Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples

By Keim, Curtis A. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples


Keim, Curtis A., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples. Translated with Introduction and Notes by David C. Conrad; narrated by Djanka Tassey Condé. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004. Pp. xlviii, 206; 1 map. $34.95 cloth; $9.95 paper.

For decades, D. T. Niane's prose version of the Sunjata epic has remained a standard text in courses on the history, literature, and ethnography of West Africa. It has occupied this place not so much because of its faithfulness to the epic, but because it was the most readable and affordable way to introduce students to one of the world's greatest oral narratives. But the work is deeply flawed. Indeed, David Conrad, who dedicates his new translation to Niane, calls Niane's text "a novelette" rather than an epic (p. xx) Until now, there was nothing available for those wishing to present or even read the epic in an inexpensive, accessible translation that was faithful to both the form and content of the Manding heartland traditions.

The narrator, Djanka Tassey Condé, is ajeli, or bard, often known in the West as a griot. Conrad calls Condé, who died in 1997, "the last of the great Condé bards of Fadama" (p. ix). In six days in 1994, Condé recorded over 16,000 lines, more than 5,000 of which appear in this book. Conrad provides a poetic translation that reads easily, includes most major themes and episodes, and carries well the narrative sense of the epic. While Conrad apologizes for not presenting the whole epic with scholarly annotations, something he will publish in the future, this version is exactly right for most college courses.

Conrad's introduction, map, notes on names, and discussion of issues in translation place the epic in context. He affirms that while the epic may not be strictly historical, the Mande believe it to be so and this validates it as a charter for right living in today's society. …

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