Sobonfu Somé: Ancient African wisdom for a troubled world

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A few years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Sobonfu Somé and host a grief ritual at my home. Sobonfu, of the Dagara people of West Africa, was a teacher by example and a storyteller in the oral tradition. She left this world Jan. 14, 2017, and her wisdom is now available to us as an ancestral spirit.

In the village Sobonfu was from, ritual sacramentalized all activities and relationships. The community came together to express feelings and emotions in the presence of spirit. They knew the dangers and disease of holding them in or trying to figure them out alone.

Sobonfu’s name means “keeper of ritual.” She defines ritual in her book The Spirit of Intimacy:

“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.”

Just as a spiritual director in the Christian tradition might, Sobonfu in her indigenous frame of being called on spirit to lead the way. In this time of great transition, upheaval, and polarization her insights, wisdom, and guidance continue to inspire and give us hope and possibilities for moving forward together.

Sobonfu left a legacy of videos, audiobooks, and written work that all can be accessed. Her books include:

  • Falling Out of Grace: Meditations on loss, healing and wisdom
  • The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships
  • Women’s Wisdom From the Heart of Africa

It was an honor to know her and to have her contribute to How Do You Pray? When I asked her that question, here’s what she said:

I pray in many different ways.
 The clarity of my intention is the beginning of my prayer.

In my tradition, every breath I draw is a prayer. Every time I inhale and exhale, it is a prayer.
 And so, how conscious are you when you are breathing in and out? 
How conscious are you when you are walking?
 How conscious are you when you are singing?
 How conscious are you when you are angry? 
I pray in the way I show gratitude, love or compassion. I pray alone and in community.
 I pray with my thoughts.
 I pray with my body.

I pray in the way I speak to people. 
I pray to the various elements of nature—the trees, the animals, the water, the rocks, the earth, the fire … I pray to my Ancestors and all the Divinities.
 I pray simply, with passion, humility, clarity and grace.

I pray in the way I welcome and bless people.
 I pray with whatever emotions come my way.
 I pray with sincerity and with strong belief that what I’m praying for is going to manifest.

In my tradition, whatever you say is a prayer that you send out, because sound is a powerful force that brings the hidden to light. 
And when you pray something is going to say Yes.

So each moment in my life is a prayer.

Each moment I reflect on myself, on the world and other people is a prayer.

How I interact with people and how I deal with my thoughts is a prayer.

How genuine am I?—is a way for me to pray.

For me, all these things are sacred and are messengers, and can take my heart cries, which are my prayers to the Divinities.

This is the power of how I pray.

Sobonfu was also the founder of Wisdom Spring, Inc., an organization dedicated to the preservation and sharing of indigenous wisdom and fundraising for wells, schools and health projects in Africa, an initiative that continues today.


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