"If 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.

The Pressure Of Success

Humility And Spiritual Work  
The High Price Of Materialism  
African Healing Traditions  
Divination: The Road To The Ancestors  

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Some 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 die?

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.

As 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.

The 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 http://www.malidoma.com . "Toward that end, I offer the wisdom of the African ancestors so that Westerners might find the deep healing they seek."

And 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 peace.

Taye Elutilo, during one of our walks in the botanical
garden. Ile Ife Nigeria. Photo by James Weeks.

Meanwhile, 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," she adds.

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 important matters."

Putman, 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

Our 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

In 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." During a 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 your problem.

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.

"It 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.

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