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The Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Some quotes from this profound and beautiful book.


Malidoma Patrice Somé
Patrice Somé

I have come to understand that indigenous and Western peoples are actually children of the same Spirit, living in the same house they call Earth.  The dysfunctional relationship of modern and indigenous peoples is symptomatic of a craving to share love for each other that is deeply buried in our psyches, a craving so alive that it is compelled to struggle through the rubble of division, power conflicts and fear to express itself.

At my colonial school I had been told that the rituals my people performed to heal were devilish.  But I discovered that there were countless illnesses that could not be healed at the local infirmary, which were perfectly curable at the hands of Dagara healers.  I wondered whether saving lives was indeed devlish or satanic.  At school, we had also been told that tribal people had no knowledge of magic, but instead were very superstitious.  When I witnessed Dagara people make things appear and disappear into thin air, when I witnessed beings from the Other World show up in flesh and bones, allowing me to touch them, I wondered how superstitious all this was.  And then there was my introduction to the kontomblé, the spirits in the wild, who worked as the comforter of every person in need.  All of these experiences contradicted the theories disemminated in the schools.

Western perceptions of time were continually disturbing me in a culture in which timelessness prevailed.

Healing in the Indigenous World

Dagara mask from North Ghana to bring  power and courage to the wearer

Healing, ritual and community - these three elements are vitally linked

Dagara talking drum

I remember a white man, involved in an African-style ritual in England, who was asked to play the djembe.  He played the drum almost non stop for ten hours.  Later on he said that after a few hours he found himself in an African village drumming with a community of African villagers, and the energy was so strong that he didn't realise that time was flowing.

When we talk of ritual, we are talking about the interweaving of individual persons and gifts into a community that interacts with the forces of the natural world.  We are talking of a gathering of people with a clear healing vision and a trusting intent toward the forces of the invisible world.


In our village everyone gets excited when they hear a woman is pregnant.  Everyone asks, "Why is this person being sent to us at this time?  What gifts will this person have that our community needs?"  A special ritual is held to answer these questions.  Expert shamans gather with the mother of the foetus and place her under hypnosis.

Dagara grandfather and grandson
grandfather and Grandson

They contact the life-force behind the foetus, asking why it is coming into the world and what work it intends to do.  The foetus responds in ways that suggest that the individual has first presented a proposal for his or her life purpose to some council of elders in the Spirit World.  Once the Council approves the proposal, it gives the individual permission to be born into a physical body.

Children's vitality and enthusiasm are reminiscent of the forces that motivated them to come here.

A recent Birthing Ritual in my village

The young mother was in labour all afternoon and was walked around by a group of old women who chanted softly in her ear.  She seemed to be in great pain and uninterested in the singing, yet the songs were quite beautiful.  They sounded like a litany involving genealogy; ancestors' name were uttered one after another.  Then I realised everything was being said directly to the new born.

"You have come to a crossroads.  The light you see in front of you, is the light of of the village that awaits you."

Another woman sung: "Run, run, run to the gate and do not waste time, because Mummy is in pain."

And another: "We have sweet grass and honey awaiting your arrival.  Sweet bosom alive with food and love in a hurry to be with you."

Grandparents participate in the birthing and are the first to hold the newborn.  Naturally they bond together, because they share a proximity to the Other World.


The Dagara people’s main job is to look the dead in the face, to treat their bodies not as remains, but as temples of grace and beauty continuing from this world to the other.  People grieve the passing of loved ones, though in this grief and by the handing over of the loved one to the realm of the ancestors, they stress beauty and community and continuity.

When my grandfather died, he told my father: "I have to go now.  From where I'll be, I'll be more use to you, than if I stay here."

The Healing power of Nature

Within nature, within the natural world, are all of the materials and tenets for healing human beings.  Nature is the textbook for those who care to study it and the storehouse of remedies for human ills.

Different parts of the earth are tied to specific forces in the Other World, just as different parts of the human body are tied to specific functions.  People thus will have a special relationship with the forces in the Other World that correspond to their birthplace.

The Intelligence of Nature

Dagara trees, plants and animals

Human beings would do well to learn from its wisdom.  The Source of all, the Dagara believe, has no word; because meaning is produced instantly, like a cosmic and timeless awareness.   The trees and the plants are the most intelligent, because they do not neeed words to communicate.  Animals are the next most intelligent beings, because they use only only a minimum of uttered communication.

Language, wise men and women insist, is an instrument of distance from meaning, an unfortunate necessity that they can't live without, but that is so hard to live with.

When there is a grief ritual in my village, it takes place in the open air, among the trees, because that is the sort of thing the trees will echo and the earth will absorb most easily.

Matter and Spirit

We are primarily spirit.  In order to exist as material beings we have to take a form.  We only bother to fit ourselves into this narrow part of the universe, because it serves the unavoidable and useful purpose of expanding the spirit within us.

We need to understand the difference between the seen and the unseen.  You will only see what you expect to see, based on your internal programming.

What I saw in my initiation was the result of a struggle that resulted in the aligning of of my physical vision with my spiritual sight.  When we see with spiritual eyes, we remain in service to nature ; we see nature as the originator of tools and technology and know that they must be used in harmony with nature's design and purpose, which are to maintain and serve the individual and community.  My work responds to nature's expectation of me as a product of nature, rather than something I do in the interest of accumulating or consuming.

At its core, the purpose of an individual is to bring beauty, harmony and communion to Earth.

Art and Music

Artistic ability, the capacity to heal, and the ability to see into the Other World are connected for indigenous people.  The artist as an artisan of the sacred can cooperate in bringing the sacred to birth in this world.  Without artists the tribal psyche would wither into death.

Music and Rhythm are the things that that feed someone who is producing something.   I remember my mother uttering very moving, poetic chants as she milled the grain, grinding for six hours to fill only a small bucket.   The meal that came out of her work contained tremendous energy.

Healing and Eating

Illness is a physical manifestation of spiritual decay.

Berfore the coming of modernity the healers would have others in the village come and work on their farm, and they would end up with enough food to feed their families.  Now this system no longer exists, you will find a shaman with a tiny yard, and from this he can pull enough food to feed a family of twenty children.

Youth and Age

You will sometimes hear an elder call a child "Grandpa" or "Grandma".   The elder is showing deep respect for the young one, attributing the benefits of age to that young person.

In Dagara young means that which is still moist.  Its attractiveness is symptomatic of the proximity to the Spirit World.  But the presence of the Other World in this world makes it vulnerable.  Beauty is synonymous with fragility.  The blossoming of youth involves taking risks.  Safety comes from the hands of the older generation.

Old means someone who is dry, solid, lasting.  The elders embody stability, dependability, wisdom.

The wisdom I am trying to point out here for Westerners is obvious.  A retirement house is the wrong place for old people.  It appears that in the West, old age is feared because of its lack of power, but also because of its proximity to the Other World, the unknown and the unpredicatable.

The old are the most revered members of the village; its greatest preservers and nurturers.  It is natural everyone should be attracted to becoming old.

Tradition is the way of the ancestors, the manner in which those who lived before once walked and talked, the knowledge and practices that allowed themn to live long enough to bestow life upon others.  In my village there is a practical, intrinsic belief that in earlier times everything was good, and that everything will remain so as long as ancient ways are allowed to survive in everyday life.

The origin of and need for myth are rooted in this in this, because it involves a worldview, a series of customs that are useful in defining the identity of a society.   People read the Brothers Grimm, the Arabian Nights, or the Nibelungen, because these stories feed something deep inside them - evidence that the past is far from obsolete.

In the traditional view to, to look to the old ways is to avoid death.

If in Western society the old would spend their abundant time with their grandchildren, this would pave the way for a more sacred approach.  We must learn to sit quietly with our youth and learn what they have to say.  Calmness is an elder's contribution to the community.

The Elements of Ritual

Ritual is a dance with Spirit, the soul's way of interacting with the Other World.  It is a time of unplanned, unforeseeable, yet orderly disorder.

There are four components to a ritual:

  1. Preparing the ritual space.  It must be in a space outside of the ordinary, like an oasis in the desert.  The exact ingredients required cannot be known in advance, so it is usefull to include representations of all the elements to decorate the space: fire, water, earth, nature and mineral.
  2. The Invocation is a form of prayer that invites the Spirit to participate.  Who is wanted and who is not, and the purpose of the invitation needs to be made specific.
  3. Healing.  Too much inhibition or self-criticism or analysis scrambles the call from Spirit to get involved.  The emotion that one feels in a ritual space is the healing energy stirred up by the Spirit.
  4. The Closing is an expression of gratitude.  It is important to itemize what you are grateful for.  At the closing the spirits must released but not ordered to leave.  They may wish to stay around to inspire us with more beauty.

Dagara Cosmology and the Five Elements

Dagara Medicine Wheel
Medicine Wheel

The concept of evolution may be recent in the West, but to indigenous Africans it is ancient.  The Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest does not apppear.  Progress is not seen as linear but as cyclical, referring not only to the cycle of nature but also to the circular nature of the planet where we live.

Dagara cosmology starts with story of creation.  A burning planet, a ball of fire combusted at high speed.  Thus fire is the first element of the Dagara wheel.  When this moving, burning sphere encountered water, things changed.  The shock of their meeting drove fire into the underworld, leaving the surface as a hot steamy place, fertile for breeding all kinds of life.  This is Earth, the third element.  The hard components of the earth, which provide structure and connection, are mineral, the fourth element.  Meanwhile steam formed atmosphere around the earth.  As steam expanded, its pressure began to subside, giving birth to the fifth element, nature

  1. Fire is the original element, to which everything returns.  It is the state the ancestors are in.  Shamans fit ino this category, because they live in two worlds.  A fire person lives in the future and therefore finds the average person too slow.  He or she can be seen as impatient.  If a person or culture forget their connection with the other worlds, they may rush headlong into destruction.  A fire culture can be a war culture.  However a fire person's fire may be translated into a warm, gentle flame that keeps a community aware of its relationship with other worlds.

  2. Wadie Spring Dano
    Wadie Spring Dano
  3. Water.  The elders say that it came from the Other World and spilled into the earth at the moment that the veil between the two worlds was thinned.  We are all the children of water.  Without the "water of life", nothing can be purified.  It is essential to the spiritual journey.  It bestows serenity.  Pollution is the exhaust system of human denial.  Tears wash away the impurities of our failures.  An elder once told me: "My tears say that my soul has heard something about the Other World."

  4. Earth symbolises the mother on whose lap everybody finds a home.   The Earth person takes care of others.  Earth people, like grandmothers, want all people to feel fed, content, respected and loved.  According to Dagara custom, men build the structure of a house and women bring them alive.

  5. Mineral is elemental energy that allows us to remember.  In Dagara physiology our bones, not our brains, are the storage place of memory.  In the West we have a saying: "I knew it in my bones", which refers to a deeper, more elemental knowing than is possible through rational thought.  I wonder if those in Silicon Valley, who shave stones to their essence and put them in machines of memory, already know that stones have always managed information.  Perhaps the modern world's fascination with the internet can be traced to this vast memory gap.  Indigenous people don't look outside themselves they look within.  Mineral people are story tellers.  Their gift to society is that of remembering, through words and stories, one's origins and purpose.

  6. Yila Tree Dano
    Yila tree Dano
  7. Nature signifies change.   It is plants and animals and landscapes.  It is situated in the east opposite minerals in the west.  It invites us to welcome change.  The magic we crave and our attraction to the supernatural are nature in their essence.  The tree, the plant, the landscape and the serpentine river zigzagging downhill on its way to the ocean, are all golden heiroglyphs capable of bringing understanding.
    Elevated areas function like antennea, relaying and downloading information from far away.
    Waterways take this information to the underworld.
    Barren, flat landfscapes emit a fast moving energy that is dangerous to isolated individuals.  Only medicine men and women venture into wide open places at night.
    In heavily forested areas the trees shelter human beings from the Other World.  However at night tall trees emit a mysterious energy that may effect people's psyches as well as their bodies.
    That leaves the savannah as the ideal place for the Dagara.  Sandwiched between two highly charged entities it is a natural refuge.

    Dagara Dance
    Dagara Dance
    I have often wondered whether Puitans did not destroy witches, because of their fear of the power of change within them.  Western history is full of persecation of nature.  Progress seems to point to nature as its main enemy.
    Nature people trick us through humour into being real.  A nature person is like a child, who sees life as a challenging play.
    Indigenous people embrace the wisdom of living close to nature and embracing its challenges.

For more information please go to Malidoma Somé's Website. and to Drums of Change, Drums of Spirit for some inspiring you tubes.

Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Patrice Somé



I should like to thank John Minshall for introducing me to Of Water and the Spirit.

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