Somé, Malidoma Patrice

views updated

Malidoma Patrice Somé

BORN: 1956 • Upper Volta

Burkinan teacher; writer

In the late twentieth century Malidoma Patrice Somé became well known in the United States and other Western countries as a speaker and author. Through his books and the workshops he leads, he has sought to make Westerners more knowledgeable about the indigenous religions of Africa. The term indigenous describes anything (people, art, culture, religion) that has been native to a geographical region over a long historical period.

Somé describes himself as a "man of two worlds." One of his worlds is the West, where he received a formal education and lives much of the time. The other is West Africa, where he is an elder and shaman, or traditional healer, of the Dagara tribe. Living in both of these worlds, Some has tried to bridge the gap between them.

The religion practiced by Somé is called shamanism, a term that can refer to any faith featuring an unseen world of spirits and demons that respond only to shamans. Shamanism places emphasis on ancestral spirits that continue to play roles in the affairs of the living, providing guidance and wisdom. The history of shamanism dates back to the earliest eras of human history. In many cultures throughout the world, including that of the Dagara, a principal role of the shaman is to cure the sick. A shaman is able to fulfill this role by obtaining secret knowledge from the spirit world.

"Spirit expresses itself in a way we cannot map, cannot tell ahead of time, and has its own plan—a plan not known to us."

Birth and early life

The people of the Dagara tribe live along the borders of three African countries: Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. Malidoma Somé was born in Burkina Faso, which was then known as Upper Volta, the name given to the region by French colonists. Somé does not know the exact date of his birth, but government records list it as 1956. His father, Elie, was a farmer and miner. His mother was Colette Dabire.

French colonists, from a primarily Catholic country, did everything they could to convert the people of West Africa to their religion, which is a branch of Christianity. Thus, Somé's father followed the customs not only of his tribe but also of French Catholicism. He gave his son the Christian name Patrice. In the boy's naming ceremony, however, held shortly after his birth, his grandfather gave him the name Malidoma, which means "be friends with the stranger," or "with the enemy." This name became appropriate for the course that Somé's life later took.

Grandfathers among the Dagara are typically storytellers, sharing their knowledge of life and spirit with their communities and especially with their grandsons. Fathers begin to play important roles in their sons' lives only later. In the Dagara culture ancestors are seen as a link between people and the spirit world. Children are believed to have just come from the spirit world, while grandfathers will soon return to that world. As a result, the Dagara claim a bond is formed when the grandfather and the grandson share what they know about the soul and the spirit. Such was the case with Some and his grandfather, an elder and spiritual leader of the community. The two enjoyed a close relationship almost to the exclusion of Some's father.

Somé spent the first four years of his life in his village, living the traditional life of a Dagara. When he was four years old, his grandfather died, and soon thereafter he was taken from his village by French Jesuit priests living in a nearby town. (Jesuits, who belong to an order of Catholic priests called the Society of Jesus, are best known for their extensive education, especially with respect to the principles of Catholicism.) In later life Some would say that the Jesuits had kidnapped him. He was taken to a French missionary school in Nansi, where he lived for the next fifteen years. He rose every morning at 5:30 and followed a strict schedule of study and prayer until bedtime at 10:30 in the evening. In the school he was forced to adopt the ways of thinking of white society. He recalls learning about the West's "temperamental God," whose anger the students were taught to fear. The West refers to those countries in Europe and the Americas. He claimed that he suffered years of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of priests who were determined that he should become a wholehearted Catholic and eventually a priest.

Return to the village

When he was twenty years old, Some escaped from the boarding school and returned to his village on foot, traveling a distance of 125 miles (201 kilometers). His homecoming, however, was not without problems. While his mother and an older sister greeted him with tears of joy, the villagers looked upon him with fear and suspicion. They considered him a "white black," meaning that he had become too much like the people from the white culture in which he had lived. They believed that he had contracted the "sickness" of French colonialism. He could no longer speak the Dagara language well and found communication with the villagers difficult.

For the first few months after his return Somé was visited each day by his "male mother," his mother's brother. In Dagara culture the maternal uncle plays the role of "water person," or peacemaker, and tries to maintain serenity and goodwill in the village. Water persons are also thought of as reconcilers, resolving conflicts and restoring friendships. In Somé's case, many hoped that his uncle could find a way to fold him back into the tribe. The elders subjected Somé to a number of divinations, which are efforts to interpret omens (signs) and uncover secret knowledge or foretell the future. The elders determined that Somé had not fully returned to the village. They claimed part of his soul was missing, still back at the school and the world of white people. They said that his only hope was to undergo an initiation ritual called a baor, which would restore his entire soul to the village.

Cultural Roles in Indigenous African Communities

Members of indigenous African tribes such as the Dagara typically fulfill different roles within their communities. These roles are associated with features of the natural world, and each has its characteristic symbolic color. For example, the color of "fire people" is red. Fire people serve as important links between the people and their ancestors. They act as conduits, or channels, through which the energy of the ancestors passes to the village.

The color of "mineral people" is white. Mineral people are the storytellers who use their vast memories to remember and recite stories about the people and their history. Through these stories, they connect communities with their pasts and with their ancestors.

The color of "nature people" is green. Nature people are those who can read nature and see order in its apparent chaos. They provide the villagers with a gateway to the spirit world and help people become more conscious of themselves and their spiritual reality. They are also the medicine men who can cure disease.

"Earth people," whose color is brown, serve the community by channeling the earth's energy into the village. They are the ones who make people feel comfortable in the community. They empower the villagers and nurture them.

Finally there are "water people," whose color is blue. Somé's uncle acted in this role by "carrying water" to his nephew. The water was not actual water, but a kind of spiritual "drink" that helped Somé make peace with his return to village life and helped the villagers overcome their suspicions and fears of him.


In his 1994 autobiography Of Water and the Spirit, Somé details his initiation experience. The purpose of the ritual, typically undergone by boys upon entering manhood, was to allow him to learn once again to see the natural world through the eyes of the Dagara. The ritual lasts a month and requires the initiate to make a journey alone, away from the village. Some had to sleep in the jungle and find his own food. Normally this would not be a terribly frightening experience. Most Dagara boys who undergo the ritual have spent their entire lives living in the jungle, so the environment is familiar to them. For Some, however, the journey was terrifying, as he had spent so long living in an urban area that to him the jungle was a strange and dangerous place. He stated that he almost died during the experience.

During the initiation Some learned a great deal about his own personal abilities, as well as about the supernatural world of the Dagara. He declared that he saw spirits from the underworld and had visions of his grandfather and that he made contact with the beings that inhabit the natural world. In his autobiography he details his first night at the initiation camp, where a fire ritual gave him insight into the world of his ancestors. In a chapter entitled "Trying to See," he makes clear the importance of learning to see the world in new ways and describes his initial resistance to the elders' instructions. He admits he even tried to lie to them to convince them that he was making progress.

Eventually Some achieved a breakthrough, as detailed in a chapter entitled "In the Arms of the Green Lady." During his experience, he had a vision of a yila tree, the "Green Lady" of the chapter's title. By intensely focusing on the tree, he came to see it in a new way, the way of the Dagara, who see little difference between the worlds of reality and imagination. In their view, only by imagining something and intensely focusing thought on it can that thing be truly brought into being. In Some's words, "If one can imagine something, then it has at least the potential to exist." To most people a yila tree is simply a biological, or natural, specimen; to the Dagara, such a tree can become a "Green Lady." When Some focused on and truly saw the Green Lady, his vision of the natural world was transformed.

Back to the Western world

After the initiation the village elders decided that Some should leave the village once again in order to tell the Western world about the world of Africa. Some was reluctant to go, but he agreed. He first enrolled at the university in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, where he earned a bachelor's degree in sociology, literature, and linguistics in 1981, then a master's degree in literature in 1982. He then went to the Sorbonne, a world-famous university in Paris, France, where he earned a master's degree in political science in 1983. Finally he attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts in the United States, where he earned yet another master's degree in 1984 and a doctorate in literature in 1990. Somé later wrote that he found school easy because of his initiation ritual. He even claimed that he knew the answers to the professors' questions just by looking at their auras, or the energy fields surrounding them.

The Dagara elders wanted Somé to live in the United States. They believed that in the United States he could be fully immersed in the Western world. In fact, Somé has said that he finds he can be "more African" in the United States than he can in Africa. He explains that because of his extensive education, he has found it difficult to be accepted in Africa, as many Africans think he has turned his back on the customs and beliefs of his tribal culture. In the United States he claims he feels relatively free to be an educated man who also believes in his ancient African religion.

After completing his doctorate at Brandeis, Some took a job teaching at the University of Michigan, where he was a professor of literature and French from 1990 to 1993. He also worked as a visiting professor at Stanford University in California during the 1992–93 school year. Afterward he earned a living as a writer, lecturer, and speaker. With his wife, Elisabeth Sobonfu, he gives workshops and conferences in which he explores African spirituality with participants and helps Westerners see the value of indigenous cultures. He also returns to the Dagara people to teach them about the West.

Elder and shaman

In Somé's view, the West suffers from a kind of spiritual sickness. He claims this sickness shows itself in many ways: materialism (desiring to have material objects), consumerism (the buying of such objects), damage to the environment, the unequal distribution of wealth, prejudice against (or mistreatment of) people of color, and, especially, a sharp divide between the physical and spiritual worlds. Some believes that indigenous religions such as shamanism can return people to a sense of oneness and connection with the world, with nature, and with one another.

As an elder in the Dagara tribe, Some acts as one of its spiritual leaders as well as a shaman. He points out that in contrast to Western religions, shamanism does not view the supernatural as separate from the material world. He notes, for example, that the Dagara have no word for "supernatural." The closest word, yielbongura, is best translated into English as "the thing that knowledge can't eat." In other words, the supernatural is that part of human experience that the logical, rational mind cannot destroy or consume. The Dagara and other practitioners of shamanistic religions resist dividing the material and spiritual worlds and instead see them as one. They believe the material world simply gives form to the spiritual world.

Somé always carries with him a talisman, an object believed to give its bearer supernatural powers or protection. He describes this talisman as an oval-shaped pouch that contains stones from the underworld and other secret objects from the wild. He believes that the talisman is a source of strength and power and helped ensure his success both as a student and in his professional life. He also uses the talisman to educate people in the West regarding his religion and culture.

For More Information


Harvey, Graham. Shamanism: A Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.

Somé, Malidoma Patrice. Healing Wisdom of Africa. New York, NY: Tarcher, 1999.

Somé, Malidoma Patrice. Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1995.


van Gelder, Sarah. "Remembering Our Purpose: The Teachings of Indigenous Cultures May Help Us Go Beyond Modernity, An Interview with Malidoma Somé." In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Somé, Malidoma. "VISIONS: Malidoma Somé." Interview by D. Patrick Miller. Mother Jones. (accessed on June 2, 2006).