The Accidental Spirit
Experiencing an Exorcism in Burkina
Faso, West Africa
Article and photos by James
An Egun dancing
in Cove, Burkino Faso.
The drums begin early, setting the jungle
telegraph in motion to summon the people.
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
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
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 during the ceremony.
An Egun dancer
chasing the people.
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’
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
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
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
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
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