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An Initiated African Tribesman Cries Out to the West

Of Water and the Spirit

Book review Copyright © 1995 by Shepherd Bliss

Malidoma Patrice Some, Of Water and the Spirit. (Los Angeles, Tarcher/Putnam, 1994), $22.95.

Malidoma Somé, Of Water and the Spirit
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Malidoma Somé



Shepherd Bliss



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Of Water and the Spirit : Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman
by Malidoma Somé
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"I am a man of two worlds," African medicine man Malidoma Some declares in his stunning autobiography. Of Water and the Spirit is "basically the life story of my initiation into two different and highly contradictory cultures." It documents the colonial attempt by French Christians to make Malidoma into what his people, the Dagara, call a "whitened Black," then his village elders reclaiming his soul.

Malidoma's story--told with passion, drama, and compassion--is incredible: Born in West Africa, he is kidnapped at four by a Jesuit priest and imprisoned in a seminary, from which he ;escapes 15 years later. Malidoma walks 125 miles to get home, but he has lost his native language and receives a mixed reception by his family and tribe. In search of recovery, he submits to a life-threatening and magical initiation, during which he walks on the back of crocodiles across a river, witnesses a tree become a green Lady who embraces him, unites with fire, is buried alive overnight, and goes to the mysterious and invisible "other world," from which some youth do not return alive.

"My name, Malidoma, means roughly 'Be friends with the stranger/enemy,'" this spellbinding book begins. A magical tale unfolds, recalling Carlos Castaneda relaying the wisdom of another indigenous people. Except Malidoma is not an anthropologist attempting to describe a foreign culture; he is an African tribesman seeking to re-integrate into the culture of his birth, which has become foreign because of the brainwashing of an alien culture. Of Water and the Spirit accomplishes what anthro- pologists and journalists have attempted to do for more than a century--present the world view of an indigenous people. In our overly-technologized world, which is destroying itself through pollution, violence and high-tech weapons, indigenous people have much to leach North American and European cultures.

A story of exile and homelessness, this is a book for our times. In its final pages Malidoma's father passes on a message from his elders: "We can't survive if you stay here [in the village]." So he is sent on a mission to the West. Malidoma realizes, "I will never have a home." Many people today, for various reasons, feel that homelessness, which Malidoma brilliantly describes. Of Water and the Spirit will surely develop a following among the young and others who have felt separated from the Earth and their roots.

Not only does Malidoma describe his own culture in the country of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), but he accurately describes the Western world into which he is so brutally Forced against his will, "The West is as endangered as the indigenous culture it has decimated in the name of colonialism. Western civilization is suffering from a great sickness of the soul." Though Malidoma describes the possibility of "a terrible self-destruction" in the face of global chaos, he holds out for "the only possible hope--self- transformation." Malidoma advocates "new ways of understanding between people." As with the Dalai Lama, who has suffered at the hands of another people, Malidoma is a spiritual leader who has suffered at the hands of Europeans and transcends his affliction to offer images of transformation.

Malidoma becomes a different kind of priest than his Christian kidnappers intended. After learning Western ways and living trough his tribe's initiation, assuming that he will finally be able to settle into village life, Malidoma is informed by his father, 'The chief said that you are the way the hyena and the goat can learn to walk together, because you know both the ways of the Dagara and the ways of the whites." This Black African is sent on a mission by his elders, first to Europe, where he earns a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, then to the United States, where he earns another Ph.D. and lives today.

"It is time for Africans to clear their throats and enter boldly into the concert of spiritual and magical exchange," Malidoma declares in his introduction. The book unfolds in four parts: Malidoma's happy childhood in the village, his seminary imprisonment, his homecoming, and his life-changing initiation.

Malidoma's village childhood is magical; be is watched over by his medicine-man grandfather, whose funeral during his fourth

year he details. Malidoma's grandfather continues to look after an the rest of his fife, appearing when needed in dreams and visions. These first four years in the village and his early contact with his ancestors sustain Malidoma in his ordeals to come. Malidoma's account of the French colonialists is devastating. He has many reasons to be angry at the Europeans who snatched him from his family. During a 15-year nightmare, Malidoma is beaten, abused, and intimidated into forgetting his tribal origins, including even his native language, which is replaced with French, learned to whippings across the back. Among his many oppressions, "Father Lamartin came to me and touched my breasts." He fights back and shoves Father Joe, who falls through a window. Malidoma escapes into the jungle.

After 125 miles of walking, Malidoma arrives at a home which he has not seen in 15 years. His mother greets him with profuse tears, "all care, love, and sorrow," but his father does not know how to receive his prodigal son. "My first day at home was a bad one," Malidoma admits. With great pain, which characterizes the book, he divulges, "No matter what my father did to bridge the gap between us, I never felt close to him."

The seminary experience divided Malidoma, body from soul. Upon returning to the village, he learns, "Nothing important can happen until the person is fully integrated again, joined back together, body and soul." Village life, with its physical demands, is not immediately agreeable to Malidoma. Not only does he have to relearn his original language, but he has to relearn other things, such as how to eat communally, out of a common bowl.

After a year of trying and failing "to fit back into village life," the elders call Malidoma to be initiated with other boys. Though Malidoma appropriately keeps secret much that happens to him during those trying weeks, he reveals enough to present one of the first accurate accounts of an authentic African initiation. The purpose of the initiation is for each boy "to find [his] center" and become a man. The boys are taught how to see differently, the world of fire, and "the song of the stars." Living as we do in a culture which fails to initiate its boys into manhood, this section has much to offer Westerners.

Malidoma fails during the early days of the initiation, facing the real possibility of death. Gradually he sees the angels and is moved by the ceremonial drums. Animals appear to him throughout as guides. He meets his mentor, Guisso, his "uncle," whom he calls his "male mother." Guisso is also the father of the youth Nyangoli, who becomes Malidoma's best friend during initiation.

Initiation is described by Malidoma as consisting of three parts: "enlargement of one's ability to see, destabilization of the body's habit of being bound to one plane of being, and the ability to voyage transdimensionally and return." Rather than reveal more of the compelling details of his initiation that Malidoma shares in Of Water and the Spirit, I will merely note his conclusion: "We all felt as if we had been to the end of the world and back." He adds, "The memory of 15 years of brainwashing in the seminary stood timidly in a comer of my mind, as if afraid of competing with what I now knew."

As I closed his book, I was left with the images of specific people, as any great novel provides: Malidoma's guiding grandfather, the brutal priests, his confused father, his loving mother, the eider who speaks out against his being initiated, his best friend Nyangoli, and the humorous chief. Malidoma leaves readers with clear messages in his last pages, including, 'EIders and mentors have an irreplaceable function in any community. Without them, the youth are lost."

Malidoma Some is emerging as one of the most important African leaders living in the United States. Of Water and the Spirit may he the most profound blend of African, European and American cultures ever written. One of the greatest autobiographies of our time, this book captures our historical moment of crisis and opportunity. I was angry at colonialism and the extensive damage it did for centuries to individuals like Malidoma and to entire peoples, like the Dagara.

Of Water and the Spirit is a book of great pain and suffering, which are transformed into beauty and wisdom, but at considerable effort. It is not easy reading. Though I cried often while reading and was frequently sad, by the end I felt a deep joy at this one man's intelligence, tenacity, and compassion. Now I await the continuation of Malidoma's autobiography--what happens when he goes to the capital city of his nation to college for four years, then to France for graduate studies, and finally to the U.S. to continue academic studies and begin college teaching. Notably is he a wise communicator of the ways of indigenous peoples, he also has become an expert observer of the ways of Western cultures. In the United States, he finds community in the developing men's movement and marries the wife whom his village eIders select for him from among his people. Malidoma is still a young man in his thirties with considerable gifts to offer- his tribe and to the rest of the world. I eagerly await reading more of his story.

Shepherd Bliss directs the Kokopelli Traveling Lodge and farms a few acres in northern California. A sample of his Men's Gender and Soul Newsletter is available: P.O. Box 1040, Sebastopol, CA 95473.


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