If you have, from time to time, ever wondered about the meaning of your dreams, you are not alone. It is not unusual to wonder whether a certain dream had hidden meanings for us, particularly if it was one of those weird dreams.


The question of why we dream for the most part remains a mystery in modern science. Some researchers suggest that dreams are nothing more than meaningless by-products of biological functions that occur during neuronal activities as we sleep, while other researchers believe that dreaming might have evolved for psychological reasons.

Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, who is a professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, believes that dreams are the mechanism whereby the brain incorporates memories, solves problems and deals with emotions. This would suggest that dreams are essential for our emotional health.

Forgot-to-study-for-my-maths-exam is a recurring dream that has reared its ugly head in times of stress ever since I miserably failed my maths exams way back in college. It is a chilling dream that has persisted for years, and far from feeling resolved when I wake up in the morning, it utterly ruins my day.

I figured that finding the root cause of this malaise would be the main ingredient for curing it. And so, I need a more definitive answer as to why we dream than modern science has to offer.

It is lucky then, that we have African traditional wisdom to confidently answer all our burning questions about the meaning of dreams.


In many African customs we believe that several dimensions exist at the same time. The physical dimension that we are consciously aware of and perceive exists alongside other dimensions. These are mostly liminal where the ancestors are alive and well.

As such, when it comes to the meaning of dreams it is believed that dreaming is the journey of the spirit into the liminal dimension. Dreaming and dreams are of great significance and are regarded as the arena of communication with the ancestors.

Since dreams are believed to contain messages from the ancestors, gifted members of the community who have the special knowledge of reading and understanding this spiritual kind of communication, such as, spiritual healers, mystics or clan elders, are normally responsible for interpreting the meaning of dreams.


This reminds me of a certain uncle from the village who claims to get messages from the ancestors when he is asleep. Every time he has one of these dreams, he gathers a captive audience around him the next morning to narrate the dream from the night before.

Such occasions are taken very seriously as it is believed that messages from the ancestors in the liminal dimension influence what happens to us in the physical dimension or in our reality.

This same uncle from the village makes it a point to never be caught awake past midnight. According to him, midnight is the spirit hour. This is the hour when the spirits begin to wake up, and by 2 am they are fully awake and going about their businesses like regular people.

Being the night owl that I am, I regularly go to bed only around 1 am to 2 am. And as I finally haul myself to bed, I can literally hear my uncle saying: “How many times will I tell you that when you are awake at 2 am you are communing with the spirits? They speak a cosmic language that you cannot understand. That is dangerous and it could have dire consequences for you.”

That is exactly the kind of spooky stuff that will keep me wide awake way after midnight. Thanks a lot Uncle-from-the-village!


It is all well and good to generalize and say that dreams are a journey of the spirit into the liminal world. But what most of us really want to know are the specifics. What is the specific meaning of a specific dream? Here are some in depth interpretations of some of the most common dreams according to African belief and ancient wisdom:

The Falling Dream

When I was a kid, around the second grade, I went through a period of contemplating the universe. Back then I did not have the vocabulary for it.

At breaktime while the other kids in the school playground were playing on the swings, see-saws and sandpits, I would lay down on a bench and looking up at the trees and big, blue sky, I’d marvel at God’s creation.

But it would not be long before I began to wonder what was there before God created everything. Was it just emptiness? And how empty was this emptiness? Or maybe there was blackness. How black was the blackness?

The more I imagined how empty the emptiness was, the more I got lost in the sensation of spiralling down a great black void. Only the ringing of the school bell would snap me out of my reverie.

I have often felt the same disorientating sensation in one of those dreams where I am endlessly falling. In African superstition it is believed that falling in a dream suggests that you are having trouble finding your feet or maintaining stability in several aspects of your life, resulting in broodiness and a perpetual feeling of anxiety.

The Running Dream

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are being chased?

Well, I grew up on farmlands on the outskirts of the city. As a child there was nothing I loved to do more than roaming the vast Savannah plains. I’d listen to the whispering of the tall elephant grass stirring in the breeze as I looked out on the endless expanse of monotonous brown terrain that met the blue skies on the blurry line of the far-off horizon.

Many years later, this scenery would become the setting of that enduring dream where I am being chased by an invisible or unseen assailant. Offering neither a rock nor tree to hide from the sinister force relentlessly chasing me, the endearing plains suddenly turned into something malevolent and conspiring.

The African traditional healer will tell you that a dream where you are being chased is a warning that you need to be aware of what is going on around you. It is a red flag that you are not safe. The biggest threat is if you are caught in the dream. It is a sure sign that trouble is lurking in real life.

The Dearly Departed Dream

I have had the misfortune of losing several people who are dear to me. Every once in a while they visit me in my dreams. Often, it is good to see them again, and for a moment while the dream lasts it feels like an ordinary day, like they never left at all.

But other times, they come with a sense of urgency. In such dreams they have something important to do but cannot hang around for too long. They appear troubled and restless, somewhat a shadow of themselves. They always have an urgent message for me, but somehow never seem to get round to relaying it.

According to African beliefs, when a deceased person appears in your dreams it could be a sign that they are trying to show you how they have been doing since they passed. However, it is important to observe what they are doing in the dream, since the meaning of the dream lies in their actions.

If they are smiling, happy or relaxed, rest assured they are sending you a kind greeting and letting you know that they are well and sending you their love. They are there for you. But if they are sad, crying, angry or appear to be unwell, it is a sign that they may not be at rest.

The Snake Dream

Once, I dreamt that I ate a python. It was stringy and crispy, and had a smoky, savoury taste to it. Quite easy on the taste buds. I think that is what a real snake would taste like. I would know, because an attendant once let me touch an eleven-foot python at a nature reserve. I’d always heard that snakes were cold, slippery and slimy, and so you can imagine what a pleasant surprise it was to touch its warm, dry skin. I could feel the lean muscles vibrating beneath its smooth scales.

Apparently, a person who dreams of snakes is spiritually gifted. Although the mere thought of snakes is appalling to most, these sacred and misunderstood creatures symbolize our ancestors. So long as the snake in your dreams does not bite you, then it simply means that your ancestors are trying to reach out to you. If on the other hand the snake bites you, then maybe you should be worried. It may be an indication that your lack of reciprocation has displeased the ancestors.

It is worth mentioning too that in African belief, snakes are a sign of fertility or a transition in your life. If you are so fortunate as to see the shed skin of a snake, it is a good sign of a new beginning and the end of your struggles.

The Cat Dream

Cats universally symbolize the feminine power. These magnificent creatures are known to master spiritual esotericism and the veiled dark areas of consciousness.

But it is the knowledge of these dark areas of consciousness that have given cats a bad name in Western ideology. When they are not being cute and hilariously passive-aggressive in YouTube videos, cats are insidious creatures creeping in some dark alleyway. Woe to you and seven generations of your descendants if you randomly cross paths with a black cat.

In Africa cats are creatures of awe and mystery. We believe that seeing a cat in your dream guides you to find the secret aspects of your subconscious where magic, wonder and potential lies in wait. It is an unknown and scary place to be. But the cat is familiar with those dark places. Trust him.  

The Naked Dream

Now, I know you all know what I am talking about. I’ll be damned if there is a single person on this earth who can claim that they have never dreamt of being naked in public.

I recently had one of those dreams. I can’t recall the specifics of it now, but all I remember was that I wound up hurrying down a crowded street in downtown Toronto, trying to cover my nakedness with a tiny hand towel. As you may have guessed, the hand towel was only big enough to cover a small part of my body, and so the whole time I was trying to figure out whether to use it to hide my boobs, crotch, or butt.

I woke up in a cold sweat the next morning, glad to find that this ordeal was just a horrible dream. Still, it was literally the most embarrassing day of my life, and kind of ruined my entire day.

Dreaming that you or someone else is naked does not bode well. The meaning of this dream, according to the traditional healer, is that someone somewhere is bewitching you or wishing you ill. In this case, you would be advised to pray or consult a spiritual healer depending on your faith.

The Food Dream

Dreaming about eating food is another bad omen. Any spiritual healer would tell you that the meaning of such a dream is that someone is trying to bewitch you, this time through food. When you are eating in your dream, be careful who prepared your food. It just may be some wicked person trying to take over your mind, in other words turn you into a zombie using food as a medium of captivity. Now I am not sure where that python-eating dream leaves me. Should I be worried?


Looking through the lens of African beliefs and ancient wisdom, so much about the meaning of dreams has been unpacked. However, as a hopeless romantic and artist, I cannot resist the temptation to conclude this discussion with an honorary mention of the artist, Salvador Dali.

Salvador Dali was a Spanish artist. He was renowned for his technical skill and precise draftsmanship, but he was also notorious for his wild art and a public personality to match. Thus, Dali became the poster child for the surrealist movement in the arts.

The surrealist movement was founded in Paris by a small group of writers and artists, who focused on the unconscious as a means of unlocking the power of the imagination. They despised rationalism and believed that the conscious mind repressed imagination and creativity. And so, themes in Dali’s work included dreams, the subconscious, sexuality, religion, science and interpersonal relationships.

One of Salvador Dali’s most famous paintings is called, The Persistence of Memory. Painted in 1931, this iconic painting depicts a scene where clocks melt slowly on rocks and the branch of a tree, while the ocean murmurs in the distant.

Dali never explained this work in his own words. But the melting clocks in contrast with the hard rocks and whimsical ocean in the distance have many theoreticians speculating that he may have been attempting to illustrate the processes of the human mind as it transitions from the softness of dreaming to the harshness of reality.

We will never know for sure the intentions behind Dali’s work. But from the following quote that Dali himself coined, we can be certain that he shared those old African beliefs that assert that dreams are but a journey into another dimension.   

“When we are asleep in this world, we are awake in another” – Salvador Dali.


Barros, Yentl. Our Sangoma Explains What These 10 Common Dreams Mean. Health24.com, Sept 27, 2018. https://www.health24.com/Medical/Sleep/Dreams/Our-Sangoma-explains-what-these-10-common-dreams-mean-20150804

Seeing Animals in Your Dream? Some African Interpretations. Afrogistmedia.com, July 26, 2020. https://afrogistmedia.com/seeing-animals-in-your-dream-some-african-interpretations/

In Your Dreams. SleepFoundation.org, July 26, 2020. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/your-dreams

Salvador Dali. En.wikipedia.org, July 26, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Dal%C3%AD

Salvador Dali and Surrealism. Thedaliuniverse.com, July 26, 2020. https://www.thedaliuniverse.com/en/salvador-dali#:~:text=Surrealism%20became%20the%20most%20influential,the%20rest%20of%20the%20surrealists.

Dreams and Death in African Mythology: The History of Legends and Folk Stories about Dreams and Death Across Africa. Charles River Editors, 2020.


All artwork created by Artistrophe.

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