Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mali: "Guardian of the Word" by Camara Laye

This book, Guardian of the Word, started me thinking about national boundaries. Or state boundaries, as in the many straight lines in the U.S. Who decides? How? Why? What causes things to change, other than war? Here, it is mostly war.

This book is a re-telling of the foundation story of the Mali Empire, part of which is part of present day Mali, after boundaries drawn and drawn by colonial administrations, disputes and resolutions. I am counting this book as Mali, but the Mali Empire, at its largest extent, included all of The Gambia, parts of Mali and parts of present day Mauritania, Senegal, and Guinea, and a tiny bit of Niger far to the east. Laye is from Guinea but lived in Senegal in his later years and died in Dakar.

In this adaptation of a classical tale from a griot (Guardian of the Word, or story teller with some functions as magician and king's herald) Laye tells of fabled king Sundiata, whose empire started around 1235. The book starts well before Sundiata's birth, with two young men who learn the secret to conquer a buffalo that is trampling villages in the region around D├ö. This secret involves some sorcery and augeries; of course, with these powerful forces behind them, the young men prevail and fulfill their commitment. As part of that, they accompany a girl, called Songolon, to the city of Niani, now in Guinea.

There, Songolon is married to the ruler Maghan Konfara, and within a not-at-all-pleasant scene, conceives a child who is baptized with three names and blessed with three totems: the lion of his father (Diata), and the buffalo and panther of his mother. When he matures, those totems shape his honorific, as Songolon is elided to Sun, to yield Sundiata, which means "Songolon's Son [of] the Lion." One note said his title should be written Sunjata, which is closer to how an English speaker would write the sounds of the Manden word.

At his birth, soothsayers predict that this boy, called Diata, will be a great king. Nonetheless, he does not walk until age 6 or 7. This forecast, plus Maghan Konfara's preference for Sogolon, creates jealousy in the heart of another of the king's wives and mother of an older prince. Among the palace women, she foments systematic ridicule of Diata for his lameness and she and her followers taunt him and his mother. The scene where he rises and walks for the first time is very compelling, carrying hints (for Western readers) of the sword of King Arthur as a stave is pulled from the blacksmith's shop to aid Diata in rising and of the labors of Hercules, given the effort and strength Diata expended, as shown vividly in Laye's prose. The onlookers switch from contempt to pride when observing Diata's tremendous accomplishment.

When Diata is 12, King Maghan dies and Diata's older half-brother ascends the throne and remains much under the influence of his jealous and petty mother. So, Diata, his mother, and siblings (including a adopted half-brother, born of another of the kings' wives) begin a six-year exile. In this time, Diata and his family live in several kings' palaces, ever moving eastward. They end up about 1,400 miles from where they started, near the city of Gao (in Mali). He gains much experience along the way, hunting and participating in skirmishes fighting bandits. He develops friendships with young men in his age group in many kingdoms. And the childless King of Mema makes him a viceroy and heir to his own throne.

Diata is sought by a delegation, asking him to return the Manden territory to reconquer it from an oppressor tyrant, Sumaoro of Sosso. Sumaoro had assassinated rival kings from surrounding territories and put their heads on pikes (and preserved their skin as a prayer mat!) as lessons to others. Diata's half-brother first tried to appeasement, by requiring his own sister to marry the tyrant, who already had 300 wives. Then the half-brother ran away, leaving the Manden people completely in the power of the invader. Using her "feminine wiles" the half-sister seduces Sumaoro and learns the secrets that will be his undoing. She later has an opportunity to share those with her childhood playmate, Diata.

To fulfill his destiny, Diata called on the allies he met during his exile and together they built a powerful army. They fight Sumaoro's army in the great battle of Kirina. There, Diata uses the device he learned from his half-sister and weakens Sumaoro, who hides in a cave, where he is ashamed of all his deeds.

With this victory over the tyrant, Diata becomes king of Manden. Each of Diata's allies received from his hand territory to govern, making Sundiata emperor and hence founder of the Mali Empire. There are celebrations in music and dance to honor his name  (a modern version might sound like this). The griots offer praise to Sundiata and each of his allies.

Laye writes, 

"In short, Sundiata gave the Empire its political and social framework, a religious life with the peaceful coexistence of Islam and Animism--a political framework that had been the one build up by his ancestors...Sundiata was the first great Mansa of Mali. With his arrival, carefree others gave birth to happy children, and desolation, the sign of Sumaoro's passage through the savanna, gave place to prosperity which burst forth everywhere." (p. 218).

That empire endured, at least in name, until around 1610, when the last emperor of Mali died and the territory split among three sons.

So what came next?

In the 17th century, Bamana warriors from the north attacked the former capital of Niani, as that group established its own empire. The Bamana ruled into the 19th century until defeat at the hands of El Hadj Umar Tall, of Senegal. In turn, his heirs fell to the French around 1890 as they amassed control over "French West Africa." Around 1960, independence movements yielded what are now Mali, Senegal, Mauritania,  Burkina-Fasso, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Benin, and Niger.

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