“There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit.”
One of the foremost voices in African Spirituality
Sent to America by the elders of her tribe, Sobonfu Somé, shares the wisdom of her people, the Dagara of western Africa, as she discusses how we can contact our ancestors in order to heal ourselves, our loved ones and our spirit relations.
Somé is the author of many inspirational works, including: “The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships;” “Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community;” “Falling Out of Grace: Meditations on Loss, Healing and Wisdom, and others.
She is also devoted to giving the waters of life to the Dagara people through a project called, Walking for Water. For more information, please visit www.sobonfu.com or www.walkingforwater.org.
Randy Peyser: I understand your name means “Keeper of the Rituals.” Why are rituals important?
Sobonfu Somé: What food is to our body, ritual is to our soul. A ritual keeps us connected to our spirit, our soul and our purpose. Rituals are also activities in which we call the spirits of our ancestors to come forward. Our ancestors can see cross-dimensionally, which means they can help us to plot our course. For example, they can help us connect the [energetic] wires that have become loose within us so that we can regain our health or our consciousness.
RP: How do you work with the ancestors? Are their prayers that you invoke?
SS: In the Dagara tradition, the ancestors are the ones you go to before you go to God. The ancestors know you. They know how you feel. They know about certain issues. You might tell the ancestors, “I know there are all these other people screaming at God to help them. Would you please go to God when He or She is not busy? I need to get my prayers in, and I am really in a hurry here.”
RP: It’s that simple? You just ask them to help you?
SS: It is important to create a relationship with the ancestors first, but it cannot be a one-way kind of relationship. Your relationship with your ancestors is a relationship that must be nurtured like any other relationship.” Anytime the ancestors come through in answering your request, you take a gift to them. That gift can be something that was in your family, such as an ancestral food that has been passed down from generation to generation, or something old or antique. Your gift can either be something they like or something that you like.
When you give them the gift, you would say something like: “Ancestor, I am really grateful for what you have achieved. I’m very happy that you stepped forward, and you really made this happen. As my gratitude to you, I have something that I hold dear that I really enjoy. Here is a flower. I really love gardenias. Here is a gardenia for you. Thank you.”
RP: How often do you call on your ancestors?
SS: As often as needed. For instance, we speak to our ancestors every morning and every evening. In the morning, we wake up and say: “Wow. Thank you. I am alive today.” We always tell them what we intend to do in that day. We might say something like: “I’m human and I might err here and there. Please show up and help me remember what I said I was going to do today. If there are obstacles, please remove them,” and so forth.
At the end of the day, we report back to them about how our day unfolded. We might say: “Hey, that was a great day. Thank you for helping out,” or “It wasn’t such a great day. Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Here is what I really need,” or “Hey, I asked for this, and I need it delivered. What’s up with that?”
RP: What happens in the case of a relative with whom you or someone in your family didn’t have the best relationship? Is there a way to heal those kinds of relationships once someone has died?
SS: In the Dagara tradition, when someone dies they become smarter. You may need to do some healing work with a particular ancestor. So you pray for them and for yourself and talk to them. You tell them about something they did that might have been an innocent act, but that is still driving you crazy today. You tell them that now that they are smarter and know exactly what happened, that they need to go and unplug those things that are driving you or your family crazy and put in the right “plugs.”
On the other hand, even if you haven’t called on an ancestor, they might call on you first. You might be the only one in your family who feels like something is not right, or that something within your family is making you crazy. Or everybody in your family might be wondering why you think certain things that happened in your family are important when none of them think it is important. In this case, you are the one who was picked by the ancestor to actually be the bridgemaker between this world and the world of the ancestors.
After someone dies, they look around to see who in the family can really help them achieve their goals? They knock on different doorways. They think, maybe if I make enough noise they might wake up, or they find someone who is available and wide open, and why not call on that person? They will call on you to help them make right whatever they have done wrong because of the limitations of the body.
RP: How does a person receive this message from an ancestor?
SS: Through dreams, or through feelings, such as by feeling uncomfortable about things that have happened in the family. Sometimes a person has an uneasy feeling in which they wonder why nobody ever talks about a particular ancestor, or how a person died in a certain way, or why nothing has been done about it by anyone. When you are the one who has been picked by that particular ancestor, you continue to think about the ancestors.
RP: When calling on an ancestor, should we only contact those beings who were from our immediate families?
SS: If it is difficult for you to go to an immediate ancestor, you can go to what we call, “the pool of the ancestor.” The pool of the ancestor has nothing to do with your genealogy; it can be anyone who is an ancestor. It can be the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr, or the spirit of Gandhi, or Eleanor Roosevelt, and all the brave, “crazy” women who encouraged women to speak up and not let their voices go silent.
Trees, animals, rocks, rivers and mountains are also considered to be part of the pool of the ancestors. In the case of someone needing help in creating a bridge to their ancestors, they could call unto the pool of ancestors to come and give them instructions.
RP: What about people who were very evil in this lifetime? Would they also be in the pool of ancestors?
SS: Yes. As I mentioned, in the Dagara tradition, when someone passes away, they become smarter. To not call on a person would be putting a limitation on him or her as to what he or she could be after death. When you are dead and have become smart, you now owe it to people to make things right. For example, someone like Jeffrey Dahmer could be a great asset.
Most people would never think of calling on someone like Jeffrey Dahmer when they are calling on the ancestors. He was a criminal who murdered many people. People would fear that by calling on his name, they would bring in a negative energy.
However, if you know of someone who is about to commit a murder, you could go to Jeffrey Dahmer, and say: “Look Jeffrey. We know you were very destructive when you were alive. Here is the situation that is about to happen, and you know exactly the kind of mindset that it takes for someone to think of committing this kind of crime. We know that from where you are, you want to change things. We ask for you to come and to blow the cover for this person before he commits the crime he is about to commit.” He can then come forward and clean up his track record.
RP: Can you give me an example of an appeal you made to an ancestor and how you were helped?
SS: I am going to answer that question in two ways. It depends on the state I’m in. There is what I call “a prayer of deceit,” which is when you go to the ancestors and say something like: “Oh ancestors, my life is miserable. If you have the time for it and if you really feel that I deserve to have a better day, come and show me.” That’s what I call a “prayer of deceit” because what you are really saying is: “I don’t deserve this. If you think that is really important, then come and help me.” That’s like telling someone that you want them to come, but if they don’t feel like it, then don’t come.
When I go to the ancestors and I don’t have clarity, they will say: “When you have clarity come back and we can have a conversation, because obviously you are not clear about it.” When I have my clarity and I go and speak from my heart and from my gut and say: “I really need you to show up right now, because if you don’t, I am going to die, and then guess what? You won’t have someone to be your voice anymore. So if you need me to continue to do what I’m doing, you’d better show up.”
There are many different situations where I have gone to the ancestors – sometimes screaming, sometimes yelling, and sometimes crying – and I have always gotten an answer because I have made the issue important. One time I said: “I don’t really know why I’m sick. I want you to show up in my dream and show me exactly what I need to do to get well.” Every single time I have asked that, I have always gotten better. I have always gotten the message and clear images of what I’ve needed to do.
RP: Is there a special place you go to when you speak with your ancestors?
SS: There is usually a shrine that you go to and use to invite your ancestors through your prayers in the morning and at night. The shrine is like a gateway, where the ancestors come and you go to in order to interact with one another.
RP: When you create a shrine to an ancestor, are their particular objects that you place on that shrine?
SS: First of all, each shrine has to have a purpose. What is the purpose of this shrine? What will it help you achieve? Creating a shrine to an ancestor is not just a particular shrine to an ancestor; the purpose of a shrine can be to create a deeper relationship to that ancestor, or to create a shrine where that ancestor can be put to work in correcting certain things that are happening within the family or within society.
You have to understand the purpose for that shrine, and then the purpose will dictate the kind of things you would have on the shrine. A shrine to an ancestor will have anything that reminds you of your ancestors. If it is for a particular ancestor, you can put pictures of that ancestor, or include things that they love. In the Dagara tradition, shrines for the ancestors include the color, red. And they feature things that are old or antique. They also can have masks.
The shrine cannot contain a contradiction. For example, you cannot create a shrine for peace and have all kinds of things about war on it. That is a contradiction. Instead, think about all the kinds of things that could bring about peace, and include those kinds of things on your shrine.
RP: Calling on our ancestors and working with them is one very powerful way in which we can work with ritual. What are some other things that women can do to reclaim the sacred in their lives?
SS: The number one rule of women is that we need a women’s circle; we need to create trust between women. One of the most heartbreaking things for me is to realize, that in the West, we don’t have trust. In Africa, when I was growing up, it was a given that you were always honest and truthful with other women. When I went to another woman and said, “between women,” that term meant that you were not allowed to cheat or to lie; you could only say things the way they were. The understanding is that women work with the web of life.
As a result, if someone comes to you and says, “between women” and you lie, then you are shooting lies into that web of life, and impacting all women around the world. Bettering our relationship with other women is very important.
In my tradition, the best ally of a woman is a woman; and your worst enemy is also a woman, because a lot of times, how we allow ourselves to be taken advantage of in the world comes from an ingrained voice from a sister or mother who always said: “It’s okay to let someone abuse you.” When you are in a relationship and your partner is abusive, a lot of times you can hear your mother’s voice, saying: “It’s okay honey. Just take it.”
There is a lot of healing that is needed in the root, in the foundation of the feminine. We need to do what my grandmother said, which was to: “Speak your gut. Liberate your mouth. Speak it out!” so that we no longer have women who are silent and just surviving, and who just take it, and take it, and take it until they collapse. The backbone of society rides on women. In order to have a healthy community, you have to have healthy women.
In the Dagara tradition, they say the best way to destroy a culture is to destroy the women first. My suggestion is that we work on ourselves and on each other in bettering our relationship with the feminine. As we work on our relationship, we can have a stronger relationship with other women so we can have a balance and the kind of powers that enable us to carry out a healthy relationship with men. Remember that to be a woman is an honor. Learning to harness the power of the feminine will help us get to our purpose.