And so begins Malidoma Patrice Somé's Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman, which I can say has been one of my favorite books to read this year.
In his autobiography, Somé seeks to create an understanding of two drastically different worlds: the Dagara of Burkina Faso and the western world. Somé was born in a Dagara village during the early 1950s but is kidnapped by a French Jesuit missionary as a "child of God"--trained to be a priest--where he suffers verbal, physical and sexual abuse. At the age of 20 he escapes and finds his way back to his village but, having lost his ability to speak local language and having a European education, he is not accepted by the villagers ("they understood literacy as an eviction of a soul from its body...to read was to participate in an alien form of magic that was destructive to the tribe"). He undergoes a dangerous 6-week long initiation in order to become one of his people again.
The book is both engaging and fascinating, but I think I enjoyed it so much for two reasons. 1) Somé is Burkinabè. Gotta support Burkinabè authors! 2) Since I arrived in Burkina, I've always been so curious and intrigued by the world of animism. It is such a strange, magical and secretive religion. I remember when I was in Pobé, I asked several of my friends to tell me more about animistic traditions, but they all responded with a shy smile and a shrug of their shoulders. This nassarra wasn't about to get any information about the secret world of animism. This book, much to my excitement, goes in great detail about some of the animistic rituals, traditions and customs Somé witnessed. As a foreigner reading this, you think that it has to be make-believe. The walking dead, visiting the underworld, defying gravity...these things just don't happen in the "real world." Yet for the Dagara people, it's a part of their life. I found it all so fascinating. I also found myself highlighting phrases, writing in the margins and actually wishing I was back in college having to write a paper on this book.
A quick Google search on Somé tells me that he holds three masters degrees, two doctorates and taught at the University of Michigan. He travels the world sharing his story. The book says he lives in Oakland, though it was published in 1994. Something tells me that meeting Somé would be an incredible experience.