Cargo is not my Poem

I wrote it, Cargo, in July 2000 at Loon Lake, Canada, while on retreat with 50 men in the woods. Michael Meade, a mythologist and storyteller, and Malidoma Some’, a shaman from the Dagara tribe of West Africa, lead the retreat.

When Malidoma was four years old, he taken from his village and placed in a Catholic monastery. At age 18 he walked away from the monastery and returned to his village. After a period of painful, difficult, and dangerous learning, Malidoma was educated and initiated into the Dagara language, life, and cosmology.

Like many indigenous cultures, the elders of the tribe saw that many of their youth were leaving behind the Dagara values, practices, and stories for those of the West. Malidoma, who was educated and inculated in those western values, was told by the elders that he was to go to the west and teach the Dagaran way; to bring their indigenous thoughts, practices and spirituality to the modern world. He was to do this to A) preserve the ancient Dagaran culture, and B) show the west another way.

On this retreat in western Canada, Malidoma shared many of the ideas, stories, and songs of the Dagara. One of these ideas was that in a Dagara village people lived in community, and that every child, starting even before birth, was powerfully and ritually welcomed into this word. They were welcomed because every child was born into the world with gifts they came to deliver.

When a Dagaran woman is pregnant, the elders put her in a trance and talk directly to the baby in utero. They ask the baby’s spirit why they are leaving the spiritual world to come into the material world. The spirit answers through the entranced mother giving clues about why they are coming. The baby is then given a name that reminds them of their purpose. Furthermore, the entire community--and particularly the grandparents--are tasked with helping the child remember they have a purpose and gifts to give to the village.

When a member of the village gets into trouble, it is assumed that they have forgotten their life gifts and purpose. The village will create a ritual whereby the troubled person sits in the middle of community while they are sung to, told of their importance and the gifts they have imparted thus far, grieved for their lostness, pleaded for their return, and given whatever authentic message each community member needs to make.

Much of the harmony and dynamic of the Dagaran village is based on this idea: Everyone is born into life with meaning, purpose, and gifts meant to be delivered to this hungry world. That the well-being of the village and the individual depends on delivering these gifts.

Malidoma, whose name means, “he who makes friends with strangers,” delivers this gift to the world. Delivers it to me.

Cargo is not my poem. I am a writer who tries to uncover and capture the essential idea of a thing in words. I wrote Cargo because its idea feels essential for our modern world.

Ideas are powerful things. They can spread through a culture and have profound effects on people before they are even noticed. These ideas can have effects on people even if the ideas are damaging or false. Damaging ideas can affect how people act, as long as people believe them.

What if we chose to believe the very old idea that each life is intrinsically valuable because the spirit of each person came to deliver their gifts to this world? That every person is of utmost importance regardless of education, wealth, or circumstance? That every life is full of meaning, purpose, and gifts that only have to be uncovered, revealed, developed, and delivered?

To be sure, we live in a world different from the Dagara. We don’t speak to elders from the womb announcing our gifts. And instead of small supportive village communities we may be born into much more insular circumcumstances. This simply means we need to alter our circumstances to the modern world. To me this means:

  • That you must recognize that we all--starting with yourself--have gifts and that you must give and live into this world.
  • You must find and create communities where you can develop, get support, and deliver these gifts.
  • And you must, with deep care, attention, and nurturance, look for the gifts in others.

It is this deep seeing--Sawubona it is called in the Zulu tradition--and loving nurturance that helps others bring their gifts to the world.

This is the world I want see. A world of abundance and gifts; of seeing the sacredness of everyday life and all individuals; of giving and receiving.

Cargo is not my poem. It is the world’s. It is yours.


Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it, but to those who need it.
— Mario Ruoppola (Il Postino)