Of Water and the Spirit
Biography of Author | Excerpts
from the Book |
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Traditions of the African Diaspora
ABOUT THE AUTHOR . . .
Biography of Malidoma Patrice Some,
Malidoma Patrice Some thinks he is in the West in order to "tell about
(his) people in any way (he) can and to take back to (his) people the knowledge
(he) gain(s) about this world." As one of the many tribal customs he describes
in his book Of Water and the Spirit, names hold an important role
in defining a person's life. The Dagara believe that every individual comes
into this life with a specific destiny. Some explains that names can be
what he describes as "problematic" when they describe the ta sk of their
bearer because it is a constant reminder to a child of their life's work.
Malidoma, for example, means "friend of the enemy/stranger." As this name
suggests, Malidoma Patrice Some has befriended the enemy to his people,
which has been coloni zing Westerners who have intruded on the lives and
lifestyles of the Dagara, since the early 1900's. Some has written Of Water
and the Spirit, overcoming difficulties in devising accurate translations
between the Dagara language and English, to provide a remarkable, first-hand
look at the Dagara culture. He has written this book to bring greater understanding
to the members of the West about his culture and, by doing so, has brought
a greater understanding to members of the West about the West itself.
Author of Of Water and the Spirit
Malidoma was born in Bukino Faso in West Africa, in 1956. Kidnapped
at age four by one of the Jesuit missionaries that was trying to create
a native missionary "force" to assist in converting more African people,
Malidoma attended a boarding school f or fifteen years. Here he learned
about what he calls "the white man's reality," which consisted of history,
geography, literature, anatomy, mathematics, and Christianity.
When Malidoma was twenty years old, he escaped from the boarding school
to return to his people. However, he soon discovered he no longer speak
the same language as his people, since he had not been allowed to use that
language in fifteen years. Some c ould not speak to his family until he
relearned what he had forgotten and they could not fully understand each
other until he unlearned what he had been taught. In order to relearn the
reality of his people and be accepted by them, he had to undergo a mo nth-long
Dagara initiation process.
At 22, Malidoma was asked, by his elders, to relay the Dagara culture
to the West in order to bring a greater understanding and acceptance of
it. This was a difficult task for him for a number of reasons. He did not
know how to describe his culture to a culture that does not accept much
of what is central to their beliefs. He was unsure how his story would
be accepted, to say the least. Malidoma holds three master's degrees and
two doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University, and has taug
ht at the University of Michigan.
Malidoma Patrice Some now sees his position as a two-way passage of
information. he seeks to bring greater understanding through his work.
ABOUT THE BOOK . . .
Points to Ponder from Of Water and the Spirit
"My generation finds itself gripped by a powerful irony. Suddenly it has
become popular to defend tribal people - their world view and their life
ways - but while the West is engaged in a great debate about what it means
to preserve culture, the indi genous world is aware that it has already
lost the battle."
The excerpts below are all taken from Of Water and the Spirit.
"It seems obvious to me that as soon as one culture begins to talk about
'preservation' it means that it has already turned the other culture into
an endangered species."
"For most people, top performance meant hard work. As an initiated man,
I did not have to work hard to get my degrees. . . The answer to the exam
questions were mostly visible in the aura of the teachers who constantly
patrolled the aisles of the test ing rooms. I just had to write the answers
down quickly before any of them noticed how strangely I was looking at
them. . .To me, it was like being asked to read out of an open book."
"When one teacher asked, 'are you reading my mind?' I, of course, denied
the suggestion. We are in the modern world, where such things are impossible."
"During my time in the West, I have found myself facing and interesting
paradox. People approach me not because I am an educated man but because
the tribal outfit I wear seems to have an effect on them. It initiates
contact. . .Ironically, I am more free to be African in the West than I
am in Africa."
"I learned to understand my own culture better by comparing in with
"There is a certain perception that village people have of themselves
that associate life with a mission, with a certain kind of responsibility
to be fulfilled in the interest of a better community."
"You can acquire what is usually seen as magical. When in fact the more
you dwell in this kind of world, the less you see it as magical because
it is the familiar, it is the kind of thing that every human being is entitled
to and it is the kind of thi ng that is at the core of human nature, the
search, the intense search for the magical."
Of Water and the Spirit Commentary
Of Water and the Spirit, by Malidoma Patrice Some, is the story
of one man's journey between two worlds. He began his education in the
Dagara village where he was born, with the help of his community, especially
his grandfather. From a very early age , Malidoma was told his mission
was to befriend his enemies. This purpose began to be fulfilled when Malidoma
was abducted and educated according to Western ideology and perspective.
Malidoma has provided the story of his return to his native people in order
to create a greater understanding of both cultures. The missionaries' behavior
and the similarities between some aspects of dagara culture and current
thought processes were two of the most remarkable elements of Of Water
and the Spirit.
The missionaries' behavior that Malidoma reports was one of the most
surprising aspects of his story. Through revision in the presentation of
Western history, some stories have surfaced in mainstream textbooks about
the mistreatment of Africans who w ere "taken in" by missionaries. I was
disturbed, however, by Malidoma's account of sexual abuse that took place
among the French missionaries and their students. Seemingly, how can one
be surprised that they are capable of this type of behavior after th ey
raped their students of their former ways of knowing, community, history,
and culture. Malidoma tells of one father who made him undress and then
sexually molested him, telling him it was not a sin so as not to get caught.
Malidoma reports that this practice occurred between some of the older
students and the younger students, as well. I was surprised because these
are stories I would expect from a jail, not a mission. However, from Malidoma's
view and the view of others that were kidnapped, the mi ssion was a jail.
In the introduction of the autobiography, Malidoma comments on how many
westerners study religions and belief systems of the East. He suggests
that Westerners "embrace some of the more positive values of the indigenous
world." Examples that illustra te a common theme between Malidoma's traditional
beliefs and that of modern day society are provided throughout the book.
Malidoma claims that it takes a whole tribe to raise a child and that
children are the most important thing to his Dagara village. This theme
is reminiscent of some people's belief that children are the only hop because
they represent the possibiliti es of the future. In education, the idea
that a child's life at school is only one part of his or her educational
experience has grown in popularity. Now many teachers try to incorporate
family members or members of the community in teaching.
In Malidoma's clan, children can roam freely among parents. A child
can stay with another family for a few days enjoying their love, before
returning to his own home. This practice supports the belief that a child
is the community's responsibility to raise. This belief of a community
responsibility for the welfare of children can be seen in may efforts by
our American government to regulate the environment of children. However,
these practices are probably not as effective as those of Malidoma's clan
because they are enforced by the government, rather than by the people.
Another example of the West accepting or adopting Eastern thought is
the idea of expressing ones feelings, particularly grief, as a way of freeing
oneself from that grief. When Grandfather dies, Malidoma recounts the intricate
burial ceremony. Part of this process is the release of grief by everyone,
male and female. Malidoma claims, "An adult who cannot weep is a dangerous
person who has forgotten the place emotion hold's in a person's life."
relatively recently, many psychologist have stressed the importance of
expression of emotion. It is understood now that when one holds on to feelings
of grief or anger, for example, they can effect a person's attitude. Some
psychologists and doctors believe that this attitude can negatively effect
a perso n's health.
There were many elements in Of Water and the Spirit that I thought
were interesting. I was surprised by the sexual misconduct of the missionaries.
I also found a cyclical connection, between some of the ancient ideas of
Malidoma's clan and new theor ies or practices, ironic.
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