Daniel Foor, the interviewer, is the Executive Director of the Earth Medicine Alliance. The alliance is an interfaith, earth-honoring, nonprofit in the state of California, dedicated to helping humans repair and renew their relationships with the natural world. For more information visit their website.
D: Malidoma, a major focus of your work over the past two decades has been kindling the fire of indigenous wisdom here in the Untied States, the hub of modern Western culture. What do you personally count as your biggest successes in this massive undertaking? What seems to be really working about this?
M: Off the top of my head, I can think of the immediate response that modern people have towards ritual. The familiarity that they have with respect to it was the first shock I had, and the overall receptivity to reasonably well-formulated indigenous wisdom, the kind that is chewable by Western understanding because in the midst of all the thirst and hunger for spirituality, there is sill the Cartesian logic associated with it, and so it is something which I have found quite refreshing---to be able to cook a version of African Spirituality to Westerners in such a way that they could swallow it.
D: What have you found to be especially successful in encouraging community?
M: What I found encouraging really has come from the rather spontaneous embracing of wisdom coming from Africa, particularly a Dagara version of it, in a way that I wasn't expecting. More often than not, if you're coming from Africa to this part of the world, you have no idea that anything that you represent and any kind of knowledge you have acquired in your own little community will be of any interest to anybody here simply because of the manner in which this culture has advertised itself to third world cultures in general and particularly indigenous cultures---that they are superior, they don't need nothing, and in fact they have everything anybody over there should need. So the big surprise has been indeed the denunciation of this kind of propaganda, which in turn has resulted in a better appreciation of my own indigenous culture because of the openhearted, open hands welcoming of it in this part of the world.
D: Some individuals who don't have any recent ancestral connection to Africa might feel an internal block about participating in traditional African spirituality. What advice would you give to those individuals on how to participate in community ritual in ways that encourage healing and not further division?
M: Well, the fundamental of Western predicament really has to do with the crisis of the soul, the illness of the spirit. I also have to mention the fact that the source, at least the diagnostic of such a situation reveals a latent disconnectedness with any genuine sacredness. Consequently, the first thing I would like to suggest is at least, give the whole thing the benefit of the doubt! Enter into this field with a mind to give your spirit a chance to heal. Approach the other world with the hope that you might find something in it that your own culture has failed to offer you, and that in doing so you might end up being an artisan in the salvation of your own culture.
So this is how I would like to encourage people who find themselves blocked by all sorts of unknown conditioning in the face of a sacred they have no way of dissecting in the manner consistent with their own upbringing. In doing so they're at least offering themselves a new adventure that might perhaps lead them to a place of betterment, and if it doesn't at least there shall be no damage. The only thing to regret is that a little bit of time has been put to wrong use, but I doubt that, having had the experience of witnessing the manner in which people suspicious of this who have given it the benefit of the doubt, including major skeptics! They have ended up embracing it with so much vehemence that it has come to me as a shock and a surprise!
D: You spoke of some of the kinds of thoughts that people can have here in the West about participation in ritual or indigenous ways. Can you share about what some of your biggest challenges in introducing indigenous wisdom here have been? Another way of asking that maybe is, is there advice that you would give yourself 20 years ago as you were setting out in this work of introducing traditional Dagara wisdom here?
M: Well, certainly! If I were to turn the wheel of time back, of course, I would be more careful. The almost instantaneous embracing of indigenous culture, at least the African brand, also came along with this plethora of demons and projections and assumptions resulting in more dysfunction than I would have hoped. For one, I should have learned that when Westerners embrace an indigenous culture, they tend to do that in a way that suggests a rather ungrounded romanticism, a fatal attraction to the exotic, resulting in impossible expectation, i.e., the heal-me-now, take-care-of-me-right-away kind of people. These kind of people have eventually given me the sense that they perceive this kind of wisdom as essentially a commodity in the sense that they need to indeed purchase it right away if they could because of the immediate need they have for this kind of material. I've seen it time and again.
Self-introspection reveals to me that maybe I'm part of the problem. Because of my angle of presentation of the material, I've ended up conveying too bright a picture, to positive an outlook, and as a result, maybe falling into the trap of somewhat of a misrepresentation. People have to understand that you don't gain enlightenment over a weekend workshop! That is unreasonable and that is too high an expectation placed on somebody whom you want to look at as a teacher. I have discovered over the years that these drive-by or fly-by workshops or seminars, those random lectures here and there have only contributed to the spread of the wisdom in a fashion that seems to be trapped in the modus operandi of a cultural phenomena in which if you are the carrier of any exotic wisdom, you have to prepare yourself for being on what is called the "lecture trail" and expect to show up at various institutions that actually express their interest in the material that you have, with somewhat of an assumed conditioned reservation like, "Here is a space for your Ancestors Ritual! There shall be no candle because of fire restrictions, but we need an Ancestors Ritual to heal---figure it out!"
I realize I find myself with the challenge to try to figure out how to do something that is usually not done anywhere near this kind of context and yet, being expected to do so by people who have no idea that this is not possible. All they thought was you have 4 walls and the ground---just do it---make us fine tonight! So these are the kinds of things I should have thought about earlier.
D: Have you found that bringing groups to Burkina Faso, for the individuals who have gone, helps to dispel some of the idealization of traditional cultures or people?
M: No. The people most of the time whom I've taken to Burkina Faso, most of them have fallen into a spell, a kind of daze, or should I say an epiphany, that even increased their vulnerability and their naïveté. Over the years since 1991 I've watched with much grief the way in which two cultures will come together and show a modality of interaction that is a clear display of the misunderstanding that they entertain among themselves unbeknown to them. And realizing that while this is unfolding, my role there becomes completely nullified. I have no way of telling them, "Look, how you see this is not the way it is, and YOU too---how you see the other one is not the way the other one is!"
There is indeed a kind of fatal attraction between the post-modern and the indigenous. What that says is not really clear, but the danger it highlights is quite clear. I'm saying that because of the years I've seen fatal accidents occur which I could see coming, but could not say anything because anything I said was completely misunderstood or even interpreted as hostility, reminiscent or revealing of a person with a control malady. So as a result, I've come to learn the lesson the hard way. It is not at all possible for an encounter of this nature to happen without any form of skirmish in there, without a problem.
D: What advice would you give to younger generations of Africans who may feel called in a similar way to you, to be a bridge with traditional wisdom and modern culture, possibly in the West, in the United States?
M: The problem intrinsic in this whole thing has a lot to do with the understanding of the culture. Being a bridge is less of a problem than actually the demand associated with this culture in the face of another culture that is willing to share its wisdom. Personally speaking, I've had to invest so much of my time studying in universities in the hope of finding the proper formula for articulating concepts that are barely existent in the modern culture, and realizing when I was able to do that, it still was not getting across. That poses a lesser problem than the other one that has to do with the natural endangerment that one puts oneself into, who wants to be this kind of bridge.
My experience has shown me that there is more adversity in this work than there is cause for celebration of any type, besides the fact that most of the news that comes to my attention is bad news, i.e., news about one type of emergency or another, news about one type of conflict or another, resulting in one person's desire for this work being higher than the other, etc. And then the whole thing surrounding what people have come to call the "inner circle," i.e., members of the inner circle versus those who are trying to be members of that circle, etc.
The complexity surrounding this work is enough to actually caution any person who is interested in taking on this job, out of it! The other part is, the moment it appears that there is some form of groundbreaking or another, call it success if you want, that's when all the demons awake with the intention of terminating this whole thing altogether---this has been my experience. I've spent more energy fighting against those demons than actually doing the work that I was called to do. Why is it that way? The only way I can understand it is that more often than not, the culture that hungers for anything redeeming or redemptive is also the culture that, perhaps unknown to itself is working to maintain the status quo.
I cannot help but see it this way because my experience has taught me that being careful is not enough. Being alert might begin to add something, but then again if you are sufficiently alert you will hear voices that caution you to bail out of this. So why am I in it? Because there comes a time when you must say what the elders say to themselves: "You go forward you die, you go backwards you die, so hell, go forward and die!" This is how this saying translates for me: I went so far into this work that I couldn't back out! I just couldn't because every time I would try to, some catastrophe worse than the one I was facing that motivated me to entertain the thought would befall me, therefore getting me back right where I started! So as a result, I've come to this understanding that when Spirit calls you to do something, when the Ancestors expect you to be on a certain track, the issue is that it's not up to you to invoke whatever amendment has been made in the invisible text of autonomy. It's not up to you to decide when you should draw the line. There is more to you than meets the eye and you're only a member of a team that is working and therefore you can't quit like that!
D: An important part of the mission of the Earth Medicine Alliance is to support humans in nourishing our connections with our other-than-human relations. We understand this to include our Ancestors as well as the many different beings that most people think of as the natural world. Starting with the subject of the Ancestors, in your perception, how much of our personal and larger cultural problems here in the Untied States stem from a lack of healthy relationships with our Ancestors?
M: Oh, it's quite obvious to me when I look at it from my indigenous African perspective, I would tend to say that most of the problems with modernity are a direct result of a dysfunctional relationship with Ancestors. The issue at hand is, for a Dagara person like me, it is inconceivable to think about going into the future in a reasonably sustainable fashion without a hard look into the past. Not to suggest that the Ancestors belong to the past; no far from that! What I'm saying is that without a live ancestral connection, it is close to impossible to envision a future that can be as bright as the spirit of a person can wish for. This is why it is an important thing, and even a viable suggestion, that most of the ills of modernity have to be traced down to what is the status of their relationship with Ancestors, and then you will begin to shed light into what needs to be done.
D: As you mentioned, some people without a context for Ancestor reverence or relationship with the Ancestors, sometimes assume that the Ancestors exist only in the past, or that because their recent blood Ancestors are unhappy or harmful people, that the Ancestors are best avoided. Can you share some of the ways in which the Ancestors themselves also change and evolve and maybe something about the process you refer to as "Ancestralization?"
M: Well, first of all, I always like to tell people that we all become a lot wiser after we're dead. Why? Simply because the modus operandi of the existence of the other realm is not to be likened to the one here. Besides, they're two different dimensions, they're two different frequencies, vibrations, and therefore there's a kind of illumination, an epiphany that follows the death that transits the person from the fleshy existence to the energetic existence. This has to be taken seriously because we tend to create so many compartmentalized spaces to fit various people in.
For instance in this dimension, once you make a mistake, you are always referred to from the perspective of that mistake. There is an unspoken assumption of the un-redeemability of the human being. That's why a criminal remains a criminal for the rest of his life. That's why people live their lives trying to avoid having a record! The problem with that is this eventually stretches itself to the other world so that Ancestors---that is to say the dead, forbears who during their lives were less than wise, who made mistakes that a lot of other people paid for, and so on and so forth---are still kept within that kind of framework, as if even death didn't redeem them. Maybe that's the reason why the main religious creed in Western culture, namely Christianity, tends to come with two worlds: one is hell where nobody wants to go and unfortunately most people wind up there; and heaven, where there is a limited amount of space for everybody! The point that I'm trying to make here is that it is important that we detach ourselves from the thought that Ancestors who once had a "record" in this dimension, are still carrying that same frequency in the other because more often than not, the one so-called Ancestor that we had a bigger problem with is the one who is more likely to be on standby to radically invest himself in righting what was wrong during the existence on this plane. So they become a much more vibrant asset, but unfortunately not in use most of the time because their descendants that are mainly connected to them are shopping for other types of Ancestors, simply because the descendants are still stuck in this dysfunctional merry-go-round in which they see their forebears as totally unreliable and therefore irredeemably doomed, so these Ancestors seek redemption somewhere else.
The issue that I see that needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible is linked to a form of healing or another, and that's the reason why I bring the Dagara model of Ancestralization, in which there is room indeed to show an acknowledgement to the dead by way of escorting them to what my culture believes is their place of empowerment, the realm of the dead, and from there, to give them the news of this dimension with the strong expectation that they need to intervene, now that they are in a place of empowerment. I've found that this model can at least begin to give people a chance to at least attempt something, to try something as opposed to working hard, investing themselves in the perpetuation of dysfunction as if somehow this down the road is going to make things right. There is an elder's saying, "The piece of log does not become a crocodile because you keep it in the water long enough!" It's not by denying the Ancestors that sooner or later things are going to get better. They actually get worse.
D: Malidoma, if I understand you right, I hear you saying two things: Death is an opportunity for the one dying to become much more conscious or awake perhaps through the assistance of rituals of Ancestralization, or in other ways; and that those recent Ancestors who may not have lived in a very healthy way, that there might be a blessing in that they may be especially motivated to work for the well-being of the living.
M: You got it! It is important to stress this point because it has to do with the fact that we are indeed on standby for delivery of blessings coming from that side and our refusal through various attitudes towards the Ancestors is delaying our healing. If it is true what they say that, "As below so above, or As above so below" (I don't know which one is first) we have to realize that the intensification of the human crisis might be an echo of a sustainable and bearable crisis going on in the other world that is a direct result of the severance of the line of connection between the two worlds, one that is quite necessary because the idea of community, of family with respect to continuity has always been linked to two worlds, this world and the other. One world cannot enjoy harmony without the proximity of the other, without fusion with the other, and this is why we cannot successfully implement community without the presence of the dead, without the presence of the Ancestors.
(Part 2 will be featured in next month's newsletter---stay tuned!)