Sundiata Keita was the first ruler of the Mali Empire from 1235 C.E. to 1255 C.E. Sundiata Keita, whose name means Lion Prince, was born early in the 13th century to a noble family within the Malinke people. The Malinke kingdom, Kangaba, was part of the Ghana empire of West Africa. Oral stories about Keita say that he was a sickly child or suffered from some sort of physical impairment. This explains why, when his brothers were killed by the rulers of Ghana, he was spared. Eventually, he became a local leader of the kingdom of Kangaba.
When the Ghana Empire tried to impose trade restrictions on the Malinke, Keita began a revolt. He managed to unite several peoples of West Africa to fight against Ghana's king, Sumanguru; he defeated Sumanguru at the battle of Kirina in 1235 C.E. After that, Keita’s generals began to conquer other territories in West Africa. He called his new kingdom the Mali Empire, which would become one of the richest empires in the world.
Keita’s victory over Sumanguru marked the beginning of the Mali Empire. Keita decided to rebuild the then-destroyed city of Niani near the Sankarini River as his new capital. This area soon became a hub for African and Arab traders. The Mali Empire grew wealthy due to its control of trade routes as well as its significant gold and copper resources.
The Mali Empire, under Sundiata Keita, created one of the very first charters of human rights, the Manden Charter, also known as the Kouroukan Fouga. This is an oral, rather than written, charter, which has been passed down by generations of Malinke. The Manden Charter speaks about peace within a diverse nation, the abolition of slavery, education, and food security, among other things.
Besides the Manden Charter, there is a large body of oral stories and legends passed down about Sundiata Keita, which occasionally contradict written sources. Whether Keita converted to Islam is a matter of debate among documentary scholars and those who’ve passed down oral legends. Some believe that Arab traders in the area converted Keita to Islam. Certainly, his descendants were Muslim, and many went on pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), and Keita’s most famous descendent, Mansa Musa, dazzled Egypt and the Islamic world on his lavish pilgrimage east. However, the legendary oral tradition that surrounds Keita suggests that he never turned away from his native religion. These oral stories portray Sundiata Keita as a magician and believer in traditional Malinke religion. Some sources suggest that he was both: Muslim to work with the Muslim merchant class, and a practitioner of traditional Malinke religion to work with the rest of his people. Whatever the case, be it devout Malinke observer, a Muslim convert, or a mixture of both to the most effective administrator he could be, Keita’s personal religious convictions remain a mystery.
Keita died in 1255 from an unclear cause, though some believe he was killed in an accident. As founder of the Mali Empire, he is the subject of a large oral storytelling tradition that describes him as a near-legendary figure. The empire he founded became one of the richest in the world, and his descendants included one of the richest individuals to ever live, Mansa Musa. His administration and military work allowed the empire to survive through the 16th century, solidifying him, his empire, and his family into the imaginations of storytellers around the world.