A few years ago, at his tribal elders’ direction, Malidoma Some gave up a comfortable professorial position teaching African culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to travel the U.S. teaching African initiation and rituals in a more grassroots manner. The 39-year-old native of the Dagara tribe in the small West African nation of Burkina Faso quickly became a favorite of such men’s work leaders as Robert Bly and Michael Meade. More recently, Malidoma has led or contributed to workshops for both sexes and mixed races, often in the company of his wife Sobonfu.
For the elders in his village, Malidoma’s life in the West was preordained. As Malidoma relates in his recent book “Of Water and the Spirit,” he was taken from his tribe at the age of 4 by Jesuit missionaries, who intended to make him a priest. At 20, he rebelled and went back to his village. But he could not speak his native tongue, was hardly recognized by his family, and was regarded with considerable suspicion by the villagers. After much discussion by village elders and undergoing his tribal initiation, Malidoma, whose name means “be friends with the stranger/enemy,” was told that he would fulfill his destiny by living his life in the West as a teacher of African ways and wisdom. “The village will be reborn,” the elders predicted, “in the heart and soul of the culture that is destroying the village.” Under their spiritual guidance, Malidoma pursued a Western education, first at the politically volatile university in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, then at the Sorbonne in France and at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. He holds doctorates in both political science and literature.
Malidoma now lives in Oakland, Calif. In his workshops, he teaches that it is unthinkable to separate daily life from ritual contact with the unseen world of spirit, or to pursue political change without ongoing spiritual development. Africa’s inherent wisdom of marrying daily life to a spiritual worldview, Malidoma suggests, may prove key to healing our own cultural catastrophes.
Q: What do you think is the West’s proper role in Africa now?
A: To help diminish the tension in Africa, the West is going to have to understand one thing: the importance of native spirituality in the life of Africans. Historically the customs and traditions of day-to-day life in Africa have been dismissed by Western cultural anthropologists as primitive, chaotic, pagan activities that should be replaced by Christianity, the only civilized religion. The West has also long assumed that it should convert tribal cultures to literacy, which is to say an entirely different way of looking at the world, of living in the world. Most Africans who have achieved a comfortable Western lifestyle are Christian. Why? Because it comes with the package: Christian-ity, literacy, and a material lifestyle all come together.
Q: And that’s really Christianity’s selling point, rather than its spiritual perspective?
A: Yes, it’s a marketing strategy. In Africa, you cannot come into a comfortable material lifestyle without going through Christ. So many Africans say, “I’ll take the whole package. That way I’m sure I’ll get what I want.” This is the compromise the rising urban class of Africa makes. Christianity is not seen as a soul-transforming device capable of producing redemption, but as a source of substantial material gratification.
Those who convert will show up for Sunday Mass as usual, looking devout, but on weekdays they will see the shaman, do their sacrifices and usual rituals.
Q: What is the native assessment of Christianity as a spiritual perspective, apart from its capacity to deliver the goods?
A: If you discuss the beliefs of Christianity with the village diviner, the medicine man, he will say the white man must be extremely stupid. The white man must be profoundly troubled–probably torn by a huge guilt connected to how he treated the ancestors–to think that villagers would buy the idea that someone died on the cross for us. They would say these beliefs are evidence that the white people killed someone of great importance, probably a diviner and a healer. If you kill a healer, you must make amends by appeasing the healer’s spirit.
Q: You’re saying that Christ’s death was not properly grieved and ritualized, but even so, as a culture, we should have gone on, instead of fixating on guilt over this particular healer’s death.
A: That’s right. There’s a problem in Christianity that the white man is still running away from. It could have been fixed by facing facts and saying, “What should we do?” The healers and diviners in the white man’s culture would have known what that man’s spirit wanted.
Q: In the West we hear that the ongoing political turmoil in Africa is mostly caused by “ancient tribal rivalries,” with occasional mention of the disruptive legacy of colonialism. How do you see it?
A: It’s true that tribal rivalries have something to do with political instability. It’s also true that those rivalries were exaggerated by colonialism. Colonialism essentially insulted the tribal territories, and as a result, nations came to be composed of an agglomeration of many tribes–65 in Burkina Faso alone. The Mossi majority sees itself as the owner of my country; others are just negotiators for representation. That is the way it is now, and it is the sole responsibility of colonialism. The other tribes, realizing they cannot compete through normal political channels, resort to spiritual channels. They figure out ways to get their members into important government positions.
Q: Isn’t that use of spiritual techniques a corruption of them?
A: It is a corruption fostered by the change of times and the neocolonial situation, but you might call it a legitimate corruption. The initiative is self-preservation, because otherwise the minority tribes would find themselves crushed. Their only resort is to throw themselves into their ancestors’ hands, with a plea to help preserve their tribes’ traditions.
Spiritual methods are essential in Africa if you are going to survive politically. My cousin is the chief security officer for the president of Burkina Faso. He knows the key medicine man who works day and night to keep the president in power. These medicine men don’t have offices downtown; they live in huts in remote areas, but that is where the real political power resides. A medicine man has no clue about the actual workings of domestic or international politics. All he knows is that a person has a seat of importance somewhere, and his job is to keep that person on that seat.
Q: Historically, the West has perceived African spiritual traditions as “primitive animism” or “nature worship.” But you have explained that it is not nature itself that Africans worship, but the spirit seen to be moving behind it.
A: Nature is like a canvas, a painting of countless options and possibilities. It is the total of all the interwoven connections between these possibilities that makes up spirit. Or, you might say that spirit paints the canvas of nature. You don’t really worship spirit, because you are also spirit, and spirits don’t worship one another. What makes you different from spirit overall is that you are locked into temporality. You have a body, like a piece of cloth that is decayable. While you stay in it, it’s hard for you to have the same abilities that spirit has without a body. It is also easy to make mistakes about what is real, and how to go about things effectively. For example, let’s say that you want a particular job. In the West, you do the linear thing and apply to the person in charge. In Africa they say that if you want a job, go demand it, then let the job come and get you.
Q: Demand the job from whom?
A: From where it is–from the spirit. The African would go and see the shaman first, because the spirit gives you the job, not the employer–he’s just a human being, that is, a spirit who doesn’t even know he’s a spirit. So you must ask spirit, who actually sees where the job is, and will bring the job to you.
Q: Your identification as a shaman has put you on America’s spiritual freelancer circuit, both in the men’s movement and new age venues. Yet you are critical of new age spirituality. Why?
A: There’s no sustained, demonstrable validity attached to the beliefs that some of these people hold onto. It’s just some kind of vague, rather shallow, and sometimes really silly aspiration for something grand, all-encompassing. I see too many people who jump into spirituality as a shelter to hide from reality. It doesn’t work that way. The way it works is for the spirit behind you to follow you wherever you go, like a loyal soldier, and show you how to face up to adversity. If you can’t face adversity, you will get locked into a new age perception that everything is fine when it isn’t. That makes you vulnerable to being exploited by the person who comes along and says, “I am a psychic. I have studied with this guy or that guy, and I know what you should do.”
Q: What venues seem to be a better place to learn real spiritual development?
A: The best places are multicultural conferences. You have the opportunity to go through racial tensions and cultural differences; you can acknowledge that we don’t trust each other. The next logical step might be a fight, yet, by not fighting and staying with the tension, working through it together, you come to a place where that feeling can be transcended. Unless there has been sweat–people sweating to get through the countless things that keeps them apart–they are probably lying when they say we are all one.
If you believe that just by coming together to the same place you are already awakened, forget it. Because you are living in a culture with a very heavy history behind it, and you are all stained by it. You have to start by looking into that history, realizing where you are as a culture with respect to it. The choice is to do the hard work to transcend your history–or to just pretend that everything is fine in the way of naive spirituality.
D. Patrick Miller, a senior writer for Yoga Journal, is the author of “A Little Book of Forgiveness” (Viking).