Bori Hausa ceremony: animist practices in Niger

Niger is a diamond in the rough. With an enormous cultural heritage and very friendly people. We fell in love with it without a doubt. Among its cultural riches, we were able to attend the Bori ceremony of the Hausa and the dance of the Tauri warriors, both animists. Here is the chronicle, a preview of what you can expect if you travel to Niger with us. .

The Hausa of Niger

The Hausa are a large nation whose territory is divided between Niger and Nigeria. In fact, these two countries were a whole, the Hausa Country, before the French and British arrived at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

In fact, when the Europeans arrived, the Hausa were ruled by the Fulani, the other great people of Central Africa.

Although their country was divided between Niger and northern Nigeria by the colonial powers, the Hausa identity is still alive and well and is made up of 22 million souls. They are the largest ethnic group in Central Africa and over the centuries have also spread to Chad, Cameroon and West African countries such as Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana.

Their ancestral territory stretches across the arid environment of the Sahel, and the nation’s history dates back to the 13th century. Even before then, they were organised into seven states which, once they gained control of their land, specialised in the production of one thing or another. For example, the Kano (in present-day Nigeria) were the main producers of indigo or cotton, cloth and dyes, which they exported with the help of caravans across the Sahara.

Hausa girls in front of a façade with geometric patterns
Girls from Niger

Sahelian architecture in Niger, Islam and Animism

Another peculiarity and indeed attraction of the Hausa people is the traditional architecture known as ‘Sahelian architecture’. The towns and villages are built with adobe and decorated with characteristic geometric motifs. Of great beauty, we can add .

The mosques of Yamaa or the village of Bouza may be reminiscent of Timbuktu, Gao and Djenné (Mali), but Niger seems to have reached a higher point of elegance or refinement. Or perhaps it is our enthusiasm as we wander the streets and admire the monuments.

Agadez Mosque, Niger
Agadez Mosque, Niger
Yamaa Mosque, niger
Yamaa Mosque, Niger

The Hausa were, until about the 19th century, a largely animist people with a long tradition of beliefs and ceremonies that some compare to West African voodoo. The Fulani, the conquerors of this land, were responsible for accelerating the conversion of the Hausa to Islam, imposing it by decree and attacking traditional beliefs that they considered “demonic paganism”.

Those who clung to animist beliefs were relegated or almost expelled from society, and in some ways this is still the case. So, as Osita Okagbue, a professor at the University of London, says: “It is not surprising that Boris members are drawn from oppressed groups in Hausa society, the majority being women, prostitutes, homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites, the mentally ill and former victims of other stigmatised illnesses attributed to spirits“.

Among these traditions is the trance and possession ceremony we witnessed in southern Niger last November 2023. A Bori ceremony that left us speechless. Since then we have been looking forward to sharing it with our travellers.

The Bori Ceremony of the Hausa Maguzawa

The Bori religion: gods and traditional medicine

The Bori religion – “the spiritual force that resides in physical things” – is the belief system of the Hausa Maguzawa (Maguzawa is the name given to animists).

Why has it survived Islamic pressure?

According to the anthropological study of the author Michaela Pasian “L’Harmmatan”:

The Maguzawa are said to have been pagans tolerated by the Fulani of Usman Dan Fodio, no doubt because of the help they gave them against the domination of the Hausa II dynasties. Some time later, despite this “tolerance” for the help given, the Bori religion was eventually banned and survived in small pockets, mostly in the Kano area of Nigeria, among refugee groups.

But prohibition does not always get what it wants. It seems that the Hausa, even if proscribed, have never stopped believing in spirits. Spirits have power over people. They influence their lives. They can make them sick or bring misfortune upon them. Also fortune or good luck, so it is clear: best not to do them any affront.

Attendees at the ceremony Bori, Niger
Attendees at the ceremony Bori, Niger

The pantheon of the Bori religion has been shaped over time by the history and events of the Hausa people. As a result, there are thousands of spirits of many different kinds.

There are spirits that are animals, others that are human, other natural phenomena (rivers, rocks, roads, forests, rain, etc.), and others that are human emotions (anger, love, joy…). But there are also masters and slaves, Muslims and pagans, occupations such as the warrior, the drummer, the hunter, the scholar or the weaver. And other spirits are “nationalities” such as the Arabs from the other side of the Sahara, the Fulani or even the Europeans. Fascinating.

Niger Bori Ceremony
Niger Bori Ceremony

On the other hand, there is a very important element in this religion: traditional medicine. Its herbal recipes are secret and passed down by inheritance. We invite you to read this article in French about these practices.

Traditional medicine still plays a very important role in Niger. A large part of the population uses it, it is easily found in the markets, and for at least twenty years congresses have been held with exhibitions and participation of students from all over the country.

The Bori trance and possession ceremony

In this context, the Bori trance ceremony that we witnessed in southern Niger, very close to Nigeria, is a ritual in which people communicate with spirits to bring healing to sick people.

It is therefore a ceremony in which the spirits exercise their power, although they are controlled by the people during the process of possession. For example, the priestesses silence them by covering their mouths with their hands in an authoritarian gesture.

priestess and medium of the bori ceremony
Priestess shushing the spirit possessing the medium during the Bori ceremony

Originally, the Bori trance ceremony was conducted by the priestesses through music and dance. In contrast, the ceremony we witnessed was conducted by a priest and a priestess.

Another aspect that marks the ceremony is the appearance of the mediums. They must represent the spirit that possesses them, and to do this they must show what characterises it, especially its character: sweet, sad, challenging, angry, playful, etc. Moreover, a medium is considered better or worse depending on how well he or she is able to transmit the spirit that possesses him or her.

One should not lose sight of the gender issue in this story: the priestesses achieved a status of power that was impossible to attain in traditional society. Many, to be sure, belonged to the ruling class, but even in this role they still managed to have a much higher degree of independence than others. Anthropologists believe that this may have been an escape from the marriage that tyrannised them.

The arrangement of the medium for the Bori Ceremony

In any case, the participants’ grooming is lavish. They wear neatly braided hairstyles and delicate make-up that highlights the eyebrows, nose and cheeks, as well as outlining the lips. Of course, this make-up is also intended to highlight the features of the spirit they represent or which possesses them.

On their heads they wear headdresses in the form of skullcaps lined with cowrie shells and finished with long leather strips, also lined with cowrie shells. They also adorn their foreheads with headbands made of white buttons and wear a large number of beaded necklaces.

Khauries were the currency used for trade in the Sahel and were imported from as far away as Indonesia. In the Bori religion they also served as a divination tool.

Among the mediums we are struck by the men dressed and made up as women. They could be representing Yan Daudu or “sons of Daudu”, one of the more flamboyant gods of the Bori pantheon. They are usually feminine-looking men who sometimes engage in sex work, although they do not necessarily identify themselves as homosexuals. You can read more on the African religions page.

The ceremony is performed by dancing in circles to somewhat monotonous background music. When a medium is possessed by his spirit (invoked by the priests), a microphone is brought close to him so that all those present can hear him. In particular, the people who have made the consultation.

Apparently, there are spirits who hurl insults. Perhaps this is the reason why the priestess covers their mouths. .

Bori Ceremony Dance
Bori Ceremony Dance

It is the mediums and their leaders who decide when and which spirits are to be called, and when they are sent back to their world. Also, a spirit will never appear unless the appropriate music is playing.

It seems that some spirits are quicker in their responses, and others are famous for the “miracles” they are able to perform, such as walking on fire or making money appear.

Today, at least in the Maradi region, the Bori ceremony coexists with the Muslim tradition. Many of the Bori practitioners are not Muslim, they are still one hundred percent animist these days. However, there has also been a syncretism and the same faithful who go to the mosque also go to the Bori spirits to consult them about health and well-being. As long as it is not Friday, Islam’s holiest day.

You have to have a good relationship with the spirits. You never know.

Want to see them in action? Don’t miss this video, but read on for another surprise.

The Tauri dance or dance of the invincibles

In addition to the Bori ceremony, we would like to mention another ceremony that struck us.

This is the Tauri dance. In it, men demonstrate their fighting skills with large, highly decorated swords and knives. It is not really suitable for sensitive souls.

The dance proper begins with a breakneck pace in which the dancers spin around on themselves with great speed. After a few minutes, they take out their sabres and start making movements that look as if they are going to cut their stomachs. The movements are very fast and some of them even jump at the same time, but “magically” they don’t get hurt.

Afterwards, their “victims” lend themselves to being the target of the swords. Again, no one is hurt, although it could…

tauri dance
Tauri Dance, Niger
tauri or sword dance in niger
Another moment of the Tauri dance, Niger

It is possible that this dance has to do with the warrior spirits, the Tan Garki, who protect those who invoke them.

Or it may have to do with the myth that the Hausa are descendants of Bayajidda, which goes like this:

When Bayajidda arrived in the land of the Gaya, he asked some blacksmiths to make a knife with supernatural powers. With this knife he was able to free the people of Daura from a snake that prevented them from drawing water from the well six days out of the seven days of the week. In gratitude, the queen of Daura married Bayajidda and they had seven sons who ruled the seven Hausa states.

We hope this article has been interesting for you, and if you want to get to know cultures and traditions as fascinating as these, don’t hesitate to travel with us!

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