While the history of the European Middle Ages and Renaissance is widely taught, few people know what was happening in Africa during that same time period. Many think nothing was - but they couldn't be more wrong.
Traditionally, the history of West Africa was not written down - but transmitted orally by "griots" - learned men trained in culture, history, law, public speaking and the art of storytelling. The griot's duty was to record the customs, traditions, and governmental principles of kings. As one griot explains: "we are the vessels of speech, the repositories which harbor secrets many centuries old. The art of eloquence has no secrets for us - without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion. We are the memory of mankind."
The history of the kingdom of Mali, which reached its peak from 1200 to 1500 A.D. is rich and full of griot's stories. During that time, as the song of praise below shows, Mali and it's capital Niani were active and wealthy trade centers:
"If you want salt (worth its weight in gold at that time) - if you want gold - if you want cloth, go to Niani, for the Mecca road passes by Niani. If you want fish, go to Niani, for it is there that the fishermen of Moauti and Djenne come to sell their catches. If you want meat, go to Niani, the country of the great hunters, and the land of the ox and the sheep. If you want to see an army, go to Niani, for is there that the united forces of Mali are found. If you want to see a great king, go to Niani, for it is there that the son of Sogolon lives, the man with two names."
The "son of Sogolon" referred to in the song is Mali's greatest ruler, Sundiata - the Alexander the Great, George Washington, King Arthur, and Peter the Great of Mali. Sundiata ruled from 1230 to 1255 - and the tale of his rise to power is famous throughout the country.
This is not your usual handsome prince story. Sundiata's mother Sogolon, is a hunchback and the "double" or "spirit" of a great buffalo. Sundiata's father, the King Maghan Kon Fatta, married Sogolon because its was predicted that her son would be a leader without equal. But Sundiata was born with crippled legs - and by the age of seven, when his father died, he still could not walk.
Without his father's protection, Sundiata and his family fell into disfavor with the King's first wife, who resented the predictions of Sundiata's glory and wanted her son to rule. Fearing for her son's life, Sogolon and her family fled their hometown of Niani as soon as Sundiata could finally walk. Through his travels and trials of exile, Sundiata gained many allies, and eventually grew into a strong and able warrior. Years after his departure, he learned that in his absence, Mali was invaded and captured by a powerful neighboring sorcerer and king, who imposed harsh taxes and laws on the people. The story of how Sundiata put all his lessons to use and returned to vanquish the king and reclaim his kingdom is one of the classic tales of good versus evil. And while the details may be exaggerated and elaborated to make a good tale - the fact that King Sundiata lived, ruled and united the powerful kingdom of Mali is indisputable.
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