Hospitality: A Custom of Epic Proportions

The custom of hospitality between certain characters, as seen in Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, is a timeless motif presented in literature throughout the world. It is intertwined with the concept of good versus evil, where the act of hospitality to assist the good to overtake the evil, will prevail, and hence the hero is born. Those who contribute to the cause of the good, are rewarded for their hospitality toward the main character, now turned heroic legend, Sundiata.

The presence and benefits of hospitality among the characters involved directly and indirectly in Sundiata’s life shape the very events of Sundiata’s own past, present, and future. These combinations transform Sundiata into the heroic legend that he will be known for, for centuries to come. Thanks to the griot, the storyteller, he is able to bring the legendary story of Sundiata to life. The story begins with Sundiata’s past.

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As the griot conveys the story of the hunters, “We were advancing warily, our eyes well skinned, when we saw an old woman by the side of the river. She was weeping and lamenting, gnawed by hunger. Until then no passer-by had designed to stop by her. She beseeched us, in the name of the Almighty, to give her something to eat. Touched by her tears I approached and took some pieces of dried meat from my hunter’s bag. When she had eaten well she said, ‘Hunter, may God requite you with the charity you have given me.

‘ We were making ready to leave when she stopped me. I know,’ she said, ‘that you are going to try your luck against the Buffalo of Do, but you should know that many others before you have met their death through foolhardiness, for arrows are useless against the buffalo; but, young hunter, your heart is generous and it is you who will be the buffalo’s vanquisher” (7-8). Here, it is the act of hospitality and generosity that leads the hunters to overcome the wraith of the buffalo, and therefore learn the identity of the woman who will mother the child of the future king, Sundiata.

Now many years into Sundiata’s life, after many trials and tribulations that has made Sundiata into the young man that he is, he is tested once again of his will to succeed in his epic journey. Sundiata needs not only to be respected, but feared as well. In order to be labeled as heroic, there needs to be some sense of fear among the very people who have helped him. That same fear turns into the highest level of respectfulness and trustworthiness. As noted by the griot, “He said to the king, ‘King, you gave me hospitality at your court when I was without shelter.

Under your orders I went on my first campaign. I shall never be able to thank you for so much kindness. However, my mother is dead; but I am now a man and I must return to Mali to claim the kingdom of my fathers. Oh king, I give you back the powers you conferred upon me, and I ask leave to depart. In any case, allow me to bury my mother before I go” (46). This is a very major turning point in Sundiata’s life as becoming a man and a future king. The king mistakes Sundiata’s request for the burial of his mother and his leaving Mema as an insult and ungratefulness to the hospitality the king has given Sundiata.

Sundiata in turn changes his normal attitude of humbleness into that of an indirect threat, proving right then and there that his motifs not be questioned, but respected, and if not, the king and his land will be dealt with accordingly. Through the advice of the king’s advisor, the king comes to an agreement with Sundiata, and allows him to bury his mother, continue his epic to Mali, and fulfill his destiny. Now into what can be called the beginning of the rest of Sundiata’s future, the rewards of the hospitality that Sundiata has received, is being repayed to the one’s who have given it.

The griot states, “From Do, Sundiata sent a richly furnished embassy to Mema loaded with costly gifts. Thus he paid off his contracted debt and the embassy made it known to the king that the Cisse-Tounkaras and the Keitas would be allies forever” (72)… “I give you back your kingdom, king of Sibi, for you have deserved it by your bravery; I have known you since childhood and your speech is as frank as your heart is straightforwarded. Today I ratify for ever the alliance between the Kamaras of Sibi and the Keitas of Mali.

May these two people be brothers henceforth. In future, the land of the Keitas shall be the land of the Kamaras, and the property of the Kamaras shall be henceforth the property of the Keitas. May there nevermore be falsehood between a Kamaras feel at home in the whole extent of my empire”… “Sundiata took Tabon Wana’s spear and said, ‘Fran Kamara, my friend, I return your kingdom to you. May the Djallonkes and Mandingoes be forever allies. You received me in your own domain, so may the Djallonkes be received as friends throughout Mali.

I leave you the lands you have conquered, and henceforth your children and your children’s children will grow up at the court of Niani where they will be treated like the princes of Mali” (77). After Sundiata has defeated Soumaoro Kante, and has control over the entire empire of Mali, Do, Ghana, Mema, Tabon, Wagadou, Bobo, Fakoli, and Niani put together, Sundiata returns the ultimate favor of all the hospitality he has received during his exile by returning each kingdom over to its respected king and people, while promoting peace and alliances among all the kingdoms.

This is a pure example of complete humbleness from Sundiata. It only seems natural that the best way the hero succeeds in his journey, or epic of life, is through hospitality and the help of others. Even though the hero is represented as having supernatural strength, it is only when the hero shows his weaknesses and humbles himself, will then the path to defeat the supernatural strength of evil unfold.

This is clearly shown in the battle against good versus evil, Sundiata versus Soumaoro. With the support of Sundiata’s army, family, friends, and through hospitality, the one last key gift is provided to the hero: knowledge. Knowledge is power, one of the strongest supernatural powers that always prevails, which the hero, Sundiata, receives after he earns the trust and respect of the very ones that has helped him succeed through their hospitality.

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