Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi
  AHYMSIN Newsletter, Issue - Oct/Nov 2012  

Burkina Faso 2012

by Stephen Parker (Stoma)

6 September Swami Ritavan and I glided over the savannas of Burkina Faso in French West Africa, heavy with the summer rains preparing to land in Ouagadougou. All the reservoirs were full to overflowing and the countryside was green with restored life. Hard to believe that in a few weeks the grasses will all be dry and brown and the only green will be the leaves on the trees coated with a layer of red dust. We drove to the home of Anna and Mamadou Coulibaly in Ouagadougou, not far from the airport. Their spacious house, an honorary consulate of the Russian Republic, would be our home and the site of our intensive yoga workshop in Ouaga. Anna is Russian-born and Mamadou is Burkinabe from the region around Bobo Dilouasso which we will visit in a week. On short notice it was decided that rather than break up the teaching team in various houses, we will all stay together, the better to plan and modify our teaching. Swami Veda stayed at the home of Idriss and Aisha Ouedraogo across town with Tejaswini and Saumya Haas. Saumya was here to build relationships with people in Africa and also to pursue her keen interest in Voudou.

All went well. The weather was very warm and humid, temperatures in the 30’s C (86-93 F). For the most part, the weather remained dry after we arrived. The few days that we had thunderstorms were no problem as we remained “confined to quarters” for the length of the seminar, 7-14 September. Swami Ritavan, Ashutosh, Stoma and Sonia Van Nispen took turns teaching. Sonia did more of the work of translation into French, although she also did some teaching. Sonia had helped Idriss to develop a large program in Burkina Faso and then also did the same herself with a group in neighboring Benin when she lived there as a diplomat for the Dutch foreign service. So she was an old friend to the participants. A smaller group of 8-10, mostly experienced teachers, attended during the day, with more coming in the evenings after work (up to 25) for Swami Veda’s lectures or for hatha sessions with Ashutosh.

For seven days we taught from 6:30 AM to 9 PM. Swami Veda joined us on three occasions to lecture on general topics that allowed him great latitude.

During one of these lectures we were visited by one of the cultural giants of the country, Maitre Pacere. By profession he is an attorney with the United Nations Human Rights Tribunal in Uganda, but he is also a major scholar of the cultures of the people of Burkina, particularly the majority Mosse people. He serves as a close advisor to the Mosse emperor. Pacere is the author of 60 books in 120 volumes on the arts and culture of Africa. He lectures on traditional African culture worldwide and is a participant in many efforts through the United Nations and European Union. A slight man in a plain, black suit, he always wore a sweet smile and maintained an attitude of surrender and humility. He spoke with voice that was sonorous and quiet and yet full of unspoken authority. Swamiji asked him how someone of such accomplishment manages to maintain such humility. His answer was perfect: “By standing in the center of the culture.” He kept an odd posture in the chair in which he was sitting, and it later dawned on me that he was probably making an effort not to keep his head at a higher level than his host. At the end of this evening, a delegation of four people from an international congress of Sufis stopped by to pay their respects, having heard that Swami Veda was visiting.

On 13 September Swami Veda, Tejaswini and Swami Ritavan flew to Bobo Diliouasso, the second city of Burkina where we would begin a workshop in two days. Stoma and Ashutosh remained in Ouaga to teach the last days of the seminar there. As so often happens, the closing session was full of deep gratitude all around and many tears. Mamadou Coulibaly said that he felt that their house had been transformed during this time and would never be the same.

Later, on the afternoon of the 14th, Stoma and Ashu joined people from Ouaga for the five hour bus trip to Bobo. It was a comfortable commercial bus route with our first real taste of air conditioning during the trip. As we rode through the countryside in the lengthening afternoon sun, there were pleasant conversations all the way around. We stopped in one town and the bus was surrounded by a sea of vendors: bananas, sesame sweets, boiled eggs, baguettes, roast chickens, sweet potatoes, soda—everything a hungry or thirsty passenger might need. As the equatorial sun dropped with its typically swift nightfall, the big dipper hung over the northern horizon tilted forward as though it were pouring night over the savannah. Huge thunderheads on the horizon were illumined from within by flashes of lightning. The countryside passed by to bright traditional tunes over the bus’ sound system.

On the morning of Saturday the 15th we began our seminar in Bobo in the modest but very comfortable Hotel Residence Sya. It was a lovely place with fine traditional wood sculptures and an upper balcony where we could eat breakfast and watch the world go by on the road. We had only the two weekend days to teach all day. Swami Veda joined our seminar twice during the weekend. During Monday through Thursday we did a morning hatha class (Sonia and Ashu) and an evening meditation or lecture. This gave us some time to get out and see some museums and go into the market to get a more intimate feeling for the area.

A rare opportunity opened Sunday the 16th to visit with the chief of the Sya people and his court. Sya are a very closed society and normally one must know someone in the royal family in order to be invited to enter his compound. Mr. Coulibaly worked long and hard to make this happen. Swami Veda visited, along with Sonia van Nispen, Stoma, Saumya Haas, Mr. and Mrs. Coulibaly and a number of the students from Ouagadougou. On the way we visited the Grand Mosque, a unique building of essentially adobe construction built in 1880. The Imam gave us a tour of the building. On arrival at the compound of the chief, Swami Veda was assisted into the building. There followed a series of formal greetings and then a session where Swamiji was allowed to ask questions about Sya culture. He was able to ascertain that the traditional culture is well cared for alongside the French culture of the area. Our informant said, “People walk on two legs!” For example, pregnant women are compelled to deliver their babies in a Western medical clinic, but immediately upon discharge they go to the traditional healers for the rest of their care. There are systems in place to preserve the traditional music and sports and the initiation into spiritual life is maintained under a system similar to that of yoga, including the use of mantras, although the details were withheld as a secret. Our informant did say that their tradition also has periods of silent practice of austerities lasting up to several months. He tradition has it that while returning home after such practices, if the person encounters someone malevolent like a sorcerer, the malevolent person will burst into flames and be consumed. The parties agreed to remain in contact and the chief, who sat on his throne the whole time utterly still and silent and with a beautiful spiritual presence (he looked like Sai Baba of Shirdi) gave a benediction for our welfare and forward travel through his intermediary before we took our leave. According to tradition, the chief then retires to a prayer space in his quarters to present his benediction to God. If it is accepted then the blessing will bear fruit.

The next day, Sunday the 17th we paid a call on Anselme Titianma Sanon, Roman Catholic Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Bobo Dilouasso. He had recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination. In the 1990’s he chaired a commission to negotiate the end of a period of violent unrest and suffering in Burkina Faso and the commission made very hard and specific recommendations to the government, a task that took a tough mind and a tough heart. And yet the man we met was slight, simple, gracious, joyful minded. He was dressed in a simple white cassock with red piping that looked like a housecoat. He and Swami Veda exchanged deeply similar views of the fundamental spirituality underlying all religions. They discussed spiritual practices, their similarity across the yoga and Christian traditions, and their use in the training of priests. As they talked about how he reconciles indigenous African spirituality with his Catholic faith and vocation, Archbishop Sanon again referenced what we had heard from the chiefs that human beings walk on two legs and need both of them. He felt no conflicts and understood the resistance he has sometimes received from the Catholic hierarchy to be a function of ignorance and a lack of compassion. (He lives in a museum compound of African traditional culture and his grandfather was a chief—King—of the Sya people, and blessed his original expression of a priestly vocation.)

Swami Veda asked the Archbishop whether there was any message he would like him to convey to his students worldwide. He seemed to blush and said, “But I am so small!!” Then he said, “Seek union in diversity. If God had intended us all to be the same he would have made us that way!” Swamiji and Archbishop Sanon closed the session by each conducting five minutes of prayer and meditation. Saumya Haas then asked Father Sanon for a blessing and he gave a benediction that brought tears to my eyes. We took some photos and then left. As he shook my hand in parting I said, “Thank you so much, I am moved to call you, Your Grace.” Because that’s what he was.

On Thursday the 20th Ashutosh and I and our friends from Burkina took the bus back to Ouaga. (Swami Veda’s party had flown back early due to the sudden passing of Aisha’s maternal grandmother of 93 years.) We spent three days doing more focused teacher training with the teachers in the group.

On the 22nd we made an excursion out to Manega to visit the cultural exposition curated by Maitre Pacere with the great favor of a personal tour by him. We had been told that his exposition was a museum. It turned out to be much more. At first he showed us around a monument to the Fourth World Movement, a movement in support of the poorest of the poor worldwide started through the United Nations. The monument was a giant raised, tiled pavilion in the shape of the continent of Africa which contains earth from all over the world. Fourth World people from all over Africa gather here every year to meet and celebrate each other’s lives. He also showed some pillars decorated with symbols around the founding of Ouagadougou. Pacere told his tribal story of the founding and explained that he cannot publish this oral history as it contradicts the Mossi story and would start a war.

We then went through typical dwellings from several of the different nations in Burkina, Bobo, Puehl, and Senofou. Pacere then led us solemly into an underground crypt containing gravestones carved in the likeness of his ancestors. The most recent of them were 300 years old; the most ancient 6,000 years old. Pacere explained that when a revered person was dying in the village an artist would be hired and anonymously spirited into the village under a pretext in order to study the person in order to make the carving. Only outstanding people had these stones made for them. When the person had died the stone was set on a stone pillar. They have not been made for three centuries because Christian and Islamic people have periodically destroyed them.

We visited several further exhibits of bronze castings, models of warriors from various tribes, and displays of death rituals. As we entered this space displaying death ritual we were guarded by two young men dressed as warriors, guarding the door. We were obliged to remove our shoes and enter the space backwards. Unfortunately Pacere’s long lecture in this building was all in French and our interpreter was not able to follow it very well. One mask that had been displayed here had to be removed because its power tended to cause problems. A woman from the Russian embassy was told not to photograph it. She said, “Bull ----!” and proceeded to raise her camera which promptly melted in her hands. They were very powerful masks and other ritual items.

As we left the building the warriors joined Pacere who warned us sternly to stay together. We heard drums and singing and as we emerged from the compound suddenly we were a procession headed for a ritual greeting by the elders of the village. We were seated on either side of Pacere and went through welcoming formalities. Then food was served as men and women danced and sang in separate groups. As some of us began to move towards the cars the whole village began to dance us to the cars. It was beautiful hospitality and not so much a museum as a shared experience of the spirituality of this person and this village.

Swamiji had long hoped to make a pilgrimage to the great Islamic center of learning at Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unfortunate resurgence of a Tuareg insurgency affiliated with al Qaeda in Mali made that visit impossible. It would only have been an occasion for trauma and sorrow given the widespread destructions of Sufi sites and manuscript libraries there. These libraries contained some of the oldest Islamic manuscripts anywhere and their loss is an inestimable tragedy for the world at large. Idriss was convinced that the troubles will be resolved within a year’s time. Swamiji was also unable to renew his acquaintance with the leaders of Voudou in Benin as all of our connections with that world had passed from their bodies since his last visit in 2001.

We send warm smiles full of heartfelt gratitude to Anna and Mamdou who worked day and night to make sure that things were comfortable and arrangements were made (and that everything worked as it should); to Aisha for her exceedingly gracious hospitality (including finding a cook for Swamiji who had been trained by an Indian family and whose cooking was, by Tejas’ and Ashu’s own admissions, better than any they had tasted for some time); Idriss who planned the scope of this tour and seminar and did his best to direct its progress from the seat of his duties as ambassador to India in Delhi; Maxime for his quiet helpfulness at every turn and for keeping the teaching of yoga going in Benin; and all our friends in Burkina who made us feel so deeply welcome and at home.