we go forward we'll die, and if we go backward we'll die. So
let's go forward and die," says Dr. Malidoma Some, during
a three-day spirituality workshop for men at his home in Chico,
CA. It's an African proverb, he explains, and for some of us
in the small group, it stirs emotions, ignites debates, then
vanishes, only to return again and again like a wounded spirit.
I first interviewed Malidoma Some approximately 10 years ago, after the release of his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation. Join us.
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of the men, like Matt, an illustrator of childrens' books, seem
to interpret the proverb as a battle cry, an invitation to death
and tears often well up in his eyes when the proverb shows up
unannounced, like the house guest we hoped was gone for good.
It troubles him, and he makes no attempt to hide it. He suggests,
at one point, that perhaps the proverb should have a different
ending. How after all, can one find solace in going forth to
Terry, on the other hand, a close friend from Guyana whom I've
known for more than 20 years, is very much at peace with the
proverb and so am I. But we both like it for different reasons.
A network engineer whose ultimate goal is to be a medicine man,
Terry seasons most his conversation with the theme of honesty
of being brutally honest with ourselves and others. He
has no qualms about death, as long as the final hour meets him
fighting for that which he believes in.
for me, I don't interpret the proverb literally. It's not a
resignation to death, I argue, sometimes convincingly; it's
an invitation to live fuller lives, to pursue the whispers that
beckon us from the unseen, to entertain the possibility that
we might be healed and that despite the tremendous odds, we
might become that which we are destined to become.
But Matt is still wary of the proverb, it seems. I suspect the
proverb has struck at a vulnerable moment in his life, but I
keep this thought to myself. Malidoma doesn't say much either.
Every now and again, he interjects a comment or two, but mostly
he gives us free reign, and that's precisely what I like about
the "Beam, the Basket and the Bow" it's no spiritual
boot camp. Because we're at his home, we can afford to be less
formal. No one is told when to rise nor when to be present for
the morning session. For breakfast, there's coffee and eggs
and bacon. Dinner is served with red or white wine (praise the
ancestors), and at dawn or during breaks in the program, the
bitter-sweet aroma of cigars greets and comforts me as I join
the conversation on the porch.
"On the Hunt." Ekiti, Nigeria, West Africa. Photo by James Weeks
Despite the cozy atmosphere, however, we are all here to work
and synergy develops. Using soil, fabric, grains, twigs, sacred
objects, photos and other materials, we all contribute to the
construction of a shrine in Malidoma's spacious living room;
we participate in rituals and ceremonies we don't always fully
understand, and we share stories from the heart. This experience
reminds me that rigid control and corporate-inspired time management
are not always necessary. Some matters, as Malidoma rightfully
insists, ought to be left in the hands of the ancestors. I'm
glad to be in presence of this extraordinary teacher once again,
and I'm proud and impressed that he reserves the right to be
himself. We should all be so lucky and courageous.
author of the classic on Dagara spirituality, Of Water and
Spirit, and the books The Healing Wisdom of Africa and
Ritual, Malidoma Patrice Some has played a major role in
the surging interest of Westerners in the rich and complex,
sacred traditions of Africa. "It is possible that we have
been brought together at this time because we have profound
truths to teach each other," says Malidoma on his website
. "Toward that end, I offer the wisdom of the African
ancestors so that Westerners might find the deep healing they
even in a society such as ours, adept in the art of concealing
truth, who is foolish enough to advance the argument that healing
isn't needed? In Oakland, California where I've lived for the
past 16 years, death is no stranger in the killings fields we
call home. The toll is heaviest in the African-American and
Hispanic communities. Funerals for youth have become part of
contemporary urban culture, and at the time of this writing
(October 2006), there have been more than 20 homicides in a
scant two month period. Oakland officials say the number of
killings thus far this year is almost triple the rate of 2005.
I tell my oldest son, Malcolm, 21, to be careful at night (and
during the day). I sometimes worry about, Diallo, my 13-year-old
son as well. He's a good kid, studious and mild-mannered --but
good behavior and grades cannot shield a moving target. And
so dawn has found us in search of ourselves and in search of
Taye Elutilo, during one of our walks in the botanical
garden. Ile Ife Nigeria. Photo by James Weeks.
on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, across the huge
economic and racial divide that characterizes so much of our
nation, Marin county psychologist and author, Madeline Levine,
writes eloquently of a very different hell engulfing the mostly
white, affluent communities. "America's newly identified
at-risk group is pre-teens and teens from affluent, well-educated
families," says Levine in her book, The Price of Privilege.
"In spite of their economic and social advantages, they
experience among the highest rates of depression, substance
abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints and unhappiness
of any group of children in this country. These new findings
should in no way minimize concern about those children traditionally
considered to be at risk. Rather it should open our eyes to
the fact that money, education, power, prestige, and material
goods offer no protection against unhappiness or emotional illness,"
And finally, in the July 2006 issue of Time magazine, an article
by author Robert Putman entitled "You Gotta Have Friends"
argues that "Americans are more socially isolated than
we were barely two decades ago. The latest evidence of that
comes from a topflight team of sociologists who, after comparing
national surveys in 1985 and 2004, report a one-third drop in
the number of people with whom the average American can discuss
the author of Bowling Alone says the recent study is
an "important milestone." Furthermore, "social
isolation has many well-documented side effects. Kids fail to
thrive. Crime rises. Politics coarsens. Generosity shrivels.
Death comes sooner (social isolation is as big a risk factor
for premature death as smoking). Well-connected people live
longer, happier lives, even if they have to forgo a new Lexus
to spend time with friends. Reaching out to a neighbor or connecting
with a long-lost pal even having a picnic or two, could
just save your life," says Putman.
I haven't discussed these disturbing trends with Malidoma. But
then again, I don't have to. This shaman from Burkina Faso,
West Africa knows the barren landscape of the American psyche
and soul better than most. His first decade in this country
was spent doing healing work, seeing up to four clients or so
a day, he once told me, then he would "drag" himself
home, exhausted from the immense outlay of energy that his craft
requires. And this was before he became somewhat of a celebrity.
While walking to a friends house for lunch one afternoon, I spent
a few moments tracking this goat in the bushes. Ile Ife Nigeria.
Photo by James Weeks
country's obsession with consumerism is "hiding something
terrible," he insists. "There's no value in this
it's all stuff. There's a huge imbalance between matter and
spirit. Money doesn't buy spirit; it's not available as a commodity.
The thirst and the hunger that these people feel are linked
to the realization that material accumulation is not adequate
to fill them up inside," he said. "From an indigenous
perspective, the individual psyche can be healed only by addressing
one's relationships with the visible world of nature and community
and one's relationship with the invisible forces of the ancestors
and Spirit allies."
And one of our allies in the other world, says Malidoma, is
our siura, a "human represent-tative" or guardian
angel. One of the rituals at the workshop involves "feeding"
our siura. "Your Siura is behind you," writes
Malidoma, "trying to work with you as closely as pos-sible
to keep you on the path of your purpose, speaking to you through
your inspiration, your dreams, and your instincts. An offering
to your Siura now and then at an ancestor altar or any altar
is appropriate, a token of appreciation for the diligence and
leadership they have shown toward your purpose."
Unlike the Western mind which views ritual as superstition,
the indigenous mind insists ritual is mandatory for our emotional,
spiritual and physical well-being. To ignore a "prescription"
for ritual is to openly beg for trouble. And trouble, when invited,
dutifully comes. "Any problem you have has its origin in
the spirit world," says Malidoma. "Any problem whether
it's social, political or economic is due to some spiritual
misalignment. If you fix it there, everything will get repaired
here. You see, we sometimes take the issue from the wrong end,
and that's why it takes so long to fix."
When I first interviewed Malidoma in Oakland some 10 years or
so ago, he was busy on the lecture/workshop circuit, and I wondered
how he coped with the pressures of a society in constant emotional
turmoil. By then he had come to the realization that he couldn't
keep pace with the demand. Who can? The phone rang constantly,
an average of 48 calls a day, requiring an elaborate switchboard
system to screen them; stacks and stacks of mail piled up (an
average of 110 pieces a day); some people, anxious to see him
and unable or unwilling to wait, would drop by his house unannounced,
politicians hounded him for photo opportunities; publishers
had demands of their own, and some well-meaning folks wanted
him to be a "guru" a notion and a title that
he vehemently rejects. "I'm just a tiny, little person,"
he told me. "All I can do is just plant the seed as much
as I can and eventually other people will come after me, take
over, and improve."
On my return flight
from West Africa, I
photographed thissunrise shortly after
arriving at the airport in Amsterdam.
Photo by James Weeks
retrospect, considering Malidoma's crazy schedule back then,
I was fortunate that he granted me 45 minutes for an interview.
He was tired, he said, and leery of accepting invitations, even
for a Thanksgiving dinner. His fear was understandable. More
than likely, instead of being allowed to dine in peace, his
hosts or other guests would probably interrupt him and put him
to "work" to elaborate on this topic or that,
or to come to the immediate assistance of this one or that one.
"Visibility," he warned me, "means vulnerability
as well as imprisonment." His goal during the Thanksgiving
holiday, he said, was to stay home and cook his own meal. "Even
though people would tell me, 'Malidoma, rest,' actually they
mean, take care of me first, and after you take care of me,
rest. They don't realize that after them, somebody else comes
and says the same thing. And it goes on and on and on. The more
people hear about me, the less capable I am to respond to their
needs, mostly because of time. People don't want to hear that
I have problems. They want me to be the person that has the
answers to all issues. The person who will fix this person,
fix that person, fix this issue, fix that issue. Please. Give
me a break. I'm only human."
Indeed, give the brother a break. So much has transpired since
our first conversation and since I first read Of Water and
Spirit. I sift through the book every now and again when
I wish to be reminded of the power and relevance of our rich,
but endangered spiritual heritage. The message is still relevant,
still stark, still haunting and still prophetic. "There
is no doubt that, at this time in history, Western civilization
is suffering from a great sickness of the soul. The West's progressive
turning away from functioning spiritual values; its total disregard
for the environment and the protection of natural resources;
the violence of inner cities with their problems of poverty,
drugs, and crime; spiraling unemployment and economic disarray;
and growing intolerance toward people of color and the values
of other cultures all of these trends, if unchecked,
will eventually bring about a terrible self-destruction. In
the face of all this global chaos, the only possible hope is
self-transformation," writes Malidoma.
Born in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in 1956, Malidoma
was one of several thousand African children who were captured/kidnapped/stolen
by French missionaries only to be brutally indoctrinated into
Christianity and the ways of the white world. He was only four
at the time, and fortunately for him and for us, he escaped
at the age of 20 and made the harrowing journey back to his
tribe, the Dagara a people "well known throughout
West Africa for beliefs and practices that outsiders find both
fascinating and frightening," he says in The Healing
Wisdom of Africa. "The Dagara connection with beings
from the Spirit World has resulted in the accumulation of firsthand
knowledge of subjects regarded in the West as paranormal, magical,
or spiritual. Dagara science in this sense, is the investigation
of the Spirit World more than the world of matter. What in the
West might be regarded as fiction, among the Dagara is believed
as fact, for we have seen it with our eyes, heard it with our
ears, or felt it with our own hands."
But his return home, after years in exile, was bitter-sweet.
He no longer spoke Dagara; it had been forbidden in captivity,
and he had to relearn it. (The banning of one's language is
always one of the first steps for cultural domination and control.
Sadly, it's a practice that's still in vogue today.) Malidoma
also had to be re-integrated back into his family, his culture
and the sacred/spiritual traditions that now serve as the bridge
between our worlds. The recipient of three master's degrees
and two doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University,
Malidoma says his name, roughly translated, means "Be friends
with the stranger/enemy." "As my name implies, I am
here in the West to tell the world about my people in any way
I can, and to take back to my people the knowledge I gain about
this world. My elders are convinced that the West is as endangered
as the indigenous cultures it has decimated in the name of colonialism."
I find it ironic that Africa is extending a hand to the West.
News reports only paint one picture of Africa that of a troubled
continent in dire need of pity and lots of foreign aid. Africa
does need aid but the birthplace of humanity also has a lot
to offer it always has. I'm not interested in Africa's spiritual
wealth because it's good to be intellectually curious or because
it's the legacy of my forebears. Though raised Roman Catholic,
I have come to depend on African spiritual traditions in recent
years because I am convinced my life would be a theater of unimaginable
suffering without them. Thousands of miles away, master diviners
often monitor the physical and emotional health of my family
in Oakland and the Caribbean with far greater accuracy than
I can. Not only have diviners provided insight into my life
and the office politics at the Fortune 500 company that I've
worked at for more than 13 years, they've also helped me retain
my job on more than one occasion.
But while ancient traditions and practices are budding on foreign
soil, they're constantly belittled, demonized and attacked by
Christian and Muslim fundamentalists "back home."
recent trip to Nigeria, for example, I browsed the "religious"
section of the bookstore at the Obafemi Awolowo University in
the state of Ile Ife, but found no books about any other religion
or spiritual practice besides Christianity. This angers me.
One would hope there would be intellectual diversity at the
university level. But what I see and feel here is nothing more
than religious colonialism and it's hardly an isolated phenomenon.
"There isn't a single holiday to celebrate any traditional
event in Africa. Not one," says scholar Wande Abimbola
in the book, Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World. "They
have holidays to celebrate many Muslim and Christian events,
but not one day is left for traditional people."
I must confess that I'm not as familiar with Dagara spiritual
practices as I would like to be, but Malidoma's story sustains
and inspires me as I explore another African tradition. I'm
studying to be an Ifa priest. Ifa is a religion and philosophy
that first germinated and blossomed among the Yoruba of Southwest,
Nigeria, West Africa. "It's an ancient legacy worthy of
the most profound reflection," says Dr. Maulana Karenga,
the creator of Kwaanza, the popular African-American cultural
celebration. But I resist calling myself a priest I find
the term limiting it sets up too many expectations in
the minds of others. So why am I pursuing this? Because diviners
insist this is the path I chose before I came to this earth.
Deep down inside I must admit that it sounds familiar. Both
the Yoruba and the Dagara believe that our sojourn here isn't
an accident. Skilled diviners know our mission before we emerge
from the womb. They can also access details of our future at
any given point in time; our names often reflect our destiny.
"To ba ya" (soon/in time), I will be known for doing
spiritual work, elders say, "ko si ani, ani tabi sugbon
kosi" (there are no ifs, ands or buts). I find this hard
to believe. But elders don't care whether you believe them or
not. In fact, what you believe is irrelevant what really
matters are the stories within the stories that are streaming
(and sometimes screaming) in from the unseen. If you can't see
the future and if you don't believe in the vastness of your
own potential, well, as far as the elders are concerned, that's
Among other things, I like the emphasis on patience. "If
you can't follow ants, you can't follow Ifa," we say. I
am also learning not to depend too heavily on my physical senses.
Our eyes seldom reveal the whole story; they're useful for balancing
checkbooks and for crossing busy intersections, perhaps. As
for our ears? Forget it they habitually deceive us. We tend
to question or reject messages that emanate from Spirit because
such truths flatly contradict most of what we see, hear and
think. I feel empowered, emboldened by my studies. And yes,
I also feel intellectually challenged and culturally enriched.
Despite the hardened hearts and deflated spirits brought on
by the vexing challenges and injustices of our times, I maintain
that life still holds beauty, mystery magic, and yes, even love
and that as much as we clamor for light, we also need night
and the cover of darkness to grow. I firmly believe we must
fight hard to keep our connections with family and friends healthy
and alive, for when this lifeline withers, so will we.
is in schools that we find the egbele fish in the ocean. It
is in groups we encounter the dragon fly. And the adosusu leaf
is never found alone," we say in Ifa. "Dews pouring
lightly, pouring lightly were used to create the world. And
likewise was done to create the earth. So that the goodness
of togetherness would come forth at once. Indeed all goodness
took the form of gathering together in harmony."
Indeed, Malidoma Some has been an able guide. "The spark
of this ancestral flame, which I have brought to the land of
the stranger, is now burning brightly," he says on his
website. "Increasingly, I have been and will be encouraging
westerners to embody the traditions as a testimony to the indigenous
capacity to assert itself with dignity in the face of modernity.
In this way the ancestors will know that this medicine has found
a true home that it is more than an honored guest."
I must admit I like the sound of this. It's rather lofty, I
think. The spiritual traditions of the motherland, long denigrated,
misunderstood and abused, elevated at last beyond the position
of "honored guest?" I can hardly wait. But what Malidoma
is asking us to do isn't easy. There's no quick way to understand
the spiritual realities of another culture, but there are swift
ways to misunderstand them. A workshop might whet the appetite,
but grasping insights and essential truths takes years, and
in some cases, decades.
And what about that unruly proverb about moving forward "to
die." Well, not only do proverbs assume lives of their
own, they outlive us, outsmart us and outrun us. Terry and I
talked about the proverb while driving home from the workshop
and for weeks afterward. And it immediately popped into mind
when I began writing this article. I can't get rid of it.
But what's a proverb anyway? Depends who you ask. The Yoruba
of Southwest Nigeria say "proverbs are the horses of words.
And words are the horses of proverbs. If we become lost,"
they say, "proverbs will show us the way." James Weeks
is an award-winning photographer based in Oakland California.
He is the author of an upcoming book on African Spirituality.