Sundiata Keita

Sundiata Keita, the “Lion King of Africa” and founder of the Mali Empire, was born in West Africa around 1217. He ruled the Mali Empire from 1235-1255 and helped to make it the dominant power of the West African Region.

Born a prince of the Malinke tribe, Sundiata would go on to overthrow the rule of the Sosso Kingdom and the Ghana Empire, as well as to conquer many other neighboring kingdoms to expand his territory. His reign made his empire the largest (and richest) ever seen in West Africa.

Kente cloth patterns
Despite his importance, much of Sundiata’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most of what we know about him comes from stories which were passed from generation to generation throughout the centuries, and it’s hard to separate the facts from the exaggerated parts. However, historians are certain that he did really exist, and was not a mythical figure.

As a child, Sundiata had extremely poor health, and couldn’t even walk – he didn’t learn how until he was 7 years old. Because of this, he was made fun of by friends, neighbors and even his family. The King of the Mali, King Maghan, loved Sundiata, and tried his best to protect him; however, the King’s first wife (Sassouma, who was not Sundiata’s mother) did not like this.

Sassouma wanted her own son to be king someday, and not the cripple Sundiata. When King Maghan died, Sassouma’s son became king and treated Sundiata very cruelly.

This treatment forced Sundiata to grow stronger. He learned to walk and began to exercise every day to make himself stronger. He’d lived under Sosso rule from the time he’d been born, and he was determined to someday free his country from the Sosso Kingdom’s rule. In his early teenage years, Sundiata fled his people and entered the wilderness.

There, he learned how to fight, and became feared as a warrior and hunter. He was a very good fighter, much better than most of the boys who’d made fun of him growing up.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region
After a few years of living in this exile, Sundiata decided to return to his home. The people of the Mali kingdom were fed up with how they were being treated by the Sosso – executions were common, and the taxes were very expensive – and agreed to fight with Sundiata against their rule.

Over time, Sundiata and his Mali army managed to win ground back from the Sosso, in a series of battles that grew larger over time. In the final battle of this war, Sundiata met the Sosso King on the battlefield and killed him with a poisoned arrow.

After defeating the Sosso Armies at the “Battle of Kirina,” Sundiata took control of the Sosso Kingdom. From there, he reigned peacefully over his new Mali Empire and went on to seize control of the Ghana Empire.

The city of Niani was the capital of his Mali Empire. He ruled the Mali Empire for 20 years from the city of Niani. Over time, Niani became the trade capital of West Africa; it was in an excellent location for the gold trade, which allowed for Sundiata to collect a large amount of money quickly.

He further helped to develop the trade by winning over the Muslim merchants. He won the merchants over by becoming an official follower of Islam, but managed to keep the respect of the non-Muslims by performing the normal religious expectations of an African king.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region
After a reign of peace, Sundiata died in 1255. The stories are unclear about how he died; in one story, he died by drowning in a local river. In another, he was mistakenly shot with an arrow at a party. The legacy of the Mali Empire persisted long after his death, and the Empire stayed strong for several hundred years.

Facts about Sundiata Keita:

  • Sundiata Keita was called the “Lion King of Africa.”
  • He was the founder of the Mali Empire.
  • He was born in 1217 AD.
  • Sundiata Keita was born as a prince of the Malinke tribe.
  • As a child, Sundiata was sick and weak; he didn’t learn to walk until he was seven years old.
  • As he grew up, Sundiata became an excellent warrior and lived in the wild for several years to train as a hunter.
  • When he became an adult, Sundiata fought to reclaim the Mali lands from the Kingdom of Sosso. When he won control back, he established the Mali Empire.
  • The capital city of the Mali Empire was called Niani.
  • Sundiata reigned for 20 years of peace until finally dying in 1255.


When was Sundiata Keita born?

– 1217 AD.

What tribe was he born to be a prince to?

– The Malinke Tribe.

What was the name of the empire Sundiata set up as an adult?

– The Mali Empire.

At what age did Sundiata learn to walk?

– Seven.
What was the name of the Mali Empire’s capital city?

– Niani.