Hausa animism or Bori is an African traditional religion of the Hausa people of West Africa that involves spirit possession.
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). 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.
An aspect of the traditional Maguzawa Hausa religious traditions, Bori became a state religion led by ruling-class priestesses among some of the late pre-colonial Hausa states. When Islam started making inroads into Hausa land in the 14th 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”. 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
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. 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.
In modern Muslim Hausaland, Bori ritual survives in some places assimilated into syncretic practices. The pre-Muslim “babbaku” spirits of the Maguzaci have been added to 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 Bori members performances, almost entirely women, give new social roles for their rituals and practitioners. 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.
In spirit possession all over Africa the gender of the possessing spirit takes precedence over the gender of the possessed. A man possessed by a female spirit for ritual purposes takes the personality of a woman, while a woman possessed by a male spirit takes the personality of a man. This often has no relevance to everyday living. Bori possession cults exist in countries all over Africa under different names. However it is only found in some ethnic groups and is totally absent in most.