Sobonfu Somé: Grace Within The Family

Sobonfu Somé (whose name means “keeper of rituals”), was born in Dano, Burkina Faso, a traditional Dagara African village of about a hundred people. She came to the U.S. in 1991 and is author of three books. Her latest, Falling Out of Grace: Meditations on Loss, Healing and Wisdom (North Bay Books, 2003), is excerpted here.

The founder of Ancestors Wisdom Springs, an organization dedicated to the preservation and sharing of indigenous wisdom, she is also involved in an ongoing project to provide water to the Dagara villages of West Africa. Sobonfu’s work has helped to move African spiritual practices from the realm of anthropology to a place alongside the world’s greatest spiritual traditions with a message of profound significance and practical application in the lives of westerners.

The state of grace is that holy and contented way of being that each of us strives for. It is that state, auspicious in the spiritual realm, in which we work out all our difficulties with care, and function peacefully in connection with other people in the flow of life. It involves progress in accomplishing the purpose for which we were born into the world in a way that is pleasing to those around us. It is a state of devotion and integrity, of living harmoniously, of being looked at not as someone who is perfect, but as someone that others trust and respect. It implies a certain level of healthiness and psychological well-being.

The state of grace is not the same as success in any measurable way, nor is it reflected in social status. It is not determined by how much we resemble those whom many people admire. In fact, the person who has arrived at this state may not even be conscious of it.

Each of us passes in and out of this state many times in our life. This is a universal human experience. As we fall out of grace it looks and feels to us as if we are failing. Indeed we call it “failure”; a part of us dies. But this is the process by which we make space for the birth of something new, something more true to ourselves.

Here is something I have been taught, and which I have had to learn over and over again through experience: to fall out of grace is a gift, one of the greatest gifts that one receives in life.

When we are in grace, we begin to take things for granted and we actually stop working on ourselves. Falling out of grace shakes us up. It reconnects us to the larger universe in order for us to see ourselves anew. It forces us to rediscover where our true center begins, and to learn what needs to be set aside.

When I think of the challenge of grace within the family, a Dagara proverb comes to mind: “No matter how high a bird flies, it has to come back to Earth.” No matter how far you isolate yourself, at some point you will always have to go back to your family.

To almost everyone, family is a delicate issue. It is a special source of love and pride, our original home in the world, and it can also be a source of pain and a ground for alienation. While some of us hold to our families with all our heart, others look for ways to break the seals that bind. It is fortunate that there is no such technology.

Each of us, you see, was born into a particular family because we brought with us something that we must give to that circle of people, something that they need — be it our gift of love, of labor, of trials, of joys. The experience we bring to the family help it to hold together, to expand and grow in wisdom. The other members of our family, in turn, were born there in order to give something to us.

There is an invisible force that binds us to our family no matter what, a force that gives life. This close connection is, perhaps, why it is easier to fall out of grace with our family than it is in any other circle of life. Many things will push us out of grace with our family: issues of love, of money, of spiritual growth, of regard for ancestors, of choices we make in response to tragedy. All of these factors are related to our most basic human needs. Who, for example, does not need to be loved? Even rocks, in the Dagara view, need to be loved and treasured.

A friend once asked me after I had given a workshop, “Where can I go to find this loving family that you always talk about?”

My answer is that we cannot go looking for it. We cannot fantasize about an “ideal family” and seek it out, or imagine how some other family must be far better than our own. What is important is that we be willing to get down and scratch and dig and bring our own imperfect family back to grace. Because the truth of the matter is that each family comes with its own parasites, goodies, shortfalls, struggles and powers. Some families are spicier than others, and that’s fine. Spice gives a family its identity, and creates the tools to bring it back into grace.

When there are problems within a family, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has fallen from grace. Family members can be in conflict and still continue to love and support each other. Grace is lost when, for instance, people break away from the family because they are unwilling to work out difficulties, or when the family kills the spirit of an individual within it.

It loses grace when secrets are kept, or when veils are pulled down to confuse people. Grace is also lost when one person is favored and others are treated differently, or when a family member turns her back when called upon to help.

I see some families in which the parents want to mold a child into what they wanted to be, rather than what the child was born to be. Whatever they wanted to do in life, or whatever they have failed at, they want their child to accomplish. It becomes difficult for the child who was born with her own purpose. To try to live someone else’s life is nearly impossible.

I know, for instance, a woman whose family wanted her to be a doctor. She felt obligated to follow their wishes. She was the pride of her family not only because she was bright and ambitious, but also because she was obedient. After she became a doctor, however, she wasn’t fulfilled. She went through a series of personal crises, even as her practice was going well.

Eventually she realized that the cause was her career; medicine wasn’t her calling. She resigned from her position and took up a less demanding job in a natural foods market. Her family considered this shameful, and so they cast her out. She had dishonored them. She took away from them the power of saying, “You know, our daughter is a doctor.”

After several years of distance from her family the woman became a naturopath, very successful and happy. It wasn’t until there was a crisis in her family that her parents finally began to accept her back and understand her choices. She had the opportunity to give her gift back to the family, showing them that being a naturopath was valuable. She did this by healing her nephew from a respiratory illness related to asthma that conventional medicine had no cure for.

Stories like my friend’s are not very unusual. She chose to live and be true to herself by giving up her family’s expectations. She fell from grace, and it was painful to herself and her family. But through this process the entire family was forced to grow into a higher and truer way of understanding.

When a child grows up and becomes independent, it opens the doorway for the second cutting of the umbilical cord. In so many cases the family falls from grace, is forced to grow, then reconciles. This is a pattern I see all over the world. This is part of the child’s gift-giving to the family.

Finding one’s true self brings learning and healing, but the road is often filled with suffering and wrong turns. In the West young people join gangs, experiment with sex or drugs, do destructive things, and so forth. In Africa, they reject village traditions, or leave the village and move to the city. My own view is that young people usually leave the village not because they will find a better life somewhere else, but because they are very naïve. Many come back only after they’re sick, often with AIDS or with other mysterious ailments. Some come home to die. It is a fall from grace for the family, first to lose a child to the city, and then to lose them again to illness.

Some young people who leave the village for the city end up living their entire life away from home out of shame. What calls them to the city is curiosity about the material, the things that one can acquire. When they get to the city and find that they don’t have what it takes for them to return home someday with even so much as a bicycle, they’re just too ashamed to go back. They find themselves out of grace because whatever ambition made them leave was not fulfilled.

They stay in the city, sometimes for years and years. What eventually moves many to come back is the death of a parent. In recent years, thousands of people have also found their way home to villages in Burkina Faso as a result of the ethnic cleansing taking place in Ivory Coast. They return home for a funeral, or driven by the threat of death, and many of them find the fulfillment in life they were seeking back where they started, at home with family.

Like the naturopath whose story I related above, like the young people who leave the village — it is very often crises that bring about the restoration of grace. We come home through the back door.

I do not say that those who live far away from their family are out of grace. It is possible to be far apart and still be close by staying in contact and being present when we are needed. This is the shape of my own life. The distance that hurts us comes when we refuse to work on each other, or when we become intolerant or stop paying attention. This separation cannot be measured in miles.

Just as parents sometimes try to make children in their own image, children also try to change their parents. They sometimes fear being embarrassed by them. They can judge them quite harshly, even in the village. But there I think it’s different. In the village a parent, especially a mother, is looked at as someone special, even though she may have many failings. There is an enduring kind of acceptance taught about a mother, particularly because she brought us into this world. The child is raised to be grateful for that, even if he has differences with her. I know I would always choose a place by my mother if everyone else were to fail me, in spite of all the terrible things I used to do to her as a child, and I know a place near her will always be there for me.

I have noticed that there are a lot of people who resent their mothers or their fathers for one reason or another and end up distancing themselves from their family. What they must not realize is that resentment devours a lot out of our precious energy and life force. Resentment is like making a cup of tea with poison in it for the other person. Somewhere along the line you always forget and drink it yourself.

When a family falls apart everyone suffers and a great deal of growth and forgiveness is needed to amend the situation. There are countless doorways to making peace. One thing that brings children back to their parents is having a baby, experiencing the birth process themselves.

Somehow, the mysterious process of pregnancy, of birthing, of becoming a mother or father, has a way of bringing new parents closer to their family. They see how difficult it is to raise a child. This helps them to have compassion for their own parents. It also creates a new role, that of grandparent, which is so important to every person in the family; discovering how important is another back door to grace.

Our parents have held us in a sacred container, and to be able to go back to that place is medicine. I have, for instance, seen people literally sick with an illness that no one can cure. Diviners will tell then, “Look, there’s nothing we can do for you. You have to go back to your home.” Sure enough, they will recover just by going home, because there is some kind of energy that is very healing in your birthplace, or in your family’s house, however hard it might be for people to see or understand. For Dagara people home is medicine. This is true everywhere in the world. Even in the West we talk about “homesickness.”

When we have rejected our family, it becomes easier for us to regard all the people we deal with as disposable. We lose the ability to send our roots anywhere. People who do this often end up tangled in shallow connections all around.

Often a child falling out of grace with the family and establishing her identity through other communities will force the family to grow. Rather than seeking to pull the child back, the family may be moved to reach out, to expand, and to re-embrace the child, not by pulling her back, but by going out to her. In this way falling out of grace becomes the mechanism by which the family advances.

So grace in the family is broken and restored, broken and restored, not by going back to the same place, but by growing.

For someone who has been raised in an abusive home, finding grace within the family can seem like an impossible task. To do this they must go outside the family and look to the other circles, finding the comfort and strength there that should have come from the family.

Only from a base of love, self-love and support can forgiveness come, and forgiveness is what clears the family’s path to grace. Because the family flows so deeply inside us, this challenge can seem overwhelming. For many it is a lifelong journey.

The younger generation goes outside the family. It has to leave home, to follow a different career, to relate to members of the community that the family has never associated with. Rather than resolving the issue by waiting for the younger generation to come back home, the family can resolve the issue by reaching out. That young person who moves outside the circle is the agent for the family’s growth.

At the same time there is a need to step backward as we step forward. It’s a question of check and balance. Certain values need to be kept as others are thrown away. The wisdom of the elders needs to be maintained, for instance, even as the world progresses. Losing that would mean losing the foundation of the world.

Reprinted from Falling Out of Grace: Meditations on Loss, Healing and Wisdom by Sobonfu Somé (North Bay Books, CA. ©2003) Contact Sobonfu Somé directly by email at or visit her website at