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Sunjata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire

May 22, 2018

West African storytellers still sing the praises of Sunjata Keita today. Crippled as a child, he overcame his disability to unify the fragmented kingdoms of the region, creating the vast medieval Mali Empire.

African Roots Sunjata Keita
Image: Comic Republic

Sunjata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire

Who was Sunjata Keita?

Sunjata Keita, also spelled Sundiata or Soundiata, is a heroic figure still praised today in the songs of griots - traditional storytellers and keepers of history in West Africa. According to these epic oral chronicles as a child Sunjata was physically disabled. But through sheer determination (and a little bit of sorcery), he managed to start to walk. He became a great hunter, a mighty warrior and a skilled military strategist who unified the West African kingdoms of the Mandingo people - also known as the Mandinka or Malinke.

Born around the end of the 12th century in the northwestern corner of present-day Guinea, Sunjata was the son of a king. While living in exile for reasons that remain unclear, he rallied Mandingo chiefs to rebel against the cruel King of the Sosso (another Western African tribe), who had conquered much of the Mandingo's territory. Around 1235, Sunjata led the chiefs into a decisive battle and won. The victory marked the beginning of the Mali Empire.

Why is Sunjata Keita famous?

He is renowned for several reasons. He is celebrated above all for laying the foundations of the Mali Empire, which, at the height of its power, stretched from West Africa's coast 2,000 kilometers inland to the Niger River and beyond. It was one of the largest empires in African history.

Sunjata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire

Sunjata is also credited with introducing a system of central government and unifying dozens of different ethnic groups living within the empire. This ensured the Mali Empire's future unity and helped make it prosperous. He assigned land, rights and duties to everyone and is also said to have proclaimed, in Kurukan Fuga, the Manden Charter, what is considered to be one of the first charters of human rights in the world (albeit in oral form).

On top of his political successes, Sunjata is credited for his strength of character and determination. According to the legend, Sunjata, who was born disabled, saw his mother being humiliated one day and then started walking by sheer strength of will in order to avenge her.

Is Sunjata Keita real?

Sunjata, who is also known as the King of Kings or the Lion King, is what is known as a semi-legendary figure. Written sources from mainly Arab traders and travelers seem to verify his existence. But they are scarce, leaving historians to rely on the oral chronicles of the Mandingo griots for details of Sunjata's life. The chronicles, which have been passed down by word of mouth since the 13th century, before being written down by French scholars in the 1890s, have several versions. There is also the possibility that the emperor's failures may have been neglected for the sake of singing his praises.

Tamara Wackernagel, Sidiki Doumbia and Philipp Sandner contributed to this package. It is part of DW's special series "African Roots", dedicated to African history, a cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.