‘Of Water and the Spirit’

Of Water and the Spirit

Of Water and the Spirit is a truly wonderful narrative concerning a man and his experience of being divided by two worlds.  The man in question is Patrice Malidoma Somé.  His middle name ‘Malidoma’, being his tribal name, means “he who makes friends with the stranger/enemy” in his native Dagara tongue.  He hails from a village in the African country of Burkina Faso.  The following map, taken from the book itself, will help to elucidate:



At the beginning, Malidoma had a nice childhood, spending time with his family, the Birifor clan, doing the duties of the tribe and being very close with his grandfather whose name was Bakhye.  As he explains, the young have a close relationship with the elderly due to the fact that they have just come from the place where the elderly will soon be going into, thus a close bond exists between grandfathers and grandchildren.  Malidoma learns some things from Bakhye and also witnesses others which verge on the miraculous, due to the fact that Bakhye is a medicine man and is thus conversant with his people’s spiritual knowledge.  Time progresses and eventually his grandfather passes away.  This leaves Malidoma confused for a while for him being as young as he was at the time, death was not understood completely by him.  Eventually there comes a time when he is taken by the Jesuit priest in the area to the Christian mission on the hill not far from the family compound.  It is through his time here that Malidoma undergoes great hardships and difficulties which are due to verbal,  physical and sexual abuse which he underwent at the hands of the “men of god”, the priests and at times from the other students there.  He spends approximately 15 years away from his family and his people, being indoctrinated into the ways of the modern white man.  He learns how to read, speak and write in French and this opens up an entirely new world for him.

In due time and due to certain circumstances, he escapes the mission and after a long journey through the jungle makes his way back to his village.  Here, he finds he has been gone for so long that he has forgotten how to speak his Dagara language as well as his thinking is different from the traditional mindset of the average villager.  Not long after being back in his village, the council of elders who direct all important tribal life, decide that Malidoma is to undergo Baor, which means initiation in the Dagara tongue, this being the process of becoming a man in indigenous society.  After some preparation, he undergoes the month long process which is not only truly fascinating, but also ameliorates his own lost spirit, for ever since he returned from spending years at the hands of European colonizers he had felt that he was a man who had lost his ways.  The entire story is touching in many ways and at times the abuses Malidoma underwent are indeed hard to take in, as the reader may feel the urge to jump into the story itself to lend a helping hand to this suffering character.  His survival of the many trials and tribulations are all worth it though, for initiation brings him back to a part of himself he thought he had lost, and after it, he is seen as an adult man in his community, a man who has reclaimed what he had forgotten.  Here are a few quotes and excerpts from this excellent story:


“Malidoma, the sweat of one person has significance only when it serves everybody.  You have been designated to follow the white man so that you may serve as the eye of the compound, the ear of your many brothers, and the mouth of your tribe…. Later, when you must go away once more from the warmth of your family compound, you will be forced to make up a new world for yourself.  It will be a world where Patrice will be very present, and Malidoma very absent.  Do not be confused when this happens.  The Dagara rite of initiation must be completed before you come to full understanding of who you are.  In your labyrinthine journey in the white world, the world of iron, learn to catch the thought behind the machine or it will swallow you”


“The boarding school was a fortress–a state within a state, bursting out of nowhere, a garden of order within the chaos of the African jungle.”


“This titanic religious establishment was the dream-come-true of the missionary crusade that had followed imperialism into the continent of Africa.  The kids came from everywhere in French West Africa: Mali, Niger, Togo, the Ivory Coast, and Benin.  Some were brought there fresh from baptism after a few years of parochial brainwashing.  Others, schooled privately as the protégés of white missionaries, arrived there still longing for their white father.”


“The first time I got the chance to ask Father Maillot why he had taken me away from my family, he locked me in a room with concrete walls and a metal door and walked away, speaking in a foreign language.  His mood has become arrogant and intimidating, but I did not care.  I wanted to go home.  I banged on the door so hard and so long that in the end someone opened it.  It was a catechist and behind him was Father Maillot.  The catechist had a whip in his hand.  He spoke fluent Dagara, and when he ordered me to bend over, he called me Patrice.  This was the first time someone had directly referred to me by my Catholic name.  I had heard that name spoken each time Father Maillot came to the compound to see my father, but I did not know they had been talking about me.  Since that was not my name, I refused to respond to it or to bend over.  The catechist began to lash out at me.  I could see Father Maillot smiling broadly and I screamed insults at him, but they were diluted by pain.  This was the first time anyone had ever hit me so hard.  The pain of the first blow was so bad that I didn’t even notice the many other times the whip struck my body.”


“Our history teacher always insisted that we understand the meaning or power, and of peace and freedom, but these values were presented to us only in Western terms.  Utilizing the white man’s violent philosophy, even the terrible commerce of slavery became comprehensible–justifiable even.  In our history books there were illustrations of ships full of slaves heading west.  All of this sounded unreal to me until some of the students who came from the coast confirmed having heard stories from their grandfathers about people who were deported and never returned.  One subject we never studied was African history.  In our classroom, the African continent was mentioned only in the context of the white man’s involvement with it.  Otherwise the world was clearly run by whites.”


“To even think sexual thoughts was to invite damnation, since we were taught that there was no difference between thoughts and deeds.  In such an unbalanced context, sex was presented as a sin as wicked as suicide or murder.  The specter of sexuality became a nightmare in the quiet of my spiritual life.  As I traversed puberty, the topic became laden with terror.  My normal hormonal disturbances seemed like the very devil invading every part of my being, and I felt like a frail leaf adrift on the shores of hell.”


“Father Superior had a way of making you feel sorry, anxious and guilty.  I wondered how I could possibly go tell my people to drop their age-old traditional habits of belief and be prepared to be saved because somebody had died for them without even telling them.  It had been so long since I had left these people that I could barely remember how wicked their spiritual life supposedly was– what  it was they were doing wrong in the first place.  And in any case, would they recognize me, wearing a white robe and a rosary, when and If I returned to them?”


“The healer dreams about being human, that is, “normal”, while the normal person wishes to become as knowledgeable as the medicine man.”


“My visual horizon had grown disproportionately.  I was discovering that the eye is a machine that, even at its best, can still be improved, and that there is more to sight than just physical seeing.  I began to understand that human sight creates its own obstacles, stops seeing where the general consensus says it should.  But since my experience with the tree, I began to perceive that we are often watched at close distance by beings that we ourselves cannot see, and that when we do see these otherworldly beings, it is often only after they have given us permission to see further–and only after they have made some adjustment in themselves to preserve their integrity.  And isn’t it also true that there is something secret about everything and everybody?”


“What we see in everyday life is not nature lying to us, but nature encoding reality in ways we can come to terms with under ordinary circumstances.  Nature looks the way it looks because of the way we are. ”


“Traditional education consists 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.  Enlarging one’s vision and abilities has nothing supernatural about it, rather it is “natural” to be a part of nature and to participate in a wider understanding of reality.”


“One must go through a process of relearning, enforcement of these lessons, and the consolidation of new knowledge.  This kind of education is nothing less than a return to one’s true self, that is, to the divine within us.”


“In the Dagara culture the drum is a transportation device that carries the listener into other worlds.  Only the sound of a drum has the power to help one travel in this specific way.  This magic works only when the drummer coaxes special rhythms, not just banging noises, out of it.  The journeys that can be taken with the drum concern not only the listener, but the drummer too.  Where the soundship goes, everybody goes.  To refuse to drum is to refuse to travel.  To forget how to drum is to forget how to feel.”


“I had heard that we usually come to Earth from other planets that are more evolved and less in need of mediation.  Our errand on this planet is informed by a decision to partake in the building of the Earth’s cosmic origin, and to promote awareness of our celestial identity to others who are less evolved.  Our elders taught that some of the universe’s inhabitants were as much in need of help as others had the need to help them.  This Earth was one of many places where those who craved for help could find this desire easily satisfied, and where those who needed help could easily become recipients of it.”


“There are moments when no mind is capable of putting certain kinds of feelings into words, when speech is a meager instrument for communicating the reality of a situation.  Words, by their very nature, are limited, mere representations of the real, human-made pieces of utterances.  Reality exists independently from language.”


“It was clear that we had come to the mountains to plunge once again into the infernal and hermetic order of another world, a world different from the ones we had seen before.  How many of them were there?  This world and endless layers of reality?  The elders seemed to have no doubt about the existence of all these worlds.  They knew a great many of them.  I recalled the words of one of the medicine men to whom I had been explaining how I came to abandon the school of the white man.  He said, “Our minds know better than we are able and willing to admit the existence of many more things than we are willing to accept.  The spirit and the mind are one.  Their vision is greater, much greater than the vision we experience in the ordinary world.  Nothing can be imagined that is not already there in the outer and inner worlds.  Your mind is a responder; it receives.  It does not make things up.  It can’t imagine what does not exist.  The blessing in this is that you are your mind.  That is also a curse.  When you refuse to accept the reality of your mind, you refuse yourself, and that is bad.”


“When we resist expansion, we foster the unreal, serving that part of our ego that wants to limit growth and experience.  In the context of the traditional world, the geography of consciousness is very expansive.  Consequently, in the mind of the villager, the unreal is just a new and yet unconfirmed reality in the vocabulary of consciousness.  It is brought to us by the ancestors.  A little hospitality toward it will quickly make it a part of us.”


“I could not fully understand the meaning of most of the trials we had been put through, nor could I contain them in words.  Every initiation has its esoteric and exoteric parts.  As the years have passed, I have realized that some things can be told and others not.  Telling diminishes what is told.  Only what has been integrated by the human aspect of ourselves can be shared with others.  I have also come to believe that things stay alive proportionally to how much silence there is around them.  Meaning does not need words to exist.”


“I had learned that it is not customary for a grown Dagara to be nosy and suspicious.  Those traits are a sign that one has not reached the level of maturity required for true experience.  The Dagara refrains from asking questions when faced with a riddle because questioning and being answered destroys one’s chance to learn for oneself.  Questions are the mind’s way of trying to destroy a mystery.”


“In that moment of awareness, I had an epiphany, that the light we encounter on the road of death is our being in the act of coming home to itself.  I understood that light is our natural state, but that we human beings must help each other as we move towards the shores of light.  We must be born and die many times to reach the light, and ten thousand years can pass in a flash.  Being in the light is knowing we must get others into it.  The soul that has already attained perfect enlightenment returns to life in compassion to help other souls along their journey.  The light is where we belong.  Everyone who is not in the light is looking forward to being there.  So we leave the light to go and experience the need for light, and thus come back to it anew.”


“There is a saying in the village that with death, one world grieves a loss while another celebrates a birth.  Could this be what reincarnation is about?”


“Just as we came in this world alone, so we remember alone.  The elders who facilitate our act of remembering do not mind what we remember as long as we do exactly what we are supposed to do, according to our true nature.”


“Furthermore, to try to learn what the other knows is to distract oneself from really acting upon one’s own memory.  Our memory is not something static that we petrify and store in the inner museum of our being.  We already have everything we need for life inside of us.  If we do not act upon these memories, we fail to live in this transient world.  Some live in order to remember and others live because they do remember.  I began to realize that everything I had experienced in my month of initiation was about learning how to recall what I already knew.”


Here is a clip of Malidoma Patrice Somé being interviewed by psychologist Jeffrey Mishlove on the famous show “Thinking Allowed”:


And here is an article featuring Malidoma:





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