Sundiata is not only the story of Sundiata’s life—it is equally concerned with the Mali Empire and how Sundiata built, conquered, and unified that empire. It's a story about creating community and forming alliances, both on a small scale (through marriage and having children), and on the broad scale of creating a vast empire. In fact, Sundiata’s skill at forging personal relationships enables his success at empire building, which implies that the cultivation of family and community is central to successfully uniting broad groups of people.
Marriage (and then having children) is the primary way in which the epic's characters build their communities. These family units make up the building blocks of the greater society, and they are major animating forces in politics. Since Sundiata depicts a patriarchal society, men often use women and marriage as political tools. Men exchange the women in their families through marriage in order to build alliances and consolidate power. Thus, family and politics are shown to be inseparable and essential as Sundiata fulfills his destiny of uniting Mali. For example, Sundiata benefits politically from his father's marriage to Sogolon, as King Faony Diarra of Do, Sundiata's uncle, comes to his aid in the fight against Soumaoro. In a similar vein, Maghan Kon Fatta, Sundiata's father, agrees to marry Sogolon in the first place because of the prophecy that Sogolon's son (Sundiata) will be a great conqueror and unite Mali. The marriage comes about because of a desire to not simply form family ties, but to produce an heir who will expand his father's empire and serve generations to come.
Sundiata is able to build an army capable of taking on Soumaoro primarily because of his ability to form meaningful and lasting relationships with all sorts of people—young and old, kings and soldiers, strong and weak. The narrator, by devoting entire chapters to lists and descriptions of everyone who participated in Sundiata’s battles, makes it clear that these people and these relationships are extremely important. Further, after his victory, Sundiata makes sure to honor his friends and allies by developing deeper relationships and ties between the different kingdoms that he now rules. This shows that these ties are not simply important to conquering, but also to ruling successfully.
Similarly, the respect and loyalty Sundiata pays to his mother, Sogolon, stands in sharp contrast with his enemies' relationships with their own families. Sundiata does everything in his power to honor his parents and recognize his siblings, while Soumaoro commits incest and abducts Keleya, the wife of his nephew and chief general Fakoli Karoma. Soumaoro "defiles" families under his jurisdiction, robbing them of their daughters without marrying them and denying them the possibility of proper familial relationships. When Sundiata becomes Mansa of Mali, he does the exact opposite of Soumaoro. He rules with justice and fairness, which allows prosperity to grow from the ground up. This encourages the creation of families and the expansion of trade, and it lays a moral foundation that helps the Mali Empire to remain prosperous for many generations after Sundiata. Thus, Sundiata shows that, in order for a large organization of people like an empire to thrive, family and community must be sacred.
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire ThemeTracker
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Quotes in Sundiata
The art of eloquence has no secrets for us; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind; by the spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for younger generations.
The silk-cotton tree springs from a tiny seed—that which defies the tempest weighs in its germ no more than a grain of rice. Kingdoms are like trees; some will be silk-cotton trees, others will remain dwarf palms and the powerful silk-cotton tree will cover them with its shade.
The child, as if he had understood the whole meaning of the king's words, beckoned Balla Fasséké to approach. He made room for him on the hide he was sitting on and then said, “Balla, you will be my griot.”
You will return to reign when you are a man, for it is in Mali that your destiny must be fulfilled.
“Do not deceive yourself. Your destiny lies not here but in Mali. The moment has come. I have finished my task and it is yours that is going to begin, my son. But you must be able to wait. Everything in its own good time.”
Every man to his own land! If it is foretold that your destiny should be fulfilled in such and such a land, men can do nothing against it.
It was a forced march and during the halts the divines, Singbin Mara Cissé and Mandjan Bérété, related to Sundiata the history of Alexander the Great and several other heroes, but of all of them Sundiata preferred Alexander, the king of gold and silver, who crossed the world from west to east. He wanted to outdo his prototype both in the extent of his territory and the wealth of his treasury.
In the same way as light precedes the sun, so the glory of Sundiata, overleaping the mountains, shed itself on all the Niger plain.
There they were, the valorous sons of Mali, awaiting what destiny had promised them. Pennants of all colours fluttered above the sofas divided up by tribes.
With whom should I begin; with whom end?
You are the outgrowth of Mali just as the silk-cotton tree is the growth of the earth, born of deep and mighty roots. To face the tempest the tree must have long roots and gnarled branches. Maghan Sundiata, has not the tree grown?
There are some kings who are powerful through their military strength. Everybody trembles before them, but when they die nothing but ill is spoken of them. Others do neither good nor ill and when they die they are forgotten. Others are feared because they have power, but they know how to use it and they are loved because they love justice. Sundiata belonged to this group. He was feared, but loved as well. He was the father of Mali and gave the world peace. After him the world has not seen a greater conqueror, for he was the seventh and last conqueror.
How many heaped-up ruins, how many vanished cities! How many wildernesses peopled by the spirits of great kings! The silk-cotton trees and baobabs that you see in Mali are the only traces of extinct cities.