Sundiata Keita, Sundjata Keyita, Mari Djata I or just Sundiata (pronounced: soon-jah-tuh) (c. 1217 - c. 1255) was the founder of the Mali Empire and celebrated as a hero of the Malinke people of West Africa in the semi-historical Epic of Sundiata. Sundiata is also known by the name Sogolon Djata. The name Sogolon is taken from his mother, daughter of the buffalo woman (so called because of her ugliness and hunchback), and Jata, meaning "lion." A common Mande naming practice combines the mother's name with the personal name to give Sonjata or Sunjata. The last name Keita is a clan name more than a surname. The story of Sundiata is primarily known through oral tradition, transmitted by generations of traditional Mandinka griots. Sundiata was the son of Nare and Sogolon Conde. Growing up, the Mandinkas were conquered by king Soumaoro Kante of the Ghana Empire. He devoted his life to building an army to overthrow the king and liberating his homeland. When he was older and had a strong army, Sundiata did overthrow the king and became king of the Mali Empire. He understood that if he were to have a kingdom, he would need it to be prosperous as to keep strong. He had crops such as beans and rice, grown and soon introduced cotton. With the crops selling, the Mali Empire became very wealthy. Sundiata supported religion and soon took the titleMansa. After he died, many rulers also took the title mansa, to show their role and authority in society.
The founder of the Mali Empire, Mansa Sundiata Keita is alleged by some to have been a Muslim and by others to have followed Traditional African religions. He was likely to have been a Muslim who followed a highly syncretized version of the faith. His son and successor Mansa Uli I of Mali was an unabashed Muslim. Mansa Musa, who was the most famous Malian ruler due to his famous hajj, came a generation later in the Mali Empire.
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