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Courtney Cook

Of Water and The Spirit Essay Questions


Grandfather Bakhyes funeral was a very remarkable affair. The death ritual of the

Dagara is a rite of passage because it contains the three stages: separation, transition (or liminal
phase), and incorporation. These stages are clearly seen in the account given by Malidoma of
Grandfather Bakhyes funeral. The funeral began with the process of walking Grandfather
from the hospital where he had died, back to the village where the ritual would take place. This
was accomplished by guiding him with a hyena tail back to his quarters in the Birifor compound,
while a procession of people followed along. Once back in his bed, Grandfathers head was
shaved, his body washed with warm water and seasonings, and he was dressed in clothing for the
dead. This was part of the separation stage, in which Grandfather lost his identity by changing
his hair and clothing, and was set apart from the rest of the community. To begin the liminal
phase, he was fed a final meal, prepared in an out-of-gravity kitchen, to provide him strength for
his journey to the other side. Malidoma explains that this was symbolic of the realm that great
leaders inhabit after death, which is exempt from physicality, thus so was the way the meal was
prepared. After this meal and Grandfathers final words were said, people gathered outside to
express their grief and sorrow for the loss with xylophone and drum music, chants, dancing, and
woeful weeping and cries. This characterized the liminal phase because confusion and chaotic
grieving were abundant. This continued through the night and into the next day. Grandfather was
enthroned in a funeral tent and dressed regally, with many relics around him to remind others of
his heroism during their chanting. Although Grandfathers body was present, he was not there,
but he had not yet entered the realm of the ancestors. He could not enter this realm until the
people closest to him had paid him a debt they owed, liberated themselves from all grief, and his
identity in this world was given a farewell. During the liminal phase, magical practices were also
performed to either honor grandfather or most commonly because magical arts are symbolic of a
way spirits from the underworld can heal those in the world above, and help Grandfather on his
journey. The Zanu ceremony of the medicine healers was also a part of the liminal phase, in
which a great herd of deer was summoned to run through the crowd to symbolize the loss of
Grandfathers relationship with the animals as a hunter and healer. Then an arrow of light circled
the paala and shot through the crowd, symbolizing Grandfathers abilities to wield the Pintul

arrow. Next, some Kontombili appeared to pay their respects and symbolize their relationship
with Grandfather as assistants to his work. They performed a ritual communication with the
dead. Finally, the liminal phase concluded with the ceremony of children looking into the grave
to see the final resting place of a person of such high honor. The incorporation stage was begun
then, when celebratory singing and dancing by men and women and finally the healers carried
Grandfather to the other side. The incorporation stage ended with the farewell ceremony in
which gravediggers carried Grandfathers body from the paala to the grave, signaling that
Grandfather had truly died and moved on to another realm.
Although there are some common qualities between Grandfather Bakhyes funeral and a
Western funeral, such as a procession, preparation of the body, singing and weeping, and burial,
there are many differences that should be examined. The first is that Malidoma spoke of
Grandfather Bakhye walking even when he was dead. He says this is possible where he lives,
because they [the dead] are still as important to the living as they were before. They walk
because they are not hidden away and they still have a relationship with the people around them.
Another thing that is very different is the extent of grief displayed. Typical western funerals that I
have experienced are quiet events in which some crying may occur but it is mostly a time of
silent reverence and peaceful goodbyes. The Dagara funeral on the other hand was very loud,
busy, chaotic and full of outbursts of wailing and weeping. The people really put a lot of time
and energy to expel all grief and are not afraid to sing, dance, and play music. They are still very
respectful of the dead, however if not even more so. They treated Grandfather Bakhye as royalty
and so many people even the supernatural Kontombili came to pay their respect. There is much
to gain in understanding these funerals as a rite of passage, and to appreciate the relationship
these people have with their ancestors.

The traditional education of the Dagara is based on observation. Malidoma says that,

Children learn by watching adults work and by doing the same things on a smaller scale. With
the help of grown-ups, they obtain the range of skills they need to confront their own adult
duties. He explains that his mother used to collect dry wood and he would accompany her and
assist her in this practice. In this culture there is also a very close relationship between
grandfathers and grandchildren. The wisdom from the grandfather is passed directly to the
grandchild often through stories or firsthand experiences. Malidomas grandfather was a great

example of this, always speaking to Malidoma, even when he was sleeping, teaching him so
many valuable truths about life. Growing up, the children are told of their ancestors and are in
tune with their past, so they have a better idea of their purpose in life. This kind of education is
very relaxed with no time frame and is driven by curiosity and asking questions. The education
of the seminary in comparison is much more strict. When Malidoma was a student at Nansi he
was given a daily schedule, giving specific times for classes, meals, prayer, and free time. During
classes and mass, they were prohibited from asking questions and were often rebuked when a
question was asked provoking free thoughts. They were taught that their whole purpose in life
should be to become a priest because that was what was being invested and taught to them. The
subjects they were taught were biased towards white history and European perspectives. They
were taught how to speak, read, and write in French and were forced to forget their native
languages. There were so many rules to follow and harsh punishments were given if disobeyed,
such as wearing the skull of a goat around their neck or confess their sins to a priest. A lot of the
My education is more reflective of the seminary type education, however there are some
aspects, especially of my elementary education that more closely resemble the Dagara methods
of learning. During my elementary school years, I was homeschooled and was taught many
things in a hands-on way with no specific time frame. I learned how to cook with my mom and
went on field trips to parks and farms. I learned about things that interested me and had a curious
attitude. When I got older, it was more important that I learned things in order to succeed and
move on to the next grade level. There was more pressure to learn things and there is less
freethinking and more forced learning. As I continued in my education, even in college, there is
an emphasis on brain stuffing and less practical skill learning. I feel that the hands-on type of
education that the Dagara culture provides is viewed as lesser, or that those who were given this
type of education are less knowledgeable. I experienced this being homeschooled, when people
wondered if I was learning anything or was behind for my age. I in fact, was if anything
ahead of the normal kids in public school, but I dont see a need for comparison, because I was
learning things that could not be taught in a classroom. I understand that the kind of education
provided in western culture is focused on academics, but I often think that common sense and
practicality are lost in these methods, and are not things that should be overlooked.


Because Malidoma was away from his village for such a long time, the elders were

concerned about the extent to which the western ideas of white people had influenced him. They
saw that he had learned French, and to read and write and worried that he had lost touch with
nature and his spirit. They were concerned that if his spirit were not with him then it would be
extremely dangerous for him, and even deadly if he went through the initiation. When he
returned he was 20 years old, but in the eyes of the people in his village he was still an
adolescent. He needed to go through the initiation in order to become a man; otherwise he would
be recognized as an adolescent for the rest of his life. This initiation is another example of a rite
of passage ritual. It began with the separation phase in which he took off all of his clothes,
leaving them and his family behind, and went away from the community, journeying into the
bush. As they were leaving the other initiates sang, To become a man I must go, Into Natures
womb I must return. The whole initiation ritual was a picture of rebirth. As he was in the bush,
he went through the liminal phase, transitioning and trying to find his new identity. His first task
was to see the lady in the tree, and once he had succeeded this changed his whole perspective
on the rest of the ritual. Each night they would gather around a fire and enter into a dream
journey, also influencing the way they comprehended the supernatural. The next major event
during the liminal phase was to jump through the volcanic gate or light hole and experience the
world below. This time they were not conscious of their body in the hole. In jumping into this
hole it was symbolic of going back into the womb in which they had come from. For the next
task, they were told to jump into a water pool in a cave, this time they would be aware of their
body with them. The elder spoke to them saying, To come to this planet you first had to plunge
into the depths of a chasm. In order to return to where you came from, you will do the same
thing. This was another example of how they had to go back to the womb to be reborn into
their new identity. The liminal phase included many other tasks that Malidoma does not speak
about, as they were in the bush for 30 days. When he had completed his last task in the
underworld, they were finally through with the liminal phase. The incorporation stage occurred
when they walked back into the village and were welcomed by their family. This was a joyous
celebration and when they reached the house, he was surprised with his own quarters,
designating that he was finally a man.


In the Dagara culture, each child is given a name with a meaning pertaining to his future

occupation or as some would say, destiny. This is due to their belief that children are reincarnated
ancestors that are reborn to accomplish a specific task. In Malidomas case, he was told that he
was the reincarnation of his Grandfathers brother, Birifor. Later on during his initiation he is
given a whole background history in the underworld, as if he is living through it and
remembering all of his past as a reincarnated ancestor. Before the birth of each child, a ritual is
performed in which a priest talks with the fetus, which speaks through the mother. The unborn
child tells where it is from, why it is coming, what gender it has chosen, and often asks that
certain things be prepared for them such as talismanic objects. As Malidoma wrote, A persons
life project is therefore inscribed in the name she/he carries. His name means, Be friends with
the stranger/enemy.
I believe that Malidoma has and is continuing to fulfill his destiny. Because of his unique
situation in which he was provided with education in both the Dagara culture and the European
world, he is able to interact in both cultures and become a link between the two. After his terrible
captivity in the Jesuit seminary, he was hesitant to return to the culture that gave him nightmares.
As a friend of the stranger, his purpose in life was to go back and to teach about his culture and
perspective on colonialism. When he returned, he went to college and now has a PhD and is
teaching about the rituals and life of his culture at Universities in the U.S. He could have easily
held a grudge against Westerners for the way he was treated, but he chose to forgive them and
move on to becoming a friend with his enemy.