Let Us Make Sanctuary

Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit, dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.

You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today is a rebroadcast from Sounds True’s “Walking Together” series. “Walking Together” is a collection of freely available teachings on standing in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and people of color to help heal collective trauma, provide resources for personal growth, and unravel the grip of racism on our culture. You can learn more by visiting resources.SoundsTrue.com/walking-together. It’s a long one here, one more time: resources.SoundsTrue.com/walking-together. Now, a special session from “Walking Together” with Bayo Akomolafe.

In this session, we have a super special guest, a new friend of mine, someone whom I find tremendously heart-opening, and I would say mind-shattering. Someone who, in my experience, has opened my mind to new ways of looking at things. His name is Bayo Akomolafe, and he’s from Nigeria, living now in India with his wife and two children. And he’s going to be talking about letting us make sanctuary. Let us make sanctuary. Just a little bit more about Bayo, he’s a speaker, teacher, author, and public intellectual. He refers to himself as a renegade academic. He’s globally recognized for his poetic, unconventional, and, I would say, soul-stirring and healing views on our global crisis and social change.

He’s the author of two books, We Will Tell Our Own Story and These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home. He’s the executive director of the Emergence Network and he’s host of the course, We Will Dance With Mountains, which begins on October 18th. Now, let us make sanctuary with Bayo. I’m turning it over to you, brother.


Bayo Akomolafe: Thank you sister. Thank you, and it’s great to be here. I felt I would start by first acknowledging how indebted I am to my family for making this possible, for allowing me to come up here and say the words that I want to say. So thank you to Alethea, to Kyah, to Ijeoma and thank you to you, Tami, for inviting me to this and for everyone at Sounds True for making this possible. But indebtedness goes beyond that. I also want to acknowledge my mother and my mother’s mother and my ancestors, and the grounds that are undergoing some seismic shift at the moment, allowing us to say the things that we can say, allowing the unsaid to be spoken and intelligible. Let me start, what I feel led to say and to share by saying these words that I’m quite known for, which my wife rolls her eyes when she hears it over and over again, because I say it too much, a tad too much.

The times are urgent, let us slow down. The times are urgent, let us slow down. The times are urgent, let us slow down. I’m always at pain to explain what I mean. What I mean by that, because when people hear me, they feel, “Huh, that’s good advice.” I’ll take a break this weekend or I’ll do more yoga or I’ll say more prayers just before I get to the desk or something like that, and I like to explain to people that it’s not quite the same as taking a break. There’s something more about this, and I’ll try to explain that with a story.

I’ll start with a story, and then it’ll lead me hopefully all the way to what I mean by the invitation, let us make sanctuary. Why this is prophetic, why this is feminist, why this is derived from indigenous wisdoms, why this is geo-metaphysical, why this is a powerful invitation, especially in our pandemic inflected moments. I need a call and response dynamic here, Tami, you would have to do. I’m going to invite you to unmute your mic and then I’ll say aloo, and then you say aloo. It’s a Yoruba thing, you see, a way of starting a story, like a ritual of getting everyone prepared for the story. Even though this story is going to be rushed through and brief, I still want us to do it. Can we do it together? OK.


TS: Let us slow down. I am with you. Yes.


BA: OK. I say aloo, and then you say aloo. OK, you’re bringing it down, I’m taking it up, or I’m taking it up, you’re bringing it down, like taking off and landing. OK. Aloo and then you go.


TS: Aloo.


BA: Excellent. You have to do it three times. Aloo.


TS: Aloo.


BA: Aloo.


TS: Aloo.


BA: Excellent. You’re in. All right. There’s a story about libations that I want to share and I think it might help us understand what it means to slow down and what sanctuary invites us to be, what to do at this time. When I was growing up, I used to see my father—and I’ve told this story many, many times. I used to watch my father pour a libation, maybe with his friends or elders, just pour wine to the ground, and I would say to myself, what a waste of what a perfectly good wine. Why do this? What does this mean?

It wasn’t until I started on my decolonial journeys that I started to understand the deep cultural and trans local stories, especially unique to Africans. The African spiritual technologies that are cloaked in the seemingly ordinary ritual of just pouring drink to earth, and then I learned this story from… It’s supposed to be from the place we call Egypt today, but was once called Kemet, the ancient name for Egypt. In ancient Kemet, which was a civilization in its own right, the god Ra is speaking and sleeping and blustering and drunk, at the side of the street. People would walk by Ra and make fun of him. Young, old, everyone, men, women, children, they would just point at Ra and mock him. “What kind of a God are you to debase yourself like so?”

Ra would get angry and storm his way back to heaven. On one of those trips, he was so furious, throwing a tantrum that he called his daughter, who also happens to be his wife, who also happens to be his mother, don’t ask me how all of this is so. Hathor is the name of his wife, mother, child. Hathor is like, “What’s wrong, dad?” And Ra says, “Well, I’m tired of men. I’m tired of people. I’m tired of human beings. I’d like to get rid of them. They made fun of me. No one is worshiping me the way they used to.” Hathor promises she would do the job, and so like a hit man, she goes down to earth and her job is to leave no stone unturned, to devastate everything, to decapitate humanity.

She heads down and she starts to do her work. Only, the problem is, she does it too well. She kills people, she tears them limb from limb, and she leaves puddles of blood in her wake, which she would quickly drink up, and then she would call it a day. And then the next day she would go through that same bloodied cycle of eating people and throwing their remains on the streets, their bones and licking up their blood, such a terrible thing to behold, and no one could do anything about it, even Ra. Because you see, Ra appeared down from heaven and was like, “No, no, no, no, no, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. This is taking me too far, so Hathor, come back home. My anger is appeased,” but she wouldn’t let up. She would not stop.

So Ra is confused, all of humanity is confused, no one knows what to do. Well, the long and short of the story is that Ra has to come down from heaven and all the gods, I think two other gods, I can’t quite remember their names, gather and they hatch a plan like a heist, a conceptual heist, if you will. And they say, “Maybe what we have to do is to trick Hathor. So what we’ll do is to pour red wine on the ground and deceive Hathor into drinking that wine. Hopefully, she sees the wine, she drinks it up and then she forgets her operations or her directives, and then she goes away.” And it happens exactly that way. Hathor comes, she drinks the wine, she’s at first bemused, she’s confused. “I thought I drank this yesterday night” and she lapped it all up and she’s drunk and she falls away.

That idea of pouring drink to the earth, of deceiving the destruction or the destructive force, has always been part and parcel of African communities. It’s the idea of the libation. It’s the idea that, in order to be safe, in order to be true, in order to live well and prosper, we must never forget that our stability is performed by remembering, our stability is performed by a trick, by this trick that keeps Hathor at bay. This is the myth behind the libation and the idea of pouring drink to earth that my father did. I’m not even sure he understood it this way, but it’s now part and parcel of our everyday life. How we celebrate, how we give thanks, how we invoke the new, how we invoke the yet to come.

Now, modernity has a story. A myth that we are all safe, that we are all true, that there is no problem at all. Let me boil it down to three myths. There is one that says, we’re stable, we’re found, and that we’re coherent. Those are one of the three deceptions or delusions of modernity, that we’re indebted to nothing, we need to give thanks for nothing. All we need to do is to look at each other and appease each other and worship each other’s images, and that there is nothing more to be done. It’s remarkably easy, for most of us born in sedentary civilization to forget how precarious things really are, how lost we really are, how sustained we are by a trick.

We take it for granted that we’re at home, that we’re stable, that all we need to do is to keep progressing along these rationalistic techno-bureaucratic lines. All we need to do is to depend on our genius and then everything will be fine. The feature is out there, all we need to do is apply determination and we will get to it. These are the ideas, packaged into this political theory called liberal humanism. We’re free. We’re free from debt, we’re free from entanglements, we’re disassociated from the ground. We don’t need to give honor to ancestors. We don’t need to pay our homage or have rights of passage. We don’t need any of that because we’re modern, we’re free, we’re sophisticated, we’ve arrived.

But once in a while, Tami, once in a while, we are reminded how things fall apart. We are reminded in times when, like these times, when a pandemic strikes and we don’t exactly know what to do. When the language with which we frame the future feels exhausted, outworn, nothing makes sense anymore. When cracks appear in the ground, and then there’s no walking forward anymore. There’s no progress. These times allow us the gift of noticing how indebted we are to the ground that we imagine we left behind. That’s where the idea of slowing down in times of urgency comes from. The times are urgent, let us slow down. It doesn’t mean reducing one’s speed. Like, “Let me take it easy this weekend. Let me do this. Let me do that.” It doesn’t mean slowing down in the same direction we’re heading for, because eventually we’ll reach those destinations, so it doesn’t make any sense to slow down.

Slowing down is more an issue of touching our indebtedness, touching the entangling threads, the tentacularities that connect us to the earth, that connects us to ancestry, that connect us to the modern human, the nonhuman, the yet-to-be human. The idea that we are free gets in the way of freedom. The idea that we are complete, coherent, always intelligible, at heart rational, puritan, these are frames of whiteness. These are white tropes. By whiteness, I don’t mean white-identified bodies. I mean an Earth-forming strategy that frames human cells as superior to all other kinds of bodies, that suggests that we need not turn to understand where we come from, what we’re indebted to. We need not turn to the world around us. We should only turn inwards.

We are self-sufficient, self-evident, self-propagating, self-correcting—there’s nothing more to be had about that. But “the times are urgent, let us slow down” is the invocation of the modern human. It is standing at the crossroad, and maybe I should take a detour here and say that the Yoruba people have a philosophy, an indigenous cosmology that has at its center, this idea of the crossroads, what they call the crossroads, what we call the crossroads. The crossroads, or the Orita, is where the trickster sits. The trickster sits at the crossroads. The trickster’s name in the Yoruba pantheon is called Eshu, and Eshu is the one that holds agency in his hands, agency or Ashe, the way the world materializes. It materializes at intersections, at crossroads.

Growing up, I heard stories about crossroads. One of the most famous crossroads was the entrance into a market, into a marketplace, that was where spirits actually congregated. We have this street, urban legend, that if you get to the marketplace and you bend down and you look between your legs and look back, look at the world between your legs, you will actually find monstrous things. You would find three-headed beasts, you would find people that have died centuries ago, you would find things you’re not supposed to see, you would see things you’re not supposed to see, and you can only do that when you’re at a crossroads. You’re at the liminal edges of all things. I never tried it. I wish I did. But every time I tried to do it, my uncle or anyone that was nearby would slap me upside the head and forbid me from doing that.

The crossroads is where the idea of slowing down, in terms of urgency, actually gains its intelligibility, because slowing down, again, is where temporalities, timelines, other ways of being in the world, other monstrous forms. The gist of feminist scholarship is not male versus female, it’s the idea that we are indeterminate and our bodies are much more diverse, more defracted, much more spread out than the colonial forms that white modernity has fixed us into. That’s the gist of cutting-edge feminist scholarship.

It’s not that this is against this, it’s that we are not as contained as we think we are. We are crossroads species. We’re mangled bodies. We fall into each other. We are containers for microbiomes, just as much as we are containers for ancestral activisms. Just as much as we are the activisms of trees, and rhizomes and things around us, so that we are actually, in many senses, chimeric. We are prolific, we are much more in court than we think we are, then modernity has pressed us into thinking we are. The crossroads is the Yoruba people’s way of making sense of that. That bodies intersect each other at crossroads.

The invitation to slow down at the crossroads is actually not an invitation that is framed for individuals to apply. Tami said something wise the other day, I’m going to apply it as a tool, and take it as my new spiritual tactic, to save myself, to become more woke, to become a better white ally. None of that, it’s not about you. It’s not about your individual trajectory to salvation. It’s much more about lingering at the crossroads, and it’s about the collective, the irreducibly collective, the manifold, the parliament of voices, it’s a prayer actually. When we say “the times are urgent, let us slow down,” it’s a prayer to the modern human to create new kinds of bodies.

That is the invitation here. That when I say, “the times are urgent, let us slow down,” it is an invitation to masquerades, to tricksters, to the modern human, to make themselves known, to make themselves heard. This is an invitation for us to surrender to the modern human goings on around us. Not to so much ask the question, “What do I do about racial justice?” as it is to listen, to query our bodies and to come and approach the world in ways that we’re not used to. And I should say here that sanctuary is where slowing down happens. Sanctuary is slowing down, so that I can say the times are urgent, let us make sanctuary. The times are urgent, let us go slowly down into sanctuary. The times are urgent, let us be slowed down by the beings that exceed us. The times are urgent, let us be defeated by things that we cannot understand. The times are urgent, let us defract our ways of knowing. The times are urgent, let us be released from the traps of the things we already know.

These are the invocations. These are the modern human happenings that are attending this invitation to slow down, and like I said, it happens in sanctuary. I borrow this idea of sanctuary from medieval practices. I’m sure people might know that in maybe 16th century, England, the Catholic church borrowed from pagan sources, this idea of making sanctuary or claiming sanctuary. Actually, not making sanctuary, but claiming sanctuary. The practices were like this. If you were accused of killing someone or hurting someone, you became a fugitive. You were chased until they caught you, and if you were not caught, it was probably because you found sanctuary. And to find sanctuary was to get to a sacred site like the church and hold an aspect of the church, maybe the pillar or the door knocker, and claim sanctuary loudly, say, “I claim sanctuary” and you were let into the sanctuary.

For a time, you were given some rest, it was a place of rest and peace. You were taken away from your captors and your captors were disallowed, not permitted to enter the premises of the sacred site. That practice phased out in the 17th century, and then we started to have a different juridical order, lawyers and judges and all of that. But prior to that, we had sanctuary, and I like the idea of sanctuary. I like that in the flatness of the modern, there is a bump in the ground, so to speak. That there is a place that you can run to that disturbs the flatness, the continuity, the perpetuity of modernity, that is there’s a place where you cannot go, which is something really hard for modern minds to hear because as modern citizens, we think we can go everywhere we want to. No place is too sacred to build a parking lot and no mountain is too sacred to blast it and build four faces into it. Nothing is sacred in the modern because the sacred has been chased away.

The idea that there is a place where you cannot go, a place you cannot plant your feet, because it’s sacred, you must approach it with deep hesitation. That is a beautiful idea to me. I started to look at that idea of sanctuary and think, “Well, what can we do with this idea today?” And so I read the idea of sanctuary, as making sanctuary, because we no longer have sanctuaries in that sense. Of course, we have people who provide sanctuaries as places of safety, but the sanctuary I speak about is not about safety today. It’s about shape-shifting. It’s about noticing ourselves as if for the first time. 

Let me explain what that means. I found that in the architecture of medieval sanctuaries, there was almost always a monstrous thing on their door, it was called a haggle day or the door knocker was shaped in the preposterous form of a gargoyle or some beast or something like that.

I always wondered why would the church, why would a sanctuary put such a repelling or repellent or irritating figure at the entrance of sanctuary? Wouldn’t you want to put a chariot or an angelic form or something more inviting to help people feel they’re safe? Why would you put a monstrous being in the front of a sanctuary? I feel the way I read it is that sanctuaries are not meant for humans, they’re meant for monsters. Sanctuaries are meant for beings that have lost their sense of intelligibility. Sanctuaries are meant for fugitives, fugitive from the human colonial order. That’s the way I read it today.

Let me see if I can explain that even further. That the human, when we think about the human, we think about a bipedal structure such as we are, but I feel the human is a colonial imperial order that says, this is the way to be, this is the form you must take, this is the gender you must assume, this is the identity you must assume, this is the way to be in the world. The human is a colonial territory that decapitates trees, that displaces other human bodies, and I see this from a very deep sense of racialized or deep understanding of racialization, that there were people around the world that were not allowed access into that wanted category of the human. They were deemed not quite human. Black bodies, brown bodies around the world were deemed, “You not quite there yet.”

I don’t want to go into cardiology or eugenics, or even the advent of confirmatory science and empiricism. It’s the idea that there are some that are really human, that have reached the rational heights, the transcendent heights of being human, and there are some who are not quite there yet. The human is not just to be assumed, the human is a colonial order, and over time, historically, many people, including women, have been denied access into that category, and now that category is dying. That category is besieged by pandemics, by the anthropocene, by the loss of climate stability, and now we don’t know what to do. Now, it’s proliferating fugitives, and so those fugitives must ask themselves the question, where do we go? I feel the way to go is not to find some new manifesto and create a different order, we need to make sanctuary.

That’s what fugitives do. They either claim sanctuary or if sanctuary is not available, they make sanctuary, like the fugitives that run away from the plantations and the Americas and built their own fugitive societies and civilizations and sciences. We need a place of deep inquiry. That’s not about feeling safe. Again, it’s not about just being safe for the time being, but it’s about losing and investigating the shapes that we’re becoming. It’s about losing sense of our coherence. It’s about losing a sense of mastery, which is what got us into the mess of the anthropocene in the first place. For those of us who are listening, who may not be familiar with the term anthropocene, it describes the manmade order we’re in that is connected to climate chaos today. Basically, that is the industrial world that we have given birth to, has made it possible for us to gain a sense of mastery at the cost of losing our connections to ancestors, to land, to ecology, to the modern human, to the other than human.

We have a very sterilized sense of power and that power is losing its powerfulness. We need other places of power. This is what the invitation—the times are urgent, let us slow down. You can see it’s much deeper, much faster, if you will, than just taking a break. It’s more about investigating the bricks that are in our flesh, more than just taking a break. It’s more about investigating how we can commune with the world around us. It’s about investigating what it means to eat together, is about investigating grief as activism, loss as a way of researching our entanglements with the world around us. I would probably even think of it as an ento-epistemological Sabbath, like a Sabbath, but not just a Sabbath that is once a week, but a Sabbath that has come into the world, ushered into the realm of things and disturbed the business as usual. A Sabbath that imposes itself on the business as usual and insists on rest and a deeper rest is what I speak about.

Let us make sanctuary, is my invitation. It’s not just me, it’s my elders, it’s my mentors. I feel it’s the invitation of the slave ship, which might be shocking to people who hear that. But I feel that the places that we have avoided, the places that modernity has pathologized, are the sanctuary sites. They are the liberated grounds, they’re the fertile grounds where we can actually make sanctuary. I actually think of the slave ship as a place of contemplation, as a site of reweaving our connections with grief and loss and trauma and tragedy. It’s a way of pouring drink to earth and saying, “Hathor do not come hither.” It’s a way of losing shape, losing our sense of being human, and it’s there that I feel a different sense of freedom can emerge and maybe we can find wiser ways of educating our children. Maybe we can find wiser articulations of economics. Maybe we can find wiser spiritualties, just by being in spaces of sanctuary. Yes, I think I’ll stop there.


TS: Well, you’ve said a lot Bayo, and I have a lot of questions for you. Just one of the last things you said that, this is the invitation of the slave ship. I didn’t understand that, how this opportunity to embrace sanctuary, to be bewildered, to seek and listen in a new way, and you talked about specifically how that relates to… Is that a sense of place where slave ships were, or help me understand that?


BA: OK. I’m going to come in wide, if you will. I feel that the Indigenous Yoruba cosmology, and it’s not unique to Yoruba, to our people alone, but many Indigenous cosmologies have a sense of excessiveness, the embarrassing excessiveness of things. Let me see if I could pull that down from the abstract. What are you, what am I? Modernity has an answer, a solution to that. Tami is this, you tick this box, you tick this box, you tick this box. Your conglomeration of given facts and that is all there is to you. That’s it. You’re given, you’re stabilized, you’re an identity, and you are intelligible as a result. Modernity is a way of rendering the complexity of reality in intelligible bites, so that it’s digestible.

But indigenous cosmologies, the other-than-modern cosmologies, speak about us as spillages. That is, you are not quite as contained as you think you are. In fact, we shouldn’t even speak about human beings, we should speak about human becomings. We are spilling, we’re constantly losing cells—and I’m speaking about this in a modern abstract sense—that biologically speaking, we’re trans-corporal transactions with the environment. We’re losing cells, we’re gaining bacteria, we’re constantly negotiating what we are, even beyond our conscious awareness of that. So in a sense, modernity would look at the slave ship and say, this is a vessel of tragedy, we admit that. This is something horrible that happened. But if we actually look through different lenses, we will find that many other cosmologies might say that that was a rite of passage, that was a ritual across the Atlantic. That was a way for Eshu, the trickster God, to seal the Atlantic, to become something else in the so-called new world.

Without dismissing the horrible, atrocious, horrible things that happen on slave ships and after the slave ship, upon this embarkation, without dismissing or downplaying any of that, indigenous cosmologies will say that that was that and it was horrible, but there were other things that were happening at the same time. This is the theory of excess, that things spill. Emancipation, decolonial emancipation, is not the work of struggling with what is, it’s a place of occupying what we are becoming. Modernity is trying to stabilize us into boxes and says, “You’re good. You’re evil. Fight each other. Let’s see who wins.” But we’re playing the game of modernity. What we are being invited to do is to occupy places of excess. Places, especially that have been pathologized, demonized, or pushed away from view, so that we all feel good, pushed away out of view by this idea that we all should feel positive about ourselves.

Those slave ships, I find, is a place of deep, spiritual contemplation. It’s a place to sit still, to sit within, to sit with, and consider how are we all still in slave ships right now? How is this still mattering today, beyond the fact that this was just a historical thing that happened centuries ago? How are we still on board? How is it true that none of us disembarked? How is it possible to frame our modernity that way? I think there are many ways we can speak about that, that we never got off slave ships, that were still perpetrating this hierarchical society that frames activism as inclusion versus exclusion. But there’s so much more that we can do, and that is why I feel the slave ship is recalling us to consider our circumstances. If we see it in the stark reality of that demonic or demonized figure of that vessel, that character that seals the Atlantic, then we might do some other kinds of work that does not reinforce the realm of the master.


TS: Now, Bayo, I mentioned at the very beginning that I find you a very, very provocative, soul-stirring, mind-opening speaker, teacher. I want to address that person who feels uncomfortable being bewildered, who feels uncomfortable at the crossroads. Who’s OK, stable, found, coherent. I don’t feel like any of those things are happening right now, and I’m uncomfortable. I can’t quite locate where we are in our evolutionary trajectory, where I am. Bayo’s asking me all these questions, telling me these mythic stories. It feels very dreamy. I’m uncomfortable being bewildered. What’s your response to that?


BA: Oh, that’s where the work is. That’s where the work begins. I would sit, and this might be something to mention—that I was trained as a clinical psychologist, and I usually say I’m recovering from my profession. I’m a recovering psychologist. But part of my recovery was sitting with Yoruba healers and learning their underground tactics for approaching people who were disturbed or uncomfortable. What they would do, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do, especially for me, who was trained almost entirely in Western traditions, in Western sensitivities. I would find these men and they would basically poke holes, they would injure their clients. It’s like you’re making matters worse and I didn’t understand that, and the idea here of feeling uncomfortable is, that’s where the work begins.

That’s where you are met, because if you’re so coherent, but… Let me put it this way. We have thrived in the myth that we should be comfortable. It’s our right to be comfortable. That if I click a button, the button should yield the results that I want. It should give me that which I seek. When I call upon a manager, I should be answered. We live in this matrix of rights and privileges and we demand to be answered. Those things are good. I’ve been a beneficiary of that, but they also have other effects that are quite untoward because they can incarcerate us in a way of being that is very difficult to leave behind, so that the very first gift of the modern human is to make us uncomfortable.

If people find that they are politically homeless right now, if people find that they have more questions than answers, if people are finding that they have more concerns than convictions at this moment in time, then I would say, then the work has begun with you probably. And then maybe the next step is to ordain that recognition, is to find the others, is to learn how to listen, depending on where you are, the invitation is probably always to listen, to bend our ears down, to embark on different forms of inquiry that do not reinforce the stable, luxurious positions we’ve occupied for hundreds of years, as citizens just starting in this modern experiment.

Again, I cannot emphasize this enough. I feel the edge work of our time. It’s not to gain a sense of justice. It’s not to arrive at a utopian universe. Those are all fantasies of modern minds. It’s to lose our way, which is the reason why my elders will say, if you want to find your way, you must become lost, is to lose our sense of placement. Only then, and that’s where the work begins, only then will we learn how to be wiser beings, wiser creatures, only in building wilder coalitions with the modern human around us. There are ways this can happen that I’m not, of course, getting into that. That requires probably months of studying together.


TS: I want to make or ask you to make the connection between being lost and finding sanctuary, making sanctuary. Because I think part of what’s so attractive when you just hear that, let us make sanctuary, is there’s this feeling of yes. I want to land, I want to be found, I want to feel connected in my body to the earth, I want to feel good about being a different kind of maybe supremely excessive human being, not that kind of human you were describing in some strange box, but a different kind of truly human. I want that. I want that sense of sanctuary, and yet I have to be lost to get there. 


BA: Let me see if I could break that down. I’m a citizen of people who are tired, let me put it that way. People who are really tired of all the promises of development, all the promises of the IMF, of the World Bank. This is where I grew up. I still am in the so-called global South, and the imperatives of people in this part of the world, in this hemisphere, is to catch up with you guys, is to catch up with the West, is to look more like New York and London. Which is a pity, because New York and London, they’re doing their darndest to recover from all the losses that climate change has brought. I think the world is now learning that maybe the ways that we have framed our lives and society isn’t quite working in a good way right now.

It’s still a pity that we’re exhausted and we don’t even know where to go. Now, I say this because I grew up in Nigeria. Most of the time we traveled a lot but I grew up in Nigeria and I would learn about activism and the solutions that the West is bringing into our country. And most of these solutions only tended, they tended to reinforce the problems that we’re trying to deal with. We’re caught up in some toxic cyclical loop. We’re always receiving from the West to solve our problems. We generated more problems and then we’re just stuck in this cycle. What do we do to break that cycle, Tami? I think we get lost and that’s what getting lost means, and it could boil down to the very ways we conduct research.

Let me speak like an academic, that even in the university, because that was that’s my profession, teaching in university. The ways we conduct research tend to reinforce what we already know, what our colonial masters taught to us. Research is not about investigating new things, it’s about confirming old ones, right down to statistics, which famously was actually invented, or at least a part of statistics, by Sir Francis Galton, Pearson, was actually invented to rationalize white supremacy. These are things we take for granted today and have been imported to Africa, to Asia saying, “This is research. This is how to know things. This is how to be a university.” And then people take these things on and they perpetuate the familiar.

What do we do when we need to break out of the familiar? We make sanctuary. This is what I think, this is my humble, modest offering, that there are ways of conducting research, there are ways of going on inquiry, there are ways of asking or speaking with ancestors that are about being in that place of lostness. And it might sound very dangerous to people who are hearing about this, about being lost. Now, I don’t want to be that. I want to be comfortable. But it actually is the lostness of a seed buried in the ground. It doesn’t lose anything, it actually gains a forest. It’s the lostness of a child in a womb. It doesn’t lose light, it becomes a human being. It becomes a being that can experience other things.

This is a place of growth. This is a place of becoming wilder, and I’m saying that we have become so incarcerated, so stuck in familiar patterns of doing things, of engaging, even with our activisms, that we need a break. And I mean that in all the senses of the word, we need a break. We need a break in our legs. We need to stop walking so fast. You need a break in the business as usual, and this will come in different ways, but it always comes with a break system, so that if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not there.


TS: I’ve heard you use this phrase, postactivism, and I’d love to know more what you mean by that.


BA: Activism is no less material than the table that my laptop is sitting on right now. It is not just ideational, it is not just ideological, it’s not just a social construct, it is material as well. Or shall I say it is material discursive, it’s body mind. We tend to get into familiar patterns of activism that gets stuck, like I just said. When that happens, well, the first thing, you want to be able to notice that, call that into attention and do some other work that might open, proliferate other possibilities, to break it down a little bit, climate justice. Our activisms have been at work and I’m not trying to dismantle or disparage all the good work that people are doing everywhere, calling truth, naming all the failures of the industrial West or all the companies that are poisoning our lands and our estuaries and our rivers and stuff like that.

Yes, we need to do that. But beyond these sites of contestation, what other things can we do? When we lose hope, what are the resources we have then? When we get to the end of our ropes, what other resources do we have? That is the question of postactivism. But at the heart of this idea of postactivism is the idea that the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis. That is, even in preferring solutions to our deepest, most challenging problems. We tend to repeat those problems. For instance, and I think I read this recently and I don’t know if we’ve discussed this before in one of our informal talks together, that there is this, I think it’s corn oil or something like that, Conoco or something, an oil drilling company in Texas, headquartered in Texas. What they’re trying to do at the moment is to chill the ground, is to stabilize the ground because the permafrost is melting.

They’re trying to stabilize the ground in order to put a stop on climate loss and climate change. But what they’re actually trying to do is to stabilize the ground so that oil drilling can continue. You can see where in this cyclical loop, where solutions are only part of the metaphysics, the paradigm that gave birth to the problems in the first place. For instance, again, with the pandemic, we’re trying our to darndest to create a vaccine. No one is talking about the damages or the ecological costs of creating vaccines that will only put us back into that deleterious master-slave relationship with our environments, that gave birth to the virus in the first place.

Well, in a sense, because it’s our encroachment on new spaces that gave birth or disturbed the bacterial activisms in other species. And that gave birth to the virus that led to zoonotic transfer. And now we have the coronavirus pandemic. It seems that we’re in a cyclical toxic loop, and what we need are other kinds of activisms that are not so committed to the highway of justice, as they are committed to asking different kinds of questions that are probably not noticeable when we centralize ourselves and justices that are at the edges of our activism. That’s why I call it postactivism. It’s not a way of saying it’s the more sacred, more advanced form of activism, it’s about saying that we need other questions right now.


TS: Now, one of the things you mentioned towards the end of your talk was the notion that grieving or grief could be a type of activist work. That got my attention because I noticed, especially during the pandemic that I’ve been processing a lot of grief, and I’ve seen this in friends of mine as well. It’s hard to know if it’s personal, collective—it’s hard to know. But something has happened during this time where it feels quite palpable and it’s really a journey, and so I’d love to know more from you about what you understand about how to process grief in a way that’s beneficial. That actually could be a form of activism?


BA: Well, Tami, grief in my world isn’t private. It’s a public affair. One, because we don’t even see ourselves as individualized selves, that are containers for this private internal feeling that we think of as grief. Grief spills, grief is ecological, so eco-psychologists would already agree to this, that it is not so much a private thing that we hold inwards, it’s a murmuration. And I’m trying to evoke the waltzing of starlings in the sky, which is called the murmuration. It’s the murmuration of bodies, both human and nonhuman. I have often thought of the opening of plants or the falling of leaves in the fall as a form of grieving—that maybe that’s how trees grieve, maybe the world grieves in ways that we do not know how to name yet, but maybe grief is happening all around us, maybe we need grief. Maybe we’re always occupying. Maybe we’re actually citizens of grief all the time.

Modernity would have us believe that grief is a thing apart, an isolated feeling, often pathological. Our job is to stamp it out and as to shrink, shrink it away, get people back into productive cycles of the business as usual, and then people can be better citizens. But I feel if we stamp out grief, we stamp out a part of ourselves, we stamp out conditions that make us possible. So grief is ento-epistemological, grief is ethical, grief is ecological, grief is spiritual, grief is, societal grief, is social and we cannot push it away. If we recognize grief as ecological as a terrain—that is existing at the liminal tense edges between the human, the colonial human and the human that is yet to come or the fugitive spaces that we might yet occupy, if we see grief as part of the materials of that liminal space—what would it be like to actually pay attention to it, to actually explore it as a cartographical project, as a map-making project of finding, locating loss?

Now, the way this might play out is, I don’t imagine people coming together to just… Grief come from a place of loss, that’s how we experience it. I don’t imagine people coming together to just cry together, and that’s grief. I don’t imagine it as an isolated Western-styled talk-therapeutic thing that is about making us feel better. I actually think about it as something political, as politics, grief as politics. I think of it as activism, like I’ve said, that maybe there are ways for people to come together, maybe we can actually direct and sponsor and support people who come together to explore loss as a way of responding to our times.

We actually frame justice as the end goal of all our activisms, most of our activism, at least if not all of them. But what if grief is also an outcome? What if staying in that place does the work of reshaping our sensibilities so that we can taste different, see different, think different, embrace each other different—maybe there’s wisdom in staying in that terrain. People come together, people have research topics, people have ways of embarking on archival projects, people have ways of ritualizing their space together, there’s something improvisational about this, and there’s always something ancestral about this, but I feel that we should be inventing spaces of grief as activism, where we can embark on fugitive expeditions beyond the human.


TS: Bayo, you identify with this word fugitive, you’re a fugitive? You identify with that, that makes sense to you to say I’m a fugitive?


BA: I’m always shy, reticent about saying I am this. In a sense, I’m not because, well, we only show up in part, none of us shows up completely. We show up in part, that’s what an entangled world demands. You only show up in part. But to an extent, I would answer in the affirmative. I left the university system, I ran away from the idea of schooling as the exclusive way of thinking about education. Even though I teach in many universities around the world today, I still consider myself not part of that system—not entirely tethered to it, that I cannot dismantle myself from it. But in a true sense, I would say I’m a fugitive because of the ways we’re meeting our children, my wife and I. I think we’re the only ones that I know around these parts that are not sending our children to school.

Schooling is a huge thing in India. It’s almost like unquestioned wisdom and it’s ideological. It’s part of the nation state’s apparatus for configuring its own growth, its own march towards supremacy, towards superpowerness, supernation status. My wife and I felt, we don’t want our children to be part of this. What if we met them in their spaces? What if we conducted research with our children? What if we treated them as elders, according to our own traditions? And what if we said to ourselves that learning happens everywhere? This is not to demonize those or to pathologize those or to make those who are sending their children to schools feel less than, no. It’s a way of saying wisdom is always contextual, and I think our fugitive work comes from this place of being with our kids in awkward ways.


TS: Bayo, what I’m noticing is, there’s a whole heck of a lot that I could talk to you about and that I long to talk to you about. I hope and trust we’ll have future opportunities. To end our conversation, I want to pick up on one thing that you said that opened a large space for me, which was talking about our excessiveness. What it opened for me was, I touched into times, maybe there’ve been times in deep stillness or meditation, a sense of really melting into space where I could feel that sense of spilling into everythingness, and excessive beyond excessive, unbounded. I wanted to understand from you what that excessiveness feels like, when you touch into it, like what it actually feels like and how you think it could inform us in different ways, how it changes us?


BA: I’m learning about this, Tami, from my own children, especially my daughter. My daughter would hold up something like this remote control and say, “It’s a dragon.” There’s something improvisational, playful about that. The way children meet the world, they don’t meet a world of already-made things, they seem to perform a relational universe, like a world of relationships that often conduce into things, but those things are never stable. So it’s also true that this remote control is a dragon and this remote and this doll here, which is given to me by Filipino professor, is a spirit. Who’s to say that it’s not? Modern empiricism? Modern empiricism is political. It’s culturally closed. It’s just one way out of the manifold. So when my child says, “Dada, let’s place spaceship,” and she gets into that curtain box right there, just front of me, there’s something quite liberating about that.

It means that curtain box is also a spaceship. That is the idea of excessiveness, the embarrassing excessiveness of things, that allows me to say, for instance, that the slave ship is also a site of decolonial power. It’s also a site of emancipatory politics. It’s also a site of collective therapy. It’s also a site of the modern human otherwise, that lies at the edges of the colonial order that we’re trying to dismantle. It’s also a way of responding to white normativity. You might say, “Whoa, that feels like a lot.” But dwell with me for a moment. If you read about how those incarcerated Black bodies actually responded to their white oppressors, you might find that theory of excess, that theory of play, right there with them.

There’s a story about plantations in Cuba, for instance, and in Brazil, where the Spaniards and the Portuguese would take these bodies and put them in church and say, “Now, your worship is directed to that white god, right there,” this bearded Gandolf fellow, that’s what you should be worshiping. Those slaves insisting on remembering the worlds that they came from, decided to cloak their own spirits, their own gods and tricksters and all of that, they cloaked them and hid them in the philosophies and in the rituals of their white masters.

They took Peter’s name and they hid the god of iron, the Yoruba god of iron, Ogun there. They took Paul’s name and they hid Eshu, so that when they came in public and they said, “Oh, we worship Peter. We worship Paul.” They were actually, to the secret code, which is also how the Negro spirituals came to be, it was a codified way of speaking, a hidden fugitive way of speaking that said to themselves that we’re actually dismantling power. We’re not responding to our white oppressors by taking them head on, we’ve tried that before, maybe that didn’t quite work, but we can build worlds under their noses.

We can build spiritual systems under their noses and the religion of Santeria, and they came from that. Rastafarianism came from that, Gayak gift cultures came from that. Even Capoeira, the martial art of Capoeira, the dance martial art of Capoeira came from this cloaking spirituality. This way of fugitively masking what you’re doing. This is the idea of excess that, when we come to a place where power seems to defeat us, there is a way to frame engagement and responsibility and responsivity and ethical practice that is not in the power or in the epistemology of our oppression. That there is a way we can conduct our bodies together that hides and proliferates and germinates and fertilizes other worlds, other wisdoms.

That’s what I think it does to us. It shape-shifts us. It defeats us, but it allows us to be aware, to be alive, to be attuned to everything around us. I don’t want to say everything. I don’t want to absolutize it, but other wisdoms around us that are lurking, that are present, but are not accessible because we perform this human body, we perform this human ritual so fastly, so seriously, that we forget the others around us. I think that’s what it does.


TS: Bayo, when I’m with you and I hear you speak, I feel the future. I don’t know how else to really say it. I feel the future here, so thank you. Thank you so much for being part of Sounds True’s “Walking Together” world. Thank you for your work. For those who are interested, Bayo will be leading an intensive three-month course. It’s called We Will Dance With Mountains, Let Us Make Sanctuary. Meanwhile, a deep bow to you, Bayo, being entangled with you is a joy. Thank you.


BA: Thank you, my dear friend and sister. Thank you.


TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast, and if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. 

Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.

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