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The Seen and the Unseen: Spirituality among the Dagara people

I grew up in southwestern Burkina Faso, where the houses are built with mud and nicely polished with cow dung and ash. The children have their own rooms; the women have their rooms; and the men have their room. It is not to promote gender differences or sexism but is a way for men, women, and children to be able to meet their needs. Men and women often come together, but always in a sacred space.

I am from the Dagara tribe, and in my tradition it is customary for pregnant women to go through a hearing ritual. The purpose of a hearing ritual is to listen to the incoming baby; to find out who it is; why it’s coming at this time; what it’s purpose is; what it likes or dislikes; and what the living can do to prepare space for this person. The child’s name is then given based on that information. Four weeks after the birth the naming for a baby girl takes place, and three weeks after the birth, a baby boy is named. In the Dagara tradition, you own your name up until the age of five. After the age of five, your name owns you. Your name is an energy; your name has a life force. It creates an umbrella under which you live. That is why it is important to hear the child before they giving him or her the name, because the name must match the purpose. My name, Sobonfu, means “keeper of rituals.”

A child in Africa is born with ritual and dies with ritual. Your life is committed to rituals. We often say in my tradition that you’re either doing a ritual, thinking about getting into one, are in the middle of one, or just finished one. The purpose of ritual is to connect us to our own essence, to help us tune into the collective spirit, or to mend whatever is broken, whatever wires have been pulled out of one’s life, so we can start anew. Ritual is to the soul what food is to the physical body.

In the Dagara tradition, healing comes in many different forms. There is the spiritual plane; there is the mind; there is your soul. There is the seen world and there is the unseen world. And when you’re addressing a person who is ill, you have to tap into all of this. But in any illness, start at the spiritual realm. If you are having a conflict with someone, that is grounds for healing. It means there is something you two have to share with the world. That’s why you are fighting to begin with. So you have to learn to know this person better. That’s why any conflict is seen with excitement. “There’s conflict somewhere? Good! Let’s get there.” Conflict is actually seen as a gift from the spirits, designed to bring two people into communion: communion with who they are and what they have to offer. Conflicts are not the enemy. The problem comes from not wanting to deal with the conflict. A lot of the illnesses that we have come from some kind of conflict: being rejected by the people we love the most; feeling we are not good enough; pretending to be somebody we are not. I say that last piece because I am a woman, and we women will not always say what we feel. We will hold it until 50 years after the incident. Then the genie comes out of the bottle and our partner is completely clueless.

In the Dagara tradition, the healers have you walk so they can see how your body moves. Is your body ready to deal with this or are you still in conflict? The other way that healing happens is in the context of a community. If someone comes down with a particular illness, it is not seen as that person’s problem. It is a problem of the community, because that person is actually the voice of what is deeper in the core, in the fabric of the community. So the rest of the community must step in order to help this person break whatever it is they are carrying. And that is why we say “the tooth of a person bothers the teeth of every body.”

In my tradition ancestors are a part of everyday life, you never exclude them, because whatever is happening in your life you know they have a part in it. That is the reason why if you are going through challenges people will say, “Did you ask the ancestors for help?” And you say, “Right, I didn’t put them to work.” If you really think about our ancestors, how many times do we really employ them? The unemployment line is infinite. Consider the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. In the Dagara tradition, here is how we would use such a person: If there is something unsettling happening in the village the people will go to such a person’s grave and say, “Listen up, Jeffrey Dahmer, we know that when you were alive you were mischievous. We won’t debate that. Now here is someone who has similar behavior and we are not able to put our hands on that person so we are calling on to you to come and to blow this person’s cover.” And it works every single time. The person who had done the most wrong in the family or in the village owes it to the village to come back and to change things around.

Among our rituals are individual ones that you must do in order to keep your spirit attuned or cleansed. Then there are spontaneous rituals, for when something strange happens, especially in a situation you never faced before. If you find yourself in the Kalahari Desert the ritual helps you to know that you are not just crazy, that what you have experienced is real. And there is radical ritual. Radical ritual is for situations in which someone’s spirit, soul, and body have been overtaken by negative energy, for example, making it impossible for the person to come to a place of balance in life. Radical ritual is created by a community on behalf of one or more individuals.

Initiation into adulthood is a radical ritual. When we become teenagers we all want to fight to gain our own authenticity, our own selves, our own whatever it is that we are looking for. That is often seen by the elders as a welcome opportunity because it is a sign that you are ready to go through initiation. You are now ready to take on more responsibilities. When you go through initiation you have to have a mentor. Because going through initiation is like this: someone breaks your life into thousands of pieces and throws them up all in the air. Then they say, “Now find the pieces.” But mind you the pieces aren’t supposed to be exactly where they were before. If they are, then there is something wrong. The pieces have to be different, and that is the role of the mentor. Each time you pick a piece and you want to fit it where it was before, the mentor guides you in a different direction: “What if you put it here, what would happen? That would be interesting. Let’s explore that interesting thing.”

You start to realize that major challenges that you have gone through in your life are initiation forms. Those initiation forms are there to help you follow the next course in life, and if you do not follow those courses something in you dies. Yet the purpose of initiation is to get those things to die so you can get the new skin on, just like a lizard. As you grow up, you shed those skins and take on something new. You don’t want to put the old skin back because it wouldn’t fit.

There is also a maintenance ritual, which is like getting an oil change for your car. If you don’t do those maintenance rituals you can’t have a successful radical ritual because there are too many fragmentations.

Other forms of healing exist, in which you need to be sent to the other world—literally mind, body, soul, all in the other world—to shift your reality and actually take a form of an animal. This might be used in the case of a disease where, no matter what you do, you are not able to release it. The healer will actually make you into a pig in whose body the disease will not survive. After you have lived in that body and they have seen the body shift, the healer will turn you back into a human. Those kinds of things are our reality. It is a very complex world be- cause the living and the dead intermingle in a larger community, and in order for us to do the healing we have to rely on the seen and the unseen realm.

How do we get into the role of a healer? Sometimes we are picked. Sometimes we are born with it; sometimes curiosity takes us on a path and then you find you have been tagged. Then there’s no going back. For myself, my grandparents were very much into healing. And I always loved touching everything, especially the thing they always told me not to touch. I would hide and I would try to observe what is going on. It wasn’t until I was about five that I started to speak in a language that no one could understand. I had to be put through a ritual for them to find what the message was. And then I was given the responsibility for that message. You would think that since I was born in a community, in a tribe, that everything would go smoothly, but it was the opposite. Once I found out that I had responsibility, I became very reluctant. I didn’t want to do anything. All I wanted to do was travel, explore the world, and come back home and tell my stories. And the elders said, “When you decide to be alive again, let us know.” So I went off crying. I realized that on the day they made me responsible for what I saw and felt I started to resent that I had to be responsible for other people. And from that day a part of my life died. Dreams that I used to have about the future, I started to kill those dreams, and a lot of things along with them. So after several days I went back to the elder and said, “Alright. I have finished now. I am ready.” And he said, “are you really sure? Go back and think. Because once you go through certain rituals there is no going back. Are you really sure? Is your body saying ‘yes’ to it? Is your mind saying ‘yes’ to it? Is your spirit in agreement? And is your soul ready for it?’

I said, “God, that’s kind of big, isn’t it? I have to get all those pieces together?”
“Yes, you do,” he said. “And I have to tell you, once you go through those things, yes, the responsibilities are huge.”

Sobonfu Somé is a healer from the Dagara people of Burkina Faso. She has written two books, The Spirit of Intimacy (William Morrow) and Welcoming Spirit Home(New World Library). This article is adapted from a talk she gave at the Ringing Rocks Foundation in December 2008.Video clips of Sobonfu’s talk are on the Cultural Survival website (, and audio portions of this talk will also be broadcast to one million indigenous listeners in Guatemala through our community radio project.

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