"Man, under the influence of certain illusions, thinks he can alter the course which the Universe has mapped out, but everything he does falls into a higher order which he barely understands."
A Mandinka griot—the spiritual medium and cornerstone of Mali culture—provides this advice to the rivals of Sunjata, a legendary boy-cripple who rises to rule a vast kingdom in 13th century west Africa. Sunjata uses “mother centered” power to confront established patriarchies, a challenge like modern day democracy’s geopolitical struggle with autocracy.
According to The Economist feature concerning democracy’s retreat only 12 countries had democratic government in 1941. By 2000, only eight of roughly 200 countries had never held a serious election. However, 2017 marked the 12th straight year that the world became less democratic, led by further shifts toward autocracy in China, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and the United States, among others. Eighty-seven countries became less democratic in 2017, while 27 became more democratic. In short, the world is regressing to pre-WW2, uber-patriarchy, and balking the upsurge of “mother centered” democracy.
The Mali epic, Sunjata, defines a clear struggle between “mother orientation” (badenya) and “father orientation” (fadenya). It is common in Mandinka society for a man to have children from multiple wives. Fadenya is the hierarchical competition for status between children with the same father but a different mother; badenya is the tight, communal spirit of children with the same biological mother. Fadenya is a bloodthirsty battle for material wealth and power, a male orientation, while badenya focuses the spiritual power of kin, community, cooperation, respect, and ritual interconnection—a female alignment.
Badenya first appears in the epic of Sunjata with a seer who informs the king that his marriage to an ugly woman who arrives with two hunters will produce the empire’s greatest ruler. The king respects the diviner’s power over the material embarrassment of an unattractive wife, and the prophecy is fulfilled. Sunjata is born, but cannot walk, which fuels further ridicule from the king’s other wives, their sons, and much of the community. Further omens—a broken pot, a fowl’s egg, thatched grass, and paper sinking before stone—all foretell of Sunjata’s greatness, even as he crawls along the ground in the village, approaching the end of boyhood.
Sunjata’s faith in spirits remains strong. “However extensive my father’ property may be, I want no part of it except the griots,” he asserts. Whereas the villagers, conditioned to fadenya, snicker “a person who has nothing will not have griots for long.” The king is an ancestor of smiths who forged iron into guns and bullets and then went to war, the basest expression of fadenya. Yet the diviners declare, “Whoever swallowed the single seed of the baobab fruit would rule the Mandinka for sixty years.” Sunjata eats that seed.
Prior to the circumcision ceremony, Sunjata begins to apply his badenya power toward the fadenya world. Spurned by insult against his mother, Sunjata grabs two heavy iron rods and rises to his feet. He begins to walk and grows stronger every day. Out of fear of losing power, Sunjata’s rivals construct every obstacle to his growing force, attempt to kill him, and eventually exile Sunjata and his mother’s family.
Out in the West African world, Sunjata grows more powerful, building alliances and consolidating kingdoms. When Sunjata’s mother dies, the King of Neema refuses request for her burial and instead demands a payment. The king prioritizes the material (fadenya) over the spiritual (badenya), which leads directly to Sunjata’s overthrow of Neema. Sunjata eventually unifies the surrounding lands, and returns home to claim his birthright.
Once again, badenya is instrumental for Sunjata to defeat his final rival, Soumoaro. The seemingly invincible Soumoaro exposes his weaknesses when Sunjata’s sister infiltrates the rival’s domain. She pretends to fall in love, yet warns, “You shall not know me as a wife unless you tell me what will kill you.” Ego and lust overwhelm Soumoaro, leading to his death. Victorious Sunjata unifies the Mandinka and surrounding tribes, one of the great empires of history, and governs for the better part of the 13th Century. He defeats patriarchy and rules via the spirit-power of badenya.
Sunjata is an antecedent to the modern day socio-political conflict between fadenya and badenya, between autocracy and democracy. Has the era of “mother centeredness” arrived? Are Xi, Putin, Erdoğan, Maduro, and Trump desperate final attempts to uphold a dysfunctional patriarchy in the face of environmental and social collapse? Contemporary Mandinka griots lament, “If you call a great man, no great man answers your call.”
Maybe it is time to engage a woman and the power of badenya?
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over sixteen years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.