Spirit Possession: a return to wholeness?

Sarkin Rafi during a Bori performance in Zaria. Source: (Okagbue, 2008)

This article continues the exploration of spirits in Hausa Animism which was shared in a previous article titled ‘Spirits (Bori/Iskoki) in Hausa Animism‘. In the previous article, we learned that the Hausas believe that spirits were at one point humans who were then condemned to live as spirits, in the unseen world, by god.

The god-made division between the spirit and human siblings had consequences, especially for the human siblings who have to spend much of their lives appeasing their spirit-siblings. The spirit-siblings, according to Sullivan (2005), have had to rely on two main mediums of expressions, “the language of malady, which expresses their displeasure at being ignored or defiled” and “the language of the adept’s body, in which [the] spirits can manifest their otherwise ethereal presence in corporeal form.” Sullivan (2005) argues that spirit possession, or Bori, is a reintegration between the long-separated siblings, which brings about a balance (wholeness) in the wellbeing of the humans who would otherwise be doomed to suffer afflictions.

This piece is an attempt to uncover if and how other belief systems across the continent are similar to Hausa Animism in the belief that humans need to foster relationships with spirits for the sake of their wellbeing and wholeness.

Ngoma: Swahili ( Tanzania)

In Tanzania, spirit possession ceremonies are called Ngoma but, beyond possession rites, they are avenues for the veneration and propitiation of spirits to obtain healing, protection and help to ward off the influence of evil spirits and witchcraft (Giles, 2018). The term Ngoma also refers to various “performance(s), drumming, dancing, celebration, and ritual therapy” (Janzen, 1992). A simple search of the term Ngoma will bring up many results, most of which fail to state that Ngoma is, in fact, first a healing/possession ceremony (Ngoma za kutibu) out of which emerged the now better known and purely entertaining form of the ceremony (Janzen, 1992).

As Janzen (1992) shows in great detail, Ngomas are often an avenue for healing. The typical scenario is this: an individual suffers an ailment of unknown causes, and after a series of consultations with traditional medicine people, it is determined that a specific spirit is responsible for the sickness. At this point, a ceremony holds to appease the spirit. In many cases, the individual becomes an initiate into the cult of the spirit responsible for their ailment.

Ngoma cults have been referred to as “cults of affliction” (Janzen, 1992), perhaps because most new adherents join after being healed from their afflictions. It is worth noting that not all members of these cults suffered ailments before they joined. Both Janzen (1992) and Giles (2018) go into detail about the differences in Ngoma cults across Tanzania. Each region has various spirits they recognize, and in many cases, these spirits are often categorized based on their location (e.g. land and water spirits), their origins (e.g. Kiarabu or spirits of Arab origins, and Kipemba spirits or native Swahili spirits), e.t.c.

So while Ngoma might, in the modern-day, be a form of entertainment, its origins emphasized the role of spirits who are responsible for afflictions from which humans sought healing.

Holle Hori: Songhay (Niger)

The belief in spirits is a central feature in the religious system of the Songhay in Niger. Similar to Swahili, they also have characterizations of spirits based on their origins and some times, race. The more contact they had with foreigners, the more their pantheon of spirits expanded. For instance, the Genji Kwari, or white spirits, were included as they interacted with the Tuareg, who at the time were Islamic dispute arbitrators. Similarly, Hausa spirits (of sickness and death), were included in the Songhay pantheon in the nineteenth century (Stoller, 2010).

The existence of these spirits necessitated a cult of worshippers and possession troupes which often included priests, mediums, singers, and instrumentalists who launched spirit possession ceremonies or Holle Hori and staged rites that allowed the interaction between spirits and humans (Stoller, 2010).

Like in Tanzania, initiates of a particular spirit cult are typically those who have suffered ailments believed to be caused and healed by the spirit a cult is dedicated to. Similarly, and in many cases, it is only after being initiated that the spirit grants reprieve from the afflictions and the new devotee can live in harmony with the spirit. New members into spirit cults are said to “devote a large part of their lives to their spirits; they wear clothes associated with them, make sacrifices to them, and attend possession ceremonies” dedicated to these spirits (Berliner, 2009).

Two Halves of a Whole

Across the spiritual traditions discussed here, we see that humans and spirits seem to have a symbiotic relationship—where the existence of one depends on the other. A thread that connects Bori, Ngoma, and Halle Hori is the belief that humans are each born with an accompanying spirit, who might inflict an affliction on individuals if and when neglected. Any form of healing or respite comes after the spirit has been sought out and appeased. In many cases, these offerings are also initiation rites for the afflicted individual who then becomes a part of the cult dedicated to the spirit that had caused their ailment.

Belief in spirits, as observed in these traditions, have broad implications including. One implication is the conviction that there are forces beyond what human senses can perceive, and that these forces have a locus of influence spanning across every aspect of existence on Earth. As expressed by the fact that most aspects of the natural world have governing spirits, from rain, ailments, trees, animals, rocks and mountains, etc.

In Bori, for instance, we see that totem animals and certain sites (rivers, mountains, hills, trees) are venerated and protected because of their spiritual significance to adherents. As a result of the value placed on these animals and sites, they are often not allowed to be hunted or killed, and the sites are protected because they are holy (Danfulani, 1999).

Another implication of the belief in spirits would be the need to preserve the natural environment while being mindful that the existence of other living things enriches human existence. As seen with Bori, certain animals were sacred because they were totemic spirits, while parts of nature were holy sites because spirits resided there (Danfulani, 1999). Likewise, in Tanzania, we see distinctions between land and water spirits (Janzen, 1992). As a result, it is safe to assume that the behaviour of any people who hold such beliefs would aim at maintaining a balanced relationship with their immediate natural environment because they believe that spirits can and often do, lash out when not propitiated.

Naturally, these implications lead to more questions like, what explanations can be we find in African belief systems for the current state of the world? How would they explain global warming, or the COVID-19 outbreak, or mental health crises, for that matter? Should we be looking to these systems for redemption?


Dale, G. (1920). The Peoples of Zanzibar: Their Customs and Religious Beliefs. Universities’ Mission to Central Africa.

Danfulani, U. H. D. (1999). Factors Contributing to the Survival of The Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria. Numen, 46(4), 412–447. https://doi.org/10.1163/1568527991201437

Giles, L. L. (1999). Spirit Possession & the Symbolic Construction of Swahili Society. In H. Heike & U. Luig (Eds.),   Spirit Possession, Modernity, and Power in Africa  . The University of Wisconsin Press.

Giles, L. L. (2018). Translocal Interconnections within the Swahili Spirit World. In F. Declich (Ed.), Translocal Connections across the Indian Ocean Swahili Speaking Networks on the Move. Brill.

Janzen, J. M. (1992). Ngoma Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa. University of California Press. https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft3779n8vf&chunk.id=d0e440&toc.depth=100&toc.id=d0e440&brand=ucpress

Luig, U. (1999). Constructing Local Worlds: Spirit Possession in the Gwembe Valley, Zambia. In H. Behrend & U. Luig (Eds.), Spirit Possession, Modernity, and Power in Africa. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Okagbue, O. (2008). Deviants and Outcasts: Power and Politics in Hausa Bori Performances. New Theatre Quarterly, 24(3), 270–280. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0266464x08000328

Stoller, P. (2010). Fusion of the Worlds. University of Chicago Press.

Sullivan, J. (2005). Exploring Bori as a Site of Myth in Hausa Culture. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 17(2), 271–282. https://doi.org/10.1080/13696850500448378

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. 


  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