Spanish version available in Teo Cotidiana.


The following analytical book review is about Malidoma Somé’s Of Water and Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. Brief summary about the book, author’s background and his main intended purpose: to make the West aware of the benefits of shamanism. Analysis of different definitions for evaluating the following phenomena: African animism, shamanistic worldview, Western ideology, historical and social context, social bias and culture, among others. Review of many religious and mythological passages through a scientific lens. Final recommendation of a book that can expand our understanding about shamanism and spiritual healing.


Shamanism; Africa; spiritual healing; religion; animism.

1.      Book Review

The book Of Water and Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman is arguably one of the best guides about African shamanism. The author, Malidoma Patrice Somé, has a comprehensive Western education and shows a great deal of respect towards his own culture. Therefore, the purpose of his book is not merely a list of initiation steps for accomplishing a religious goal, but a call to expand and propagate African culture as a spiritual worldview. Essentially, Somé is in the process of completing such an objective. Even though Christianity, Islam, and Judaism dominate the Western tradition, Somé has a considerable audience, and he is adding to a religious branch tagged as the New Age movement.

Malidoma was born in Burkina Faso in 1956. He was forced to learn Western ways after being kidnapped by a Jesuit missionary. When he turned twenty, he escaped to get back to his family, tribe, and roots.[1] Received as an outsider in his own culture, he had to struggle his way in and even risk his life to learn traditional Dagara practices. Malidoma obtained three major skills after his initiation: “enlargement of one’s ability to see, destabilization of the body’s habit of being bound to a single plane of existence, and the ability to voyage trans-dimensionally and return.”[2] Through his process of initiation, which resemble Saint Teresa of Ávila’s mystical experiences, Malidoma reestablished a broken bond with his ancestors while suppressing doubts, despair, and adding purpose to his life.[3]

Malidoma offers an account about his background to commit the reader to his work and strengthen his credibility. His conversion into shamanism through the process of re-birth, his Christian background, and his studies at the Centre d’Études Supérieures and Brandeis University all contributed to the comprehensiveness of his message for reaching a wider audience. While completing his studies, Somé was influenced by strong feeling of anti-colonialism, the renouncement of a “temperamental God,”[4] and experienced the auto-destructive, disrespectful, and ambitious nature of Western society. Therefore, he decided to open minds and de-evangelize a world that faces a spiritual crisis. He rebukes the paradigms of modern societies because of their uncontrollable need for consumption, mean nature, and extreme individualism. Somé claims that the Dagara tribe, on the other hand, accepts ritual, communal, and spiritual healing as the three pivotal foundations for building a more ethical and honest society.[5]

Malidoma Patrice Somé will face many obstacles in his attempt to change the Western mindset. Firstly, the Western world has dominated and colonized the African continent for over six centuries. Many Europeans and Americans disregard the African culture as being morally inferior, technologically limited, and even less sophisticated. Why, many westerners might ask, should we listen to someone who embodies such a world? Somé considers different approaches for dealing with those issues. Firstly, he clearly establishes an ascending hierarchy among himself, the Dagara tribe, Burkina Faso, and the African continent. For the most part, we interpret African cultures and religious practices as being monochromatic and homogenous, when nothing can be farther from the truth. Secondly, Somé understands the gap between the Dagara tribe and Western societies by taking into account the role of supernatural events, the added importance of ancestral customs, and the effectiveness, power, and usability of accepting and worshiping his particular religion. Within the Dagara tribe, each individual’s name refers to his/her fate or purpose during his/her life. Therefore, the name Malidoma (“to be friends with the stranger/enemy”)[6] could be rephrased as: an African shaman trying to be friends with an alienated Western culture.

Of Water and Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman is a very interesting story and opens the door to a new world, which is largely unknown for Western society. The book seems more a piece of literature or an appealing narrative than an analytical or even prophetic account. How can anyone believe the supernatural realm as a real dimension without proper investigation? The Dagara tribe as a whole and Malidoma Somé as an individual, both accept the concept of Yielbongura as a given: “To a Dagara man or woman, the material is just the spiritual taking on form.”[7] Moreover, imagination and reality are strongly interrelated as the power of the mind exerts a strong influence over physical events.

What is the danger of religion or, in this case, of believing in supernatural claims? As Malidoma himself asserts, the process of his initiation almost killed him, and he could cheat his way out of school later on due to his acquired skills. There are two important elements at play that should not to be missed. Firstly, shamanism upholds spiritual, supernatural, and unproven phenomena to the detriment of physical needs or even survival instincts. Secondly, religion diminishes human capacities, abilities, and accomplishments; replacing them with ghostly appeals to secret or hidden ethereal skills. No one should be willing to die or cheat for such subjective conceptions: “The walking dead, visiting the underworld, defying gravity; these things just do not happen in the ‘real world.’”[8] Malidoma Somé is right when he claims that the West faces self-destruction and suffers spiritual sickness, but progress has its own price and drawbacks. Malidoma obviously assumes a defensive stand towards colonialism and towards a civilization which teachings he uses for providing for his family. The author pays too much attention to the damage caused by colonialism and disregards African responsibility in the matter. Shamanism has not taken humanity up to its current standing, science has. However, Malidoma is brave enough for giving meaning to his life by propagating a message he considers liberating and altruistic: “We must undergo initiation to discover what our gift is and how to share it.”[9]

2. Definitions

2.1. Dagara tribal view regarding «cleanliness is not next to godliness»

The concept that defines how “cleanliness is not next to godliness,” from the Dagara tribe worldview, refers to a theoretical dichotomy between appearance and morality. Such a concept is very similar to the Christian principle that defines how only God’s grace determines the believer’s salvation in despise of good deeds, almsgiving, or proper conduct: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”[10] In few words, being clean is worldly but reaching godliness is divine: such is the state the shaman attains.[11]

2.2. Yielbongura

The concept of Yielbongura is similar to what Otto referred to as the mysterium tremendum.[12] In other words, the “thing that knowledge cannot eat” or Yielbongura, is a concept too abstract for human understanding.[13] The Dagara tribe follows an animistic approach in which natural and supernatural events occur indistinctively. Such views resemble Spinoza’s understanding of the world as an extension of God’s thought.[14] Moreover, Pascal has a phrase that synthesizes the relatedness between two seemingly opposite realms: “Nature has perfections, in order to show that she is the image of God; and defects, to show that she is only his image.”[15]

According to Patrice Somé, the occult is not only fascinating but sacred. The supernatural realm is accessible through our improvement and development as spiritual beings.[16] Such an interpretation is contradictory because, if the natural and supernatural realms are interrelated, what is the need for “expanding our horizons and revealing a concealed secret?”

2.3. Lobir/lobie and wizard wars

Lobir is “an invisible projectile known to warriors from secret societies,”[17] and consists of throwing an object or curse against a person. The wizards responsible for those actions have usually “gone private”[18] and are commonly present at funerals. Evil spirits that control the wizard are the ones often carrying on with such a wicked conduct. Shamanistic healing is the permanent struggle between the shaman and evil spirits. Therefore, human sickness is not merely a physical problem but also a spiritual and psychological one. Finally, a “lobirproof vest”[19] can protect the person who carries it while deflecting projectiles back to their senders.

2.4. The green lady

Isapí was an Indian princess, found in a Herminio Almendros’s fictional story, who transformed into a tree.[20] Daphne was a nymph who, according to Greek mythology, decided to become a laurel tree to escape from Apollo.[21] Such allusions shed light into the transformation from tree into green lady that Malidoma witnessed. The process of transmutation, which is when an element changes into a new one, is recurrent in many religions around the world. In Malidoma’s account, it symbolizes the link between nature and human beings, and supports the animistic perspective that claims that spirits fill nature. Moreover, the lady who embraces Malidoma contributes to his magical initiation and allows him to access the mysterious and invisible “other world,” surrounded by supernatural events.[22] In fact, such awakening experience expanded Malidoma’s mindset as it gave him alternative tools for experiencing reality.[23]

2.5. Between two worlds

After Somé escaped from the Jesuit seminary, he found an alien culture and language that merged with his forcefully acquired ideology. The Dagara tribe believed in communal cooperation,[24] while Western tradition upheld individualism and personal ambitions.[25] Two different worlds clashed inside Malidoma’s mind.[26] Western Christianity and monotheistic practices allied against Dagara culture, which defended shamanistic and animistic traditions. Such divergences reached a climax when Somé started his initiation ritual (or process of re-birth) for becoming a shaman. However, Malidoma used his knowledge about the West for carrying on an important message about the Dagara culture and for “taking revenge” against a world that was abusive and hostile towards him.

3. Works Cited

Authors, Multiple. The Bible – New International Version. n.d. 10 August 2011.

Barnard, Mary E. “The myth of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid to Quevedo: love, agon, and the grotesque.” Duke University Press Books – Vol. 8 (1987).

Benítez Moreno, Francisco Javier, Juan Martín Bastidas Rosero, and Sonia Betancourth Zambrano. “Incidencia del pensamiento creativo en la convivencia escolar.” Tesis Psicológica 8.1 (2013).

Bliss, Shepherd. An Initiated African Tribesman Cries Out to the West. 1994. 10 August 2011.

Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman – Book Review. 2009. 10 August 2011.

Crofton, Emilie. Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman – Book Review. n.d. 14 July 2011.

Goodman, Leslee. Between Two Worlds – Malidoma Somé on Rites of Passage. 2010. 10 August 2011.

Hampshire, Stuart. Spinoza. Manchester University Press, 1953. Vol. 253.

Otto, Rudolf. The idea of the holy. Oxford University Press, 1958. Vol. 14.

Raffelt, Albert (e.d.) and Blaise Pascal. Pensées. Freiburg: Herder, 1993.

Somé, Malidoma Patrice. Of Water and Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. New York: Penguin Group, 1994.

Vitebsky, Piers. “Shamanism.” Singapore: University of Oklahoma Press (2001): 91-93.

Wisner, Geoff. Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman – Book Review. 1995. 10 August 2011.

[1] (Wisner)

[2] (Bliss)

[3] (Brussat and Ann)

[4] (Somé)

[5] (Brussat and Ann)

[6] (Somé)

[7] (Somé)

[8] (Crofton)

[9] (Goodman)

[10] (Authors), Romans 3:23-24

[11] (Vitebsky)

[12] (Otto)

[13] (Somé)

[14] (Hampshire)

[15] (Raffelt y Pascal)

[16] (Brussat and Ann)

[17] (Somé)

[18] (Somé)

[19] (Somé)

[20] (Benítez Moreno)

[21] (Barnard)

[22] (Bliss)

[23] (Brussat and Ann)

[24] (Brussat and Ann)

[25] (Bliss)

[26] (Crofton)

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