It's important to remember that the story of Sundiata is a transcription of an epic poem that is part of West African oral tradition—it was intended to be heard, rather than read. Furthermore, the original poem was told in verse, while the written English translation is in prose, and the poem was traditionally accompanied by a balafon, a type of wooden xylophone. Thus, the English translation of Sundiata is far from the story’s traditional—and intended—form. While characters in Sundiata proclaim oral storytelling to be the only true way for a culture to remember its history and connect with the past, these assertions are complicated by the fact that English language readers are receiving this message (and the story overall) via text on the page.
The narrator, griot (professional storyteller) Mamoudou Kouyaté, returns again and again to assertions of the power of stories and, by proxy, the power of the griots tasked with telling stories. Griots don't exist simply to entertain; they carry the memories and the history of their culture, and as such, they are guardians of memory and they are extremely powerful advisors to kings. While griots are in charge of remembering history and relating it to others, they're also tasked with deciding what events and people should become part of stories (and therefore earn a place in cultural memory), and how exactly to tell these stories. Storytelling, then, becomes a way to memorialize people and influence power. Storytelling can also be used as punishment, in that it can immortalize evil acts or make sure that certain people and places are forgotten. While Soumaoro and his city Sosso are physically wiped from the landscape, Mamoudou Kouyaté makes it clear that Soumaoro's evil shouldn't be forgotten so that it may not be repeated, but the ruins of Sosso must never be remembered or revisited.
Mamoudou Kouyaté is also concerned with the differences between written history and oral history. He asserts that the primary difference lies in how written and oral histories enhance or hinder memory. Mamoudou Kouyaté claims that cultures that record their histories in writing exist separately from their history. Essentially, while he sees that writing makes history more accessible, writing also keeps history at arm's length. Oral history, on the other hand, is treated as living and breathing, and the process of speaking or hearing the stories keeps them fresh and present in modern life. This divide between written and spoken history creates tension, as the reader is never allowed to forget that Mamoudou Kouyaté isn't necessarily a proponent of reading Sundiata. His obvious disdain for the written word turns the act of reading Sundiata into an almost inappropriate pursuit; the reader must consider what there is to gain from reading the epic, since the narrator is convinced that a reader, by definition, cannot fully grasp the meaning of the story.
However, it’s important to consider that Sundiata has become a prolific piece of literature worldwide because it was transcribed and distributed in its written form. Its audience and readership has expanded many times over, though the story itself has become standardized and devoid of the small changes that inevitably happen when a story is spoken exclusively. Mamoudou Kouyaté clearly sees this a deficit; at the story's close, he implores the reader to actually visit Mali and experience the history and legacy of Sundiata in real time, rather than through the pages and distance of a book.
Storytelling and Memory ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Memory 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.
Soothsayers see far ahead, their words are not always for the immediate present; man is in a hurry but time is tardy and everything has its season.
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.”
Every king wants to have a singer to perpetuate his memory, for it is the griot who rescues the memories of kings from oblivion, as men have short memories.
Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past anymore, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice. With them everybody thinks he knows, whereas learning should be a secret. The prophets did not write and their words have been all the more vivid as a result. What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books!
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.
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?
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.