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Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman

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Malidoma Patrice Some was born in a Dagara Village, however he was soon to be abducted to a Jesuit school, where he remained for the next fifteen years, being harshly indoctrinated into European ways of thought and worship. The story tells of his return to his people, his hard initiation back into those people, which lead to his desire to convey their knowledge to the world. "Of Water and the Spirit" is the result of that desire; it is a sharing of living African traditions, offered in compassion for those struggling with our contemporary crisis of the spirit.

311 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1994

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About the author

Malidoma Patrice Somé

12 books153 followers
Malidoma Patrice Somé was from the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, West Africa. "Malidoma," in his native language, means "be friend with the stranger." He was an initiated, gifted diviner and medicine man of his tribe. He held three master's degrees and two degrees from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University. His well-known book Of Water and the Spirit: Magic and Initiation in The Life of an African Shaman is treasured throughout the world. In the years preceding his death, Malidoma devoted part of his time to conducting intensive workshops with his wife Sobonfu.

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5 stars
889 (61%)
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365 (25%)
3 stars
142 (9%)
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39 (2%)
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18 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 145 reviews
Profile Image for Mariusz.
2 reviews33 followers
May 10, 2013
One of the most important books I have ever read.
It is about people who have not forgotten what really matters, what is life and... Here in Europe we have lost it centuries ago and now we are trying to make other loose it, too. And we are quite successful in that, unfortunately.
Is there a way back? Malidoma says there is. Thank you, Malidoma.
Profile Image for ndelamiko lord.
9 reviews3 followers
February 24, 2010
One of the most intriguing, heart-wrenching, compelling narratives... steeped in mysticism and walking the line between the corporeal and spiritual realms. MUST READ.
Profile Image for iva°.
572 reviews87 followers
October 19, 2020
već u uvodnom tekstu, znaš da ti je neobična knjiga u rukama. ukratko opisavši svoj životni put, od ranog djetinjstva u dagarskom plemenu (burkina faso, afrika) do tri doktorata na sorbonni, malidoma patrice somé predstavlja ti kroz nekoliko rečenica ono što će detaljno opisivati kroz cijelu knjigu: plemenske običaje, tradicije i kulturu plemena koje je -uostalom kao i mnoga druga- nasilno kristijanizirano od isusovaca, u svrhu "stavljanja na jedini ispravni put" - a to je, jasno, put bijelaca, europe i kršćanstva.

nakon što je kao četverogodišnjak otet iz svoje obitelji i odveden u misijski centar, biva podučavan (i batinom, dakako) i emocionalno i seksualno zlostavljan do svoje dvadesete godine. nakon incidenta (kad mu je pukao film i pretukao jednog svećenika), bježi natrag u svoje selo i prolazi kroz obred inicijacije.

rekla bih da 80-90% onoga o čemu malidoma piše nama, europejcima, posve je neshvatljivo. šamanski obredi, vizije, pogrebni običaji, čarobnjaštvo, posjet i boravak u drugom svijetu... i sve to ne kao alegorija/metafora, nego kao stvarnost, kao plod otvorenosti duhu, kao prihvaćanje nadnaravnog koje, upravo prihvaćanjem, postaje naravno.

čitaš s nevjericom, na svoj racionalni način pokušaš shvatiti ono što je intelektom neshvatljivo. vjerodostojnost knjizi daje upravo malidomino europsko visoko obrazovanje i sposobnost da povuče paralele između bijelog i crnog čovjeka, između cjelovitog ljudskog bića - između duha/duše i sakatog tijela.

preporučam onima koje zanima plemenska kultura, rastezanje sposobnosti duha, i koji su izuzetno otvoreni prema kulturama u kojima mrtvaci nakon svoje smrti hodaju, zečevi razgovaraju s ljudima, tikvica ti proriče sudbinu, a minijaturni ljudi pokazuju ispravan životni put. totalno nadrealno.
Profile Image for Danny Druid.
246 reviews8 followers
January 11, 2016
This book is a real treasure. Malidoma is an indigenous medicine man of the Dagara tribe in Africa, who was kidnapped at a young age by the Jesuits and forced to learn to speak and write in Frech. After escaping from the Seminary he was being held captive and "De-Africanized" in, he returned to his tribe and learned his ancestral ways. Then he journeys back into the world of the white man in order to act as a voice for indigenous peoples.

This is the first book of its kind that I've read. I have read plenty of books ABOUT indigenous peoples written by westerners, but never a book written BY an indigenous person. So it is a really great opportunity.

Reading this book really expanded my consciousness in a powerful way. To quote Malidoma, "My horizon of reality had been expanded". I feel more open now to the possibilities that can arise as we live in this magical world. Even the most open-minded person will be challenged by reading about Malidoma's profound experiences.

The best part about this book is all of the occult and mystical content. The details of Malidoma's initiation, his dreams, the rituals he has to undergo, are all really powerful and reading them is sure to move the soul of any spiritual aspirant and increase their faith.

This book has convinced more than ever that we 21st-century humans are living in what the Hindus call the Kali Yuga (Age of Darkness). The happiness and joy that is experienced by the Dagara tribe - the closeness to Nature and the spirit-world, the loving community, the opportunity for every person to fully realize their individual selves - is the birthright of every single living human being. But we are cut off from that birthright because we deluded by the idea of technological progress. Instead of the natural society experienced by the hunting-and-gathering Dagara tribe, we experience the meaninglessness, isolation and stunted growth that comes from being a human in a technological society. This delusion of technological progress has not only made us blind to the magic of nature by dulling our perception but it has also made the spirit-world angry with us, such that it won't even want to communicate with us even if we tried. Moreover, the things that so many westerners dream about (like flight to other worlds, or encountering strange but fascinating sentient beings) are easily achievable through the mystical visionary states of indigenous shamans.

I really have no doubt that there was a time when we Western Europeans lived and experienced the world just like the Dagara tribe did. Our pagan heritage speaks to that. One only needs to read a book of european mythology to be convinced of that fact. And after countless cycles of civilizations rising and falling, perhaps we shall return to this way of life.

Highly recommended to any truth-seeker.
67 reviews
December 29, 2008
The book is an exquisite document of the initation rites of one tribe in West Africa. However, it was really about change and compromise and how the West/Euro culture could learn from indigenous people if only we would listen. I felt the need to be initiated as I read the book, though I kept wondering about the females and what their initiation looked like. I'm going to have to buy this book so I can have it on hand for beautiful thoughts on death, growing up, ways to see the earth and magic.
28 reviews
August 12, 2007
I read this book in my first African studies class. It is a great example of the affect of Western values and colonialism on the traditional society and the roles within that society. It also talks about the individual development of man, the relationship between generations, and the respect of other cultures. It's a great read, especially because it comes from something other than a Western point of view.
Profile Image for Patrice.
1 review23 followers
March 13, 2008
this book inspired me greatly and is probably in my top five favorite books of all time...i've read it a few times and will read it again a few more times i'm sure...
Profile Image for ElenaSquareEyes.
419 reviews15 followers
March 30, 2021
I found Of Water and the Spirit to be an interesting and thought-provoking take on the interaction and conflict between spirituality and academia. Somé is a man who has multiple degrees, undergraduate and postgraduate, so is a very knowledgeable man in that respect, but he also has a great spiritual belief. To me, as someone who is an atheist, it is impressive yet feels contradictory that an educated person can believe so whole-heartedly in the powers of a talisman or a medicine bag.

Somé has important things to say about culture, unity and learning from the mistakes of your ancestors. His discussion of ancestors is interesting as it seems like the Dagara people are very in tune with their past and their ancestors so they can learn and evolve, whereas in the West we often easily forget about the past and ignore any past wrongdoings. According to Somé this is why the West isn’t tolerant of those who are from different cultures and faiths, and it’s not until people look to their past and own up to past atrocities that they can move forward.

Of Water and the Spirit has some stunning imagery as Somé describes what he saw and felt as he went through the initiation. It’s magical and beautiful yet unsettling as boys get burnt or die during the initiation, but Somé also sees some beautiful things.

Considering Of Water and the Spirit was published in the mid-90s it’s disappointing that many of Somé’s observations on tolerance, understanding and belonging are still just as relevant twenty years later. Somé is a man of two worlds and he never fully feels like he fits in either of them, the “educated” West and his spiritual village, but what he does feel is a sense of purpose and a belief that it was his destiny to gain so much knowledge and use that to spread his beliefs and try to make people more understanding.

Of Water and the Spirit can feel a bit preachy at times, but it’s difficult to dislike the memoir because it is what he went through and believes he experienced. We are all different and believe in different things and it was interesting to learn about the culture and beliefs of the Dagara people.
Profile Image for Muhammad.
73 reviews54 followers
July 23, 2019
I wasn't impressed and I'm sorry, I'm calling bullshit. He was born in 1956. If your people didn't know about the "nipula" by then, they could have just came and asked us who've been in their land since the 1500s. Something stinks here.... and I know bullshit when I smell it! Maybe I'm reading this at the wrong time in life but the writing wasn't good and the story wasn't even close to being believable... and I'm black! I don't know how the ratings for this are so high.
Profile Image for Dolf van der Haven.
Author 20 books12 followers
August 19, 2022
Around-the-world #115: Burkina Faso 🇧🇫.
An interesting enough story, albeit quite protracted, suffers from its own intent. The author grew up in a traditional fribal society in Burkina Faso. He was kidnapped by French Catholic priests and forced to study at Catholic school and seminary for fifteen years hefore returning to his ancestral village. There, he got reinitiated into his original culture by going through six weeks of initiation rites.
From the beginning of the book, the author claims he wants to form a bridge between his own traditional culture and western culture. However, he continually expresses disdain for western culture, at one place claiming it is "sick" because westerners lost their connection with their ancestors. At many places in the book this disdain becomes apparent. Ultimately, he is given the mission to go to the West and promote his traditional culture there to "heal" whatever we are missing.
He seems to miss the point of a bridge: it goes into both directions. There is value in his traditional culture and there is also, different, value in western cultures. Both can learn from each other. One is not necessarily better than the other, no matter what western people did to him. There's different perspectives that can be combined for a fuller view of reality. The continual disrespect the author shows for western cultures and his belief in the superiority of his own makes it impossible for him to be a real bridge between cultures. Therefore, the book fails in its mission.
I almost forgot to mention (as I am male), that the author's ideal tribal society is of course also completely paternalistic. In his story, females only play supporting roles.
Oddly, the author recently died (December 2021).
2.5 stars.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,050 reviews
October 16, 2020
The chief declared the beginning of the meeting by clearing his throat loudly. "We are here tonight to water our garden. But this is not like our regular watering, for that which grows in our garden needs far more water than we have believed. A few months ago, this grandson of ours found his way back to his roots, coming out of the wilderness where the white man lives -the one who hunts men. When the spirits have a plan for someone, he survives even the unsurvivable."
Profile Image for Grace.
2,640 reviews117 followers
October 7, 2021
Around the World Reading Challenge: BURKINA FASO
3.5 rounded up

Really interesting memoir detailing the early years through initial young adulthood of the author. The writing was really excellent and captivating, and he did a great job attempting to capture and convey a set of spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices that are incredibly different to the way most Western people view and experience the world. This isn't necessarily the kind of book I gravitate towards and I didn't fully connect with the story, but I appreciated it, and I'm glad I read this one for Burkina Faso.
Profile Image for Maddy.
2 reviews
February 20, 2022
If I could recommend one book I’ve read in the last year to anyone it would be this one. Emotionally and spiritually profound.
38 reviews1 follower
May 5, 2022
Incredible memoir. Malidoma is extremely poignant author, his life story is full of difficulty and awe. Such an eye opener to read his experience of the white man’s world view (steeped in violence)- many aha moments for me having grown up in US. Then his recounting of African initiation and beliefs and magic is astounding. I see myself as spiritual and believe in the occult, but parts definitely still left me in moments of incredulity. I believe all of his experiences are real, they’re just really profound and magical. So many incredible passages. Loved this book.
Profile Image for Zhana Zhana.
Author 14 books21 followers
September 14, 2021
I read this powerful memoir by Burkina Faso’s Malidoma Patrice Somé many years ago. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the effect of colonisation on the African psyche.

In the first half of the book, Somé lives a peaceful life in a village in which his grandfather is a highly talented shaman. After his grandfather dies, Malidoma’s father gives the six-year-old child to the Catholic priest. The father had given his children by his first wife to the priest, and the children had all died, as had his wife.

Malidoma and the other children are brutalised for many years. As we now know, Catholic priests have been accused of abusing children physically and sexually. As this book makes clear, this was happening in Africa as well.

When Malidoma eventually manages to escape from the seminary, he cannot speak his own language and has never seen a map of his own country. So how will he find his way back home to his village?

Perhaps the most important part of the book is the Introduction, in which Malidoma states that African leaders all went through the same education he did. This indoctrination programme was designed to separate leaders from their own people. The effect of this supposedly elite education is to encourage leaders to look down on their own.

The second half of the book describes Malidoma’s initiation, which he undertakes in order to be considered truly a part of his own village community. It is made clear to him to that the initiation is dangerous and he is risking his life by taking it on.

Anyone who wants to understand the strength and power of African traditions needs to read this book.
Profile Image for Harry Rutherford.
376 reviews75 followers
September 14, 2010
Somé was kidnapped at the age of four and taken first to a Jesuit-run boarding school and then a seminar, where he was a victim of physical and sexual abuse. At the age of 20 he fled the seminary and walked back to his home village. When he saw his family for the first time in 16 years, he could no longer speak his native Dagara and had lost touch with his native culture; so he underwent the long, harrowing ritual initiation that boys normally go through at 13.

He then realised that his calling was to go out and teach the western world about traditional wisdom; the book ends with him leaving the village again. He went to university and earned a few degrees, and he now seems to work on the New Age lecture circuit and the men’s movement.

I have to say, as I read the introduction which explains this stuff, my heart sank. The cocktail of academic jargon, self-help, the supernatural and purple prose could have been specifically designed to annoy me. But, to be fair, once he gets going, it is pretty interesting. He never completely shakes off the tendency to flowery prose…

The sun had already risen. A few scattered clouds were speeding across the empty zenith as if running away from the threat of the burning disc.

… but the academic and self-help stuff is much less intrusive. And the supernatural is after all the main subject of the book. As I was reading his descriptions of magical experiences he had before his abduction, all of which happened before he was four, I wondered whether all the impossible things he was witnessing were explicable by his extreme youth, and the embellishing powers of memory. But his experiences during the initiation as an adult are every bit as remarkable.

Assuming that he’s not just a professional bullshitter who made all this stuff up because he knows it is marketable — and I’m not really suggesting that’s the case, although it did occur to me as a possibility — his visions/experiences were extraordinarily complex, specific and precise. Since I’m not a believer in the supernatural, I couldn’t help speculating about what kinds of psychological and physiological effects might have created these experiences — quite fruitless, of course, since I only have one very specific perspective on what happened and I don’t have that kind of expertise anyway.

Really, that’s not the point, though; I’m not reading with the book to argue with it. What I would hope to get out of this kind of book is some kind of insight into the traditional culture of the Dagara. And there certainly is some interesting material about the rituals, about the use of divination, the decision making of the elders and so on. But the magical experiences themselves weirdly didn’t ring true to me.

I know I’m the worst person in the world to judge the authenticity of shamanic experience, but when I’ve read stories from oral cultures before I’ve always been struck by the genuine weirdness of them, a lack of the kind of narrative logic I expect. I don’t get that from this book; for all the impossible things happening, they sort of read like a version of shamanic experience as imagined by a westerner. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given the relatively small proportion of his life Somé actually spent in his home village compared to the time spent elsewhere. He is inevitably as much a product of French colonial education and western universities as he is of Dagara culture. Or perhaps he is consciously targeting it at a western readership. Or, very likely, my idea of what a shamanic experience ought to be like is completely wrong.

One way or another, it’s certainly interesting. Of Water and the Spirit is my book from Burkina Faso for the Read The World challenge.
Profile Image for Sportyrod.
433 reviews13 followers
October 3, 2019
A West African tribal boy is abducted by priests to learn the white ways. He spends his childhood in a boarding school and is treated in the usual horrible ways of such establishments.

Upon his return home he has to relearn the ways of his community including his language. The focus of the story is his initiation ceremony which takes six weeks. Most of the things that happened sound like being hypnotised or put into a highly suggestable state of mind. Or so it would seem. If taken literally he was able to visit the spirit world, fly, clamber over a bridge of crocodiles and so forth.

I felt like the book had a lot of anticipation but no real climax or satisfaction from learning things. There were alot of ‘what’s’ but little ‘how’s’ or ‘why’s’.

Some of the most interesting plotlines were not fully developed such as his resentment of his parents for not taking greater lengths to rescue him. I was looking forward to some conflict resolution. I was also hoping he might reconnect with some of the other abducted children. And the mission he was given at the end was so sad it left me feeling empty as to why he was given this mission.

Overall, I enjoyed learning about some traditional rituals and was fascinated by the way they live. But the book was more like a preview with a heavy section on initiation ceremonies.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes West African culture.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
August 4, 2020
This is Malidoma's first book. It recounts the story of his early life in a Missionary school where he was sent by his father at five years old and from which he ran away in his late teens. Back to the village where he underwent a rites-of-passage journey into manhood and subsequently to the USA where he was sent by the Elders. His name means to 'make friends with the stranger' and his life path has been to bring the wisdom of the African ancestors to those around the world who could benefit from their wisdom. It's a wonderful read, uplifting and inspiring for all seekers of 'other ways of knowing', and especially for those on the ancestral path.
Profile Image for Kenghis Khan.
135 reviews21 followers
July 29, 2007
A remarkably fascinating story, this book is written by an African shaman whose duty it is to tell his people's side of things. Despite the author's sincere and eloquent description of the relations to the supernatural his people claim to have, the book is difficult for secular-minded readers to be persuaded by. Indeed, although the author is well versed in Western theology, it would have helped if he would have discussed the attempts (or lack thereof) of modern science to understand his amazing journey.
Profile Image for Catherine.
38 reviews4 followers
April 23, 2019
This is a beautiful book. Malidoma knits African and European, modern and ancestral, shamanic and religious in recounting his initiation to the knowledge/technology of his tribe. This book reminded me of all the de-conditioning required to "see" à la Castaneda; or rather, how much conditioning the Western mind has against a genuine relationship with the Earth. This book also gave me hope that I could re-learn how to "see".
411 reviews1 follower
October 24, 2019
As a young boy, Malidoma is kidnapped by some Europeans and taken to a Jesuit school where he spend 15 difficult years as they try to grow him into a “white” Christian. He runs away and is able to find his way home, where he convinces the elders to help him return to his culture. The initiation into his culture is difficult physically and emotionally, but he achieves it, and then is available to help his tribe deal with Europeans.
Profile Image for Y'Marii.
6 reviews
April 20, 2020
One of the best books I’ve ever read. This book tells the story of a young man who is stuck between two conflicting worlds. As an Afro American I’ve always believed that i was stuck between two worlds. The white mans world and the world of my Ancestors. The reality is that the two contradict each other. This book speaks to me on many levels as Malidoma gives the reader insight on these struggles, journeys, and lessons he has experienced. A MUST READ for anyone but especially my Afro Americans!
7 reviews
September 22, 2020
This is a MUST READ. Everyone has something to gain from reading this book. It would be great in a high school or college class to offer a differing perspective and expand student's worldviews. This book delves into spiritualism and 'magic' without ever expecting you to believe in it. The author offers it simply as a fact, and a part of his life. Whether you choose to believe in it or not is none of his concern, and doesn't affect the true, intense, and riveting story of his life.
Profile Image for Sayon Camara.
8 reviews4 followers
July 23, 2017
I have yet to read a book of this as spiritually profound as this one. It really took me by surprise even though I had been warned. The author's ability to describe phenomena is remarkable, considering no words can really do justice to what he has experienced. Every african should have this book in their household.
Profile Image for Sibylle.
17 reviews1 follower
October 10, 2009
This book was amazing. I read this book long ago and cannot find another copy for my current library. Wonderful, wonderful account of an African boy's journey from an extended childhood to manhood. Wonderful book!
Profile Image for Tara.
13 reviews2 followers
May 1, 2008
While this book is not the most lyrical, it is real. It reminded me how boxed into a reality I can be and how deep the possibilities of our perceptions really are. The
Displaying 1 - 30 of 145 reviews

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