Sobonfu Somé—whose given name means “keeper of rituals”—touched my soul and lifted my spirit as we talked about closeness and sacredness in matters of the heart. A gentle and regal woman who comes from the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, Sobonfu has written three insightful books, The Spirit of Intimacy, Welcoming Spirit Home and Falling Out of Grace. Her mission here in the West is to share knowledge from the Motherland that will rekindle our own ancient innate wisdom and faith and help us say yes to life. Sobonfu is also working on a project to bring water to her African village. Learn more about Somé and her important work at her Web site, sobonfu.com.
Endings and new beginnings. In the tradition of your Dagara tribe and throughout our West African homeland, does this time of year have spiritual significance in the life of the community?
It is a time of renewal, a time to check your whole life and ask, What are the things burdening me and how can I release them? There are ancient rituals to help, like one called “the clearing of the village,” where a mask is carried around by the elders and if you have been holding on to something, you speak it and let it go. And we make an offering of black-eyed peas, placing them in the four corners of the house. This is symbolic of good luck and the releasing of unconscious negative energy.
Over the seas and the centuries we’ve held on to some traditions of our Motherland, like cooking black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day, and surely to our love of life, laughter, celebrating and praying together—being in community.
Community is the spirit behind any people that helps them achieve their purpose. Community is our home, it brings out our best and is a container into which we contribute our gifts. In all of Africa, community is the sanity bringer to the individual.
And the children are the wealth of the community. What are the adults called to do to protect the children?
Children in our tradition are basically spirits – spirits who are coming to test the willingness, generosity, genuineness and openness of the people. They are called the future because no community has ever survived without its children. And so the role of the community is to attend to the children’s needs. They are the truth speakers and will talk about things the community will not address. Our role is to protect that innocence, that spirit that is already full, and not to talk to a child like an empty bag coming to be filled with our junk. That’s why, for instance, instead of standing up when talking to children, we should get down to their level, so we can really listen to and watch what they are trying to communicate.
This is a supposedly liberated culture, but we keep private the inner life of our relationships, which you say strangles them in the face of crises.
In fact, a marriage is not two people’s business; it is a marriage of the entire community. Back home when you tell someone you’re getting married on a particular day, that person and many others will tell others they’re getting married on that same day. If you don’t know our ways, you’ll be confused. Every time someone gets married, the whole community gets married all over again so that its energy is renewed with the couple’s vows. In your lifetime you can marry a thousand times.
What is the role of your community when a marriage is in trouble?
It is the job of the community to step in and bring light to whatever is creating the conflict. We are always looking at one another, and we will notice sadness. “Did you see her face? It didn’t seem happy,” one will tell another. Soon the whole village gathers – sometimes 200 people or more – and calls the couple to the center, and the elders ask why they haven’t spoken about what is bugging them, “and we want to know what is so good about the trouble you’re keeping quiet about, because we want a piece.” And so the relationship is continuously taken care of.
How often do marriages in your village break up?
Actually, marriages do not break up at all for the simple reason that the system in place helps couples deal with the issues they are struggling with.
Without this support your own marriage, arranged by the elders of your tribe, suffered tremendous strain, which has led to separation.
Yes, sadly. Living in the West, without the support of community, is like being on death row in terms of relationship. There isn’t any energy supporting you. You are left to pick up the pieces of whatever is falling apart.
You are both from the same tribe, only from different villages. Still, it had to be an extremely difficult union for the two of you: Malidoma Somé, taken away from his village as boy to be educated by the Jesuits. Then he’s off to the Sorbonne and Brandeis University, is a college professor in the Midwest – is Westernized. He gets a letter from village elders telling him that he’s married. And though he has never met you, he obediently returns home for you. This is amazing!
And at the time, you are a village girl, rich in wisdom and culture, living in a remote region of Burkina Faso without roads, plumbing or electricity. You walk miles each day to fetch water and sleep on your mat on the ground at night, sometimes under the stars. You have the equivalent of a middle-school education. Your lives couldn’t have been more different.
I definitely thought I was going to die from my first plane ride, from the cold in January in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from suddenly living in an apartment with a husband I barely knew, from the loneliness I felt not speaking the language. The food, the customs, everything was so different. And poor Malidoma, he really tried. But he didnt know what to do with me. I was crying all the time. But then I’m the kind of person who says, “Okay, this is a challenge, let’s work on it, I’m willing to take it on.”
After 14 years of trying, how was your parting received back home?
Oh, God, it was the worst insult we could bring. It was like carrying a rotten cadaver in the midst of the village. It was a funeral when I came home and announced to my family what had happened, the shock on their faces, the anger, sadness, confusion.
You are an inspiring and remarkable woman. How are you doing on your own in the States?
It was a wound to my personal pride if I couldn’t make a relationship work. Malidoma is a good man. I have gone from anger to sadness, bitterness to hope, and now I don’t know where I am. I’ve gone beyond holding my breath and hoping that things will get better. All I am praying for right now is that the relationship can be good in a different way if that is what it’s supposed to be.
You said that in relationships partners can become passive about what’s bothering them, so frustrations and disappointments pile up, eroding intimacy. Tell us more about your village’s rituals for couples that create a sacred space for truth telling, healing and renewing intimacy.
Every five days there’s an opportunity for them to face each other, call upon spirit, and voice their hurts without blame. It can get heated, but eventually the two calm down and reconcile. The marriage is brought back to health as they remember the spirit behind it. They then pour water onto each other, symbolic of washing away friction. Creating a ritual space releases tension so we can hear our partner’s concerns, and it creates an ear that can listen without feeling defensive. The ritual is a renewal of the marriage vow. In Dagara culture we don’t believe saying yes one time is enough for intimacy always to be there. We need to renew intimacy continuously.
Intimacy is sacred.
It is the soul of the relationship. It’s cultivated by trusting and loving ourselves and learning to open all the doorways to our psyche and soul and letting in another person who is trying to do the same thing. Intimacy is fed by honesty and loving. That’s where the bridging happens.
Our overscheduled and stressful lives can cause us to feel disconnected from spirit. Is there a ritual to reconnect us?
Hold a glass of water in your hand, pour the water into a plant, and call on the spirit. Call on your ancestors. They are waiting to help you.Speak to them as you speak to your friends.Call dear ones by name. If you ask something of the ancestors, you will receive it. But you must take something back to them. You must say thank you. And you can do that by giving love to the children.