Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community
Publication Date:October 2002
Reviewed Title:Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community (1999)
Reviewed Publisher:Novato, CA: New World Library. 141 pp. ISBN: 1-57731-009-8.
Welcoming Spirit Home is a book that anyone interested in birth, children, or the fostering of non-violent, compassionate societies is likely to want to read. Start to finish. In one sitting.
In this warm and majestically written little book (a mere 5 by 7 inches, and only 140 pages in length), Sobonfu Some brings to life the importance of an entire community's celebrating the significance of the processes of a baby's conception, a woman's pregnancy, life in the womb, the mother and child's birth, and their bond and development as souls, in the context of their family and community-at-large.
Sobonfu speaks with the natural ease of a woman born and raised in a well-functioning, bonded culture. For such a slender book, she shares a great deal of the ancient wisdom of her Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, a tiny land-locked country in Western Africa. This is where Sobonfu lived until she was "chosen" as a wife for Malidoma Some, an older man from a nearby tribe who was already living and teaching in America.
Plunked down in a strange culture, not knowing the language, Sobonfu bore the shock of all immigrants, but especially because she had never before been outside her tribal village. In the subsequent years, she learned fluent English and, like Malidoma, took her place as one of only a handful of Africans who have continued to live with one foot in the modern technological culture of the U.S. and the other in their native land. She regularly returns to her village for spiritual sustenance and familial ties. It is this unique blend of outside observer of Western culture and modern Westernized woman who works hard at maintaining her deepest traditional values that makes Sobonfu's wisdom so special. Although she has not yet had children, she is the bearer of much knowledge that many in the West are thirsty for.
Sobonfu articulates a basic tenet of her tribe:
At the heart of a healthy community lies the importance of spirit, elders, children, ritual, gift giving, ancestors, responsibility and accountability. These fundamentals must be understood and valued, and they must be nurtured and balanced for the well-being of the community. In Africa it is known that the elders are the vision and wisdom keepers, children ensure the survival of the villages and tribe, and rituals feed the soul.
Welcoming Spirit Home gives us rituals to ponder that make sense, and Sobonfu describes them vividly, so that we might make use of them in creating meaningful ritual of our own. She makes clear the practical importance of ritual to our daily lives, and especially to the rearing of a child. This book focuses on living deeply connected to our body, mind, the earth, our ancestors, and our community. Sobonfu discusses birth, not as a nine-month medical process that culminates with the severing of the umbilical cord, but as a healthy and vital process beginning before physical conception and continuing long after "delivery." It is not to be feared but respected and entered into with optimism and profound trust.
For the Dagara people, a baby's soul makes a conscious choice to enter the world in a body and to come to a particular mother and father. "Pregnancy should be seen as the inauguration of an important person, a VIP, stepping into a job that will bring much goodness to the world, she writes." The significance of the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of all stages of development are described, including pre-conception, physical conception, pregnancy, prenatal, birth and postpartum. The "spiritual pregnancy" begins when a woman has her first sense of a child's presence in dream or waking life.
The analogies Sobonfu draws between her tribe and our modern way of life make her easy to understand. In the section titled Preconception she writes,
Most of us would go through a lot of trouble to clean or redecorate our homes in an attempt to make them beautiful if we were told that the president of the U.S. was coming for dinner. If the president's parents knew that the child they were going to have would someday be president of the United States, imagine what they would have done for this child-and also what everybody around this child would have done for its well-being. What would the world be like if we invested the same kind of energy into every child born?
For this reason, every couple is expected to go on a healing journey even before they attempt to physically conceive a child. The healing journey I speak of, she says, "is one that allows a couple to take a serious look at their demons, and to reconnect with their childhood memories-if nothing else, to go through the process of realizing how vulnerable they were as children and what they can do to protect their future child and other children in the community."
Each generation has the ability to heal the wounds of previous generations, but, to do so, we must each be willing to visit our own old wounds. Otherwise, our children will have to live under those burdens. Prospective parents are encouraged to make a journey to the place where they were born and to the place where the placenta that once held them was buried. Doing this is a way of gathering the strength to connect with their own past and get in touch with their vulnerable self. In this way they are able to re-experience what it is like to be a child. After the journey, the person holds a special ritual of giving away something of value, which in turn makes space for the fertility ritual. The community holds a communal giveaway in the form of a feast, where the couple wishing to bear a child cooks a celebratory meal and invites all the children from the village to dine with their potential sibling!
Traditional indigenous cultures consider conception a sacred act and treat it as such, she writes, "because children are a gift and a blessing from the gods, the ancestors and the great mysteries; their entry into this world must be welcomed in a sacred way."
Making connection with their unborn baby daily throughout pregnancy is considered crucial, so that the parents can stay in tune with the needs of the baby and so that other members of community can get a sense of the soul that will soon be brought into the world.
The pregnant woman is already treated as a mother and must go through a ritual of being freshly introduced to her community. This sense of the sacred nature of the ordinary continues right though one's life. "When an elder dies it's like a whole library has burned down," Sobonfu writes.
Regarding a baby's birth, she writes, "If we view reality from the angle that we come to Earth to fulfill a particular purpose, birth can then be looked at as a contract between this world and the world of the ancestors or other dimensions. This contract is agreed to in different ways. For some parents it is a conscious choice; for others, it is unconscious, but for the incoming soul the choice is always a conscious one."
Regardless of the circumstances or sensitivity of the parents to whom a child is being born, she asserts, "in all cases the choice to be born is welcomed by all ancestors, spirits and the community." She goes on to say that in this way, we weave a connection, person-toperson, family to community, from this world to other worlds.
In Dagara cosmology the hardships we experience in our families of origin are not accidents because "our greatest wounds are in fact our greatest gifts." Psychotherapists, educators, midwives, nurses and physicians, as well as prospective parents, parents and grandparents, will see how significant their role can be in the life of a childbearing woman, baby, child and family. Among the Dagara people, every child is seen as embodying an irreplaceable contribution to the world, not just to their family and community. Each child must be honored as a visible means of insuring the continuance of the very soul of the community, as well as a direct link to the ancestors. She writes, "Whether we are born to loving parents or abusive parents, born by natural childbirth or by Cesarean, born into or without a community, born with disabilities, or found in a trash yard, we all have unique gifts to bring to this world."
Some's descriptions of the particular rituals of the Dagara easily transcend geographical, political, generational and racial boundaries and remind us that life, especially the time before birth, must be honored and celebrated. This is a book of vision and hope.