and Religion Theme Icon
When Oulamba and Oulani catch sight of the buffalo, it charges them, but the brothers do as the old woman told them and they successfully kill the buffalo. They take the tail to the king, who instructs the brothers to choose a maid from the assembled young women. They finally notice Sogolon and take her by the hand. The king laughs, everyone else joins in, and the brothers leave Do to escape the mockery.
While the brothers appear not to have hesitated, the rest of Do finds their choice ridiculous. However, even despite the ridicule, Oulamba and Oulani don't back out on their agreement with the old woman. This continues to support the idea that following through on these agreements is extremely important.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Maghan Kon Fatta decides to marry Sogolon with all the usual customs so the resulting son will be legitimate. Oulamba and Oulani are considered Sogolon's relatives, so they receive the traditional gifts. The date of the wedding is set and all of Mali travels to Nianiba to participate in the festivities.
The importance of having a legitimate son points to the fact that while the prophecy may be extremely powerful, the foretold son will still be subject to the laws of man. The marriage, then, will assist destiny by adhering to these human laws.
Themes
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
Sogolon stays with an aunt of the king's and doesn't go out until her wedding day. The entire city wants to see her, but they hear nothing but rumors from Sassouma Bérété, Maghan's first wife. On the day of the wedding, drums beat at dawn and griots sing Maghan's praises. Sogolon cries in the lap of a woman braiding her hair. The king's sisters come to tease her, but Sogolon doesn't engage with them. The hairdresser tries to boost Sogolon's spirits.
Despite the fact that Sogolon is the old woman's wraith (and therefore versed in magic), the magic she possesses isn't enough to get her out of a marriage she obviously isn't happy to be a part of. Here, then, both destiny and the importance of building a family are more powerful than magic alone.
Themes
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
Magic and Religion Theme Icon
Maghan Kon Fatta sits in front of the palace and listens to drums and Gnankouman Doua sings of the Mandingo kings. As night falls, Sogolon processes, dressed all in white with a veil over her head. The king's relatives follow her and when one of the king's brothers carries her towards the palace, the crowd cheers. The women dance for a while and disperse after dark.
At the celebration, Doua regales the king and his subjects alike with tales of past kings. This continues to situate Sundiata within the line of the Mandingo kings. It justifies his later rule both in terms of fulfilling destiny and in terms of continuing the family line.
Themes
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
The narrator reminds the reader that the buffalo woman of Do said that Sogolon would be extraordinary "if you manage to possess her," and explains that Oulamba and Oulani couldn't possess her. Gifting her to Maghan Kon Fatta was an afterthought. That night, Maghan attempts to have sex with Sogolon, but she refuses him. The next morning, Gnankouman Doua finds the king exhausted and defeated. Maghan explains that he's scared of the girl and can't possess her.
This passage might explain some of Sogolon's fear and sadness regarding her marriage, as it's indicated that Oulamba and Oulani already tried to "possess" her by having sex with her. Soglon's magic is powerful enough here to resist male sexual advances, even in this situation where destiny is involved. For the moment, magic seems more powerful than destiny.
Themes
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
Magic and Religion Theme Icon
This goes on for a week. Maghan Kon Fatta consults sorcerers, but none of their tricks work. One night, when Sogolon is asleep, Maghan rises and spreads sand on the ground and traces signs in it. Sogolon wakes up and knows that "sand talks." Suddenly, Maghan jumps up to grab his sword and tells Sogolon that a jinn told him that he must sacrifice her. Sogolon faints in fear and her wraith leaves her body. When she wakes she's a wife (which means that Maghan had sex with her), and she conceives that night.
Maghan must reduce Sogolon to being fully human (as opposed to magical) in order to "make her a wife." In this situation, destiny seems to work far more quickly than the reader is led to expect, as Sogolon conceives immediately. It's implied that this first pregnancy will end with the foretold future king of Mali.
Themes
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
Magic and Religion Theme Icon