Sobonfu was born and raised in a small village of the Dagara people in rural Burkina Faso. She describes the culture she grew up in as one based on spiritual principles and on community and heart-to-heart sharing, where each child is raised by many mothers and many fathers. Currently, she lives in both the traditional and modern worlds, part of the year in her home village in Burkina Faso, and part in urban Sacramento, California in the United States. As such, the wisdom she shares with us here is rooted in the simple yet powerful knowledge systems of the Dagara people, and also integrates the realities of modern life. As one of the most respected voices of African spirituality in the West, Sobonfu conducts workshops and trainings throughout the U.S. and Europe. I had the following transforming conversation with Sobonfu in Leesburg, Virginia.
RK: You were born into a community, which understood that each child is born with something that the world needs. Please describe the philosophy of the Dagara people.
In the Dagara village we believe that each child comes into this world with a particular gift, a gift that nobody else can bring. And in my community, the gift that each child brings is considered to be very important for the survival of the tribe. Elders in the community put the mother to be in a ceremony called the ‘hearing ritual’ where she would go in a trance like state to connect with the soul of the unborn child to learn about its life purpose and find out how they can support the child deliver its gift to the world.
We are not tourists who come into this world to wander aimlessly. If we think we are tourists or wanderers on this planet, then life itself has no fulfillment in it. Why would I go through certain experiences if they are not meant to lead me to self-discovery? We are here because there is something in us that the world needs and we need to deliver that gift.
Where does one find the gift? All the experiences you’ve gone through mean something. Often times, we’re stuck in a certain wound. In the Dagara tradition, we believe that where the wound is, there is also the gift. The wound and the gift are two sides of a single coin. If you only look at one side and focus on your wound, you get stuck in it. But if you turn the coin over to look at the pearl that is lying there, you’ll find your gift. Pain opens the way for us to notice and welcome our gift. Many people who work in child protection agencies have been abused themselves as children, but they have been able to use their pain and sorrow to uncover their life’s purpose. So look under your wound, and find your gift. It’s there, it never goes away.
You can also look for your gift in your dreams. Dreaming is something that comes to us naturally. In my tradition, we find ways to cultivate our relationship with the dream world by tracking our dreams, trying to find meaning in our dreams and by giving thanks for our dreams. When you think of your dream life, you may think that you’re not connected to it because you don’t remember your dreams. Try to remember your dreams and nurture your relationship with the dream world by acknowledging its existence. When you track your dreams and find meaning in them, you’ll be able to see how you can use them to the advancement of your community. The natural leader comes out of you, and you can take your community to a better place because you can apply those dreams in critical places in your community’s life and be able to teach them things that they need to learn in order to move forward.
We do not have time to be shy about our gift anymore. We have kept our mouths shut for too long. We have let many opportunities go by without saying what we mean and what we feel. So we need to rise and shine. Carry this spirit with you everyday so that as you see things in the world that are not right, you can begin to speak about them and do something about them.
RK: In your teachings you emphasize the role of the community in one’s development. Why is having a community important?
Without a community we are lost, ungrounded, and vulnerable to all kinds of forces. As Africans we do not really appreciate our communities until we come to the West and experience the loneliness and isolation that exists in the West. Each one of us is standing on the shoulders of strong and powerful ancestors. Who are the ancestors on whose shoulders you stand strong and proud? You may say, I come from a chaotic background and don’t have anything to draw from. If that’s the case then, YOU are the one who is here in order to break the cycle of that dysfunction.
Each of us was born into a particular family to bring something that circle of people needs, to hold the family together, and to expand and grow in wisdom. And when we are not able to give and receive our gifts from each other, we get frustrated, or start to abuse one another. When you understand that you’ve come into your family because each person has something that is important to the wellbeing and development of the others, then you’re able to say, I am upset with my mother because she’s not fulfilling my needs in a certain way, and that makes me frustrated with her.
Sometimes a member of a family may fail her community, and that person may be an indicator that points to the cracks, weaknesses and shortfalls within the community. The issues that such individuals raise are sometime repressed or neglected by the community because they are an inconvenience. Eventually, however, in order to re-embrace their own, the family and the community will be forced to grow and expand.
Sadly, younger generations no longer invest the kind of effort and energy in one another that the older ones did, and the state of grace is fading as people in indigenous societies encounter the New World. The pressure to get more and to stamp things with our name has spread like a disease. Honesty, integrity, and respect for others are being discarded.
RK: What has been the role of your community in your own development?
I grew up hearing that if you do not have a community you cannot let your light shine bright enough, because the community is the guiding light behind any group of people that can help them achieve their purpose. The role of the community is to invite the gift out of us, and to praise us for bringing it out.
Without my community, I wouldn’t be who I am today. We all need a community. No single person can do everything by themselves; and that is part of the reason why women feel like they’re failing as mothers in the West. But no single mother can provide all that her child needs. The good mother that we are seeking is the goodness in all the mother figures that have been or could have been in our lives, hence the saying ‘it takes a community to raise a child’. But I have come to the realization that it actually takes a community to keep a parent sane. So we all need to be supported for the wellbeing of the world.
I had a difficult time in accepting my purpose as a “keeper of rituals.” When I realized what it involved, I tried to run from it. It wasn’t until I got sick, and became more and more sick, that I finally surrendered and accepted my life’s purpose. It was only then that I started to heal. I still have the urge to leave this work behind me, but the support of my community holds me in place.
RK: How do we support one another as each of us start to awaken to our life’s purpose?
This world is challenging and it has a tendency to strip us off of the gifts that we have brought with us because we have put so much emphasis on what we can get from it, and not what we are here to give. Furthermore, there is a lot of negativity and children grow up being told that they are ‘no one’ and ‘will never amount to anything’. This kind of brutality makes you close your heart and you’re not going to be able to uncover the gift you are here to deliver.
The more we distance ourselves from our purpose, the more we lose our drive and energy; and eventually, we may be forced to look for a way to nurture it. In the Dagara tradition, we believe that an illness comes when there is an imbalance at the soul level that was never taken care of, which then goes to the spirit level and again was ignored, and finally shows up in the form of the physical and becomes an ailment. In order to treat an ailment, then, one has to examine how the soul is doing. Is there a wound or a grief that the soul tried to get out that was ignored? Is the individual resisting his/her life’s purpose?
In the Dagara tradition, people who are chronically ill or disabled are regarded as specially initiated. Their body is taken over by Spirit, to remind us that something in the community is out of balance, and that we cannot be truly happy unless we work to make things better for one another. These messengers often do not get the respect they deserve. On the contrary, their condition is considered as a burden and a source of shame. Their purpose is not seen for what it is. The sick and the suffering have much to contribute to the healing of their communities.
It’s never too late to start to uncover your gift. The simple fact that you ask yourself, at any age, ‘why am I here?’ indicates that there is something inside of you that is still alive and needs to be expressed. Whenever you wake up to this urge inside of you, is the right time for you to explore your purpose in life.
The curious thing is, when I talk to people of different backgrounds, it’s not that they don’t have an inclination of why they are here. It is that they think whatever they want to do is not good enough or important enough.
We need to learn to point to each other where we have been shining. Often times, other people notice our gifts better than we do. We should also hold each other to our commitments. If my friends don’t tell me the truth, then they are a danger to me. Sometimes, friends need to tell each other what the other needs to hear, whether they like it or not.
Life is not about being rich or famous. It’s about being centered in your own goodness, and being able to bring that goodness out. Life is an eternal force that brings increasing insight and wisdom - things that are outside the realm of competition. So we need to stop competing with each other and help one another shine, because when one person shines the whole community shines. When you shine, I am shining through you. We have to learn to validate one another and when we see someone shining we have to learn to say, you go!
Sobonfu Somé is the author of three books: Falling Out of Grace, Spirit of Intimacy, and Welcoming Spirit Home. She is also the founder of Wisdom Spring Inc., an organization dedicated to the preservation and sharing of indigenous wisdom. For more information about her work, please visit her websites: www.sobonfu.com and www.wisdomspringinc.org