And here I had thought that Africa wouldn’t be able to surprise me anymore, yet Burkina Faso certainly did! I flew to West Africa for the first time and it exceeded all my expectations! Burkina Faso is an animistic country that blends multiculturalism, shamanism, traditional beliefs and religious beliefs like Christianity and Islam in an exceptionally interesting way. During my short trip to Burkina Faso I had the opportunity to experience eye-opening encounters and to participate in amazingly special events. I would like to invite you on an amazing journey to Burkina Faso!
Animism is the belief system where living souls are attributed to nonhuman beings (animals, plants and objects). They often have their own mythologies and internal systems regulating the way of life of given communities, most often tribal ones.
In the case of Burkina Faso, animism heavily permeates everyday life. This is very evident, for example in the patterned homes of Kassen tribe in Tiebele, where each drawing has its own very specific application, power and explanation. They appear in, for example, numerous symbols and direct depictions of crocodiles, which are to prevent the disintegration of the house, whereas stars and the moon are signs of divinity.
But the painting of one’s home is not the only way in which animism is noticeable. Fish, aforementioned crocodiles and certain species of birds are worshiped. They cannot be killed nor eaten. Similarly with trees – there are types that are forbidden to be used for firewood. There are regular sacrifices made, of chickens’ blood, and the more people that eat the sacrificed animal, the greater the chance that the request will be heard.
The forces of nature also arouse fear and portend all goodness. For example, during Burkina Faso’s dry season, after a special ritual where the request for rain is made, thunder shall surely boom within three days, harbinger of a storm that has no destructive power but instead waters the fields.
Animism is supported though and by witchcraft. I primarily have in mind animistic spiritual leaders, people in touch with the spirits. They convey the will of the spirits, answer the questions of people who come to them when in need, and are earthly representatives of the spirits they believe in.
Sculptures, each with its own strengths and properties, are used as aids: namely health, fertility of the land, maternal fertility, family and many others. In addition, sculptures of dreamed figures, which are trustworthy and have very specific abilities, can be often found. The entire collection is passed on from generation to generation, from the father witch doctor to his son. It is an extraordinary treasure!
(more about my visit with the witch doctor Lobi soon!)
Voodoo masquerade festival
Masks, just like sculptures, are an inseparable element of animistic rituals in Burkina Faso and many other countries, not only in West Africa. They usually depict sacred and protected animals, often with additional decorations. These are usually used during rituals. The dance of happiness is expressed by wearing a mask with the image of a warthog, the bird’s head is a call for rain, the owl protects the community.
There is a plethora of undefined masks created after dream visions. Most often, their role within the rite of initiation is attributed, that is, the transition to a higher degree of ability in dealing with the spirits.
Do evil masks exist? Ultimately, no, but the bad handling of a mask can bring misfortune.
The masquerade is a very important event. I was extremely lucky to be able to participate in such an annual festival (nay! I was the only foreigner participating in the event!). It is organized spontaneously, the date being fluid and decided on by the animist spiritual elder who receives information about the right time and favorable circumstances directly from the spirits. Sometimes when the masquerade will take place is known a month earlier, sometimes only a few days beforehand, therefore it is very difficult to plan to be at one.
Just before the festival, the most adept initiates (after the initiation rites) meet in the forest. Nature gives them information on what form they shall take during the masquerade. When the appropriate clothes are donned, the spirits they represent enter their body. The zenith is a special dance- a deluge of energy explodes in combination with the bestowing of blessing for the crowds.
And here, it’s worth mentioning the melding of beliefs and multiculturalism. During the masquerade, Christian clergymen and Muslims could be found among the crowd. The animistic festival is very much anchored in the customs of the people of Burkina Faso, therefore, following new religions does not exclude their participation in the ritual.
Myths and superstition
Life amongst the spirits and superstitions in Burkina Faso may seem complicated, and a foreigner thrown into this completely new reality can easily commit a faux pas. You have to be extremely careful to avoid saddening the locals or, worse, bring the evil spirits forth.
Unfortunately, I repeatedly broke a particular rule of etiquette. I have a weakness for fragrances and regularly smell fruit, fresh fish or tea at bazaars. Unfortunately, they saw this as a sign of the lack of freshness of the produce on offer. The consequence of such an action is usually the unfavorable view of the seller by locals and their unwillingness to shop at that given stall thereafter.
Taking photos of the elderly is also problematic. Of course, you should understand that they simply do not wish it. But as nowhere else, they believe that photography steals a part of the soul.
The northern regions of Burkina Faso lie in the arid Sahel. The south is somewhat greener. Wood is used daily, even to cook meals. However, the locals are against planting trees because they believe that its growth seeps away at the life of the person who planted them.
The wet season is a blessing here. Over 90% of Burkina Faso’s population are farmers, which is why rain is an absolute necessity for crop production. However, the entire growth of crops takes place at the beginning of the dry season. Tradition and beliefs do not allow local people to pick mangoes directly from the tree unless they are washed by the rain beforehand, even if they are already fully ripe.