Hausa animism

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Hausa animism, Maguzanci or Bori is a pre-Islamic traditional religion of the Hausa people of West Africa that involves magic and spirit possession. While only a part of the Hausa people (mostly within urban elites) converted to Islam before the end of the 18th century, most of the adherents of the religion did the same between the jihad started by the Islamic reformer Usman dan Fodio around 1800 and the middle of the 20th century, while a small minority converted to Christianity.[citation needed] Religious affiliation to this traditional religion is virtually nonexistent at the beginning of the 21st century; however, Hausa animism and Islam among Hausa people have coexisted for centuries, and some practices related to animism carry on locally.


Bòòríí is a Hausa noun, meaning the spiritual force that resides in physical things, and is related to the word for local distilled alcohol (borassa) as well the practice of medicine (boka).[1] The Bori religion is both an institution to control these forces, and the performance of an "adorcism" (as opposed to exorcism) ritual, dance and music by which these spirits are controlled and by which illness is healed.[2]

Pre-Islamic Hausaland[edit]

An aspect of the traditional Maguzawa Hausa people's religious traditions, Bori became a state religion led by ruling-class priestesses among some of the late precolonial Hausa Kingdoms. When Islam started making inroads into Hausaland in the 11th century, certain aspects of the religion such as idol worship were driven underground. The cult of Tsumbubura in the then-Sultanate of Kano and many other similar Bori cults were suppressed, but Bori survived in "spirit-possession" cults by integrating some aspects of Islam. The Bori spirit possession priestesses maintained nominal influence over the Sultanates that replaced the earlier Animist kingdoms. Priestesses communed with spirits through ecstatic dance ritual, hoping to guide and maintain the state's ruling houses. A corps of Bori priestesses and their helpers was led by royal priestess, titled the Inna, or "Mother of us all".[3] The Inna oversaw this network, which was not only responsible for protecting society from malevolent forces through possession dances, but which provided healing and divination throughout the kingdom.

Post-Islamic and contemporary practice[edit]


Muslim scholars of the early 19th century disapproved of the hybrid religion practised in royal courts, overzealous Muslims were to use this hybridization as an excuse to overthrow the Sultanates and form the Sokoto Caliphate.[4] With the birth of the Caliphate, Bori practices were partially suppressed in Fula courts. Bori possession rituals survived in the Hausa refugee states such as Konni and Dogondutchi (in what is today southern Niger) and in some rural areas of Nigerian Hausaland. The powerful advisory roles of women, exemplified in the Bori priestesses, either disappeared or were transferred to Muslim women in scholarly, educational, and community leadership roles. British and French colonialism, though, offered little space for women in the official hierarchies of indirect rule, and the formal roles, like the Bori, for women in governance largely disappeared by the mid 20th century.[5]

In modern Muslim Hausaland, Bori ritual survives in some places assimilated into syncretic practices. The ranks of the pre-Muslim "babbaku" spirits of the Maguzaci have been augmented over time with "Muslim" spirits ("farfaru"), and spirits of (or representing) other ethnic groups, even those of the European colonialists. The healing and "luck" aspects of the performances of Bori members (almost exclusively women) provide new social roles for their rituals and practitioners.[6] Bori ritual societies, separated from governing structures, provide a powerful corporate identity for the women who belong to them through the practice of traditional healing, as well as through the performance of Bori festival like the girka initiation ritual.[7]


The beliefs espoused by Bori-Islam about a person are similar to the multipart soul concept found in other cultures. In the body of each person, there is the soul, residing in the heart, and the life, wjich wanders about inside the body. They have a bori of the same sex, which is an intermediary between the human and the jinn. Between puberty and marriage, most have a second bori, of the opposite sex, which mist be consulted before marriage to prevent the fallout of its jealousy, as it has intercourse woth the human as they sleep. In addition to all this, there are two angels over a person's left and right shoulders, recording their evil and good thoughts.[8]


There are many spirits connected to people, animals, plants, and big rocks. The two personal ("friendly"[9]) bori are like the qarin, which does not come into being until after the person it's attached to is born, as that is when a person's sex is known ( one of these qarin-like spirit is of the opposite sex). All these- people, animals, plants, and big rocks- have a permanent soul (quruwa), two attendant angels, and a bori of the same sex.[10] There are other bori not directly connected to living people, such as those which are or are inspired by Muslim saints, well known jinn, embodiments of other tribes, ancestors, the spirits of infants, totems (such as animals), and gods.[9] The bori are like humans, but they are not human, and they are not visible in human cities. They are considered both above humans, in heaven (because they are sometimes conflated with angels), and below humans in the earth.[11]

These spirits can cause illness are placated with offerings, sacrifices, dances, and possession rites where dancers specially prepare to ensure being "ridden" has no ill effects. Their permission must be asked before constructing buildings, and neglect and unintentional slights may anger them. They can be entreated to help in tasks, such as finding treasure. The bori are everywhere, but are more concentrated near temples, where they can be imprisoned within. Certain bori may prefer to stay in specific areas, such as drains.[9]

Precautions are taken so unfriendly bori don't possess fetuses.[9]

One story of the creation of the bori spirits says that God created everything, and at first the bori did not exist. However, some people did wicked things, and God turned some of these people into half men-half fish, and the rest were turned into bori. They were further cursed to stay in the same state; old bori never die, and young bori never age to become old.[11]


  1. ^ H. R. Palmer. "'Bori' Among the Hausas". Man, Vol. 14, 1914 (1914), pp. 113–117.
  2. ^ Lewis, Al-Safi, Hurreiz (1991).
  3. ^ Variations included Iya, Magaram, and Magajiya. See Bergstrom (2002).
  4. ^ Robinson, David, Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge, 2004), p. 141.
  5. ^ See Bergstrom (2002)'s discussion of this, particularly under the Zinder caliphate in Niger.
  6. ^ Umar Habila Dadem Danfulani. Factors Contributing to the Survival of the Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria.
  7. ^ Masquelier, Review (1992).
  8. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 19.
  9. ^ a b c d Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 20–23.
  10. ^ Zwemer, Samuel Marinus. Influence of Animism on Islam. pp. 114–115.
  11. ^ a b Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 27–28.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adeline Masquelier. Prayer has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger. Duke University Press (2001). ISBN 978-0-8223-2639-7.
  • Adeline Masquelier (review): Girkaa: Une ceremonie d'initiation au culte de possession boorii des Hausa de la region de Maradi by Veit Erlmann, Habou Magagi. Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 22, Fasc. 3 (August 1992), pp. 277–279.
  • Adeline Masquelier. "Lightning, Death and the Avenging Spirits: 'Bori' Values in a Muslim World". Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 24, Fasc. 1 (February 1994), pp. 2–51.
  • Kari Bergstrom "Legacies of Colonialism and Islam for Hausa Women: An Historical Analysis, 1804-1960". Michigan State University Graduate Student Papers in Women and International Development Working Paper #276 (2002).
  • Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje. "Song Type and Performance Style in Hausa and Dagomba Possession (Bori) Music". The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn 1984), pp. 166–182.
  • I. M. Lewis, S. al-Safi Hurreiz (eds). Women's Medicine, the Zar-Bori Cult in Africa and Beyond. Edinburgh University Press (1991). ISBN 0-7486-0261-5.
  • Fremont E. Besmer. "Initiation into the 'Bori' Cult: A Case Study in Ningi Town". Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 47, No. 1 (1977), pp. 1–13.
  • Frank Salamone. "Religion as Play: Bori, a Friendly 'Witchdoctor'". Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 7, Fasc. 3 (1975), pp. 201–211.
  • Umar Habila Dadem Danfulani."Factors Contributing to the Survival of the Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria". Numen, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1999), pp. 412–447.
  • A. J. N. Tremearne. The Ban of the Bori: Demons and Demon-Dancing in West and North Africa. London: Heath Cranton (1919).
  • A. J. N. Tremearne. "Bori Beliefs and Ceremonies". The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 45, January - June 1915 (January - June 1915), pp. 23–68.
  • Ross S. Kraemer. "The Conversion of Women to Ascetic Forms of Christianity". Signs, Vol. 6, No. 2, Studies in Change (Winter 1980), pp. 298–307
  • I. M. Lewis. "Spirit Possession and Deprivation Cults". Man, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 3 (September 1966), pp. 307–329.