Sundiata Keita: The Real Lion King of Mali

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Mansa Musa, Nefertiti, Shaka Zulu – a myriad of influential leaders have originated from various regions in Africa. Sundiata Keita is an extremely prominent figure in African history, specifically in the West African country of Mali. Many Americans may not be familiar with his story, but they’re likely familiar with The Lion King (1994) – a film that’s heavily inspired by the “Epic of Sundiata.”

Even if you know the Lion King front to back, the intricacies of Sundiata’s life may surprise you. His story is wreathed in mystery, and it’s still unclear how much of the Epic of Sundiata is fact or fiction. However, there are specific vital details that historians believe are true. We’re going to explore them to honor Black History Month and the Lion of Mali.

The Epic of Sundiata

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Much of what we know about the founder of the Mali empire stems from the Epic of Sundiata, an ancient poem from the 13th century. Storytellers preserved the poem orally, with each Jeliw (poet) offering slightly different versions of the narrative. Djibril Tamsir Niane compiled multiple stories into one written text, resulting in the “modern” version of the epic.

In the poem, Naré Maghann Konaté receives a prophecy that he will father a son (with a new wife) who would become a mighty king. Konaté’s second wife, Sogolon, gave birth to Sundiata, who had physical challenges until age 7. Sassouma, Konate’s first wife, was a jealous and spiteful woman who treated Sundiata horribly. She also worked with Sundiata’s stepbrother, Touman – who would usurp the throne from Konaté – to keep Sundiata from becoming king.

Sundiata, his sisters, and his mother went into exile in the Mema kingdom, where he developed into an exceptionally skilled hunter and warrior. Sumanguru Kanté, an oppressive and brutal warlord, steamrolled throughout the Ghana Empire, taking over many lands, including Mali. Sundiata declared war, defeated Sumanguru’s Soso empire, and cemented his status as one of the greatest Mansa – “king of kings” – in African history.

Facts & Fiction

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Sundiata’s complex life, as well as the number of centuries gone by, has muddied the line between fact and fiction. However, scholars point to well-documented events that correspond with the impressive rise of Sundiata Keita.

Facts

  • Sundiata was a real person and an actual king. There are extensive oral records of his birth, life, and death, and many accept he was born around 1217 CE, ruled from 1235 – 1255 CE, and died in 1255CE.
  • He was a great unifier and ruler, the first leader of the Mali Empire. He was strategic, taking advantage of Mali’s expansive gold and salt deposits to help establish Mali as a force to be reckoned with in Africa.
  • He set up Niani as the capital of his burgeoning empire, radiating his control outwards while maintaining peace throughout the land.
  • He had significant physical challenges as a child, including difficulty walking until around seven years old.
  • Sundiata’s impact is still felt around the world, nearly 800 years later. Stories abound about this figure, poets write verses, and stage productions honor his life – not to mention the incredibly inspiring and successful story of The Lion King.

Fiction

  • Sumanguru had a magical balafón, an instrument later stolen by an ally of Sundiata.
  • Sassouma practiced witchcraft to harm Sundiata.
  • Griots (traditional storytellers) may have exaggerated some minor details in the Epic of Sundiata, but historians agree on much of the plot’s essential events.

The Lion King Connection

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Sundiata Keita was known as “the Lion of Mali” for good reason. He was strong, decisive, determined, open-minded, and righteous, and he offers the world a fantastic snapshot of precolonial West African history. There are many reasons people see the connection between his life and the ultra-popular story of The Lion King, including:

  • Mufasa is based on Sundiata’s father, Naré Maghann Kanaté. In the film and in life, the king is kind and cares deeply for his son, but others treat his child cruelly. Kanaté died mysteriously, reeking of foul play, like Scar’s treatment of Mufasa in the movie.
  • The future king flees into exile, growing from a weak and timid young cub into a strong and powerful lion, an expert warrior and hunter.
  • Sundiata, like Simba, succeeded in conquering his enemies by creating alliances. Where in the movie, Simba partners with Timon and Pumbaa, Sundiata recruited allies who wished to revolt against the Soso rulers. 
  • His name itself is the title of the film. “Sundiata” combines a variation of his mother Sogolon’s name with the Mandinka word for lion – jata. Once he became Mansa, he indeed was “The Lion King,”
  • Sassouma and Scar are both antagonists, blocking the prophesized ruler from gaining the throne.
  • African landscapes were more than a stunning backdrop. In particular, the baobab tree has significance in the movie, an ever-present element in many scenes, and a baobab branch (Sr’a) miraculously gave Sundiata the ability to walk in the epic poem.

Sundiata’s Legacy

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Sundiata Keita was a larger-than-life figure who deserves more recognition than he has received. His legacy was immediate, well-planned, and lasts until this day. Some of his many highlights are:

  • He created the Mali Empire, a massive influence in the formation of African history and culture. It ruled west Africa for many centuries.
  • Future rulers modeled their leadership after his peaceful, open-minded approach. He was likely Muslim but did not force others to convert, setting up a multi-denominational, accepting culture. After he retook the land of Mali, he focused on peace and expanding his empire to grow wealth and prosperity for all.
  • His great-nephew Mansa Musa borrowed many of his principles and wealth-building strategies, to become the single wealthiest individual to ever live on the planet.
  • By designating his descendants as the future line of rule, he projected his culture and beliefs well into the future. These principles allowed subsequent rulers to spread Islamic architecture, ideas, mosques, and teachings throughout Africa and left fabulous riches – cultural and economic – to the continent.

While the stories of his life vary, one thing remains consistent about Sundiata Keita, the Lion King. He was a determined warrior who fought against many challenges, ultimately creating a reputation that has not only survived but thrived throughout history.

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