The history of Africa and the Mali kingdoms is passed on to us through the oral accounts of the African griots and also through the written history of the Arab historians. Comparing the different approaches and views of the Arab historians to the African traditionalist of Sundiata, we see there are many similarities and differences between the two. With respect to the political, economic, and social aspects of the kingdoms, the epic of Sundiata portrays the Mali kingdoms through a story of a rising young king in which many of the negative aspects of society are ignored. The Arab historians describe an overall picture showing both the positive and negative aspects of being a king, a citizen, and a woman. The combination of the African traditionalist and the three Arab historian's views, all with different approaches, helps us see a clearer picture of how life was in West Africa. In the view of the African traditionalist, the griot, Mamadou Kouyaté, describes a political system based on hierarchy, each person having there specific role or niche in society. The king is amongst the most powerful roles of society, projecting authority over his land through his ability to command and the strength of his army and followers. The kings' title was passed down from his father to son, showing a patrilineal society. Sundiata's lineage started from his great-great-great grandfather Bamari Tagnogokelin. When Naré Maghan, Sundiata's father, speaks to him at a very young age, he appoints a griot to him. "In Mali every prince has his own griot." "From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors, you will learn the art of governing Mali according to the principles which our ancestors have bequeathed to us." "I am handing an enlarged kingdom over to you and I leave you sure allies." This excerpt shows the importance of being a king and also demonstrates the key role of griots in their society. Early on, Sundiata demonstrates his command and authority when he came to Wagadou in exile. The more Sundiata became exacting the more his servants trembled before him. King Soumaba Cissé even spoke about Sundiata, "If he has a kingdom one day everything will obey him because he knows how to command." The strength of the king's army was also important in order to maintain power and control over their kingdom. This can be seen in the exchange of words between Sundiata and Soumaoro's owls declaring war on each other. "I am king of Mali by force of arms." "Then I will take Mali from you by force of arms and chase you from my kingdom." At Kouroukan Fougan, the division of the world, where all the armies and the kings along with their griots meet together, Sundiata became emperor. This festival can be compared to a political convention with different levels of rank and power and Sundiata as their elected president. The African griot also shows of one of the few examples of slavery during this meeting, when the people who opposed the king were taken as prisoners and had their heads shaved. The crowd surrounding the prisoners could were heard, "Did you have any idea that one day you would be a slave, you vile fellow!" These examples show the political importance of authority and organization of the Mali kingdoms according to the African griot, Mamoudou Kouyaté. The political systems in Africa's tribes, described by the three Arab Historians, show us the kings dominate role of authority with more harsh examples of slavery and his sanctions for disobedience. Compared to the griot's view of politics, which tends to downplay the negative attributes of the king, the Arab historians expose more of their cruelty and punishments. Al-Umari's account, gathered mostly through Egyptian officials, shows us their view of the king of Takrur. "He likes best to be called the ruler of Mali." "He rules the most extensive territory, has the most numerous army, is the braves, the richest, the most fortunate, the most victorious over his enemies, and the best able to...
Bibliography: Niane, D.T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali., translated by G.D. Pickett. Harlow, England:
Longman Group Ltd, 1965
Levtzion N. and J.F.P. Hopkins, Corpus of early Arabic sources for West. Cambridge University Press, 1981
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