top of page
  • D

The Many Faces of Grief: K


On kidnapped

Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home at age 14 in June 2002. Sparking a countrywide search, Elizabeth's shocking kidnapping became a media sensation and captured the hearts and minds of the entire nation for almost a year. Held captive by a fanatic named Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, Smart was repeatedly raped, drugged and forced to endure religious rituals, until earning her freedom in March 2003. She has since become a noted activist and author, launching the Elizabeth Smart Foundation in 2011 and authoring My Story in 2013.

Elizabeth became an activist on behalf of kidnapping survivors and child victims of violence and sexual abuse, recounting her inspirational story in interviews with Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey, and eventually becoming a noted public speaker. Smart also helped to author the United States Department of Justice's 2008 handbook for kidnapping survivors, You Are Not Alone: The Journey from Abduction to Empowerment.

~ Editors

Kidnapping is a face of grief that only a few of us can relate to. In all my years working with grief, I only saw this 3-4 times. There is no doubt, however, that being the victim of kidnappers is a horrific and life-changing experience.

We hear about it on the news from time to time, but generally speaking, unless you live in Africa, kidnapping is something that we are not familiar with. I was drawn to this article in The Conversation, Published June 17, 2022, in which the author, Al Chukwuma Okoli, offers some startling facts about abductions in Nigeria which ranks among the kidnapping hotspots of the world.

According to Okoli, who is a Senior Lecturer and Consultant-Researcher in the Department of Political Science at Federal University Lafia in Nigeria, the “banditry crisis is a complicated situation with a number of interests, motives and actors. Some criminals are opportunistic, others organized. Militants, terrorists and insurgents use banditry to raise funds for their operations and as a bargaining strategy. Kidnapping for ransom thrives in Nigeria because the material incentive and opportunity are there, and victims find it expedient to pay ransom.”

Okoli goes on to say that there are different patterns of kidnapping, among them kidnap for ransom, kidnap for ritual, kidnap for strategic bargain, and child abduction. In Nigeria, the main form has been kidnap for ransom. It was estimated that over US$18 million was paid as ransom in Nigeria between January 2011 and March 2020.

A recent report by UNICEF indicates that 1,436 children were abducted in Nigeria between 2020 and 2022. In some instances, the children are abducted for ritual purposes or illicit adoption. Young pregnant women have also been held captive to “harvest” their babies.

Apparently, the opportunity and incentive for committing a crime is far greater than its risks or hazards, as only a few criminals are ever arrested and prosecuted. Kidnapping in Nigeria has become a matter of national emergency, according to Okoli.

The instability of the government under-pins this criminal behavior, as it does in many countries, but for those of us who live with a greater sense of safety on a day-to-day basis, we are invited to look closer at this matter.

After reading this excellent article from Nigeria, I was immediately reminded of a dear colleague, an African woman, who worked in the grief arena, and with whom I was blessed to meet many years ago. May I introduce you to Sobonfu Some, a beautiful soul who shed a whole new light on grief and offered us a way to deal with grief in ways that were unheard of – and maybe uncomfortable - for those of us living in the West.

"It is always challenging to bring the spiritual into the material world, but it is one of the only ways we can put people back in touch with the earth and their inner values."

Sobonfu Somé was one of the foremost voices in African spirituality to come to the West. Destined from birth to teach the ancient wisdom, ritual, and practices of her ancestors, Sobonfu (meaning "keeper of the rituals") traveled the world on a healing mission sharing the rich spiritual life and culture of her native land, Burkina Faso, West Africa, which ranks as one of the world's poorest countries yet one of the richest in spiritual life and custom.

When I met her, Sobonfu was offering weekend grief retreats; I was lucky to attend one of them and was honored to sponsor another. Her way of attending to grief was an African tradition that was community-based, meaning we all grieve together, we support one another, we honor one another in the grief process through ritual. Wow. I still have vivid memories of those weekends.

And now I’m wondering why I have chosen to look at two seemingly disparate issues: kidnappings and community-based grieving. Let’s explore this.

I was living in Salt Lake City, Utah, when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, long before I met Sobonfu. We were all drawn into the drama and terror of a beautiful young woman who was snatched right from under our noses. It didn’t seem possible. The news of her disappearance, her family and all the speculations were constant; and I’m telling you this: we all were grieving. And we did it like all good Americans; we did it in isolation, quietly, alone and unobtrusively.

In my mind, I’m seeing Sobonfu gathering the villagers, circling up around a fire; they are coming together to be seen and heard in their grief. They tell stories; they share their hearts. They set up alters to the dear ones who have been taken from their lives. Many sacred objects, personal bits belonging to the dear ones, and photos are placed on these homemade alters. It’s not pretty, but it’s real; it’s honest. It’s head-on, toe-to-toe grief. And this goes on and on…………..for hours.

Everyone has brought food, and they feed themselves and each other. No one is left out; no one goes hungry. They call in their ancestors and speak of lineages of those upon whose shoulders they stand; and weep.

They sing the songs of old and pray and dance. The cry and howl – yes, I said howl. They literally hold one another in their arms and allow whatever form grief wants to take until they are empty. They have each other’s backs.

Near the end of the ritual, Sobonfu, as the grief guardian, initiates the last ritual. Everyone has been invited to bring an item to offer up to the healing fire; these items are cherished memories of the missing and departed. They are lovingly wrapped in a bundle and offered up to the large fire as tears and snot and prayers co-mingle in true community.

I am deeply moved by this vision; it’s a snapshot of how my friend Sobonfu operated in the world of grief. "My work is really a journey in self-discovery and in building community through rituals," said Sobonfu. The rituals of her native Dagara Tribe involve healing and preparing the mind, body, spirit, and soul to receive the spirituality that is all around us; that we are not separate, but united in life and in grief.

Sobonfu traveled extensively throughout North America and Europe conducting workshops on spirituality, ritual, and the sacred. Her work moved African spiritual practices from the realm of anthropology, to a place alongside the world's great spiritual traditions, with a message of profound significance and practical application in the lives of Westerners.

Her message about the importance of spirit, community, and ritual in our lives rings with an intuitive power and truth that Alice Walker has said, "can help us put together so many things that our modern Western world has broken."

At the time I met her, Sobonfu was ill. She looked very tired and worn. All of us were deeply saddened when we received the news that she had died in her village on January 14, 2017, from a weakened immune system attributed to drinking contaminated water. She was only 48 years old.

Recognized by the village elders as possessing special gifts from birth, Sobonfu's destiny was foretold before she came into this world, as is the custom of the Dagara Tribe of Burkina Faso, West Africa. She shared those gifts throughout her life, with me and thousands of others who were touched by the hands of a small African woman who shall never be forgotten: Sobonfu Some. May your gifts be spread like a blanket to bless Nigeria and all those who grieve. May they come together in community and discover themselves and one another in mutual grief.

“The community concept is based on the fact that each person is invaluable and truly irreplaceable. Each person has a gift to give, a contribution to make to the whole. The kind of gift a person brings, the kind of being a person is, is very unique to him or her and is valued by the community. The community is constantly affirming each person, and that constant affirmation is why people are always in the community. We sleep together. We work together. We walk together. When we are 'separate' we are vulnerable and are more likely to underestimate the self. This way of life may sound like an invasion of privacy to a lot of people, but not in my village. Being in community forces us to cultivate a deeper sense of intimacy with one another, to notice one another and value one another's gifts."

Welcoming Spirit Home, Sobonfu Some

bottom of page