Parts of this article come from The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings In The Ways of Relationships by Sobonfu Some. Sobonfu made her ascension to the realm of the Ancestors in 2017. You can purchase a copy of her book for yourself by clicking here.
Sobonfu Some left her home in Burkina Faso, whose name means ‘land of the proud Ancestors’ at an early age to fulfill her spiritual purpose.
During her life she gave us all an intimate look at her community as well as deeper perspectives on how African spirituality influenced every area of life.
Here are some lessons drawn from her book that help us view knowledge of self, relationships, and ritual through the lens of African spirituality.
Cosmic Order and the Five Elements
Before the arrival of Christianity, Sobonfu Some teaches us that “the land had always been the land of the people. Still, people did not consider it their own. They saw it as spirit, as something they were just borrowing.”
And this spiritual approach to life influenced every aspect of existence – marriage and resource management to conflict and criminal justice. “We dont not have police or anything line that; we rely mainly on spirit and on the Elders for justice”, she writes.
In fact, indigenous cultures viewed everything in terms of cosmic order, and decisions were based on maintaining the relationship between man and the divine order of things.
This cosmic order is reflected in the belief that there are five elemental forces that form the universe – earth, fire, water, mineral, and nature.
And these elements must be balanced through ritual to keep humanity in alignment with the divine.
In Dagara society, each one of these elements is represented within a council of Elders. Both a man and a woman represents one of each elements, and they are responsible for conducting village rituals and managing the daily life of the village.
Here is what each element and respective Elder is responsible for
- Earth Element – groundedness, sense of identity, ability to nurture and support one another
- Water Element – peace, focus, wisdom, and reconciliation
- Mineral Element – reminder of purpose and gives us the means to both speak and listen clearly
- Nature Element – helps us to be our true self, to go through major changes and life-threatening situations
- Fire Element – dreaming, keeping our connection to the ancestors, and keeping visions alive
Not only are these elements represented by members of the Elder Council, they are also actively used in ritual.
For example, when the fire element is used during ritual it is represented by a circle of ash or candles or the color red. The mineral element is represented by stones or crystals. And soil would be used to represent the earth element.
Dagara Cosmology, Zodiac, and Numerology
The Dagara also had their own unique cosmology and interpretation of star signs that differ from other cultures.
In the West it is said that individuals are born into star signs called zodiacs. But the Dagara culture teaches that each of us are born into one of the five elemental groups.
This element shapes our personality, our purpose in life, and can play a role in the selection of an intimate partner later in life.
A person’s element is determined by their birth year: there are nature years, water years, fire years, mineral years and earth years.
Sobonfu Some writes that “People choose before birth to come in a certain year in order to fulfill their life purpose.”
Your birth element depends on the last number of the year that you were born. So…
- If your birth year ends in a 0 or 5, you are an earth element.
- If your birth year ends in a 1 or 6, you are a water element.
- If your birth year ends in a 2 and 7, you are a fire element.
- If your birth year ends in a 3 and 8, you are a nature element.
- And if your birth year ends in a 4 and 9 , you are a mineral element.
These numbers might seem arbitrary to western minds, but they were not determined randomly.
They have their roots in a deep understanding of the Universe, and each number carries and energy that affects us whether we realize it or not.
How To Tap Into Ancestral Power Through Ritual
Spirit helps us fulfill our own life purpose and maintain our sanity. When indigenous people talk about spirit, they are referring to the life force in everything” – Sobonfu Some
The beauty of Sobonfu Some’s book is that it helps us dispel misconceptions about African Spirituality that western culture has created.
One of the biggest of these misconceptions is the relationship between the the living and the spiritual realms.
In the West, Abrahamic religions teach that the dead are divided from the world of the living, and they are unable to intervene in the world of the living.
But as a Dagara Elder, Sobonfu Some taught us that in African Spirituality any person who lost the physical body can be called upon when a person needs supernatural help to overcome problems in the physical world.
When we call on our Ancestors, they do not show up alone, but they bring an entire host of other Ancestors with them. Some of these may be our direct ascendants, while others may be spirits connected to you that you are unfamiliar with.
So when you express your longing for the support of your Ancestors, you will attract a lot of other spirits in addition to your direct Ancestors.
Our relationship with the spiritual world is not one way; we dont call on them when we need them and then ignore them when we are good.
Instead, the living serve as the eyes of the Ancestors in this world. And it is our duty to invoke the power of the spiritual world to correct evils in this part of existence.
“When we notice that something is not right in our relationships, it is our responsibility to notify the Ancestors. But if we keep seeing things that are not right and we continue to struggle with them – then we run the risk of wasting our time on things that are the business of our allies in the other world” – Sobonfu Some
That is where ritual comes in.
A ritual is a ceremony in which we call in spirit to come and be the driver, the overseer of our activities.
The elements of ritual allow us to connect with the self, the community, and the natural forces around us.
In ritual we call in spirit to show us obstacles that we cannot see because of our limitations as human beings.
Ritual helps us to remove blocks standing between us and our true spirit and other spirits.
The Purpose and Types of Ritual
You dont do a ritual just for the sake of doing a ritual. Every ritual must have a very specific purpose, a clearly stated intention. It must have something to resolve.
Specifically, there are four major types or ritual that Sobonfu Some describes in her book. They are:
- Personal ritual
- Community Rituals
- Maintenance rituals
- Radical Rituals – done to disassociate someone from a state of profound turmoil or alienation and reunite them with spirit.
And when it comes to marriage, there are a multitude of other rituals that include:
- The transfer of the soul ritual that moves a soul from one house to another
- The bringing of two souls together ritual
- The ritual of uniting the purpose of two people (because when you marry there is a purpose in life that you will share).
- The welcoming ritual that brings the bride into the groom’s family
Failure to complete one or all of the rituals can mean the destruction of the relationship between individuals or the village, and even death.
How To Begin and Conduct Rituals
I was surprised to read that in the Dagara culture there is no formula when it comes to ritual. No step by step ‘Bibles’. No recipes or formulas. Instead, rituals are custom made for the people who are involved in it.
And if you try to standardize a ritual, you actually take away the spirit of the people involved in the ritual and try to force something false into the situation.
Think of ritual the way we think of dance: each dance might follow a pre-set pattern of steps and movements, but changes a little based on the personality of the person dancing. It is this unique energy brought into to ritual by unique individuals that give ritual its power.
With that being said, while there is no uniformed approach to ritual there are important elements that should be in place for a ritual to produce its desired effect.
First, a ritual can only begin when a ritual space is defined. Sobonfu Some often refers to ash circles as the way that ritual spaces are created.
“Because ash is connected to fire, it provides protection. It prevents negative energies from creeping in while your in ritual” she writes.
However, ash is not the only way to mark a ritual space – leaves, stones, or shrines themselves can be used to create a sacred space as well.
Next, rituals begin by the person involved asking for the support of the Ancestors with simple words like “to the Ancestors I know, and the ones who I dont know, and those who know me more than I do myself”.
Sobonfu Some writes that “When spirit addresses you, there is a language spoken to you by the beings you have called into your circle. The problem is, we usually don’t listen enough, and therefore we don’t hear it.”
So during the ritual you must open yourself to messages that are communicated to you from the spirit realm.
Every time you want to move into a ritual, say to the spiritual forces around you ‘Come and be with us in such a way that we can feel and do such-and -such’.
Finally, during the ritual you must state your purpose, being quite specific about your need or goals.
Sobonfu teaches us that spirits love to intervene in our affairs but they don’t do it against our will. They are waiting for us to ask for their intervention. She writes that “Spirits love to hear that you don’t know because they do. And they will take it as an invitation to do what they have to do.”
Sex, African Spirituality, and Why Relationships in the West Fail
Unfortunately in the West, sex is one of the first things that come to mind when we think of relationships. People base their choice of partners on how physically attractive a person is – their height, their lifestyle, their weight, and their skin color.
And when Westerners begin relationships, they use romance and performances to downplay their negative traits and play up their positive attributes.
Western couples are all too eager to move their relationships from casual ones to sexual ones. And when the romance is gone, these couples have nothing but sex to keep them together. Lost in lust, both sides lose sight of who they are. Some writes:
“People involved in a solely sexual relationship…carry within themselves a huge energetic hole from early childhood wounds that completely cuts them off from their true selves.”
When we begin relationships, we are not starting with a clean sheet. We bring our childhood wounds into the relationship with us.
Sobonfu Some believes that these childhood wounds can cause fear of vulnerability, rejection, anger and low self-esteem through negative self judgement.
The judgment people feel from others, she explained, is the judgment they have about themselves. If they felt others thought they weren’t worthy of love when they were young, they feel unworthy of having anything meaningful in their lives as an adult and will often sabotage the possibility.
As casual relationships become physical ones, children come into the picture. Now these two individuals who based their initial attraction on appearances and performances are faced with a very serious challenge.
Even worse, these two new parents know little or nothing about the person they are now raising children with, since both have used romance to cover up their true strengths and weaknesses.
Since couples in the West begin their relationships with romance, escalate into sex prematurely, and bring children into the world without understanding their own life purpose, relationships fail far more often in the West than they do in indigenous societies.
- The Spirit of Intimacy Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships
- Some, Sobonfu (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
That is why indigenous cultures were more intentional about how couples were created. Relationships and marriages are not personal and are not limited to two people, but involve the entire village.
In The Spirit of Intimacy we learn that couples are brought together for purposes greater than romance and physical attraction – for these superficial elements of relationships disappear when hard times arrive. And these puropses include helping each other accomplish their respective life missions as well as maintaining the balance of their village.
Here is how the process of marriage works in indigenous communities:
Before a couple is introduced to each other, the entire community comes together to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both man and woman. Their purposes – which were divined at birth – and their personalities are taken into account.
Elders make sure that the couples compliment each other in both their purposes and their personalities. Otherwise, the risk of clashing personalities could lead to violence in the home that spills out into the street.
Once the couple is decided by the village, both parties are notified and give their consent to the marriage before rituals are arranged.
This is not to say that there is no intimacy between the couple, or that their marriage is strictly administrative.
Intimacy, the natural attraction of two human beings to each other, is something that the elders say is actually prompted by spirit, and spirit brings people together in order to give them the opportunity to grow together.
One surprising aspect of intimacy in African spirituality is the absence of what is known in the west as ‘romance’. Romance is deceptive – you play a role and hide your flaws, feign interest in another, and once your goals with that person are achieved then the romance dies.
Instead, Sobonfu Some teaches that intimacy can only be built when two people show one another their true selves. She writes:
“In an indigenous context, because you dont follow romance as a guide…partners know the true identity of the other. You know the strengths and the weaknesses of the person…That way you wont wonder ten years down the road whether you married the right person or their ghost.”
We may view arranged marriages as primitive in the west, or we might see the involvement of the community as meddlesome, but there is power in having “matchmakers” who truly know the two souls that they are paring together.
And there is even more strength in having the support of a village where everyone watches over the children that the couple bear and everyone is willing to lend counseling to the couple when they go through hard times.
But the ultimate strength of a relationship comes from the spirit – especially when things get rough. ” The couple is the container, but the spirit is the one whose blessing hand injects life and growth into their relationship.”
It is to the spirit that the people in conflict must go, through ritual, in order to realize that the conflict is something bigger than both of them put together. Maybe by humbly giving that problem into the hands of spirit, light may be shed on how to begin resolving it.
This is not the kind of book that tells you, if you had a fight with your husband, to go to page 100 and all shall be fixed. Nor is it designed to give you a comprehensive understanding of Dagara culture or African spirituality.
Instead, Some encourages us to listen to the truth that comes from the voices of our Ancestors with the question ‘Okay spirit, I finally heard you. Now what is the next step?’
Books By Sobonfu Some
- The Spirit of Intimacy Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships
- Some, Sobonfu (Author)
- English (Publication Language)