Why I wish I had been born in West Africa

I’ve been thinking about purpose lately. As in, “What is my purpose in this lifetime?” I’m pretty big on existential questions, so even if I weren’t reading Of Water and The Spirit by Malidoma Somé, I’d be mulling them over. But I have been reading it. And it’s knocked my existential socks off.

half-baked thoughts.

Somé writes about his experience growing up through the rites and rituals of his people, the Dagara, in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Check this out:

A few months before birth…a ritual called a ‘hearing’ is held. The pregnant mother, her brothers, the grandfather and the officiating priest are the participants. During the ritual, the incoming soul takes the voice of the mother (some say the soul takes the whole body of the mother, which is why the mother falls into trance and does not remember anything afterward) and answers every question the priest asks.

The living must know who is being reborn, where the soul is from, why it chose to come here, and what gender it has chosen. Some souls ask that specific things be made ready before their arrival–talismanic power objects, medicine bags, metal objects in the form of rings for the ankle or wrist. They do not want to forget who they are and what they have come here to do. It is hard not to forget, because life in this world is filled with many alluring distractions. The name of the newborn is based upon the results of these communications. A name is the life program of its bearer.

My initial thoughts after reading this? Crap. No one ever asked me about my purpose in utero. I’m so screwed.

My name means “A crown or garland,” which hasn’t given me much of a life program. Malidoma, on the other hand, means “friend of the enemy.” And at just about every turn, this man’s life has landed him there–his kidnapping at age 4 by Jesuits and subsequent rearing in a seminary until he was 20, his return and initiation back into his tribe, his extensive education in the West (3 master’s degrees and a PhD) and then writing books like this one, that introduce open-minded WASP-y chicks like me to whole other ways of understanding existence.

I’m just so jealous of the societal focus on purpose that Somé talks about:

For the Dagara, every person is an incarnation, that is a spirit who has taken on a body. So our true nature is spiritual. This world is where one comes to carry out specific projects.

I wish that just as a function of being part of my community, that I was encouraged to find my purpose, that there was some over-arching social fabric that kept us all knit together in that common pursuit. Instead, I feel pretty untethered and on my own, collecting little tidbits along the way.

Not so for Somé, who describes one of his tribal elders explaining the purpose of initiation into adulthood.

What he said was this…Each one of us possessed a center that he had grown away from after birth. To be born was to lose contact with our center, and to grow from childhood to adulthood was to walk away from it.

The center is both within and without. It is everywhere. But we must realize it exists, find it, and be with it, for without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.

Once again, all I’m cripplingly jealous. I desperately want to know those things. And I have to believe that I don’t have to go to Burkina Faso to try and figure it out. I do feel like I have some clues. Creativity, connection and women are all themes that rise to the surface in things that I love, and that draw me in again and again.  But where do I go from those hazy concepts? If I just keep on living as I have, will my purpose become more apparent? Or do I need to go all Malidoma Somé to figure it out?

What do you think your purpose is? And what has helped you feel closer to it?

3 thoughts on “Why I wish I had been born in West Africa

  1. You might be interested in reading “Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service” by Mary Poplin.

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