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The true story behind "The Lion King"

The true story behind ‘The Lion King’

The Lion King” remains one of the highest-grossing and longest-running shows in history. As of 2017, “The Lion King” musical has grossed more than $8.1 billion.

But what fans don’t know is that the story of “The Lion King” is not just a great story — it’s a true story.

As the movie once again captures the public imagination, it is time to use it as a way to take seriously African history, a topic that is sorely missing from our educational curriculum. A study of precolonial African history would re-center our understanding of the past away from a skewed narrative about the supremacy of European rulers, one that limits our vision of the past and future.




The story of Sundiata Keita is behind “The Lion King.” Known as the Lion of Mali, Sundiata was the founder of the Malian Empire, the largest kingdom in West Africa. He ruled his empire, which expanded from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Niger River, from 1235 to 1255. Some may know of his great-nephew, Mansa Musa, who was the richest person to ever live in the history of the world. According to Forbes, Musa’s fortune was estimated at $400 billion, adjusted for inflation. During his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, he built mosques in his wake and gave away so much gold that the price of gold was devalued for the next 25 years.


But while Musa’s story is better known, the story of Sundiata’s reign is largely invisible in the West, despite the efforts of griots, or African storytellers, who have passed down the tale for generations. It was also corroborated by Tunisian historian Abu Zayd and Moroccan traveler Muhammad ibn Battuta, both of whom traveled to Mali about 100 years after Sundiata’s death to learn of the Lion King’s existence and reign.


While certain aspects of the story vary, the general narrative remains constant. Mandinka griots tell a story of King Naré Maghann Konaté, the real-life Mufasa. It was prophesied that if he took on an ugly wife, she would give birth to a son who would become a mighty and magnificent king. Accordingly, Konaté married Sogolon Kédjou, “the buffalo woman,” as his second wife. She gave birth to Sundiata, but he was born crippled and unable to walk. Though the king favored him, both Sogolon and Sundiata were mercilessly mocked for his disability. One day, Sundiata had enough. He was determined to walk and, miraculously, he did.


Sundiata then became strong and recognized as a leader among his people, sparking resentment from paternal half brother Dankaran Tourman and his mother, Sassouma Bereté. Tourman wanted the throne for himself. When the king died, many suspected foul play. Fearful of an attack on their lives, Sogolon took Sundiata and the rest of her children and fled into exile, leaving a kingdom in disarray. The Mandinka people were taken over by the cruel and oppressive King Soumaoro Kante of the Sosso.

In need of their true leader, the people sent word for Sundiata to return and take his rightful place as the king. In exile, Sundiata built alliances with the king of Mema and other local rulers. He gathered an army to liberate the Mandinka people and overthrow the Sosso king. Upon his victorious return, he adopted a new title for himself, “Mansa,” which means king or emperor in Mandinka.

In some ways, this history makes for a better story than what Disney concocted. It’s a story of a mother who protected her family by fleeing to exile. It’s the story of a disabled man who overcame tremendous physical and political challenges and triumphed by building alliances. It’s about a kingdom in West Africa that eventually became the biggest and richest empire in history, as Sundiata’s reign witnessed dominance in agriculture, gold and trade, and introduced cotton and weaving.

The Lion King” is a powerful story of leadership, loss and redemption. But the real story of Sundiata Keita should make us all want to cross our arms, beat our chests and declare with pride, “Lion King forever!”

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This story and others are brought by KleverSix Click the logo for the Twitter profile

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