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The Accidental Spirit

Experiencing an Exorcism in Burkina Faso, West Africa

Article and photos by James Michael Dorsey
12/2014

Egun dancing in Cove, Burkino Faso
An Egun dancing in Cove, Burkino Faso.

The drums begin early, setting the jungle telegraph in motion to summon the people.

Egun drummers in Burkina Faso
Egun drummers.

The pulsing rhythm is designed to assist the crowd to reach another level of reality—a trancelike state in which they can interact with the spirit world.

The villagers of Cove, (KoVay) in Burkina Faso gather around the tiny central square, swaying in time to the beat, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands to welcome the spirits that will soon be summoned.

I am witness to an Egun Gun dance, (EEGOON GOON), one of countless voodoo ceremonies of this religion that have dominated life in West Africa for more than 6,000 years. The dancers, all men of the Bobo tribe, members of a secret society devoted to restoring the balance between nature and man, begin to appear from the surrounding forest. They are covered head to toe in esoteric costumes that summon the will of their god, Dwo, to reveal his wishes.

Egun dancers resting
Egun dancers resting before starting to dance in full regalia.

On this day, their purpose is to summon the spirits of deceased ancestors. The dancers will accept the spirits into their own bodies, giving them a temporary corporeal existence in order to reconnect to their tribe once again.

Today the participants will act out everything the village has experienced, including all the families whose loved ones have passed on. The ritual allows the visiting spirit to better know how to watch over them, or if need be, to punish those who deserve it—thus maintaining the desired balance between nature and human beings.

The dancers begin to spin and twirl, slowly at first, then increasing in speed and intensity. They start to jerk about as the spirits enters their bodies. The dancers do not speak during this time, but if any sound should come from them, it is the voice of the spirit. Each dancer is assigned a young boy who carries a long stick, and whose job is to make sure that no observer comes into direct contact with a dancer. To do so at this critical juncture of the spirit and material worlds is to invite spontaneous death, or perhaps even worse, to become trapped in the void between the two. Occasionally a dancer will lunge out at a spectator, an involuntary muscle response caused by the ethereal visitor. Such unpredictable movement usually disperses the crowd with panicked screams of fear.

An Egun twirling a robe
An Egun twirling a robe during the ceremony.

Egun dancers resting
An Egun dancer chasing the people.

Witch doctors at dance
Main Mambos (Witch Doctors) at the ceremonial dance.

I am watching all this with an intense fascination through the lens of my camera. Suddenly the Egun charges directly at me. I am intent on getting the shot and have limited depth perception at that very moment. The dancer stops just short of me, but his billowing robes keep coming. They wash over me like an ocean wave, only for a split second but long enough to elicit an audible gasp from the villagers. The others dancers halt, but stand in place, unmoving, and the drums cease their beat.

I have been touched by the living dead.

The head Mambo, (Witch Doctor) in charge of the ceremony leaps to his feet and begins issuing orders. It takes a few seconds to comprehend what is happening. Only much later do I liken it to triage at a western hospitals’ emergency room.

Egun dancer with Witch doctor
An Egun dancer with a Mambo (Witch Doctor).

A second Mambo approaches me and begins to speak in a soft voice. He holds a short white stick, encrusted with inlaid cowry shells. The shells are a fetish common throughout much of Africa as their shape relates to a vagina, and thus to fertility. He tells me the stick is actually the femur of a lion, and that it is imbued with special power. I do not understand all that he is saying, but he begins to pass the stick up and down, then all around me, keeping it a couple inches from my body, much like a security guard wanding an airline passenger.

The Mambo is chanting now in a language I do not understand, and appears to be in a sort of trance himself. Another man approaches me to explain in impeccable English that his peer is drawing the spirit out of my body and into the lions’ femur. Then it hits me. I am undergoing an exorcism.

At this point, I notice the crowd, mostly wide-eyed, some apparently praying, all of them engrossed in the moment. Apparently, western visitors are rarely drawn into such circumstances. I have become an accidental spirit.

After several minutes of incantations, the exorcist Mambo lowers the lion femur and his shoulders visibly slump. The second Mambo takes him by the arm and leads him back to his seat under a tree where he appears totally spent. The second Mambo returns to tell me the next few moments will determine my fate, which I assume means life or death. I am too fascinated to have any fear. I ask about the exhausted mambo. I am told that he will recover. But he has now used all of his power to extract the spirit from me. I am also told that the spirit now resides in the lion femur. Another ceremony will be performed later to free it and allow the femur to be ready for future use.

Exorcist with lion femur
Exorcist with lion femur.

All of the dancers stand as if in suspended animation, all of them in another realm of consciousness. The head Mambo rises and slowly walks towards me in a wary manner. He peers intently into my eyes, only inches away. Slowly a wide smile spreads across his face. He announces something to the crowd that I do not understand and everyone cheers. The drums begin again and dancers re-commence their twirling. The Mambo is slapping me on the back repeatedly in a gesture that means, I assume, I will live.

The other Mambo tells me it was a narrow escape. Outsiders are not meant to survive such an invasion. He says I must have great juju.

I have distracted everyone enough. I never meant to intrude on this sacred ceremony. It is time for me to leave.

I walk towards the Land Rover where my driver is waiting. People line up to touch me as I pass.

It is never my intent to impose myself on a remote society. I always go as an observer, yet occasionally am drawn in as a participant. But I always go at the invitation of those I am visiting. This incident was unique. It was my own fault for limiting my vision in my eagerness to record the event. It is important to note that as travelers, we always have an impact on the places we visit. No matter how small, the impact can have ripple effects even after we leave—what some call "unintended consequences."

The very nature of the dance I was privileged to witness was to restore the delicate balance of equality in the village. In hindsight, I am grateful for the experience and believe no real damage was done, but rather left the local people with an unusual story that will grow with each telling.

I have been to the spirit world, at least to the edge of it, and returned to tell the tale.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, award winning author, photographer, and lecturer. He has traveled extensively in 45 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His main pursuit is visiting remote tribal cultures in Asia and Africa. See his bio for more about James and his articles for Transitions Abroad. Visit James Dorsey's website at www.jamesdorsey.com.

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