Ambassador of the Ancestors
Malidoma Somé shares a mystical journey inspired by his African ancestors
for Common Ground Fall 1996
by Virginia Lee
CG: Your name, Malidoma, means “to befriend the stranger and the enemy,” a destiny which was given to you at birth. Would you tell the story of how you discovered your purpose in life and how you have fulfilled your destiny ?
MS: One’s purpose in life, from a tribal perspective, is not really “discovered” by the individual as modern language seems to indicate. Instead, in the Dagara tribe where I come from, one’s individual purpose is something that is already set prior to birth. And it is the task of the living to discover the purpose of an incoming soul before it is born, rather than figuring it out later on. The understanding is that any person who is being born is coming here from the world of the ancestors. There, the individual in spirit form plans a trip to the human world which is motivated by a task. It’s like filing a petition to an office to ask for a grant: Once it is approved, you are on your way.
During the time when the mother is pregnant, there are a number of rituals that are done by the tribal elders to communicate with the incoming soul and find out what its purpose is. The elders, who are in essence living between the two worlds, ask the mother a series of questions while she is in a trance. It’s sometimes funny to listen to her voice become thinner and the thinner, reflecting the long distance the soul is traveling on its way to earth.
CG: Does everyone have a destined purpose?
MS: From the Dagara point of view, it is impossible to exist in the human world without a purpose. Life is rough enough with a purpose; it’s hard to imagine a life without one.
CG: Is this similar to the Hindu belief of reincarnation?
MS: It just is what it is. In the Dagara tribe, we don’t have a word for “reincarnation.” We just have a word for traveling from one place to another. It’s not a linear kind of travel that requires a vehicle; it’s travel beyond the time and space, from the realm of the ancestors back to earth.
CG: Do we have anything like this in Western culture?
MS: Western culture tries to compensate with tools like career counseling. But even people who have a plan about how they are going to live their lives and what career they’re going to have must be supported by some powerful spiritual lineage. There needs to be a sense of cosmic purpose. It’s true that Westerners do seem to spend a lot of time figuring out who they are and why they’re here. And the search often becomes an end unto itself.
CG: What does Western civilization have to learn from African ways and what does Africa have to gain from the West? How can that relationship be healed from the ravages of colonization?
MS: You’ve first got to look at the two cultures as two sides of the same coin. Each side needs the other in order to be itself. The modern world is over-inflated with materialism, whereas Africa has suffered greatly from colonial imperialism. One of their major challenges is day-to-day survival, due to famine and ecological imbalance. In my village, I once heard a starving man say, “My hunger can be traced to someone who has overeaten somewhere.”
People in the Dagara tribe understand the balance of nature and they cannot see themselves as separate from the rest of the world. What they experience is the result of the opposite happening somewhere else. Consequently, the problem with the West is that it is too self-individualized, too narrow-minded. Whereas, the indigenous world is too open-minded. What the Dagara tribe can give to the West is this open-mindedness, a rich spiritual tradition that can help Western people accelerate this process of discovering their life purpose. In return, Africans can benefit from the West’s overflow of materialism, until it can at least match its spiritual riches.
CG: In your book, Of Water and the Spirit, you mention how your tribe was shocked that homelessness exists in the U.S.
MS: Yes, it is amazing. And it says a lot about the importance of community in African culture. People from my tribe automatically assume that a culture so materially rich would be in perfect harmony as a community: They think that everyone is taken care of. They say, “The white man’s magic must be working for him.”
So when they hear about something like homelessness, they have to adjust their perception of the West. They have to edit their idealism. Up until now, they have believed that in order to have such magnificent cities Westerners must have mastered the concept of community, that Americans must have even greater tribal skills and values than Africans. So, when they learned that at the heart of these cities there were people without homes, it shattered the illusion. I didn’t even dare mention violence and drugs.
CG: You talk a lot about the role of the ancestors in life. Would you explain why it is so vital and what you mean about “healing the ancestors”?
MS: We began this conversation by defining one’s life purpose as a journey from the world of the ancestors. Needless to say, the link between our world and the other world is very tight. And to not pay attention to that truth is to set oneself up for a lot of problems. That’s what I have noticed in my personal experience. People who only look to the future and never look back soon learn that the past keeps catching up with them in all kinds of ways.
When I talk about healing the ancestors, what I am referring to is a level of relationship. Pay attention to the fact that the ancestors do exist, even if they are out of our sight. They are still present energetically, spiritually and otherwise. To not acknowledge them, to not even say a word to them is a form of denial, because we are them.
So, the first step in the healing process is the recognition that they are there. And that they do take human form to come back here. This is what immortality really is. The human body is like the clothes that we put on. And when they wear out, we dispose of them. That’s what we call old age and death. Then we come back with a brand-new outfit. The problem is that clothes can be so sophisticated that some people think that’s all there is.
CG: Why do you think our indigenous American Indian culture was destroyed?
MS: I wonder why, because I don’t think that progress necessarily has to entail severing ties with the past. In many ways, it was the same kind colonization that Africa experienced at the hands of the Europeans. At the pure core of indigenous life, there isn’t much difference between one indigenous people and another.
CG: In terms of our evolution as a species, do you think we can ever recover this?
MS: We are bound to. If you look at Earth as a home, it is inevitable. Just as civilizations die and are reborn, there comes a time when our disconnection from the past is so bad that it forces us to change things, whether we like it or not.
CG: The Aborigines of Australia proclaim to be a race that is 50,000 years old, the oldest surviving race on the planet, yet they are on the verge of cultural extinction. Do you think that the entire earth is on the verge of irreversible self-destruction?
MS: No. What we call extinction is actually a self-reprocessing. Somehow indigenous culture as we know it is bound to shift into a new modality. Out of necessity, it has to face up to the sweeping effect of modernity. When I see people from the Western culture embracing indigenous ways, it is one of the ways to heal the negativity of the modern world. An indigenous person can no longer exist in a pure state, but it is possible to be in a modern body with an Aborigine soul. Then you will be able to change the world as it is.
Unfortunately, this loss of indigenous culture is a tragic thing. It defines modern life as a systematic loss of knowing who we really are. And I wonder how much this sacrifice is really worth. Environmentally, we are reaching the critical mass, but that does not mean we have reached an apocalyptic moment.
CG: In the West, there are many prophecies about the Apocalypse, the Aquarian Age, whatever you want to call it. Are there any prophecies in African culture that parallel this?
MS: Yes, there are, but such things are not dwelt upon as radically as they are here. I know of some elders who claim that big chunks of the Earth are going to be claimed by water, and that earth that belongs to nobody is going to come out of nowhere. They also say that there is coming a radical moment of forced awakening. But all this does not mean human extinction. Rather, it means human transformation.
CG: Since you were virtually kidnapped by missionaries at the age of four, how have you synthesized the Christian tradition with the African one?
MS: Basically I’ve looked at it from the point of view of cosmology. Every culture sustains itself with some system of cosmology to satisfy the human need to associate with the divine, as well as having a supernatural framework to function within. The Bible, like the oral tradition we have in our tribe, is a set of Creation stories.
But there is a significant difference in that Christian cosmology is characterized as dogmatic, patriarchal and somewhat limiting, whereas, the cosmology of the Dagara people leads to a spiritual practice which does not need dogma to support it. It leaves people alone to attempt to fulfill their life purpose with the help of their community.
CG: Having experienced both ways, what would you say is the difference between a matirachal and a patriarchal society?
MS: It is the difference between community and a lack thereof. The matriarchal path is essentially grounded in family. The individual is given collective attention, which is the essence of how a tribal community maintains itself. In a matriarchal society, there is no need for childcare, since the children belong to the whole community. Every home is their home.
The difficulty for Western communities is that they are having trouble escaping the patriarchal system, which is based on competition and domination. Instead of nurturing, it isolates the individual in order to maintain control. It has very little feeling for another. Rather, it is more interested in consuming and dominating. But even the most patriarchal pundits are longing for some nurturing. They are trying to compensate with power. Ironically, the more powerful they get, the hungrier they become.
CG: Is it possible to have a society that integrates the two?
MS: In many ways, that is the goal of modern life.
CG: Would you talk about the role of magic and the supernatural in your life?
MS: Spiritual life is the Dagara tribe is grounded in the magical. Everything that happens in everyday life is measured by the yardstick of magic. Every kind of phenomenon is seen from the perspective of magic, or lack thereof. To the Dagara, it’s not “magic,” it’s just a natural part of life. But it can only happen under a certain set of circumstances.
Magic is what provides excitement in life. Here, people get excited by going shopping or going to the movies. There, people get excited by associating with the supernatural. To tell you the truth, it is extremely exhilarating to find yourself facing up to the other world while still in your logical consciousness. Magic allows other alternatives to be examined. It is inclusive rather than exclusive. And it releases you from a reality where two plus two always equals four. Once you accept the magical dimension of life, it shows itself in a very friendly way.
CG: Do you have to believe in magic in order for it to work?
MS: If you define magic as an energy unto itself and you regard belief in the same way, then it is energy plus energy that creates reality. It is your conditioning that allows magic to exist. Once you immerse yourself in a certain vibrational context, it stays imprinted in your psyche for life.
CG: Can a skeptical person experience magic?
MS: I’ll tell you a little story. Once a skeptical person visited my Dagara village because he had heard about some of the magical things that happen there. He set out to prove that it was all mumbo jumbo. But when he came face-to-face with magic, he screamed aloud that it was not real and not possible — all while he was running away. Skepticism is like concrete in front of a raging river.
CG: What is a kontomblé? Is there anything like it in Western culture?
MS: In Western stories, I have heard them referred to as leprechauns. When you see them, they have a reddish glow. They are friendly, but most people are afraid of their power. My sister has about seven of them around her. I guess they are like guardian angels.
The kontomblé can do all kinds of fantastic things that challenge human understanding and fill an individual’s life with beauty. That’s their purpose. They are the ones that make the magic happen and teach people how to enjoy this dimension of life.
CG: How can Westerners use magic in a society that is dominated by Christian tradition and the scientific method?
MS: Ironically, the mythology of Christianity has been able to fulfill the craving of the human psyche for the magical. But magic has been made into something evil. Because modernity is so heavily founded upon Christianity, it is at a loss as to how to incorporate a magical dynamic.
What must take place is a severe editing of Christian dogma in order to make space for open-mindedness. I would also suggest a little more flexibility to leave the door open for alternative energies to come in. But it will be hard to get groups like the Christian fundamentalists to agree to this. The Devil is what keeps them in business.
CG: Is there anything like the Devil in African religion?
MS: No, unfortunately. There’s just positive and negative energy and all negative energy is all self-manufactured. So, people have to take responsibility for their negative energy. For example, the kontomblé only look evil if you exude negative energy, because they are simply mirroring it back to you. If you are scared, they look ugly.
CG: In African culture, does magic have anything to do with witchcraft? Why does Western society fear it so much?
MS: There is nothing terrifying about witchcraft. In fact, it reflects a deeper understanding of the fabric of nature. But because these people were in touch with something that was so powerful, they could not be controlled — which is why they were persecuted. They were a threat to the establishment that Christianity was the sole proprietor of. This was the real reason for all the negative propaganda about witchcraft.
Other than that, witchcraft is the most sophisticated and scientific aspect of spirituality. Witches understand how one energy plus another energy can produce a third one, how a plant can be used as an ally in healing, and how one world can crack open up as a result of an energy dynamic in the other. In the Dagara tribe, people aren’t bothered much by witches, because people understand where they’re coming from.
CG: How would be define the word “shaman”?
MS: That’s interesting because I only encountered the word “shaman” in the West. The way I understand it, the shaman is an intermediary between this world and the other world, like a priest. This person is in touch with all kinds of beings and all planes of consciousness.
CG: If you were to return to your tribe in Burkina Faso, is that what you would do?
CG: Will you return to the Dagara tribe in your later years?
MS: That is my hope. It is hard to go into a deep, energetic meditation while trapped in the Western world. I have most of my visions when I go back to Africa. The context lends itself to this kind of insight.
In the U.S. I have found this kind of vibration in the high desert of the American Southwest and in the Rockies. New Mexico and Arizona are a bastion of spiritual power.
CG: Do you think the American Indians will ever recover their indigenous spiritual power?
MS: It will be a slow process. They have been hit so hard.
CG: Why do you think Western society is so obsessed with drugs?
MS: Behind that obsession is a deep longing for spiritual experience. When the right model or context doesn’t exist in society, the psyche tries to access it by other means. The problem is that people who do drugs end up with pretty wrecked bodies. It is a failed attempt at spiritual fulfillment. It’s a catastrophe. Until people are provided with a geuine magical and spiritual experience, drugs will continue to be an issue.
CG: In African culture, you have an initiation ritual that prepares you for life. Yet Americans lack this rite of passage into adulthood. Why is initiation so important and what can American teenagers do to have this kind of experience?
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been widely published in magazines ever since. She is a regular interviewer for Common Ground, and has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and more recently Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993. She currently works as a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, CA.