Malidoma Somé was given his name by his village elders while he was still in his mother’s womb. Malidoma means one who “makes friends with the stranger/enemy.” Thus, Malidoma’s destiny was written before he was born, although he was left to discover the details on his own.
When Malidoma was a small boy he was taken from his village by a Jesuit priest and brought to a boarding school more than 100 miles away, where the Jesuits were hoping to build a cadre of African missionaries to help them convert the native population. There Malidoma (now called Patrice) remained for 15 years of education, indoctrination and various forms of abuse—physical, sexual, and cultural—until he escaped at the age of 19 and managed to find his way back to his village. Now, however, he was a stranger to his own people—unable to speak the language, uneducated in the ways of village life, and an object of suspicion because of his Western education and ability to read and write. In a final attempt to re-integrate him to village life, he was allowed to go on a month-long initiation with about 60 other village boys—most of them much younger than he. To the surprise of some of the elders, Malidoma survived initiation and returned to the village ready for the responsibilities of an adult Dagara male. But shortly thereafter, the village elders came again to Malidoma and told him that he would fulfill his destiny by living his life in the West as a teacher of African ways and wisdom. “You must go and let yourself be swallowed,” they told him. “We cannot survive if you stay here.”
So Malidoma traveled to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, where he allowed himself “to be swallowed” in the ways of Western education. He earned three bachelor’s degrees and a master’s in four years, along with an airline ticket and a scholarship to the Sorbonne in France. There he earned another master’s degree and a doctorate in political science before coming to the United States and enrolling at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. Six years later, he graduated with a third master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature. Malidoma then taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for three years.
For the past 25 years, Malidoma has lived in the United States, teaching workshops and conducting divinations, rituals, and traditional Dagara ceremonies for those in the West. He is the author of several books, including Of Water and the Spirit (an autobiography), Ritual: Power, Healing and Community, and The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community.
Interviewed by Leslee Goodman.