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