Country Focus: Burkina Faso
The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community
By Malidoma Patrice Somé
Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.
About the author: Somé’s remarkable background tempts me to read his autobiography Of Water and the Spirit. Born into the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, he was kidnapped at age four and indoctrinated by Jesuit Priests. He reunited with his family fifteen years later only to find that the Jesuits’ suppression of his native language rendered him unable to communicate with them. Somé not only succeeded in re-learning his community’s language and indigenous ways but also became a medicine man and diviner. However, Somé did not stay in Burkina Faso. His first name, Malidoma, translates as “be a friend with a stranger,” and he knew his future lay to the west. After earning multiple doctoral and masters degrees, he quit his professorship at the University of Michigan to begin his life’s true purpose: sharing indigenous world views with the modern world.
In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Somé shares his tribe’s culture with the west. Here are some simplified examples:
On work: The Dagara believe that everyone is born with a purpose. Through guidance and mentoring, the entire village assists each person in “remembering” their purpose. Why? Because a person who is doing what they were meant to do is a satisfied and productive member of the community.
On wealth: Wealth is measured by the sense of well-being one feels from playing an important role in the community (because you have found your purpose) and by living in communion with the natural and spiritual worlds.
On spirituality: According to the Dagara, a mysterious energy underlies all things. This spiritual world, the natural world, and humanity are irrevocably bound together.
On the natural world: Nature is a place of healing and where the spirits of our ancestors dwell, therefore it must be treated with reverence.
On communication: Language—both written and verbal—inadequately expresses meaning and experience. Written language is incompatible with magical knowledge.
On conflict: Conflict is inevitable and must be dealt with in a safe, ritual space where the persons involved communicate their grievances. There is never a “winner” or “loser,” just an opportunity for the parties to form a stronger, healthier bond.
On ritual: There are five elements that form the Dagara cosmology: earth, water, fire, mineral and nature. Fire represents volatility. Water symbolizes serenity. Earth stands for compassion. Mineral equals remembering and communication. Nature is change. Each person embodies all five, but favors one more than the others. Healing rituals center around whichever element needs to be boosted or lowered.
I believe that a book that leaves the reader with a new way of looking at the world is the best kind of book. In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Somé heartily succeeds at giving the reader an introduction to a worldview outside the western mainstream.
The Source of all, the Dagara believe, has no word. It has no word because meaning is produced instantly, like a cosmic and timeless awareness. So to the Dagara, there is an understood hierarchy of consciousness. The elements of nature, especially the trees and plants, are the most intelligent beings because they do not need words to communicate. They live closer to the meaning behind language. The next most intelligent species are the animals, because they use only a minimum of uttered communication, so their language is closer to the Source, the world of intrinsic meaning. The last in the hierarchy is the human species, who must rely on words to communicate—and words are but a remote reflection of meaning, like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Wise men and women in the indigenous world argue that humans are cursed by the language they possess, or that possesses them. Language, they insist, is an instrument of distance from meaning, an unfortunate necessity that we can’t live without but that is so hard to live with.