"Alma Doward, wa, Alma Doward, wa, Alma Doward, wa." Alma, in Spanish, means soul. Wa is a Yoruba word, meaning come. Alma Doward is my grandmother; she was the family matriarch, a woman of unshakeable faith who "passed over" in spirit — yet she is still here, and I summon her often: when I meditate in the morning, when I sense tension in the family, when I need inspiration, when I talk to my boss, when I divine, when I'm wracked with fears, or doubts or when I'm in the process of cooking kallaloo or any of the other Caribbean dishes that bind me to my emotional center, my culture and the invisible abode of the ancestors.


Malcolm and Jakari
 

A photograph of her and my aunt, Anna, is pinned on the wall of my office. I glance at it when weary in spirit and when I need an infusion of hope. And before my presentations at the Fortune 500 company where I've worked for the past 13 years, I arrive at the conference room early, before anybody else, so that I can pour libations to her and my other ancestors. "Iba e, iba e, eni to nu" (I salute you, I salute you, you who can no longer be seen.) The ancestors, says award-winning composer and pianist, Omar Sosa, "always have the last word."

I didn't always have the conviction that our departed ones are still with us. I was raised Roman Catholic and the focus was almost always on sin, the importance of confession and the surety of heaven for those that believed. But several years ago, I became a priest of Ifa, the ancient African religion of the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria, and it is unthinkable in our faith to begin our day or any task without asking for ancestral support and blessings. We are hardly alone in this practice. Ancestor reverence is the thread that binds most (if not all) of the traditions of the African spiritual landscape.

But before I could hear my ancestors with clarity, I had to rely on the faith of others. The late Ifa priest and author, Dr. Afolabi Epega, was one of those sturdy bridges leading to the unseen. "We don't fear death as they do in the West. We believe in the immortality of the soul," he told me one evening, during one of his many visits to Oakland, California. I looked him in the eye as I often do when I want to get a reading of someone's sincerity. He looked right back at me coolly, confidently, and there was no hesitation in his voice. It was clear that he firmly believed this, and it made me think that there might be validity in the existence of the egungun (ancestors). After all, I reasoned to myself, Dr. Epega was nobody's fool — this was a Ph.d with an honors degree in the "hard sciences" — organic chemistry, a man on a crusade to show the link between science and religion.

My belief in the afterlife, however, didn't fully blossom until the spring of 2004 when I met the renown medium Robert Brown at a class on psychic development, sponsored by the Learning Annex in San Francisco. Author of the book, We Are Eternal, Robert Brown is an ordained minister who is often called "the medium's medium." He has "read" for the late Prin-cess Diana and other celebrities, and his services are frequently sought by other famous psy-chics such as James Van Praagh, the author of Talking to Heaven and Heaven and Earth, host of the former television show, The Other Side, whose life-story has inspired yet another popular television show, Ghost Whisperers.

Malcolm and Jakari
 

But what exactly is a medium? "A medium is a psychic who has fine-tuned his or her extrasensory perception and can interface with spirits in other dimensions," says James Van Praagh in Heaven and Earth. "Mediumship involves the ability to manipulate energy — mediums must be able to alter their energy levels to such an extent as to communicate with the higher vibrations of the spirit world. Psychics are not necessarily mediums, but all mediums are psychics," he adds.

One evening, I went to hear James Van Praagh speak and demonstrate his ability to contact the "otherside" for a few lucky people in the audience, and when I returned home, I shared some of the things Van Praagh said at our next family meeting. Spirits are always around us, desperately trying to get our attention in many ways, many instances, I told them. Malcolm, my oldest son, paid close attention. "Why don't you ever take me to events like that?" he asked. So, when I heard Robert Brown was coming to the San Francisco, Bay Area, I made reservations for Malcolm and I to attend.

There were only about 18 people in the three-hour class, and Brown, a short, somewhat pudgy native of London, who believes we can all enhance our psychic abilities with ample practice, led us through several meditation exercises. He also spoke of auras and chakras, the powerful energy centers located in various points of the body (the throat, heart, solar-plexus, the top of the head, the "third eye", the navel and the base of the spine) that mediums routinely harness to access the realm of Spirit.

Brown also led an exercise in psychometry — the art/practice of holding an object and retrieving information, spiritually, about the owner of the object. Malcolm and I participated in all the exercises and finally the moment we all were waiting for arrived when Brown, as promised, did three random "readings" to demonstrate his skill at communicating with the other world. The first soul that came through was that of a young man who had been killed in a motorcycle accident. He wished to reassure his mother in the class that he's still very much alive and still very much the mischief maker that he had been on earth. Speaking through Brown, the young man told his sobbing mother how he even called her cell phone one day, making an odd series of numbers flash on her display panel. The mom remembered seeing the numbers. "That was you?" she asked incredulously. It was, Brown assured her. The young man also spoke of his favorite sports-jacket and other personal belongings that his mother still stores in his bedroom, to keep memories of him fresh and alive. Before departing once again, the young man again reassured his mother of his love for her.

Brown and other mediums say it's not uncommon for spirits to attempt to contact us by manipulating telephones or other appliances such as answering machines, radios and clocks. Gifts, strange dreams, flickering lights, fragrances, and flashes of inspirations can be signs as well. The second soul who made a "guest appearance" during Brown's class was a distraught father who came to apologize to his son. Apologize for what? For not being a good father, for not expressing love while he had the opportunity, for being a chronic gambler. Most of us are gamblers, too, you see. Squandering the present, we borrow heavily from a future that holds no promise. Reluctant to accept or to render love, unable (or unwilling) to forgive or to be forgiven, we cripple ourselves emotionally, physically and spiritually. Is it any wonder, then, why we cannot seem to summon the energy nor the will to move forward with our lives?

By the time the third soul "materialized" there was approximately six minutes left in Mr. Brown's class, and my heart quickened when the master medium said that there was an "older woman" that wanted to talk to the young man in the back of the room. Malcolm was the only young man present. "She's your grandmother who 'passed over' recently," Brown explained. Malcolm and I looked at each other quizzically. Though I've raised Malcolm since birth, I'm not his biological father. Malcolm barely knew his biological father and never met this biological grandmother. Could there be some mistake? But as Brown provided more details, it became instantly clear who the old woman was — my grandmother, Alma Doward, whom Malcolm did, in fact, know as a child.

Brown accurately described Alma Doward as the mother of "seven children" who loved children. My grandmother, you see, not only raised her own children, but many foster child-ren as well, and as Brown conversed with her from the unseen, there was another child playing at her side, he said. Who this spirit child was I do not know, but it didn't surprise me. Grandma, it seems, can't live without an entourage of children or pet cats. When I would take Malcolm and Tulani, my daughter, to visit her as children, she would play games with them. "Tie me up, tie me up," she would tell them, frantically, laughing as they wrestled her to the couch.

But Grandma wasn't laughing now. "You were born walking straight but then you started walking crooked. But those days are behind you now," she told Malcolm, through Mr. Brown, who also enacted her words by first walking straight, before veering to the left at a 90 degree angle. Malcolm and I knew what she was talking about — it was a reference to all the trouble he had managed to get into in the last few years (car theft for which he spent months in Juvenile Hall for, suspension and expulsion from school, multiple arrests for stealing, defiance and disobedience at home). During this rocky period, my grandmother had been by his side, she said, and in some cases, had prevented him from getting in more trouble.

She also made reference to his job as a package handler for UPS, which he dislikes. Another job will come along that will be more fulfilling, she said. And there were other things she referenced that only Malcolm could know and verify — a pain in his back, a light bulb that he had removed from a parked car in the garage. "I have more faith in you than you have in yourself," she told Malcolm, adding that she loved him, and that she will always be there for him.

My grandmother didn't say anything to me in Brown's reading. But then again, she didn't have to. By addressing Malcolm, my grandmother, in a sense, also spoke to me as well. What was the message to me? That we are, indeed, eternal, that faith is important, that without love we are nothing, that change is possible, that the events of our lives are not random, that we must listen intently for the messages from the unseen, and then we must take the courageous step of applying them to our day-to-day lives — even if we feel uncomfortable or foolish while doing so.

Since grandma's visit, Malcolm has changed and matured a great deal, and these days, he seems to be much more at peace with himself. The other job that would be more "fulfilling" finally arrived, two years after she predicted. He still works at U.P.S but he also has a part-time job with the City of Oakland doing precisely what he loves: taking care of wildlife (birds and snakes) and educating people about nature. Every summer, he teaches kids how to make bows and arrows, herbal medicine, how to hunt, make fires and how to survive in the wilderness.

Malcolm's also the father of a 11/2 year old boy, Jakari. Despite his ups and downs and other challenges of parenting, he's proven that he's a dedicated father, and this makes me extremely happy because most men, in my opinion, don't have close relationships with their children. A cycle that has devastated so many families has been broken.

I never had an opportunity to thank Robert Brown for delivering my grandmother's message. As soon as the class was over, we had to dash out because my daughter was awaiting transportation from another event. Perhaps Mr. Brown knows this, but I feel indebted to him. We may never know the full impact of our words, our songs and our stories, yet somehow we must find a way to release them to the world. "Most people are born blind and few ever learn to see," says Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road. Fate, I hope, will allow me to meet Robert Brown once again. But in the meantime, the elders in Africa who can see my destiny with greater clarity than I can see my own hands, insist I must prepare for the day when I, too, will channel the energies and the messages of spirits. And I must become for others what Robert Brown became for me — a sturdy bridge to the other world. At home, a candle flickers on my altar most of the time to remind me of this pact — I will never break it, and I will never walk alone.

James Weeks is an award winning photographer based in Oakland. He is the author of an upcoming book on African spirituality.

 

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