Of Water and the Spirit—Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman: Malidoma Patrice Somé

“The story I am going to tell comes from a place deep inside of myself, a place that perceives all that I have irremediably lost and, perhaps, what gain there is behind the loss. If people forget their past as a way to survive, other people remember it for the same reason. When cultures with contradictory versions of reality collide, children are often the casualties of that contact.”

These are the memoirs of Malidoma Patrice Somé, who was born in the early 1950s in a village in Burkina Faso when it was still a French colony called Upper Volta. The book covers the pre- and post-independence period, and he writes about the damage done by colonialism and the missionaries, and the clash between traditions and the teachings of the West.

His name, Malidoma, can be roughly translated as “be friends with the stranger/enemy”. His tribe, the Dagara, believe that people come into this life with a special destiny and some names reflect this destiny. Somé’s destiny was to act as a bridge between the West and his people.

Somé grew up with the stories his mother told him and the teachings of his grandfather. The relationship between Dagara grandsons and grandfathers is close, with very young boys spending more time during their first years with their grandfathers rather than their parents. This is because the “grandfather will soon return to where the grandson came from”. The closeness between Somé and his grandfather helps the boy through his most difficult times, when he turns to the the old man’s wisdom to guide him.

His grandfather was able to talk to spirits, something he passed on to Somé, who had his first encounter with spirits as a child. This happened throughout his life, especially after he returned to the village, and Somé describes these occurrences with as matter-of-factly as he does the happenings in the physical world.

Somé’s father had come under the influence of the French priest who lived nearby, who had persuaded him to give up the old ways and adopt Christianity. But when the father’s first family fell sick and died, the father felt it was because he refused the protective rituals that were part of the old way. He made sure that, when he married Somé’s mother, he carried out the traditional rituals. But he didn’t give up Christianity entirely and promised the priest his son. After the grandfather died, the priest walked into their compound and took the four-year-old boy to the Christian mission. The boy was not to see his parents or anyone from his village for 15 years.

Somé’s years with the priests, first in the mission and then a seminary, were not easy. The boys were taught a culture and religion not their own. They had to accept unconditionally what they were taught and any questioning was rewarded with a severe beating. Somé makes an interesting observation:

“Religious colonialism tortures the soul. It creates an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and general suspicion. The worst thing is that it uses the local people to enforce itself. Our teachers were Black, from the tribe, yet they were our worst enemies. The question I often asked myself in later years, when I thought about how Black nationals are leading our country, is whether a person schooled in an atmosphere of such abuse can actually lead with compassion, justice, and wisdom.”

Burkina Faso became independent in 1960, when Somé was still in the seminary. Emboldened by the freedom of their country from the colonial power, some of the students banded together in small rebellions. Then one day Somé lost his temper with a bullying teacher and threw him out of the window. The teacher wasn’t badly hurt, but Somé knew he could not stay in the seminary.

He walked back to his village, which took him days. He was greeted with a certain amount of reservation: his years of living with Western ways meant that he didn’t fit into the village anymore. The only way to resolve this was to undergo a long initiation rite that could be dangerous. Not all the boys survived the rites. But he did.

This mix of two cultures made him, as he says, “a man of two worlds, trying to be at home in both of them”. And this helped him fulfil his destiny of being a bridge between the two cultures.

This is an unusual book, combining in a memoir, two worlds: the real and supernatural, the traditional and modern. Somé can be scathing about how the West has lost its way, leading to the ills of the soul, while acknowledging its ability to analyse and work with facts.  He wants to bring some of the wisdom of the old to the new, and some of the knowledge of the new to the old.

I will end with a passage that resonated with me, as I am sure it will with many readers:

“Alienation is one of the many faces of modernity. The cure is communication and community—a new sense of togetherness. By opening to each other, we diminish the pressure of being alone and exiled. I have told my story here with the wish that it will be of help to those who pick it up with a sense of hope, searching for answers of their own.”

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