The Qur'an and the Epic of Sunjata

Speaking History: What the Sunjata Reveals About the Importance of Teaching Oral Tradition

In a culture that places great emphasis on the study of recorded history and written texts, it can be easy to overlook oral storytelling and the lessons it can provide. Throughout the oral epic poem the Sunjata, otherwise undocumented aspects of Malian history and culture are recorded making it a fitting example of what is lost when we ignore oral tradition.

Performance of the Sunjata which includes a singer, xylophone player, and narrator.

This epic is traditionally performed by griots and describes the founding of the Mali Empire in the 13th century as well as the life and coming to power of its first king Sunjata Keita. The story contains lessons about Malian history and culture that are not otherwise recorded and live on even today through the traditions and practices of Malian people. Since it originally exists as a spoken story, it has been transcribed to written formats from a translation of a performance which gives readers a glimpse into what the story looks like and allows them to appreciate the historical narrative.

Because of its history as a spoken story, transcribed versions of the Sunjata may fail to encapsulate the full performance of the epic and the nuances inherent to oral tradition. This striking characteristic of oral storytelling allows for more rapid changes to be made to the narrative and for multiple versions to exist concurrently. This can pose challenges to readers by adding additional layers of complexity to the story that often do not exist in written works. In the case of the Sunjata, there are two separate stories told by griots Bamba Suso and Bamba Kanute, each emphasizing different aspects of the narrative. Bamba Suso primarily highlights human relationships and politics in his telling while Bamba Kanute focuses on divinity and the supernatural.

What Makes This Oral Tradition So Important?

Throughout West Africa’s history, oral tradition has been the primary method of preserving and teaching history. Stories are passed down from generation to generation and tell tales originating hundreds of years ago. However, this oral tradition has been largely ignored by many because of a focus on written history and Europe’s influence on that written history during colonialism. By telling stories like the Sunjata, people of West Africa are able to reclaim their history and provide a more complete understanding of it.

Oral Tradition Around the World

Family gathered for a Passover Seder, an example of oral tradition and storytelling.

Beyond the Sunjata, the study of oral tradition can provide deeper insights into the cultures of many societies than can written texts alone. Around the world, cultures rely heavily on storytelling and oral tradition that can serve the purpose of educating and preserving history for future generations, teaching values and traditions, and maintaining a native language, among others. Even those with written texts within their culture practice forms of oral storytelling, as is seen in Judaism with the Passover Seder which tells the story of Exodus over the course of a meal. The widespread use of oral storytelling throughout the world, both in cultures with and without written texts, emphasizes the importance of teaching these stories alongside written works in order to fully capture the history and culture of a given society.

Implications on Core Revision

Ongoing discussions of the revision of the Core curriculum continually mention the focus on western culture that the Colgate courses and Core 151 often have, and for good reason. While many of the required works stand as notable and enduring pieces of literature, they exclusively represent western-centric narratives and ideas.

Willow’s commentary within her essay on Core 151’s current emphasis on western works particularly resonated because of its strong stance on revising the course to include more diverse works. In her discussion of the course’s purpose and whether it fulfills it, she pointedly notes that the lack of diversity within Core 151’s required texts calls into question whether the course can claim to be foundational for the exploration of “perennial issues” of truth, justice, humanity, and divinity. She argues that if the course only examines these themes from a western perspective, they most likely will not encompass or reflect a wide enough range of perspectives.

To successfully diversify the texts taught within Core 151 and achieve the goal of acting as foundational, the teaching of certain oral traditions such as the Sunjata are essential in allowing stories from other societies and cultures to be incorporated into the Core curriculum. In doing so, more diverse aspects of history and culture within the narratives can be explored alongside the timeless human issues they describe, a central aim and focus of Core 151. If we continue to ignore oral tradition within the required texts, we are casting aside richly-told stories and insights into parts of history that may otherwise be largely undocumented or misrepresented, and costing Core 151 the opportunity to diversify in a meaningful way.

Caroline Elarde


Hi, I am a sophomore from Palo Alto, California with an intended major in Biology and minor in Psychological Science. Here at Colgate I am also a member of the cross country and track & field team.