The Importance of Ancestral Connection: An Interview with Malidoma Somé, by Rosette Royale

Rosette Royale: How would you define the word “ancestor”?

Malidoma Somé: Well, the very simple definition of ancestor is “our forebears,” the ones who have preceded us in this dimension. Now some of them and the most obvious of them are the biological ones but as far as ancestor sgo, it could be much broader than that: basically, all of humankind. So, ancestors, defined in that way, brings the whole concept a lot closer to home, allowing the relationship to be worked on from within. Ancestors suggest those who have influenced us, assisted us as teachers, as role models, who have crossed over, but who are continuing to be there in our mind.

And so in the Dagara tradition, how do people engage or interact with their ancestors?

Well, in my tradition, the fundamental idea is that the community is not formed only by the living: community extends to the realm of the dead. Therefore, the whole notion of relationship with ancestors is inspired by a desire to be able to have an ongoing relationship with this world and the other.

So, ancestors are something that are seen as advisors, the ones who provide clear direction.

Being a community doesn’t mean that there is no tension. It is more about, “Who would take this tension? Who would take these various problems?” because [the ancestors’] wisdom is quite unusual, partly because they’re no longer trapped in this dimension.

How do you see Western society interact with ancestors?

Crises pertaining to families and communities are issues [that are] rather unsolvable because of the problematic relationships with ancestors. I have thought a rekindling of a connection with the dead would be a very good idea because not everything is solvable through pure imagination. Sometimes we have to recognize that we are at the end of our rope and that line of demarcation is the beginning of the possibility of ancestral intervention.

How would you make an altar at your home?

Well, an altar is something that could be as simple as a little table somewhere with a cloth on it, one or two pictures of loved ones on the other side, with candles, with incense. You could also include something as simple as a glass of water there. In my cosmology, water represents flow, healing, and reconciliation. And so, therefore, having some elemental stuff like this on a special surface will begin to take the shape of specializing an area of one’s own dwelling, as if it already gives the shape of a space that borders the sacred. By sacred, I mean something that is special because the

otherworld is involved with it.

What sort of challenges do you see Western society dealing with because many of us don’t have very strong connections with our ancestors?

The challenge of not having found relationships with our ancestors is primarily a challenge of community, people suffering from a crisis of simple belonging and wondering what it is they are here to do. There is also the longing for connection into something greater than simple material pursuit and working hard just to pay the one bill. All of these little things, they add up to some crisis, existential crisis, and at the core of that, is this missed connection with the ancestors. So the challenge of modernity is—we use the term— community. But in fact, the use of the word is more symptomatic of a longing. In the end, what matters more than anything else is recognition that modern, individual crisis can be solved—can be resolved—with a reach out to ancestors, to the spirits of those who have preceded us here and who, from where they are, are much wiser and much more alert.

I think one of the challenges for someone in the West might be: “Why should we listen to what people in Africa say? We are in Seattle, or Chicago, or New York City.”

Well, wouldn’t the African also say the same thing a long time ago, when Europeans came there, [saying] that they were the ones to solve all the problems of Africa, only to find out that none of that happened? The issue, for someone thinking like that is that we live in what people tend to call a global village. Africa is not in a different planet. And increasingly, people are buying into the belief that humanity started there. And for the person living in the heart of Seattle or any city to think that they are self-sufficient enough to not need any wisdom from anywhere, it is possible that maybe this particular message is not for them. But I’ll be concerned for a person like this, even be willing to pray to my ancestors for them.

The issue that we’re facing is more global than local. It is very important in these days of rampant crisis in the world that we begin to think in terms of what indigenous wisdom have we forgotten. In fact, a show of wisdom will direct us to sources as unlikely as Africa, that can help in bringing a lasting solution to the crisis of isolation, the crisis of individuality, the crisis of modernity.

So therefore, it is common sense to imagine that the part of the world where mankind began can perhaps have an instrument for resolving current crises faced by modernity. And I have personally seen in my work, in this part of the world, that indeed, wisdom of Africa does produce tremendous change and confirmation in the heart of people.

Is it too late for people to connect to their ancestors?

Oh, not really. Too late is a very desperate word. It is better to replace it with something a lot more promising: it’s better late than never. At any given time, ancestors are always going to stand by for engagement. The sooner one gets started, the better. Young people are certainly a lot more open to that than older people who might have been calcified into stagnation, who have been welded into their identity. This is simply because their psyches are open, their souls are wide open, and as a result, they see things that need attention that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to pay attention to sufficiently, or maybe doesn’t look at it as the priority.

So again, this is to say that picking up on ancestors is never too late. Maybe it will be too late when one is dead, but even then, it is not too late because you join with the ancestors. As soon as we abandon our bodies on this side of reality, we join with the very folks we are trying to reach.