Somé, Malidoma Patrice, The Healing Wisdom of Africa

Reviewed by George Simons at
An experience in its own right
The Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Patrice Somé is very much about ritual and is an initiatory ritual experience in its own right. As I started into it, I was discouraged and beset with the temptation to lay it aside. It felt like a mix of 1980s New Age californication with reminiscences of a Catholic boyhood. Being my stubborn self, however, I dragged it on bus trips to the market and schlepped it to the swimming pool to prelude my afternoon sieste provinçale. Willy-nilly I pushed my way deeper into it and achieved a breakthrough at about the two-thirds point.
I can't say exactly when or how this happened, but the shift was one that I had experienced on occasion before. Once was at an Easter Vigil ceremony at St. Meinrad Abbey in the middle of the night. It started slowly and tediously with the lengthy chanted biblical history of salvation interspersed by our joining the rhythm of the monastic psalmody. At a certain point my spirit entered a new space where time was no more, tiredness disappeared and the distracting realities of daily existence had vanished. We were no longer individuals attending a service but a community of healing spirits.
Another ritual entry into sacred space happened in the company of 200 hundred men, as we gathered to remember our fathers. Each of us began telling a story of loss in regard to the men in our lives. For some separation by death, for others the fatherly love they missed out on, and for many the bitter awareness of having betrayed their fathers for their mother's affection. As the stories continued to pour out, tears and lamentation began to flow until the sound of the wailing, grieving mass was too large for the room, passed through the walls and entered the universe. Later we wondered if it were heard by the women who had so stridently complained that men were without feelings... Trained to mistrust and compete with each other, we were transformed into brothers by our common grief in the presence of the spirits of our fathers, who continue to walk with us as we walk with each other.
I cite these experiences in a bit of detail because they illustrate not only what the book talks about but what it does: ritual, and symbol that draw on our ancestors' wisdom, live in our community, and are remembered in our bones. Like ritual, the book is repetitious rather than climactic. Its aim is not brilliant ideas but glowing human beings. A blinding light is not a once-and-for-all fix, but perhaps betimes a starting point.
Ritual experiences reposition our viewpoints on life, who we belong to and how we must act. Somé frequently contrasts contemporary "Western" life with the "indigenous" tribal world. On one hand, one senses that this is unfair and that the geography of it is incidental. On the other hand, the recognizable social dynamics are present in what he says. There is ample evidence that spiritual experience, ritual and its powers and human solidarity challenge our accepted practice of everyday values and behaviors. Unfortunately spiritual and religious perception has suffered from academic snobbery, the transformation of religious ethic into colonialism and capitalism, and the deadly politicization of religion to serve purposes of power, conquest and consumerism. Abuse of religion becomes excuse for not facing the fear of ritual, feeling, and spirit, forces that might enter our lives and contribute to them in ways we cannot know beforehand.
At its best, when not perverted by such powers and perceptions, the ritual experience and the spiritual community can allow us what seem like dangerously radical perspectives. For example, I have long been agitated by and agitated against the law and order driven penal system in my native country. It creates and perpetrates injustice to the disadvantaged while it reinforces damning bias in the general population. This ritual reading of The Healing Wisdom of Africa brought out of my bones a deeper memory of the purpose of community and its primary role of healing itself by healing its members and their divisions. I belong to a country that excommunicates and punishes "badness" at great expense. with little being done to forgive, heal, integrate and enhance our lives with reconciliation with brothers and sisters who have "transgressed." Whether behind Leavenworth bars or in plush Wall Street offices, being right and being a winner appear to trump being together at every level. We forget what we are here for... Ritual reminds us.
Lest you be tempted to see either the book or my review of it as a paean to the noble savage, forget it. It is about how wounded community and its members can go about healing, whether in Burkina Faso, Berlin or Beverly Hills. You don't have to buy the cosmology of Somé's Dagara tribe to share their wisdom and experience or benefit from the initiations that our own lives insist we enter. The take away, in the author's own words, is the "intensity of human connection," something countless numbers of today's individuals desperately tweet for like a caged bird.

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