In recent years historians have been exploring the oral epic tradition from sub-Saharan Africa to learn more about the continent’s medieval past. The recently translated account of The Epic of Sumanguru Kante offers some fascinating stories, including a description of how this West African ruler was born to two mothers.
Sumanguru Kante was a 13th century king of the Sosso people, one of the states that had emerged after the fall of the Ghana Empire. Most of our knowledge about him comes from epics out of the neighbouring kingdom of Mali, in which Sumanguru is portrayed as an evil sorcerer, who would be defeated at the Battle of Kirina around the year 1235.
However, The Epic of Sumanguru Kante offers an account with more details on the king’s life. Preserved as an oral tradition by generations of jeliw – professional bards – the story blends supernatural and magical elements into the story of the Sosso king’s rise to power, and how it eventually led him to a clash with the Mandinka prince Sunjata Keita.
In one of the early sections, the epic explains that he had two mothers – Sansu Ture and Dabi Berete. While co-wives were a common feature in this society, the story literally has the two women sharing the unborn child:
The day Sumanguru was born, the two mothers were getting on well, they had a good co-wife relationship.
At that time, in our country, if you go on well, you had all your secrets in common. Even it they went searching for firewood they’d go together.
Both mothers took a rope in order to go search for firewood. God allowed the mother who was bearing him to go into labour. The jeliw say: if he spends the night inside one, he will spend the day inside the other. We used that to praise him.
That’s explained by a good understanding between co-wives. Otherwise, a human being cannot be inside one woman, and get out of her to go into another one. But we added that to Sumanguru’s praises, saying: between Debi and Soso, Sanzo, son of two mothers.
The story gets more interesting when the birth is about to happen, as the infant Sumanguru assists with his own birth:
Their labour started, and they got worried, as there was no old woman at hand to help with the birth. The two women got worried, they said: how are we going to do this?
We are here in this remote bush, no old woman in sight! Our labour has started how are we going to give birth? God granted speech to Sumanguru.
He said: give birth to me! They exclaimed: how are we going to give birth to you? How can a child who asks to be born be unable to give birth to itself?
The delivery is successful, and immediately the baby boy asks them to give him a name. When they reply that how can someone who gave birth to himself not also know their own name, to which he replies:
He said: it is true, indeed, I came with my name. My name is Soo-Maanguru. That’s the meaning of being Sumanguru. He said: I, here, I will not be slave. I will not be lackey.
The Epic of Sumanguru Kante was narrated by Abdulaye Sako in 1997, and an edition and translation of the story has been published by Brill. Click here to buy this book from Amazon.com
Top Image: A 13th-century terracotta figure created in what is now Mali. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art