***This was supposed to be posted before Halloween. Though this is something you might attribute to a “scary” story depending on your beliefs, this is part of daily life in Burkina Faso, especially in villages***
Another ordinary day in village. C’est toujours la même chose. Nous avons notre santé… I was chatting with the teachers at the elementary school. About fifty feet away, a crowd of students started to circle around someone. That someone was a girl of maybe 12. She was crying and swatting at her back like something was scratching her. No one was touching her. “I wish those genies would just leave her alone. She suffers too much,” our school director commented. “Genies?” I asked, “What is that? Like evil spirits?” “Yes, exactly. In the Western world you have angels. Here in Africa we have genies. There are good and bad genies. Her parents have already taken her to the priest and the imam. They stayed away for a little bit, but now they are back.” “Hmm. That’s weird. Why are they messing with her?” I responded. “We don’t know. However, it is usually women, since they are weaker and more susceptible than men.” The girl was crying for around 20 minutes. She then got up and left the school grounds, looking exhausted. One of the students sounded the “bell” (old tire rim that they hit with a metal rod) to end the recreation period and the students returned to their classes.
At lunch I decided to ask more about these “genies.” I had heard villagers talk about them in passing like they are just another part of life. However, one time someone told me not to go by some building because there were bad genies there that could hurt you. Oh, alright. I’ll take your word for it. “So where do these genies come from anyway? Are they tied to any religion?” I said to open the conversation again with the teachers. “No they are just another part of the world. They eat and drink like we do. They cannot be seen normally, but sometimes present themselves to different people.” What? I was so confused. They could see this. “You don’t believe in this kind of stuff do you? It’s always hard for white people to understand. It’s part of the mysteries of Africa.” It’s not that I didn’t believe in that kind of stuff, but I always had it pinned down to coming from God or the devil. I had never heard of spirits that are just part of the world like that.
We then got on the subject of féticheurs. A féticheur is like a witchdoctor, passed from one son to another (or at least to another male in the family). One day while I was riding my bike, I stumbled upon a cracked gourd with leaves and kola nuts in it, sitting in the middle of the cross roads of a path. I also had seen similar things in Niangoloko, a neighboring town. I asked about what I had seen. They said it was someone that was making a sacrifice, that it was a féticheur who told them to do that in order that their request would come true. People have also gone out en brusse to sacrifice chickens in order that they may have a good harvest. Sometimes though the things people are making sacrifices for are not so pleasant. Like they want to bring harm to someone they know. Creepy stuff. Yes, Burkina Faso has Muslims and Christians, but many still practice animism alongside these religions.
And last but not least, the hunt for witches still continues in le pays de l’hommes intègres. People still get accused of being witches and yet again, the vast majority are women. How do you know that someone is a witch you might ask? No, it is not if she weighs more than a duck or a goose. Those are scarce here. Let’s say you have a funeral where someone died of what were supposedly unnatural causes. You need to figure out who the killer is and since there is no CSI, you resort to a more traditional method. You grab the corpse with the help of others, lift it up and carry it around the circle of guest there to lament. Ah! Look out! The body just jumped and in the process touched his or her killer. Oh and guess what?! It’s the old spinster that hasn’t been able to have children and is basically an outcast of the community (Convenient, isn’t it?). Since we now know she is a witch and a killer, we must chase her out of town!
Thankfully I have never witnessed this happen in my village. However, this has been quite common throughout Burkina Faso’s history. So common that there is a center devoted to helping women (and a few men) who have been kicked out of their villages because of accusations of being witches or mangeuses d’âmes ( soul eaters). Centre Delwendé is based in Ouagadougou and has been functioning since 1965. Earlier in the year, my school director gave me a sociology research paper about the center written by three university students titled, Le Phenomene de l’Exclusion en Mileu Mossi: Cas des femmes accuses de sorcellerie à Tanghin. This is how I came to find out that this problem of exclusion even existed. The center acts as a sort of trade school, teaching women various skillsets in order to support themselves and start a new life.
Why is it for the most part women that are targeted? I was not convinced by my school director’s explanation. Seems to be yet another aspect of Burkinabé culture that creates challenges for women. As development continues, will beliefs like these fade away? In U.S. history we too had our own witch hunt. Or will Burkinabé cling to these traditions not wanting to lose parts of their culture? Only time will tell.