The truth is that Sundiata was never a twinkle in his father’s eye. No, King Maghan Kon Fatta only married Sundiata’s mother because a diviner had predicted it would happen. In fact, if he hadn’t been prepared months in advance, he would have sent her away at first glance. Think about it — what would a buffalo-turned-woman look like? Just what you’d expect: hunchbacked and ugly as a tree naked and dying in winter.
But the king had been promised that she would give him the son who would take his place and rule the kingdom. So he sucked it up and did his manly duty — or tried to.
But Sundiata’s mother had not been the famous Buffalo of Do for nothing, the famous white buffalo who killed those who hunted her. This is the sort of woman who isn’t easy to subdue in bed, even after marriage and all of the other proper procedures have taken place. Every night for a week, the king reached for her, but as he touched her, her skin grew coarse hair like an animal’s and she kicked him with legs so powerful, he knew they didn’t belong to a woman. This was long before the days of electricity. The king had no recourse to light or he might have seen that she turned into a buffalo every night, which obviously kept her from getting pregnant.
The king was at his wit’s end so he sat down and started doodling in some sand. Well, today we would call it doodling, because our eyes have been blinded by science and logic and the lack of magic. But around 1200 CE, which is when this story took place, they called it “reading sand,” and it often gave them answers to unsolved mysteries, like “How do I get this buffalo woman pregnant?”
By doodling or magic, the king got an answer: “Frighten her so badly, she faints, and then you do your thing, you studly man, you.”
Sundiata’s mother woke up, saw him “reading sand,” and asked him what he was doing. He strode over to the bed, growled menacingly at her, and said, “I just figured it out. I was so wrong about marrying you. That wasn’t what the diviner meant at all, at all. No! I’m supposed to kill a young virgin, and guess what? You’re the lucky virgin.” He seized her by the hair and she fainted, congealed in her human form. When she woke up, she was already pregnant.
Sundiata was born, a fine son, so it would seem that all was going according to plan. But as time went on, Sundiata did not please his father. At three, he should have been running around squealing cute malapropisms and screaming bloody kid-appropriate curses after falling out of trees. Instead, he lolled around, head so large he couldn’t hold it up. At seven, he still had not walked, and between his humungous head, fat thighs, and thick arms, he must have looked like a Sumo wrestler, only not the Japanese version.
And of course, this made the king’s first wife quite happy, especially when the king died. Her son, Dankaran Touman, was older than Sundiata and should have been king in the first place, and now that Sundiata was proven stupid and useless and fat, her son became king instead and she became the king’s mother.
Dankaran’s mother invited scores of people to come look at the lame little boy. One day, Sundiata’s mother ran to her house, weeping because Dankaran’s mother had mocked the fact that Sundiata could not walk or fetch her little things, like fruit or herbs or a baobab leaf. We are all aware of the power in a mother’s tears. In this case, a mother’s tears made the lame walk. As his mother sobbed in front of their hut, Sundiata concentrated hard. If his mother wanted a baobab leaf, why, she should have a tree! Not only did Sundiata stand and take a few steps, but he grabbed an entire baobab tree, ripped it from the earth with his massive, trunk like arms, and threw it in front of the hut.
A walking, talking, no longer stupid, suddenly popular, and extremely strong Sundiata did not please the new king’s mother at all. And that massive head! Those massive legs and arms! No! This would not do at all!
Naturally, what do you do with such a miracle? Of course, you hire some witches to do away with him, and this is just what Dankaran’s mother did. But like all men who are destined to be king, Sundiata was hopelessly good and kind, even to these evil witches who meant to murder him. When he caught them stealing vegetables in his garden (a trick designed to make Sundiata behave viciously toward them, creating a reason for them to justify their evil intent), he told them to take all the vegetables they needed and come back for more if they wanted. And because goodness is always rewarded, the witches confessed the plan to kill him, repented, and left Sundiata, unharmed.
Sundiata and his mother, sister, and half-brother realized the danger they were in, and fled from the kingdom. They took refuge in Ghana and remained there for many years.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Mali, an evil sorcerer king named Soumaoro conquered the Kingdom from Dankaran, who was Sundiata’s elder half-brother, in case you’ve forgotten. Soumaoro was the sort of evil sorcerer who decorated his room with human skin instead of wallpaper, and kept human heads on shelves like knickknacks. He was nasty and disgusting and furthermore, he took Dankaran’s sister, Nana Triban, to be his wife — against her will. Conquering kings should have learned a long time ago, long before the birth of Christ, not to take wives from the people they conquer — especially not if said wife is the sister of the vanquished king. It rarely turns out well for them. As we shall see, this fact turned out very conveniently for Sundiata.
After enduring Soumaoro’s rule for a while, people suddenly remembered, “Oh, yeah, what about Sundiata? Wasn’t he supposed to be our king? Wasn’t he destined to be a mighty conqueror?” So they sent a search party to find him and beg him to return and save their Kingdom, which of course, he promptly agreed to do as soon as they found him, being the good, powerful, strong, mighty, and wonderful man that he was.
Now as good and powerful and strong and mighty and wonderful as Sundiata was, this is when a woman had to step in and, like Mighty Mouse, sing, “I’ve come to save the day!” Sundiata fought and won several battles, but he was no match for Soumaoro’s magic. Fortuitously, in stepped Nana Triban, who had remained faithful to Sundiata, her half-brother, throughout her marriage to Soumaoro, though she had pretended to dislike Sundiata immensely. Like Delilah seducing the secret of Samson’s strength from him, Nana Triban had discovered the secret to Soumaoro’s magic and brought the secret — the spur of a white cock — with her when she escaped.
Without delay, Sundiata and his men fashioned an arrow out of the cock’s spur and without delay, they used it in the very next battle. As soon as Soumaoro knew that his magic had fled, he left, too, Sundiata and his men in hot pursuit. Soumaoro disappeared into a crack in the mountain, and though Sundiata and his men did not pursue him, they presumed him dead. Several battles and massacres later, and after drinking magic water that made his face shine like the sun, Sundiata returned to his country where he ruled wisely and well and was loved because he loved justice.
Paraphrased and parodied from D.T. Niane’s Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, translated by G. D. Pickett, published by Longman, Essex, England, 1965.
Sundiata Keita created the Kingdom of Mali during the first half of the 13th century. Mali became the dominant state in the Western savanna of Africa from the 13th to the 15th century. The battle that made Sundiata king occurred in circa 1235.