Spirits (Bori/Iskoki) in Hausa Animism

In the Beginning God Created Iskoki

According to the Mawri people of Dogondoutchi in The Niger Republic, in the beginning, God created a man and woman who procreated and bore fifty sets of twin babies. God was pleased and wanted to marvel at children and so asked the man and woman to see them up close, however, doubting God’s motive, the woman told her husband to hide the better-looking twin from each set in a cave. Knowing what they had done and displeased by it, God decided to punish the man and woman by cursing the children who were hidden in the cave. These children were cursed to disappear (become spirits) and remain in the unseen world, forever invisible to their parents and siblings, yet, dependent on them for sustenance. The children who remained on the human plane of existence were, on the other hand, bound to their invisible siblings to seek protection and guidance and placate them with offerings (the origin of sacrifice) or risk being haunted (Masquelier, 2001)1

This story establishes the presence and importance of spirits by centering them in the creation story of the Mawri people. Indeed, spirits are an essential aspect of belief in Hausa Animism as can be seen in the story of the Maguzawa from Kano who, even though they believed in Ubangiji, the supreme being, were never known to worship nor seek his help (Danfulani, 1999)2. Rather, they interfaced strictly with spirits, known as iskoki or Bori, through various ways and particularly through spirit possession, a practice that has endured over the centuries and is perhaps the most notable spiritual practice in Hausa Animism. It is also worth noting that the Mawri people in Dogondoutchi do not worship a supreme being, however, like the Maguzawa, they believe that each person comes into the world with an Iska (singular of iskoki) or multiple attached to them. The Mawri also believe that certain iskoki can be inherited from the family one is born into and these familial spirits often have physical influence over the family, like the line of work a family might be known for (Masquelier, 2001). 

The Maguzawa and Mawri people also believed that spirits inhabited the physical natural environment and as a result, they had a deep reverence for the natural environment which influenced the manner both peoples interacted with the land, trees, and rivers they encountered in their daily lives. The Maguzawa, for instance, centered their religious activities around Dalla Hill in Kano where their first leader performed religious rites and ceremonies to Tsomburburai, a pantheon of spirits who inhabited a sacred tree known as Shamuz. Likewise, the Mawri believe their ancestors were led by Sauraniya, a woman possessed by a spirit of the same name, who led them from the Hausa State of Daura to their current location in Niger. The Sauraniya (Hausa for queen), was also a spiritual leader who was said to be devoted to land spirits and thus helped her people connect to these spirits. The Mawri also used stones as anchorage for their spirits. These often doubled as altars to the spirits and it is believed that each spirit chose the stone to be used on its behalf.

Things Change but Spirit Remains the Same

Even though Hausa Animism experienced a tidal wave of change with both the arrival of Islam and colonization, like many resilient cultures across the African continent, adherents found ways to incorporate these changes into their belief systems. It has been argued that for both the Mawri and Maguzwa, syncretizing with Islam is one of the main reasons both people have not completely lost their indigenous beliefs (Danfulani, 1999; Masquelier, 2001). Both the Mawri and Maguzawa peoples indeed adapted elements of Islam into their beliefs and localized practices, however, one thing remained the same, the existence of iskoki/bori. 

The Maguzawa, for instance, introduced Muslim bori into the pantheon of spirits that already existed. The Maguzawa even went so far as to differentiate Muslim bori from pagan bori who were believed to be village dwellers, in contrast to the Muslim Bori who were city dwellers (Danfulani, 1999). This contrast is believed to have represented the emergence of cities and urban living among the Hausa and its association with trade and commerce, and subsequently with Islam (Danfulani, 1999). Consequently, the Muslim bori were perceived to be light-complexioned (farfaru), indicating the divine, holy and pure nature of the light and truth of Islam, while the so-called pagan Boris were dark-complexioned, malevolent and relegated to the world of pagans and infidels (Danfulani, 1999). 

Elsewhere in Mawri, Masquelier (2001) claims that the interaction between Islam and Bori was extensive and complex such that it was nearly impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Masquelier (2001) cites the example of known Bori practitioners who travelled on pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as those who were present at and participated in bori possession ceremonies. The influence of Islam can also be seen in the initial story of the first man and woman narrated earlier. Versions of the story told among the Mawri claim that the name of the first woman was Hawa (or Adama) and her husband, Adamu. It is not a coincidence that these are the names of the first man and woman in the Islamic version of the creation story.

A Double-Edged Sword

According to Danfulani (1999), one of the reasons the Maguzwa belief system (simply referred to as Bori) has survived so long is because it converted spirits into Islam and Bori practitioners accepted that iskoki were also creations of Allah. This notion was somewhat easily accepted because iskoki were then categorized alongside jinns, the supernatural beings that predated Islam but were co-opted by it. Whereas the Maguzawa simply categorized spirits based on whether they were malevolent or benevolent, the categorization into fairer and darker spirits was representative of the Islamic notions of dar-al-harb and dar-al-Islam, meaning the abode of war (the world of pagans and infidels) and the abode of Islam, respectively (Danfulani, 1999). This simple yet profound misrepresentation of iskoki would become one of the reasons why more Bori practitioners would forsake the belief system.

While the syncretization of Islam and Hausa Animism might have influenced its survival so far, it is also worth noting that Islam has also significantly contributed to the suppression of Hausa Animism most notably through the jihad led by Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio which resulted in a predominantly Islamic empire around the region that is now northern Nigeria. The consequence of this crusade is still seen today in the marginalization and almost complete disappearance of Bori practitioners across northern Nigeria where they initially thrived. Still, there are pockets of practitioners to be found in Nigeria, and indeed across the continent. As Masquelier (2001) puts it, Bori has continued to reassert itself through its capacity to become a multifaceted belief system that addresses a variety of needs and expectations, even when that means containing contradictions paradoxes. 

Sources:

  1. Masquelier, A. (2001). Prayer Has Spoiled Everything. Duke University Press.
  2. Danfulani, U. H. D. (1999). Factors Contributing to the Survival of the Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria. Numen, 46(4), 412–447. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270434

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