The Sun Interview July 2010 | issue 415

Between Two Worlds

Malidoma Some On Rites Of Passage

by Leslee Goodman

Malidoma Somé was born in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, and his name was given to him by his village’s elders before birth. Malidoma means “one who makes friends with the stranger/enemy.” He encouraged us to grapple head-on with the paradoxes of life, an approach he summarized in the African proverb: “If we go forward, we die; if we go backward, we die. So let’s go forward and die.”

Goodman: On the first page of your autobiography you write, “My elders are convinced that the West is as endangered as the indigenous cultures it has decimated.” They sent you from your village into the “white wilderness” in part to help save us. In what way is the West endangered?

Somé: I learned from my grandfather that any person who sets out to hurt someone is actually more in need of attention than the person who is being hurt. So although the West was decimating my culture, the elders of my village recognized that the only way to address the issue was to understand the pain that was ailing the West. The desire to hurt someone or something comes from a kind of alienation from self and from nature and can often be attributed to the lack of initiation.

In Africa I have seen entire families and households destroyed by colonialism, and it starts with a forced turning away from the traditions of the ancestors and an embracing of a new culture in the name of “progress” or “development.” The West has been very successful at destroying a society that was once fine.

Goodman: If it’s any consolation, we did it to ourselves first. The West turned away from its own indigenous traditions.

Somé: That’s true. But the West’s problem is no longer the problem of a single culture; it is now a world issue. Left alone, the indigenous cultures that have been destroyed will not necessarily remember how to go back to their roots. I have colleagues who are fully Dagara, yet they have no clue how to perform an initiation. They live in those islands of civilization called “mission house” or “government administration” and know nothing of who they are. Most of them speak Dagara very poorly.

Goodman: So how can people get back to their roots?

Somé: It will have to start with the rediscovery of the rituals that were once the connecting rods between the living and the dead, between humans and the earth. It will require fine-tuning the ear to hear the subtle vibrations once more, enabling us to recognize when the sacred is around in order to show it greater respect. It will require a remembering of the practices that once kept the village and the tribe together. The only hope is that there are a few people who have held on to the traditions. It is these few — who have been pushed aside as having nothing to contribute — who might become teachers to those who are willing to journey back into the past in the interest of healing the future.

Goodman: You say your initiation into village life gave you your identity. In the West we have gone generations without consciously initiating our young. What role should initiation serve in a functioning society, and what are we missing without it?

Somé: Initiation means a rite of passage from one stage of life to another. The absence of formal initiation in the West is why young people create their own informal initiations, such as engaging in reckless and dangerous behavior. Maybe drug addicts and alcoholics are trying to break into a different state of reality, as happens in a true initiation. The problem is their initiations never end.

In a functioning society initiation raises awareness of life’s purpose and is not just oriented toward getting a job and making a living. We each need to have a personal mission that contributes to the well-being of the world. Finding one’s purpose is the primary goal of initiation. It also teaches responsibility toward community, village, and culture. The indigenous formula says that we all come into this world with a gift that we must give to the world. We must undergo initiation to discover what our gift is and how to share it.

Goodman: In a Western school system, we educate children to become employable adults, not to fulfill their own destiny.

Somé: Both approaches, indigenous and Western, focus on gift and purpose, but the indigenous also aims to maintain the person’s identity. Traditional initiation protects the integrity of the individual in order to maximize the chance of that individual’s gift coming out. Modern society heavily emphasizes survival and material success. As a result, Western education fails to take into account the core human being.

People in the West have forgotten — or never learned — how to perform an initiation that serves individual identity as well as purpose and gift. Once upon a time the West was indigenous. What happened to that path and those teachings? Was the Western indigenous path so bad that it had to be destroyed and replaced by Newtonian perception? How could it be that a path that served for so many thousands of years is now irrelevant?

There is a fundamental flaw in the radical rejection of past practices in the name of “civilization.” To return to old practices that are nature based and that open the door to experiencing the magic and beauty of this world, we must de-emphasize consumerism and reemphasize spirit. A lot of young people I work with come alive when the spirit is present. They can be themselves and show their genius.

Goodman: How do you introduce young people to the sacred?

Somé: I use ancient indigenous rituals based on the elements — for example, a water ritual for cleansing old wounds and conflicts. It might look like a Christian baptism, but there’s a higher level of intensity. It gives people access to a layer of themselves they didn’t know existed.

Goodman: Why doesn’t Western religion give young people this experience?

Somé: My sense is that most religion has become too dogmatic and led by concern for empty ceremony. True ritual is controlled by the spirit. Organized religion alienates a lot of young people who hunger to go into the wild, unpredictable space and experience another dimension of consciousness.

Goodman: What are some initiation rituals you’ve used successfully with young people in this country?

Somé: A successful initiation involves three parts: a separation, an ordeal of some kind, and a homecoming. We might take the individuals into the woods and leave them alone to face the uncertainty of whether they’ll make it out. Or we might bury them up to their neck in the sand so that they face extreme discomfort, intense emotions, visions, and even hallucinations.

Goodman: You mentioned that young people in our culture create their own initiation rituals by abusing drugs, joining gangs, or even going into the military.

Somé: Yes, but the final stage — homecoming — is missing from such informal initiations. Separation and ordeals happen to just about everyone in this culture. Homecoming requires recognition and acknowledgement that the person has survived. Most people don’t get this, which causes them to go back into the ordeal. That’s what I see in the case of veterans. They go through a war, and then they come home, but there is no community to welcome them with open arms. So they reenlist.

It’s not really viable to think of formal initiation without community support. Not a lot is required. All people need is to be held, to be told that they’re safe now, that they have arrived home. An adequate homecoming doesn’t have to be a big feast and celebration. What people need is someone willing to create a space for them in which they can be seen, honored, and praised for what they have been through. The psyche knows when a homecoming is genuine.

LESLEE GOODMAN is a freelance writer, artist, and a consultant to nonprofits. She divides her time between Washington State’s Methow Valley and Santa Barbara, California.

Malidoma Somé was born in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, and his name was given to him by his village’s elders before birth. Malidoma means “one who makes friends with the stranger/enemy.” When Somé was a small boy, he was taken from his village by a Jesuit priest and brought to a boarding school more than a hundred miles away, where the Jesuits were hoping to build a cadre of African missionaries to help convert the native population. Somé remained there for fifteen years of education, indoctrination, and various forms of physical and sexual abuse. He escaped at the age of nineteen and managed to find his way back to his village, where he was a stranger to his own people — unable to speak the language, uneducated in the ways of his tribe, and an object of suspicion because of his Western education and ability to read and write. In a final attempt to reintroduce him to village life, he was sent on a month-long initiation with a group of other village boys, most of them much younger than he.

Somé survived the initiation and returned ready to assume the responsibilities of an adult male of the Dagara tribe, but shortly thereafter the village elders told him that he would fulfill his destiny by living in the West as a teacher of African ways and wisdom. “You must go and let yourself be swallowed,” they told him. “We cannot survive if you stay here.”

So Somé traveled to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, where he earned a master’s degree, along with a scholarship to the Sorbonne in France. There he earned another master’s degree and a doctorate in political science before coming to the United States and enrolling at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. He graduated with a third master’s degree and a PhD in English and American literature. Somé then taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

For the past twenty years Somé has lived in the U.S., teaching workshops and conducting divinations, rituals, and traditional Dagara ceremonies. He is the author of several books, including his autobiography, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman (Penguin), The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual, and Community (Tarcher), and Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community (Penguin). I first heard him speak at a conference sponsored by the mentoring organization Boys to Men and the ManKind Project, a global nonprofit dedicated to reclaiming the “sacred masculine.” He encouraged us to grapple head-on with the paradoxes of life, an approach he summarized in the African proverb: “If we go forward, we die; if we go backward, we die. So let’s go forward and die.”