The West is all mixed up. What it most needs is a new rite of initiation to bring boys to manhood. David Cohen hears the word from a couple on a mission
And so it came to pass that on a remote hillside in Burkina Faso, west Africa, Malidoma and Sobonfu of the Dagara people were married. The parents, elders, families, goats, cows, chickens - the entire population of the couple's respective villages - congregated to celebrate the great occasion. The only absentee was the groom. Nobody had told him he was getting hitched.

Malidoma was thousands of miles away completing his PhD at Brandyce University, Boston. Then aged 32, he had lived in the West for a decade and, having dated his fair share of American women, considered himself quite westernised. But when a letter arrived beckoning him home to meet his wife, there was never any question of defying the tribal elders. Marriage, he knew, was based on "energies being aligned, not flimsy notions like love". Nor was he bitter that he had missed his own wedding. What was important was that the elders had found him a woman whose soul and purpose in life was compatible with his. So he got a job, made money and without further ado, returned to Africa to meet the stranger whose melodic name meant "keeper of the knowledge" and who was his wife.

Eight years later Malidoma and Sobonfu Some have come to London, still married, sanctioned "by tribal elders to impart a sacred message to the West before it is too late". This weekend they will be sharing a platform with feminists such as Bea Campbell and leaders of the Robert Bly-inspired mythopoetic men's movement, among others, at a ground-breaking gender conference entitled "Women and Men Working Together for a Change". The conference aims to bring together, for the first time, diverse approaches to healing the conflict between the sexes. It will seek to debate questions such as: do traditional gender roles have any value? Can we define new gender roles? Do we want defined roles anyway? And, isn't it time for progressive men and women to co-operate in tackling social problems rather than fighting each other?

Malidoma and Sobonfu will draw on the collective experience of the ancient Dagara tribe and advocate that we lay down clearly defined roles for men and women to help us through these gender-confusing times. They will argue that the problem with relationships is that Western males have remained boys, and that traumatic initiation rites are necessary if they are to make the transition to manhood. But are these views any different to the rigid, sexual stereotyping that provoked the sex war? And can the traditions of an agrarian people like the Dagara have any relevance to our sophisticated society?

I meet the Somes at the north London home of one of the conference organisers. But we have a problem: there are three of us but only two chairs. Malidoma has his backside firmly planted on one seat. "What's wrong with you? Sit down," he says to me, in his tight-lipped American drawl. Sobonfu bids me to take the second chair. "In western culture it is the woman who sits," I say. "In Dagara we respect anyone older than us," says Sobonfu, smiling calmly. "And because you and my husband are older than I am (she is 28, he is 40 and I am 34) it is you who must sit. If you don't sit, you are rejecting my gift and you cannot offer me something in return. We both stand and it is just confusion." A third chair is brought.

The Somes slip easily and unselfconsciously between western and Dagara mores. It is quite a gap to straddle. Malidoma is possibly one of the most educated men in the world having accumulated nine academic degrees, from the Sorbonne in Paris and numerous American universities, including four BAs, three MAs and two PhDs, an excessive tally by any standard. They are based in Oakland, California from whence they travel the world running "traditional initiation workshops" and he has written two books.

Yet their roots lie deep in the 7,000 square miles of farmland that straddle north-eastern Ghana and Burkina Faso that is home to one of the most primitive tribes in Africa. The Dagara people are subsistence agriculturalists who farm millet and corn using rudimentary tools. They live in clay hut compounds with massive extended families. Neither Malidoma nor Sobonfu can count how many brothers, sisters or cousins they have - they just know it is "hundreds".

But unlike many other African cultures, Dagara society is not obviously patriarchal: men and women work in the fields, albeit with clearly defined roles, men hoeing and women sowing; women can equally become elders; the tribe is matrilineal, which means that children take on the surname of the mother; and polygamy is only allowed if the wife gives permission. ("I would be happy to have another woman in my house" suggests Sobonfu. "Why not? I wouldn't feel threatened. Jealousy only occurs when a relationship is taken out of the sacred.")

Despite these differences, their ultimate delineation of roles assumes rather uninspiring, traditional lines. "Men vibrate an energy that is essentially outward bound, a centrifugal force that needs to express itself in physically demanding work like ploughing, hunting, building ... whereas female is centripetal, moving from the outside in and is best employed in holding home and community together. When these energies are respected, men and women live happily in harmony. But when men and women confuse their roles, it results in competition and conflict, says Malidoma.

We do not need to journey into Africa to find these sentiments. Nor should we accept that the Dagara men and women are, deep-down, necessarily happy with this arrangement. But the most significant message the Dagara wish to pass on is the significance of initiation rites. Most Dagara boys go through theirs when they reach puberty, but Malidoma was an exception. He had been kidnapped and removed to the capital of Burkina Faso by a Jesuit priest when he was four. It was only when he got into a fight at the age of 20 and ran back to his village that he underwent his initiation.

"I was taken into the wild for six weeks and given assignments designed to destroy me, physically and mentally," he says. "I was starved until I found my own food. I was buried vertically in the ground up to my neck and left overnight for nine hours. The idea is to break you down and split you open until you begin to understand the unique purpose of your life. It cannot be done without pain. But unlike the baby who is born screaming out, you scream in. You grieve your losses. And your parents must grieve too. They have to let go of you. Your relationship has to change. Afterwards you can seek advice from your parents but you don't have to take it. You are a man. You can marry. A girl undergoes her initiation on her first menstrual cycle. It is a gentler process. A mentor will pass on the secrets of childbirth over a period of time. Then she, too, is equipped for womanhood and can marry. Of course, not all the boys come through. Some die in the process."

A bit brutal for the West? Surprisingly, it is Sobonfu who now beats the drum. "How many people die on the freeway? How many die of depression because they don't know what they're about? Isn't that brutal too?" Perhaps, but still, one cannot see such ideas achieving popularity in the West. And anyway, what kind of emotional maturity does a 13-year-old have? It's nonsense to think that you can put a child through a ritual and then hey- presto, they're an adult. "It's a question of finding an initiation that belongs to Western men," says Malidoma. And what might that be? "That is still what is being identified," he says.

Perhaps the chosen ritual in the West for becoming an adult is psychotherapy: people going into a private space, getting in touch with their pain and attempting to disentangle who they are in the world.

Andrew Samuels, a Jungian analyst and professor of Jungian psychology at the University of Essex, is another speaker at the gender conference but unlike the Somes, he will be talking in favour of gender confusion. "We need to stop looking for absolute truths about men and women because there aren't any," he says. "The monolithic yardstick of what it is to be a man or a woman is dead. Instead of rushing in with quick fixes, men have an opportunity to make a new deal with society. Perhaps none of the received wisdoms - that men run from emotional complexity, that men aren't interested in families, that men "naturally" lead are true. We have created space to experiment, to change the cultural atmosphere. The man-hero of today says over and over again: "I'm not sure. Perhaps. Maybe ..." Not in a panic-stricken way, but in a reflective way. We can admit that we don't know much about being a man. We have a chance to ask: is it simply power, sex, orgasm and career success that we want? Or do we tear up the list and start again?" Speaking of "sex", the Dagara people do not have a word for it. If they want it, the initiating partner will suggest the following: "I am preparing a ritual space tonight to experience our closeness and I would like you to join me." I tried it on my wife who swooned visibly. She confessed she found it respectful, seductive and ultimately quite a turn-on. So there you are. A tribal concept that is imminently transferable.

The conference "Men and Women Working Together for a Change" is held this weekend, 15-16 June, at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7. Members of the public are invited to attend, a fee of pounds 125 (waged) pounds 50 (unwaged) payable at the door. Contact: Sandie Jeffery on 0181-292 8215.