Sobonfu Somé of the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, West Africa talks about names, community, initiation, mentorship, challenges and ritual.
It’s interesting that the life of a Dagara tribesperson is so similar to ours in the West in so many ways, but suffused with so much more meaning and spirit. For example, the Dagara view adolescence not as a nuisance time, a scary time that should be gotten through with as little upheaval as possible.
Instead, adolescence is seen as a time of challenge, in which a young person demonstrates readiness to let some immature part of them die in order to ascend into a greater expression of their life purpose.
Life purpose – we in the West obsess over this. “What’s my purpose? What should I be doing? Why am I here? Is this all there is?” And on and on.
The Dagara take these questions even more seriously, but they don’t condemn themselves to trying to figure it out at mid-life with no support or guidance.
When a woman becomes pregnant, the community gathers for a hearing ritual. The elders of the tribe listen to the incoming baby’s soul, seeking to discover who they are, why they are coming into this community at this time, and what their purpose is. Based on the answers they receive, they strive to prepare the space for this new person.
The child’s name, based on this information, contains clear instructions about their destiny. The elders name the baby in a community ritual three to four weeks following the birth.
Sobonfu says, “Before age five, you own your name. After age five, your name owns you.”
Once the young child reaches the age of understanding, they come under both the sway of the name’s energy and the community’s collaborative efforts to guide the child into their destiny. The name’s energy acts like a magnetic field, a life force that exerts its own influence on the child’s development. Western society doesn’t grant the same power to the name, but you can see the perverse application of the principle in the ironic Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.”
So many of us in the West hate or are indifferent to our names; yet we don’t think it’s such a big deal, if you asked us. But the power of the name, even to us unbelievers, is evidenced by research that shows we choose careers that sound like our names, and unconsciously prefer people who share our name, and products that share even the first letter of our name.
(See the book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Goldstein and Martin to discover that someone named Dennis is disproportionately more likely to become a dentist, and George is drawn to geology, and Allan prefers Almond Joy while Nick chooses Nutrageous bars.)
So this works in our culture as well, but unconsciously. In the Dagara world, on the other hand, not only is your name evocative of a noble destiny, but it also acts as a homing signal for the community. It’s everyone’s job to be air traffic controllers for the young, making sure their actions are congruent with their ultimate purpose.
Adolescent initiation, in the Dagara tradition, means throwing the 1000s of pieces of one’s life up in the air, and then, with the guidance of a mentor, putting them back together in a different pattern.
In this, the adolescent initiation prefigures the multitude of life challenges that are waiting for all of us. Each challenge or crisis is a call to shed a skin, some aspect of ourselves that no longer fits, no longer serves.
If we come through a crisis intact, it’s like we’ve wriggled back into the same skin we just outgrew and discarded. That’s a recipe for stuckness, for making the same mistakes again and again, for having to experience the same suffering far more than is strictly necessary for our growth.
The forces that guide the Dagara baby, youth, adolescent and adult are the same forces that drive our own lives. It would be well if we in the West could become as conscious of them as our African sisters and brothers.