D.T. Niane’s book Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali tells the history of Mali’s former ruler from the perspective of a royal griot, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate of the village of Dejliba Koro (Siguiri) in Guinea. According to Niane, he is not trying to write a traditional history book, rather, he is trying to present the history of Sundiata’s empire through the traditional African form of memory using oral tradition as his only sources. He claims that the West has taught historians to avoid oral traditions and to rely instead primarily on written documents. However, Niane disagrees with these methods and claims that much can be learned from the stories and traditions passed from generation to generation through spoken word. He makes a wonderful case for the problem of Westernization of the historical discipline; stressing that it is important to understand the people being studied on their own terms, instead of viewing their histories from Eurocentric perspectives.
The story of Sundiata begins before his birth. In the beginning, the griot establishes his authority on the subject by claiming that he was entrusted with these stories from his father and his father’s father. The griot also explains that griots take an oath and are unable to lie. According to tradition, Sundiata came from a long line of Malian kings. His father was a great and handsome man who was loved by his people. One day, Sudndiata’s father, Maghan Kon Fatta received a visiting hunter and soothsayer, who foretold that the king would one day have a son, that son would become a great ruler. However, the stranger informed Maghan Kon Fatta that in order for these things to come true, he must marry an ugly woman that would bear him this child. The woman eventually came in the company of two hunters; she was known as the buffalo woman and would become Sundiata’s mother.
After the king Maghan Kon Fatta married the buffalo woman, Sologlon Kedjou, she became pregnant with a son, Sundiata. The king was...
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