by Heather Sullivan
What is most striking about Malidoma Somé’s Of Water and the Spirit is not only his extraordinary account of the Dagara initiation ritual, but the ways in which he uses his experiences to make comments upon Western culture. Because of the way in which he was raised and educated, Somé clearly dwells upon the border between his native Dagara culture and the vastly differing Western culture. Somé himself characterizes himself as “a man of two worlds,” with his lifework being to attempt to explain each to the other. Because of his unique status, Somé is in the position to make extremely insightful comments about his native culture, his adopted Western culture, and the ties that bond the two together despite their seemingly irreconcilable differences.
As much as this story is about Somé’s initiation, it is just as much a commentary on what happens under colonization. To sum up briefly, Somé seems to be discussing the arrogance and yet the connective void - what he calls the “sickness” - of Western culture. Colonization begins from a feeling of superiority in Western, in this case exclusively European, countries; they believe in their right to own the land inhabited by others. A secondary but nonetheless important assumption under colonialism is the belief that the European culture is better, more productive and beneficial to its members. Hence it is justified in the minds of the colonizers that they enter a foreign land, displace the indigenous peoples from their homes and strip them of their cultures. Despite the fact that these cultures, with their accompanying rituals, traditions and religions, have been established for millennia, the colonizers maintain a belief that these cultures are backward, inferior and somehow harmful to their members. It is “for their own good” that these indigenous peoples are divided like spoils of war amongst colonizing nations, Christianized and forced to abandon their native tongues in favor of the language of the colonizer. Somé himself is representative of his culture: kidnapped from his indigenous way of life and placed against his will into a Jesuit school where he is cruelly punished for misuse of the French language and force-fed Christianity. The colonizers came equipped with various methods of stripping the native of his culture and assimilating him, with or without his consent, into theirs; education, in this light, seems to be a method of brainwashing.
However, Somé tells his readers, Western cultures have not forgotten about the indigenous ways of life they have destroyed. In fact, in today’s Post-Colonial age, there is much talk about preserving indigenous cultures; this discourse originates from Eurocentric nations that, truth be told, had a great hand in the original decimation of the Non-West. The emergence of this interest in Non-Western cultures signifies to Somé the “sickness” of Western culture; we are out of touch with our own ancestors and therefore fixate on those of the cultures we have destroyed. The Western worldview is clearly out of synch; we look to our future for better times, while the Non-West celebrates its past and finds perfection in its present.
Although it is a striking narrative, and indicates deep reverence for his native culture, Somé’s description of his Dagara initiation does not necessarily have to be believable to Western readers in order to be effective. Whether or not a Westerner believes in Dagara magic is immaterial; Somé himself probably expected that those from outside his native culture would find it difficult to place much credibility in his story. Regardless of whether one finds his account believable or not, the fact remains that it forces a Western reader to approach the stereotypes about Non-Western cultures in a different way, perhaps even strike them down altogether and create new approaches. We are taught in the West that cultures like the Dagara are “primitive,” that their rituals are “stylized” and “traditional” (read: “backward”), and that their magic is really nothing more than “voodoo” (translation: “evil,” or perhaps simply “ignorant”); yet the eloquence of Somé’s story preludes these assumptions.
If read for its commentary on the dynamic that has historically existed between the West and the Non-West, Of Water and the Spirit is a beautifully constructed, respectful account of Somé’s own personal learning experiences. As a student of the West, it is clear that he nevertheless finds Western culture to be devoid of something which only the indigenous culture can possess and impart. To comment upon the believability of Somé’s story, to analyze it for plot elements or to discuss him as a reliable or unreliable narrator would run contrary to his message; such an approach would be a perpetuation of the colonial principles that nearly stripped Somé of his culture. Of Water and the Spirit is not fiction, and should not be approached from a critical literary perspective; rather, it should be read with an open mind by those who seek to become students of humankind. The discussion of the West as colonizer is not intended to demonize the Eurocentric perspective, but rather to examine the facts: in history, the hegemonic West has colonized and dismantled Non-Western cultures; what have been the effects? Somé’s book is written from the unique perspective of a man who straddles the dividing line between the West and the Non-West and must be read for that unique perspective, not for the purpose of finding out the truth behind magic.