Sundiata Keita, the lion king

A step towards a more humane world

The village of Kangaba, stands on the west bank of the Niger River, close to the border between Mali and Guinea. The expansive Kurukan plain surrounds it as far as the eye can see. In the dry season, the earth is marked by heat and dryness, and turns a colour similar to clay or stray. Once in a while, the shades of yellow are interrupted by the green brushstrokes of the trees, indigenous to the savannah. During the year, the local population gathers in the Kurukan plain for a traditional rite that has been going on for centuries.

As if the world ground to a halt: people gather around the griots, that is, traditional African storytellers, musicians; bearers of the history and practise of ancient traditions. The griots are fundamental figures in the culture of West African countries, they are depositories of tradition. They tell their stories accompanied by musical instruments and, like the bards of our Middle Ages, lived in the courts of the nobles or warriors. Since the dawn of time, they go round the villages telling their stories, and pass on the tradition from father to son.

Kurukan is not insignificant; it plays a major role in Malian history and culture. The griots will not tell any other story, only the story of Sundiata Keita.

The story of Sundiata, the first emperor of Mali, and also nicknamed “lion king”, has been passed on to us by Arab historians from the little evidence they managed to gather together, and the legends handed down over the centuries. Nevertheless, it is considered accurate in many respects. It is said that Sundiata was the son of the king of Niani, a small African kingdom born during the breakup of the Ghana Empire. Sundiata’s mother was the King’s second wife. A prophecy said that if the king married a woman of monstrous appearance, her child would be invincible. When the king’s first son, Dankaran Touman, took power after the king’s death, both Sundiata and his mother had to flee to the nearby kingdom of Mema because of the envy of Dankaran. When the kingdom was attacked by Soumaoro Kante, the king of the Sossos, famous for his sorcery skills and cruelty, Dankaran was captured and Sundiata managed to make an alliance with the kings of Mame and the other small kingdoms to attack Sossos. The griots narrate in great detail the events of the war, the various characters, and also of Balla Fasséké. Fasséké was the griot that accompanied Sundiata, and is considered the founder of the most important griot dynasty still present in Mali. The decisive battle took place in Kirina around 1235, during which battle Sundiata killed Soumaoro with an arrow, so ending the war and becoming king of his country of origin, and all the territories belonging to Soumaoro.

After these events, Sundiata set up an assembly, the Gbara, to give order to the newborn empire of Mali, which lasted for 400 years up until the 17th century. The Gbara, made up of 30 representatives of the various clans, met in Kurukan and in 1236 established the empire known as Kurukan Fuga, or Carta di Mandé (from the ancient name of the Malian population).

The persistent work of historians and African scholars in the 1990s managed to collect the various oral stories of the griots and were able to reconstruct an “original” version of Gbara constitution. Despite dating back almost 800 years, the Kurukan Fuga contains very interesting principles. After the articles concerning the social organization of the society, Article 5 reads, “Everyone has the right to life and the safeguard of physical integrity.” This right is very similar to that of habeas corpus contained in the Magna Carta, promulgated in England just 21 years earlier.

Article 7 speaks of particular agreements between families and says, “The guiding principle between brothers and sisters-in-law, between grandparents and grandchildren, must be that of tolerance.”

It is also striking to read the provisions regarding the education of children and womens’ condition. Article 9 reads, “Children’s education is the duty of the entire society. As a consequence paternal authority falls to everyone.” Even though the structure of a patriarchal society is still visible in Article 15, “Never beat a married woman before her husband has tried to correct the problem,” successively, there are two articles about the protection of women, “Never offend women, our mothers,” (Art. 14) and, “women, apart from their everyday occupations, should be associated with every layer of management.” (Art. 16.)

Finally, it is remarkable as to what is said about slaves, “Do not ill treat the slaves. We are the master of the slaves but not of the bag they carry.” (Article 20.) This comes a few centuries prior to the phenomenon of slavery suffered by these same populations in the modern age of the Americas. With regards to the protection of the poor, “To satisfy one’s hunger is not robbery if you don’t take away anything in your bag or your pocket.” (Article 36.)

In 2009, The Charter of Mandé was included by UNESCO in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Of course, it is not the expression of a perfect society, but it is a milestone in the path that humanity – regardless of the continent of origin – is making towards a more just world. A world in which every person enjoys the same rights and dignity, even though there have been missteps along the way.

We wanted to recount the story of Sundiata and its constitution in the year during which we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which took place in Paris on 10 December 1948, when the world had just finished with World War II. A time when the world wanted to proclaim an order based on the recognition of the rights of every person. It is significant that a step towards greater equality – mostly unknown in the Western world – has been accomplished in a so-called “third world country”. A country from which, even in the present day and age, many men and women are forced to flee, precisely to seek that equality, proclaimed during the last century, but still difficult to realise.

Photo by Ivan Diaz

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