Remembering Our Purpose

The teachings of indigenous cultures may help us go beyond modernity

One of the articles in Exploring Our Interconnectedness (IC#34)
Originally published in Winter 1993 on page 30
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

There was a time when all people were indigenous people on some part of the Earth. But in the last half of the millennium, the migration of people from region to region and from countryside to city broke many of the ties we used to have to one another and to the land and water that supported us.

Those who didn’t make that move, the indigenous peoples of the world, can help us remember what it’s like to be connected to the environment and to each other in a community. This is valuable not because we would necessarily want to return to the way we used to live, but because facets of that connectedness can contribute greatly as we create a sustainable way of life.

One person who is helping the people of the West better understand what indigenous cultures have to offer is Malidoma Somé from the Dagara tribe in the Burkina Faso region of West Africa.

Malidoma, born in 1956, was taken from his family at the age of five by missionaries and sent to a Jesuit boarding school. When at the age of 20 he returned to Dano, his village, he was unable to speak his native tongue, unlearned in the ways of his people, and only his mother recognized him. He was filled with contempt and anger toward the Jesuits for the treatment he had received at their hands, and toward his village for handing him away.

Determined to spiritually and emotionally reconnect with his tribe, Malidoma urged the village elders to allow him to undergo the arduous process of initiation, a rite of passage usually undertaken at a much earlier age.

After much consideration, they agreed.

Malidoma passed the six-week long ordeal and was enthusiastically welcomed back into the tribe. He later went on to the Sorbonne in Paris, where he earned a doctorate in political science, and Brandeis University in Boston, where he received a Ph.D. in literature.

He now writes and speaks about the lessons of the indigenous world, and leads workshops for men, and for men and women, on initiation, ritual, and healing.

Malidoma has two books coming out this year: Ritual, Power, Healing, and Community, to be published by Swan-Raven books, and his autobiography, which will be published by Jeremy Tarcher, Inc. this fall. Malidoma can be reached at 2298 Cornell Street, Palo Alto CA 94306, 415/493-4073.

Sarah: From what I’ve heard of your life as a child, you’ve had some very negative experiences at the hands of Europeans.

Malidoma: Oh, absolutely…

Sarah: And yet you don’t seem to hold any bitterness now.

Malidoma: Well, it would be an exaggeration to say that I don’t hold any bitterness, but the process that my own culture allowed me to go through released a lot of disastrous anger.

Sarah: What was it that helped you get over that anger and bitterness?

Malidoma: The principal present my culture provided me was a much greater sense of my own identity, an identity that was not defined, but rather remembered. It provided me a much greater trust in myself, a greater hope for a future, and a very grounded walk in my day-to-day life that does not have to wait for outside affirmation.

My name, Malidoma, means to seek friendship with strangers. My elders told me, as long as I do what I am destined to do – that is, to be a kind of linking agent between cultures – I don’t have to worry about where to find the words or where to find the meaning to convey to an audience.

Sarah: How do you go about being that linking agent?

Malidoma: It’s essentially connected with what the elders of the indigenous world dream of: to see cultures from all over come to a point of mutual understanding and respect so that the wounds created by their experiences with each other can come to a healing place.

What I’m doing is actually on behalf of those elders. It is inspired by their spirituality, how they see themselves as humans in nature, how they view their own social system.

It entails a lot of things: speaking about community medicine, building communities – starting with the individual’s identity and community identity. Much of my teaching is a simple validation of people’s feelings, visions, and experiences that they cannot find a context for because the context in which those experiences and visions are happening is systematically post-modern. For people in the West to see somebody who is from a still-existing indigenous place, who can validate and explain the realities they’ve been experiencing at that very personal level, makes all the difference.

Sarah: Can you tell me something about the way children are brought up in your culture?

Malidoma: First of all, children are looked upon as mature people who are in a state of physical adjustment.

Normally, six or 12 weeks into pregnancy there is a ritual that is lead by a group of advisors who get together with the pregnant woman. The purpose of the ritual is to inquire about the identity of the soul who is waiting to be born. Those attending ask the baby: “Who are you? What are you coming here for? What can we do for you, as people who have already arrived?”

Normally, the mother takes on a very shrill, thin voice, known as the spirit voice, to respond to these questions. Based on the answers they get, they design a name for the baby.

At birth, the newborn’s first cry is taken very seriously. It is not considered a cry; it’s looked at as a signal that the new soul has finally arrived and is crying out to see if there are other souls. And for that reason, those attending the birth bring in other children who are supposed to scream back at the crying newborn.

It’s very common to find a mother at night who hasn’t seen her 8-month-old baby for the past day. She doesn’t know where he is; she just knows he’s somewhere in one of the many houses and she knows he’s safe. And, more often than not, there’s another child who stays with that mother while her own child is gone somewhere. This is a very common practice in the villages; it gives the child a very broad sense of belonging.

So children grow up very, very aware of what a village is about; everybody chips in to help raise the child. It’s very rare that a child feels isolated or develops psychological problems; everyone is very aware of where he or she belongs.

Sarah: You mentioned earlier the initiation process. Why is this so important?

Malidoma: Growth itself makes one forget about who one is. So initiation is something that is designed to help one remember one’s origin and the very purpose of one’s occurrence on this side of reality – that is to say, why one was born. This is why initiation is especially magical.

So a person who is not initiated is considered a child, no matter how old that person is, because that person will not be able to recall his or her purpose. Without initiation, the bridge between youth and adulthood can never be crossed, and a person’s heart is open to anything – to being shot down by any kind of energy going around. In the village, to not be initiated is to be a non-person.

Sarah: Can you say more about the sense of interconnectedness that exists in your village?

Malidoma: When you live as one family for a long time, you come to feel that there is a kind of connection between individuals that is not just physical or parental or relational, but is a connection at the level of soul.

When I go home, things get pointed out to me about myself that I thought were totally hidden. But the elders, through their divinational process, can point to things that I did that require me to go through a cleansing ritual. And this tells me that when people are linked together at that level, geography is no longer an issue.

What’s good about this is that the individual never feels isolated from the rest of the community. And nobody is higher than anybody else, so there is no class.

There is something very interesting about a classless society; it’s one that allows itself to be lead by the spirit. There is a greater tendency to assist those who are older and slower, and it prevents people from feeling cut off or left out or off track.

One of the things that I have been able to communicate to my elders that has lead to a great deal of disgust on their part, is the fact that there are homeless people in this country. To them it is impossible that somebody could be homeless. They’re surprised and appalled because they don’t understand what happens when the meaning of community is not carried out.

Sarah: What do you think the West can learn from the kind of community you’ve been describing?

Malidoma: In the West, what I’ve noticed is that what is called a community is more a conglomeration of individuals who are so self-centered and isolated that there is a kind of suspicion of the other, simply because there isn’t enough knowledge of the other to remove that suspicion. So trust becomes the challenge to actual community.

It is a very tricky thing, because I think that capitalism encourages this kind of isolation as a good environment for consumerism. And there is a relationship between a consumer society and these individuals who are defined by isolation from one another, and private space and private ownership.

The community I am talking about is one in which respect for the person is based upon that person’s irreplaceable position in the world. To live with the knowledge that an approved project was the reason for one’s birth commands respect for the sacred. In the absence of initiation as a remembering and transforming experience, the modern world has created career counseling.

In the village, the houses are built with entrances that are doorless. That is the first sign that the people have a very, very different sense of one another.

When I go home and I want to take a nap, there are some questions as to what is wrong with me. And if I want to spend a little time by myself, everyone wonders if something is the matter with me. In the village, everything is at the same time private and public.

I don’t think that there is any need to create in the West the kind of community that there is in the indigenous world. But there is certainly a need to come closer together and to learn about each other sufficiently so as to bridge the gap that separates us.

Sarah: What you’re talking about goes to the very heart of Western culture. Privacy and freedom are held very dear to many people.

Malidoma: The sense of privacy people have in the West is a very lonely privacy; it is a very frightening privacy. The freedom that goes along with it is of pretty much the same nature; it is a freedom that is weighty, that is a burden.

Within the context of real community, privacy and freedom are not lost. Community provides a greater sense of freedom – a freedom based on a deep understanding of each individual’s purpose. When people lose their soul’s essence, they have to borrow the vision of some ideologist crippled with separatist visions of freedom.

Sarah: What do you think it would take to convince Westerners that it’s in their interest to give up some of that privacy and isolation?

Malidoma: Progress as it has been unfolding is excruciatingly painful to the individual; the individual can no longer afford to live by values such as the systematic accumulation of material goods as the yardstick by which to measure happiness.

The spiritual thirst that is latent in everybody can never come to a place of fulfillment unless people begin to think of each other as potential brothers and sisters. Otherwise, they can never reach on the inside the same level of wealth that they’ve reached outside.

In this case, the dying indigenous cultures all over the world have something to offer; not something that will help them survive, but something at least that will survive them, because modernism has stabbed mortally every indigenous culture.

Sarah: When you look to the future, what do you think are humanity’s prospects?

Malidoma: It’s not good. Compulsive denial, arrogant paternalism, and hollow pretense have become viral infections endangering the future. The direction of the world, at least seen from an indigenous point of view, is like something that is in a direct collision course with catastrophe, and the more an indigenous person understands this culture, the more he becomes baffled by the direction it’s heading.

But in the middle of that are people who are waking up slowly, people whom I like to call the new shamans, the new healers, the new energy, the repair people.

So at a spiritual level, we’re witnessing something extremely fascinating. People are becoming more aware of the values of nature, are becoming more respectful, more sensitive to the purity of the origin. These people are those whom I call the modern indigenous persons. And these are the people who are gradually forming what I’ve called the new tribal order – that is to say a brand new unity, a brand new circle of people who are living by the very values that modernity had to do away with in order to affirm itself.

As more people join, it’s going to build up into an energy field, a force field strong enough to act as an antibiotic, a force field capable of sustaining a much brighter, healthier situation in the future.

I think that this last decade of the Twentieth Century is very pivotal in that sense. And I’m really fortunate, probably, to be in the midst of it.


By Malidoma Somé

Initiation processes vary from culture to culture. For the Dagara, initiation is intended to help young people on the verge of adulthood to “remember” their purpose on Earth.

Initiation is a six-week long journey into the magical world. It begins when families walk their young ones to the outskirts of the village and surrender them to the wilderness after stripping them of their clothes. The young ones walk into the bush naked and scared, a condition necessary for the ritual remembering. Throughout the ordeal there is no food except that which can be found in the bush.

I was told to sit in front of a tree and to gaze at it. The hot tropical sun broiled me, ants bit me, and I was blinded by sweat. Every so often, an elder would come and check on me. The experience was painful and boring, but it all culminated in a vision in which the tree disappeared and I saw a woman emerge from it. She was familiar as a mother or some sacred caretaker. Whoever she was, the reunion was very emotional, and the experience ended with me hugging that tree and weeping.

I could invoke Western psychology to explain the whole experience away, including the reaction of satisfaction of the elders, but I won’t because my respect for trees and nature began after this experience, the first of a series of magical journeys.

What is important is that exercises like this weakened my resistance to the dream world and the supernatural to the point where I was able to consciously journey into an underworld that is only acceptable in the West as a fairy tale. But the experience itself registered in my own consciousness as a disappearance to my own physicality. In other words, in the underworld one has a shape, but that shape is no longer available to the physical sight. By the time one gets back to the world, the body registers things unlike before.

The underworld is the place where one encounters one’s own identity prior to being born into a community of humans. It is the ideal place for remembering one’s energetic identity as well as one’s life project.

Also, one returns from the underworld with something which serves as the first medicine, a kind of reference book that you return to whenever you feel the need to refresh your memory of what you are doing here on Earth. How it’s made accessible to the initiate is part of a tribal secret held tightly by elders. But a cave in a mountain can easily become a gateway.

Coming out of the underworld alive ends the initiation process. You return to where you had been stripped of your clothes six weeks earlier, and your family and the whole village is there waiting for you.

The return to the village is like returning to the human world. It’s warm, comforting, loving, and relaxing. Everybody knows that you know, and so you dance your knowledge in front of the whole village and celebrate with your loved ones the recovery of your memory.