Life Purpose and Responsibility in Sundiata, The Lion King of Mali
In Sundiata: The Lion King of Mali, responsibility closely aligns with life purpose for those who must fulfill key roles in Malian society, and throughout the story, exemplary characters dutifully perform the obligations. Responsibility in this illustrated adaptation of Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali is confined to the roles of king, parent and griot. These roles are clear obligation which falls to the characters who fulfill them responsibly and completely. Execution of responsibility is the way in which order and structure in society are ensured and the destinies of the characters are fulfilled through the discharge of these duties. Responsibility in Mali is a defined onus which falls to those who respond and accept their roles, arising to and shouldering the demands placed on them. King Nare Maghan, Doua, King Sundiata, Balla Fasseke, and Sogolon are the leading figures of caliber and paragons of characters who devotedly do their duty and fulfill their destinies.
One of the Malian king’s responsibilities consists of “pass(ing) on (his) realm, intact if not increased to (his) descendants” (Wisniewski 1999). This onerous responsibility of kingship and of the relay of power, authority, title to an heir/successor is prime. Upon hearing the threatening, portentous news of the imminent ruin of the Malian kingdom, and the guidelines set out by the hunter to avert this event, Nare Maghan sees it incumbent upon himself to take steps, unpleasant though they may be, to spare his kingdom from overthrow and spoil. With the injunction that Sogolon “is the woman (he) must marry” (Wisniewski 1999). Nare weds Sogolon, an unsightly wraith and is instrumental in the conception of the saviour of Mali. Maghan asserts to his bride, Sogolon that he “must accomplish his mission” (Wisniewski 1999). The very fact that Maghan likens the conception of his heir to a “mission” tells us of the strong sense of regal responsibility and destiny that he has. Sundiata sees it as his duty to restore order to the empire of Mali, fulfilling as a result his destiny as a necessary responsibility he must carry out thus guaranteeing the continuity of the Malian empire. When one of his people voices that “the throne of your fathers awaits you” (ibid). Sundiata willingly shoulders the responsibility with the rejoinder that he, “the king will return (to Mali)” (ibid). Sundiata clearly sees the task at hand and is prepared to undertake it. After the political crisis in Mali, Sundiata takes further measures to strengthen his kingdom righteously and justly governing his people.
The roles of king and griot are inextricably connected. In Mali, “each king gives his successor a griot” (Wisniewski 1999). It is the king’s duty to listen to, accept the wisdom and follow the instruction of these wise seers. From the birth of the Malian empire to the time of Sundiata, “every prince has (had) his own griot”. King Maghan follows Doua his griot and in the same way King Sundiata adheres to the wisdom of Balla Fasseke his griot. Kings are responsible for griots and jealously guard them as their prized possessions as we see when Sundiata engages in warfare over the kidnapping of his griot, Balla Fasseke. It is no surprise then that since Balla performs his duty completely and honorably that King Soumaoro of Sosso kidnaps him and takes him for his own griot.
By definition, griots are “men of the spoken word who give life to the gestures of kings” (Wisniewski 1999). They recite the history of bygone kings and add to the history of events through the realities of their own time and pass this on to the next male descendent who has to fulfill the same obligation perpetuating the acts of kings through oral chronicles and upholding the strong tradition. The griot must preserve the sacred and mysterious knowledge of the ancestors and King Nare Maghan confirms this duty of the griots for “from his mouth, you will hear the history of the ancestors” (Wisniewski 1999). We see the full discharge of the Malian griot’s responsibility, the success of the griot’s discharged responsibility through the narrator of the book, Djele and the rehearsal of the story Sundiata. The paternal transmission of the kingdom’s history is traced through generations as the oratory “is the word of the father’s father” (Wisniewski 1999). Doua faithfully performs the task of griot to King Nare Maghan and Balla Fasseke his son does the same. Doua’s father was a loyal griot to Bello Bakon, Maghan’s father. Doua’s service to the king was never so marked as when he encouraged the king to keep believing in the prophecy foretold of the advent of a great king and successor. Serving the king all his days, Balla Fasseke reminded Sundiata of the history of Mali and this recital/reminder heartens and moralizes Sundiata’s troops as they heard of the glorious, magnanimous, past of Mali and her long line of brave and illustrious kings.
Sogolon’s destiny is marked by a heavy responsibility – that of bearing and raising a child, a saviour of the Mali Nation. At her wedding ceremony, her task is verbalized by an elderly woman who says that “(Sogolon) will be a mother (Wisniewski 1999).” Prior to this event, the hunters earmark Sogolon’s task, which is to “be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal” (Wisniewski 1999). Sogolon is charged with raising one of the greatest Malian rulers in a chaotic and turbulent time – an awesome commission and she dutifully fulfills till her son, Sundiata reaches the age of eighteen. At the last of her days, Sogolon, “had performed her task, she had nurtured the son…her mission was accomplished” (Wisniewski 1999). Sogolon mothers Sundiata till he attains the age of adulthood and maturity. We further see the success of her execution of her responsibility for Sundiata grows to be a just, wise and egalitarian king.
In Mali, it is incumbent on the leading figures to meet responsibility and fulfill their destiny in the process. Meeting obligations has a stabilizing effect on society and guarantees the balance of the spheres. Responsible kings, griots, and mothers all meet to produce an even story and by extension an organized kingdom. Responsibility also gives meaning for man’s existence, for without some goal to fulfill or some end to meet, what is the purpose of life?
Wisniewski, D. (1999). Sundiata: Lion King of Mali. Clarion Books.
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