The Sunjata Epic--The Ultimate Version
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Research in African Literatures 32.1 (2001) 14-46



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The Sunjata Epic--The Ultimate Version

Jan Jansen


In the last decades the Sunjata epic has enjoyed much attention as a masterpiece of African oral literature; at American universities it is often part of undergraduate courses on literature or world history. The Sunjata epic is considered part of the historical heritage of the famous medieval Mali empire: already in the fourteenth century the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta heard griots praising the king of Mali as a direct descendant of Sunjata. Although it is not certain whether the memory of Sunjata had at that time already been shaped in the literary genre of the epic, it is beyond doubt that Ibn Battuta's Sunjata was the same Sunjata as recalled by present-day griots. Today, Sunjata is remembered in large parts of West Africa as the founder of "Mande" or "Manding." Although present-day Mande is but a small region around Kangaba--100 kilometers southwest of Mali's capital, Bamako--in the context of the Sunjata epic, "Mande" has a much broader meaning for the West African audience and is similar to "society" or "the civilized world" in general. Thus although maybe once a king of a founder of a royal dynasty, Sunjata has become a mythical figure, a culture hero with a pivotal position in West African oral history, and the Sunjata epic has become the primus inter pares among all African oral traditions.

Part of the Sunjata epic's prestige is based on the fact that it is, as far as I know, the only epic in the world that is entirely orally transmitted as well as claimed to be performed in a ceremonial context, namely, the famous septennial Kamabolon ceremony in Kangaba, Mali. In this ceremony the Kamabolon sanctuary--a traditional hut with colorful paintings--is restored, and the night before the new roof is put on top of the hut, the "canonical" version of the Sunjata epic is recited in the restored but still roofless sanctuary.

The whole Kamabolon ceremony lasts five days and may be regarded as a recreation of society (see Dieterlen; Cisse and Kamissoko; de Ganay; Jansen, "Hot Issues"). The ceremony basically has the function of inaugurating a new kare ("age group"), since those who form the new kare and those who form the future new kare are responsible for most of the ritual labor, such as restoring the walls of the sanctuary, constructing the new roof, and keeping the audience at a distance. The parts that attract the largest audiences are performed the last two days. First, there is the arrival of the Diabate griots in Kangaba, on Thursday afternoon, and the subsequent famous nocturnal recitation that can be considered as a tribute to the ancestors and the recently deceased leaders. Second, there is the action of putting the new roof on top of the sanctuary. This is done on Friday afternoon. Only young men from the local royal Keita lineage are allowed to participate in this ritual labor. Impure Keita who try to lift the [End Page 14] new roof will either die soon or even on the spot; when "bastards" try to lift the roof, the roof simply refuses. It is generally believed that the Keita are able to lift the roof only because of the power of the words of the Diabate griots. In short, one can say that the words of the Diabate griots are crucial in the correct execution of the ritual labor, and thus the recreation of the society in which the new kare has been incorporated. When the Kamabolon is roofless, society is experienced as being in anarchy (see above and Jansen, "Hot Issues"). As soon as the new roof is on top of the sanctuary, people applaud, shout for joy, run to the hut in order to touch the new roof, then go home, happy with the blessings they received by attending the ceremony. Thus the Diabate's words in particular are necessary to get society back on the right track.

In spite of the prestige of the...