In early November 2016 I received an email from Rych Somdah, a gentleman living in the US who had traced his ancestry to the Dagara people of Burkina Faso in West Africa. Rych reminded me that in my first post on Africa I wrote that at some later time I would explore the shamanistic practices of the Dagara tribe in relation to the elements. Now is that time. I am grateful that Malidoma Patrice Somé has devoted his life to sharing the teachings and practices of the Dagara with the English speaking world. The five elements of fire, water, earth, minerals and nature are an essential part of his, and their, story.
Malidoma Patrice Somé was born in the village of Dano in Burkina Faso. The country received this name in 1984, prior to which it was known as the Republic of Upper Volta. Previously a colony of France, Upper Volta became independent in 1960. The boundaries of Burkina Faso and other African countries have mostly been imposed by Colonial rule. The 54 sovereign countries found in Africa today overlap hundreds of African tribes. In addition to being located in Burkina Faso for example, the Dagara tribe is found in the north-west of Ghana and the north-east of the Ivory Coast. My assumption is that the five elements of the Dagara people are fundamental to rituals across their territory, regardless of modern boundaries.
Each of the five elements has deep meaning. The following descriptions were adapted from a SlideShare presentation produced by the Ancestral Wisdom Bridge Foundation (also see below).
Fire, the original element, is seen as a most potent connection to the spirit world. It is puts us back on our spiritual track by consuming that which stands between us and our purpose.
Water brings cleansing, reconciliation, purification and peace-making.
Earth, the central element, is the mother who is inviting us to come home to community and the earth, our true home.
Mineral is the elemental energy that invites us to remember, through ritual, who we are and why we are here.
Nature asks us to open to transformation in order to realise our true and authentic selves.
More detailed descriptions of the five elements are found in Somé’s book ‘The Healing Wisdom of Africa‘. The Dagara rituals associated with the elements call on our six senses. Touch is particularly important to the Earth ritual. Somé writes that there is a deeply sacred dimension to touch, and therefore, a ritual that allows people to touch one another allows them to relax in a sacred context. He feels that the lack of touch is the greatest source of grief in modern culture. Many other insights can be found in his books. ‘Of Water and The Spirit‘ includes remarkable descriptions of Somé’s experiences with the (super)natural elements during his initiation as a shaman. ‘The Healing Wisdom of Africa‘ is designed more as a guide for people looking to reconnect with nature, within and without, using the Medicine Wheel and the five elements as a framework. Like Eastern belief systems, the Dagara see the universe and life as circular rather than linear. I can understand why Rych is proud of his heritage.
In April 2022 I received an email from Julia Milborrow in South Africa who sent this illuminating information about the numbers displayed in the Dagara Medicine Wheel. Thank-you Julia.
“The numbers are actually connected to the year of birth.
WE currently are in a double fire year (22).
Normally you look at the last number of your birth year to define your element in dagara culture.
The last number of your birth year:
2 or 7 Fire
1 or 6 Water
0 or 5 Earth
4 or 9 mineral
3 or 8 Nature”
My first post on the elements in Africa was about the Sufi. Since then I have tracked down more books about the continent, especially on sub-Saharan Africa. I have looked through these to see if I can discover more about the five elements of the Dagara people, and the role they play in their shaman teachings, with no success. If I come across new material it will be added to this post.
I’m sure Mr. Somdah will be touched that you researched this post based on his request. I found it very interesting to read about the relationship the Dagara tribe have with the elemental forces. It reminds me that there is so much to learn about the planet, and the people with whom we share it.
I’m pleased that Mr Somdah approached me. As you know, not many people take the time to comment on blog posts, yet alone send an email. Due to their nature, my posts can only act as an introduction to a subject. My hope is that this one will spur further interest in the Dagara teachings and practices, and help unearth more material about them. That would be of interest to both Mr Somdah and me.