Building a Bridge Between Two Worlds
By Malidoma Patrice Somé
When the elders in my village approached me about becoming initiated into elderhood, my reaction was Why me, of all people? There were others in the village who were great healers with fantastic track records and I was nowhere near their level. I had always been fascinated with the traditions of my culture, but at forty-three, I considered myself too young to be an elder. Besides, I lived in the white man’s culture and only came home once in a while.
They told me that, yes, I lived in the white man’s country, but that every time I came home with a dozen white people from America or England or Europe, as I often did, they saw that I was playing the role of a bridge. It was through that function that it had become possible for them to realize that the white man does not hate our tradition, does not despise our ritual — that, in fact, the white man would like to find in our medicine something that will help him heal, something that can bring his culture closer to ours.
Therefore, they could see in my bridge-building role something that would match the function of an elder. I was living in two worlds and helping those worlds come together into a circle of understanding, a circle that was bringing our traditions the kind of respect that they had thought modern culture could never give.
That was why, every time I brought people with me to the village, they would take time out from their regular schedule to devote their attention to these visitors. They explained that these white people were only here for a limited time, and therefore needed to return with the right impression, needed to return with the right attitude.
Their reasons were convincing and I agreed to be initiated. Although I would also be responsible for the maintenance of three shrines, the primary responsibility of the council of elders was to ensure the continuity of the community through initiation. That requires the five elders to sit together to consider various candidacies. The candidates don’t have to apply; they are picked and then informed about it.
It was at the end of my initiation that I realized I had reached a point of no return. I had become privy to ancient knowledge, and it felt like this information was welded into my body. There are a lot of supernatural things going on during an initiation, things that are so mind-boggling, that seeing how they were done changed me completely.
It’s one thing to be the subject upon whom these magical things happen. It’s another thing to be in the shoes of the one instigating them and knowing how to wield the various ingredients in order to open the vortexes, the doorways, leading to other worlds.
After my initiation, my psyche changed so dramatically that my mind could not operate the way it used to operate any longer. For a while, I was very, very serious, with the little human me questioning my deservedness and then questioning my ability to hold on to this precious information. These two concerns were pressing upon me so hard that I felt very dense and weighed down. So I looked very serious, and probably flabbergasted, like someone who had been permanently stunned.
And so my initiation as an elder was first experienced as a burden. For a couple of years, I longed to return to that state where I was in a place of free leadership, the kind of leadership that doesn’t come with intense accountability. I had been making it up as I went along, defining myself as a free-flow choreographer who was simply doing his best to explain the spiritual values and traditions of my people.
My initiation had taken my identification with my people to a whole different level. I was no longer just another person who happened to be living in the western world and was respectful of the tradition. I was now the one officially installed to be the protector, the keeper, the one to maintain the integrity of these values. I was no longer just the spokesman in the west, but also in the tribe, and in Africa in general. I became therefore fully a man of two worlds. I realized that I would be going home not so much to try to make sure that simple rituals were followed, but to join with my peers in an attempt to revisit the main tenets of the culture that the council of elders was in charge of, was responsible for maintaining and servicing.
The changes in my life were not just mental, but also behavioral. I could no longer feel free to hang out wherever I wished. I could no longer be seen in certain places that I considered “low places.” I could no longer just walk into parties like a person who needed some fun time. As I mentioned, I noticed myself becoming dangerously serious — serious in the sense that I felt myself limited, as if I had become imprisoned inside a straitjacket that I wanted to break out of.
I haven’t yet resolved this, but I’ve been learning more about how to be with myself, about how to be secluded and feel good about it. That’s part of the reason why I moved to Eugene, Oregon. I needed to live in a nature setting so that my social time is largely spent amongst nature and trees.
I’ve also become more accustomed to not going to parties. In fact, I’ve noticed a certain amount of discomfort rising from within me every time I’m socializing because something about me has become estranged. I don’t know how to enjoy that anymore. There have been times when I’ve been dragged into parties and felt completely out of place. The only thing I was thinking of was, Go home, you have no business here. I can’t tell where that comes from. Maybe it is because I’ve spent so much time all by myself that I’ve forgotten the fun naturally associated with parties, or maybe something did take hold inside of me that deleted the pleasure naturally available at social events.
However, the most frustrating thing to come from my initiation was that there were rules and regulations that were impossible to separate from. One thing people need to understand about African medicine is that it is intimately connected to the science of nature. As such, it is following an epistemology that is not available to the scientific inquiry currently upheld in modernity. There are tremendous scientific breakthroughs held together by nature. This is why indigenous people love to keep nature the way it is, because any disruption of nature is likely to disrupt the structure of the information in it.
During elders initiation, a sequence of “passwords” is disclosed, thanks to which it becomes possible to hear the voice of nature, thereby leading to the intimate knowledge of what it takes to accomplish the kind of thing that westerners view as supernatural or magical.
At first, I was dying to share, to present, to explore this knowledge. I felt it was my duty as an elder and a bridge-builder to be able to change the standing of my culture by allowing the hidden part of its wisdom to become seeable, touchable, in a way that would enable this consciousness to reach the modern world as dramatically as possible — so that the respect that the indigenous elders are getting now can reach the sky, so big that it will feel like those indigenous elders are right here in the west as they are there, just the same way that the west is present everywhere.
I felt strongly that if I was to be a bridge, I shouldn’t just be focused on bringing ritual and healing work to the west, but also that I should try to find a way of making this wisdom available to the world because it has the power to transform human consciousness. I now saw the truth in the idea that the redemption of the world resides in the hands of the indigenous.
Yet, this oath of secrecy I had taken was perhaps another one of my burdens, because this ancient wisdom comes with a sort of built-in self-destruct should the information be improperly disclosed. Think of it as a burglar alarm that would be set off the minute that something is said or done that leads to an exposure of that which can only stay alive if it remains hidden. If exposed, it starts to lose its life; and as it starts to lose its life, the carrier of that information who broke the rule is also in a state of grave danger, not only of being exposed to emotional trauma but to physical trauma as well.
Recently, I had some medicine put into my body as a safety net. Now, if I speak too close to the secret, I will start hearing loud noises in my ears, which would remind me that I’m getting too close.
So the dilemma that I’m facing is that, on one hand, speaking from a western perspective, this information deriving from the science of nature could change the material life of the entire tribe, bringing it to par with the western lifestyle. In other words, there is in it enough to bring tremendous abundance to the people who are the keeper of it.
And I now have knowledge of various powerful ways of exploding western consciousness into parallel dimensions, to jack up modern consciousness to the next level. This wisdom could perhaps make modernity much more aware of the human intimacy with nature, and how that intimacy can translate into something very nourishing to mind, body, and spirit, and redemptive to the issue of community, of family, and the sense of the innate gift that people are said to come into the world with. In sharing these gifts, the world could then swim in endless abundance.I personally hold a deep hope that this is going to happen. I don’t want to become a renegade elder. I don’t want to become an elder who’s estranged. I want to be the elder who allows the minds of my co-elders to expand sufficiently so that they can, in the end, see the world the way I see it. And by seeing it that way, they can then understand why it is so important that their wisdom become a major contributor to world consciousness.
Malidoma Patrice Somé, an initiated elder in his village of Dano in Burkina Faso, West Africa, is also a medicine man and diviner in the Dagara culture. As representative of his culture, he has come to the west to share the ancient wisdom and practices which have supported his people for thousands of years. He has authored Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman... Ritual: Power, Healing and Community... and The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community.
This story appears in Phil Bolsta’s book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything. To order your copy, click here.