Meditations on Mali

To show I’m not a johnny-one-note constantly harping on mysterious Mesoamerica, or even two-notes ranting about my gay memoirs, I’ll announce that my attention has been drawn elsewhere, specifically to West Africa, by a small book I’m now reading, “Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali” by D. T. Niane. Three-quarters of the way through it, I’m greatly impressed learning ethnographic details of kingdoms (and empires!) long ago on the great river Niger’s northern curve through today’s (New) Mali.

I was first struck by the fact that the Malinke (Mandingo) society of Old Mali had hereditary castes, largely defined by profession such as farmers, leather-workers, potters, fishermen… Most striking was to read that the most powerful caste was that of blacksmiths, who professed secret knowledge of metal-working, and then to discover in the narrative that entire armies were composed of smiths—who probably forged their own weapons, combining their trades.

This pre-eminence of blacksmiths really snagged my attention because I’d just before heard an NPR program about new insights into Afro-American history, particularly about American society’s reliance on the skills, crafts, and arts of the enslaved. It focused on the popular art of brewing brought over from their West African heritage, but it also mentioned that enslaved blacksmiths were the backbone of the South’s metallurgical industry.

I’d bet that there were a great many free black smiths in the North as well. When you get right down to it, everywhere in the world in fact smiths—black, white or otherwise—were a crucially important profession, making the weapons societies depended on to wage their eternal conflicts, aggressions, and defenses. Note that the ages of man are named for the metals they smithed, and just think about how many people are named Smith. Q.E.D.

Something else strikes me about this epic of conquest set in Old Mali. Apart from the intriguing ethnography, this story could be set almost anywhere in the world at any time in history. All the rationales and methods used in the Malinke conflicts, aggressions, and defenses might just as well be those used by the Shang to drive the Xia dynasty out of China’s Yellow River valley in the second millennium BPE. In coincidental fact, this epic of the conqueror Sundiata (ruled 1235-55), belongs to the same present-era 13th century as good old Genghis Khan.

The Malinke naturally knew nothing of that contemporary incomparable conqueror, casting Sundiata as the greatest conqueror the world had ever seen. Curiously, they put that claim up even against the legend of Alexander the Great—who actually only made it as far west as the Siwah oasis to consult the oracle of Ammon 1500 years before. Doubtless, that legend had been brought into West Africa by Muslim merchants in recent centuries, along with whom Islam infiltrated the native animistic populations.

Consider also that the Malinke had no concept of distances or urban kingdoms anything like those conquered by Alexander and Genghis. With still 30 (small print) pages to go, I have no doubt that, as required for epics, Sundiata will complete his local conquest with great glory. Who really gives a hoot who’s the greatest? Winning is what matters to conquerors.

However, in this ancient oral epic some of the cultural opinions expressed by the traditional singer (griot) named Mamoudou Kouyaté really rubbed me the wrong way, in particular: “Modesty is the portion of the average man, but superior men are ignorant of humility.” I beg your parsnips. That’s not how I understand modesty and humility at all, and besides, an arrogant man who thinks he’s superior is about as ugly as it gets. I doubt I’d have liked Sundiata much personally, though I’m modestly sure I could have taught him some proper humility in bed.

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