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Empire building in medieval Africa: Sunjata Epic.

Folklore is an integral part of African traditions. Griots, or storytellers, have been instrumental in preserving African cultural values and belief systems over the centuries. Conrad (2004) explains that griots (or jeliw, as the Mande people of West Africa refer to them) serve a variety of roles. They tell stories of their leaders' heroic deeds and sing their praises. The Mande peoples consider their storytellers to be "oral artists responsible for maintaining lively oral discourse that recalls the alleged deeds of the early ancestors, keeping them and their exploits alive in the community's collective memory" (p. xiv). One West African leader from the Mande group who has remained a popular subject in African folklore is Sunjata, the 13th-century King of Mall who built an empire from ruins. Griots have sung and continue to sing his praises in oral narratives, explaining his mysterious beginnings, his struggles with disability, and his eventual emergence as one of Africa's foremost legends.

Tales about Sunjata were once only shared through oral tradition, but now exist in print as a chapter book: Sundiata: An Epic of Mali (Niane, 1965/2006); as a picturebook, Sundiata: The Lion King of Mali (Wisniewski, 1992); and as graphic novels--Sundiata: A Legend of Africa (Eisner, 2002) and Sunjata, Warrior King of Mali: A West African Legend (Fontes & Fontes, 2008). Among these print versions, Eisner's (2002) adaptation has received criticism for the following reasons. His book is not really based on the oral version; rather, it is a generic story of "good versus evil." In addition, Eisner exoticizes his African characters and sensationalizes violence. This article focuses on the graphic novel by Fontes and Fontes (2008), which, I believe, captures the essence of the Sunjata tale in a respectful and authentic manner.

That novel opens with a map of Africa showing the Mande peoples situated in the continent. The authors then state:

Sunjata was a thirteenth-century king of the Mali Empire. Stories about him and his feats have been told by griots, West African storytellers, for centuries. This retelling is based on a number of the tales recorded and edited by David Conrad, editor of Epic Ancestors of the Sunjata Era: Oral Traditions From the Maninka of Guinea. (unpaginated)

By providing the source of the story and referencing Conrad as a consultant, Fontes and Fontes (2008) reassure their audience of the story's authenticity. Although presented in a new format, the story retains authenticity while adding a fresh perspective, especially since it is written in the tradition of what Conrad (2004) refers to as "Fadama naamu-sayers," or those "who encouraged the bard during the performances" (p. xi).

The narrative begins with the storyteller's sidekick inviting the audience to "Come near and hear" (p. 6), just like "naamu-sayers" would do in the past. In Sunjata, Warrior King of Mali: A West African Legend, the naamu-sayer provides background information and prepares readers for the story, stating that, "In West Africa today, you can still hear the story of Sunjata, the great king, or Mansa, who lived over seven centuries ago" (p. 6). The authors begin the graphic novel in this manner to establish a sense of immediacy and capture the storytelling atmosphere. The sharp, stylized illustrations, in red, burnished tones representing sunsets and fire, reinforce the text. The naamu-sayer then explains the significance of storytelling in West Africa and the role of storytelling in ancient times. Only then do the authors have the griot-like character begin the tale. At this point, the map of Africa is visible with Mali in its present-day boundaries.

The story, told in five short chapters, is basically about a boy, Sunjata, whom many had dismissed as a "joke," someone who merely "eats and snores" (p. 17). Eventually, however, Sunjata emerged as one of the greatest mansas (rulers) in Mall's history. The illustrations in this graphic novel attempt to capture the 13th-century sensibilities of the Mande people. Conrad (2004) notes that today, "Mande-speaking peoples include the Maninka of northeastern Guinea and southern Mall, the Bamana of Mall, the Mandinka of Senegambia and Guinea Bissau, and the Dyula of northern Cote d'Ivoire" (p. xiv).

The graphic novel format conveys the story in a dramatic manner, making it possible for readers to participate in the events as they follow the narrative. In addition, it makes visible distinct aspects of the Mande folk culture--the gender roles, their beliefs in the supernatural, and community life as it was during that period. The dialogue, although in English, is colloquial in nature, to reflect the oral culture of the fictional medieval setting. The authors also integrate words and/or expressions from the local dialect into the speech bubbles, and provide a glossary and pronunciation guide at the end of the story. On the whole, the authors seem to communicate that while they are retelling this legend through this graphic novel format, their goal is to evoke the oral spirit of the story as told long ago by the griots. After the griot finishes his tale, the naamu-sayer appears again to concur: "Each griot tells his own version of Sunjata's story. But this much is always the same: A boy who seemed useless pulled himself up to become a great man. Naamu. It is true!" (p. 45).

The tale of Sunjata is deeply interwoven with its African folkloric roots. David Russell (2009) attests that tales classified as epics or heroic legends, although they originated from myths, "instead of focusing on gods and goddesses, ... had human beings as their heroes" (p. 198). This motivating graphic novel falls under this category. For Conrad (2004), the story of Sunjata in its numerous forms illustrates "the Mande people's own view of the glorious past, and it rightfully credits their ancestors with establishing one of the great empires of the medieval world" (p. xiv). Now, the story appears in an accessible format that respects the oral integrity of ancient West African culture, allowing modern readers to learn from Sunjata's struggle and ultimate successes.


Conrad, D. (Ed. & Translated). (2004). Sunjata: A West African epic of the Mande people. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Eisner, W. (2002). Sundiata: A legend of Africa. New York, NY: Nantier.

Fontes, J., & Fontes, R. (2008). Sunjata, warrior king of Mali: A West African legend. Illustrated by Sandy Carruthers. Minneapolis, MN: Graphic Universe, Lerner Publishing.

Niane, D.T. (2006). Sundiata: An epic of old Mali. Translated by D. G. Pickett. London, England: Longman African Writers. (Original work published 1965)

Russell, D. L. (2009). Literature for children: A short introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Wisniewski, D. (1992). Sundiata: The Lion King of Mali. New York, NY: Sandipiper.

Vivian Yenika-Agbaw is Associate Professor of Literacy/Children's Literature, Pennsylvania State University, University Park.
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Title Annotation:Children's Literature: A Global Montage
Author:Yenika-Agbaw, Vivian
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Aug 15, 2011
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