Balladeer’s Blog resumes its blog posts about neglected mythological epics from around the world. This particular epic comes from the Bambara people of the Kingdom of Segu in what is now Mali.
THE BAKARIDJAN KONE EPIC – Djeli, the poet-historians of the Bambara people for over 300 years, would often recite, chant and sing this epic myth while playing their stringed instruments called ngoni.
A. The future father of Bakaridjan Kone is a noble-born farmer in Disoro Nko. He grows tired of his agrarian lifestyle and his wives. (“Segu City’s where he’d rather be/ He gets allergic smelling hay” Had to be said.) Hearing that Da Monzon, the great ruler of the Kingdom of Segu, knows how to create gold, the disenchanted farmer goes to Segu City and becomes part of the court of Da Monzon, only to learn the gold story is not true.
B. Kumba, one of the errant farmer’s wives, gives birth to a boy. His deadbeat dad refuses to be present for the naming ceremony but hints around to Da Monzon that maybe he should provide him with a gift to celebrate the birth. Da Monzon is disgusted with the man for abandoning his wives and not being present for said naming ceremony.
Instead, the king sends cowries to the wives so they can perform a proper ceremony, at which he wants the baby to be named Bakaridjan Kone. As the provider of the boy’s name, Da Monzon has made himself the child’s adopted father.
C. Years go by, and, royal politics being what they are no matter the culture or time period, Da Monzon begins to worry that he may get killed and/or overthrown before any of his sons are old enough to take over as king. His morike (oracle or diviner) tells him that no full-grown man poses a threat, but there is a boy-child who would one day be able to seize the throne. The morike advises Da Monzon to find a boy who is tough enough to not cry out when his foot is pierced by the king’s spear. THAT is the boy who might overthrow the king.
D. To make the piercing of a child’s foot with a spear look like an accident, the morike suggests that Da Monzon have the boy(s) being tested hold his horse while he mounts it. The king will then pretend to unintentionally stab the boy’s foot with his spear to see if they cry out in pain. Not even trusting his own sons, Da Monzon starts with them, enacting the same lame bit of deception each time, but when they all cry out, he summons all the boys of a certain age to Segu City for the same sham. (Fool them once, shame on Da Monzon, fool them 7,746 times, shame on THEM!)
E. Eventually it is time for the farm-boy Bakaridjan to be suckered along by holding the king’s horse for him. He does not cry out when Da Monzon stabs him through the foot, and the king knows he’s found his potential rival. He keeps Bakaridjan in Segu City so he can keep a close eye on him. Da Monzon confides in his oldest son Da Toma why he has such an interest in Bakaridjan, so that son volunteers to kill our hero.
Bakaridjan survives three attempts to kill him and ultimately stabs Da Toma to death in self-defense. Da Monzon cannot have Bakaridjan executed since he was simply defending himself, so he exiles him back to Disoro Nko.
F. Bakaridjan has several adventures back in his home village and his praises as a child-hero are sung all over the Kingdom of Segu. One day the enemy Fulani people launch a raid of the kingdom and, among other things, steal all of the Segu cattle and take them back to Massina. Da Monzon announces that none of the young men eligible for circumcision and the rites of manhood will be permitted the ceremonies until the stolen livestock are returned.
Da Monzon’s adult troops fail to accomplish this and return to the kingdom reeling from their defeat. Bakaridjan steals a horse, a spear and a gun from the king (this epic dates to the 1600s) and – all alone – manages to defeat the Fulani and bring back all of the cattle.
G. Our hero becomes so celebrated that Da Monzon has no choice but to let him be circumcised and put through the rites of manhood with the other boys who are of age. After a few more years, Bakaridjan rises in the ranks of the kingdom’s army and conquers many outside villages for Da Monzon, delivering the severed heads of their defeated chiefs for his still-suspicious king. Our hero is hailed as “The Shield of Segu” and is given plenty of slaves and wealth.
H. Bilissi, an outcast water-djinn, takes up residence in Segu City so that he can steal and eat portions of the Feast of Warriors after each sacrifice. (Bakaridjan is so successful in leading Da Monzon’s armies that they hold Feasts of Warriors pretty damn often.) After a time, our hero grows annoyed with the djinn and challenges him to combat. Bakaridjan’s fighting prowess (and the use of magic charms) ultimately overcomes Bilissi, but with his dying act of magic the djinn causes half of Bakaridjan’s body to become paralyzed. In some versions he is instead struck down with a disease.
I. Da Monzon starts to breathe easily, assuming this affliction may end the threat posed to his throne by Bakaridjan, but the people long for the hero to be healed. When Bakaridjan’s son Simbalon begs Da Monzon to help the stricken Bakaridjan, he reluctantly agrees. He summons 80 practitioners of the mystic arts to Segu City, and working together, they manage to cure the hero within 40 days.
*** ABBREVIATED VERSIONS OF THIS EPIC END HERE. OTHER VERSIONS HAVE AN INTERMISSION AND MOVE ON TO PART TWO ***
J. More time passes, and during another conflict with the Fulani, Bakaridjan and two other Segu heroes – Madiniko and Bamana – have affairs with a beautiful Fulani woman named Aminata. The woman cannot decide which of the three suitors she likes the best, so a contest is arranged at the suggestion of one of the djelis. Aminata will be wed to whichever of the three can steal the gun of the legendary hunter Dosoke Zan, who has been granted supernatural levels of strength by assorted djinns.
The trio ride to confront Dosoke Zan, who defeats Madiniko and Bamana, causing Bakaridjan to lose his nerve and flee. In some versions Bamana defeats Dosoke Zan and wins Aminata. Either way, our hero is disgraced.
K. Harassed by ridicule over his loss of courage and his subsequent fall from public favor, Bakaridjan withdraws and becomes a recluse. The court of Da Monzon becomes incredibly dull without the dynamic hero around, so a djeli goes to Bakaridjan and challenges him to steal some of the notoriously fat cattle from the city of Samaniana. A nobleman like our hero may not refuse any challenge from a djeli, so Bakaridjan sets out on his mission.
The king of Samaniana gets word that the disgraced former hero is coming to steal his city’s cattle so he has all livestock rounded up and herded inside the city walls. Bakaridjan is not able to penetrate Samaniana’s walls and retreats. He has one of his slaves sneak into the city after a time and spread the story that Bakaridjan has been killed. The king opens the gates and has the cattle taken back into the countryside. Our hero steals an entire herd and takes it back to Segu City, along the way slaying several warriors sent to recover the livestock. In some versions he commits all of these acts when Segu is already in open warfare against Samaniana.
L. This feat earns back his hero status for Bakaridjan, who parties hard and lets it all go to his head. He starts shooting off his mouth that he is greater than Da Monzon himself and the king decides to use treachery to kill off this threat to his crown once and for all. He will invite Bakaridjan to a feast in his honor, and while the hero celebrates with him, Da Monzon’s warriors will fill up all six rooms between the banquet hall and the door to the palace. Against such overwhelming odds, the bloated Bakaridjan will surely fall when he tries to depart the palace after the meal.
Da Monzon confides in his favorite wife about his plan. That wife confides the plot to one of her slaves and gossip among the many slaves in Segu City at last reaches the ear of a slave of our hero’s son Simbalon. In a huff, Simbalon confronts Da Monzon and, before his entire court publicly exposes the assassination plot. The shamed king confesses that he has allowed his fear to rule over his reason for years and vows to never again try to kill Bakaridjan.
Epilogue: Bakaridjan Kone proclaims that “A father who has a son like Simbalon is most fortunate.” Da Monzon, reflecting on his wife letting slip his plot against our hero, coins the famous Bambara saying “Do not relate a matter of importance to a woman. Her stomach is not a secret treasure box.”
And so, they lived on happily … except their slaves, of course.
FOR MORE NEGLECTED EPIC MYTHS CLICK HERE.