Field Notes

Inside Burkina Faso's Spirit House

by: Paul Darilek
November 26, 2013

All the Dagara people we met agreed that witchdoctors had the power to heal, curse, or even kill. We’d seen the scars they left on children’s bellies they’d cut to treat stomach illness caused by water, and we wanted to learn more.

Bapuloyaw showed us to his “spirit house,” a small mud house identified by white marks on the walls signaling that spirits are welcome.

He lined the surrounding doorways with ash, also a signal to welcome spirits. He explained that he consults with two male and two female spirits who guide him in his practice.

We listened to him inside his spirit house, sounds of shaking beads, tapping glass, bells, moans, and—strangest of all—two distinctly separate voices, neither in an intelligible language, in dialog.

He came out and ground bits of charcoal into a powder with a mortar and pestle. He showed us knotted roots, dried leaves, and bits of termite mound the spirits tell him to use to cure illness. He mixed a pinch of the powder into a small bottle of alcohol, and said we’d have drink some to enter the spirit house.

Of all the wild and wicked witchdoctor stories Dagara people told us, ones about poisoning people were the easiest to believe—but we really wanted to see the spirit house.

We asked him drink some first. When he did, we followed and became the first Westerners to enter his spirit house. He showed us the razor blade he uses to cut children’s bellies, and other trade tools: idols, a braid of hair, rattles, bones, chicken feathers.

It seemed to us that Bapuloyaw was just doing what he’d been taught to help people. We thought he’d make a great brother in Christ, and that like all of us he’d benefit from knowing Jesus, and we’d love for you to pray for him.