– The foundation story of the Mali Empire –

mohamedI must confess something: I have never watched The Lion King! And about three years ago I got more confident in this decision. Because The Lion King has nothing to do with animals, it is all about marketing. It was a strategy based on the following principle: people have more empathy for animals than for dark-skinned people. In other words: Hollywood does not believe that a cast consisting of only black actors could draw enough people to the movie theaters and therefore not produce money. That is the reason why the world was saddled with the animal version of The Lion King.


Last month, I noticed something within the entire Colonial Pete/Piet debate. When people would talk about Africa and people of African descent, there was a clear disdain towards them and their ethnic background. In some cases I would even read or hear people justifying slavery and colonization with comments like “if we had not been there, they would still be living in huts.” How painful this may be to read. This fears me, fear because they obviously do not know their world history. That is why I feel, we as mankind are robbed. It is sometimes said that knowing your history, can lift one up as a human being and reach a certain dignity in their humanity. As a person of African descent, I feel robbed concerning The Lion King. Not only me but also the world and many children of African descent have been robbed.

Because of the fact that our way of thinking, schoolbooks, movies and culture are so one-sided, white people still feel superior to non-white people, whether that is unconsciously or consciously. People think Africa is all the same. And if it had not been for the European and Arab slavery, and later colonialism and imperialism, the African continent would not have been able to make a difference at all. Inherent to these thoughts, there is a certain disregard for anyone originating from an African country.

Since we have been robbed from a multifaceted perceptive or often just simple facts, we are living in a bubble that is causing and sustaining an empathyless attitude. This is why it is extremely important to undo our books, movies and cultural stories from this singular, white coat.

In West Africa there is a centuries-old tradition of Griots. These are human libraries who pass on information from generation to generation by stories and songs about the history of lands, regions and people. Every community has its own Griots.

The real Lion King

untitledThe story of Sundiata Keita starts years before he was even born, his father was Naré Maghann Konaté (also called Maghann the Handsome by his people), a Mandinka [1] King. One day, Maghann was sick of hearing stories about a buffalo killing locals and hunters, so he decided to send his two best Donso [2] to catch the beast. During their mission, the Donso meet an old lady and the two decide to give her some food. They ask her if she has perhaps seen a buffalo. The lady tells them they have been looking for her, as she is the one who killed all the hunters coming her way. After an attempt to escape, the Donso manage to make a deal with her. The lady promises her life, if the Donso are able to make the Mansa (king) marry her daughter. In case the Mansa would marry her daughter, the two would get a son who would become very powerful. However her daughter was perceived an ugly woman who would never get herself a man.

The two Donso go back to Maghann and tell him about this story. Yet he ignores them as he is already married and has a son. A few years later though, Maghann meets this ‘ugly’ woman and he remembers this prophecy so he decides to marry her after all. In 1217, they get a son and name him Sundiata Keita.

From crippled king to lion king

During the first years of his life, Sundiata (lion prince) could not walk, nor talk. His father, Mansa Maghann, started doubting the old lady’s promise that he would get a very powerful son. Within their community both Sundiata and his mother had to endure a lot of harassments.

After the passing of Mansa Maghann, Sosso [3] king Soumaoro Kanté conquers part of Mandinka land. In the meantime, Sundiata and his mother Songolon live in Mema. Sundiata is loved and highly regarded by the Mema king for his character. Sundiata’s willpower and perseverance are highly praised by his companions. But meanwhile the Mandinka are oppressed by Soumaoro Kanté.

As there was a prophecy about Sundiata becoming a great king and the saver of his people, the Mandinka send messengers to look for him. He is found in Mema and after long negociations, Sundiata is finally persuaded to return.

With the support of the king of Mema and numerous small groups of Mandinka, they form an army. It is with this army that Sundiata will eventually defeat Soumaoro Kanté and his forces during the battle of Kirina.

This win made Sundiata the first Mansa of the Mali Empire, which under his reign grew to a collection of small areas around the Ghana Empire.

In the Disney version Sundiata is Simba, Soumaoro Kanté: Scar, Griot Mamadou Kouyaté: Rafiki, Songolon Kedjou: Sarabi and Maghann Konaté: Mufasa.

What now?

What I just did, was tell a centuries-old story the way it is told in Mali from generation to generation. In Mali however, this is often done with songs sung by Griots. Disney made millions (see numbers) out of this story and they still are making money off of it. But Disney did more. They deprived many West Africans of a story that is part of their history and told the rest of the world it is just a fairytale.

Because we are fed such one-sided stories, it is very hard to rightly value the meaning of the origins and richness of precolonial African history. It also makes it extremely difficult to get rid of the deep-rooted beliefs that the African continent was nothing but a collection of huts before Arabs and Europeans ‘civilized’ them.

But how can we avoid these things? Stop telling single or stolen stories out of superiority or a marketing reflex, as this just causes one-sided representation of history and people. Realizing we narrate stories from an eurocentric view, takes nerve. You are probably wondering why it even matters. It could perhaps change our ‘arrogant’ attitude and view towards others and history. However it would mostly learn us how rich the world is when it comes to story-telling and how we could use this a bridge towards one another. In such a diverse world as ours, this is of great importance to create empathy and self esteem. I think that many children with a different background, especially children of African descent, would have been so proud to see Mansa Sundiata Keita as he really was: a black man who freed his people and not a lion named Simba.

Mohamed Barrie is a column writer. His column WeaPen your mind, Open your world appears monthly on Bleri Lleshi’s blog

[1] Mandinka: ethnic group in West Africa

[2] Donso: a brotherhood which focuses on hunting and master botanical medicine.

[3] Sosso: ethnic group in West Africa


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