What is Abisi Bori

Bori is a public spirit possession rite using music and dance as therapeutic means for individuals in unstable emotional situations.
In Abisi, Bori recruits married women who explicitly search for a means to prevent diseases caused by /Ibik/. These are described as turbulent “spirits” occupying their body and making them sick. Participating in periodic Bori ceremonies can pacify them and bring relief to these women.
Abisi have borrowed and adapted these ceremonies from Amo people who themselves had them from Hausas.
In Ibisi language, Bori is called /ileŋjet/ or /Ilinjei/ meaning “emptying the good granary” because of the high cost in grain needed to feed and make beer for the musicians and guests.

“Grains for ileŋjet come from the uyikirat because it belongs to him.”

That is to say that Bori ceremonies are paid by a women’s husband, either her kiso “love marriage” or her “compulsory” riner marriage which expressly gives him the responsibility to take care of her.
In 1973, I witnessed 20 Abisi Bori in the dry season between April and August. It was the main public entertainment of choreographic and musical performances gathering between 50 to 100 people.
In one exceptional case, there were about 135 spectators from different sections: 70 from the host section of Agiram, 25 from Igallik, 30 and 10 from Ekantin and Nigertin.
Bori show for all
These events are festive and small traders sell kola nuts, cakes, millet beer, cigarettes….
The performances of the dancers are widely discussed by everyone; choreographers are criticized, compared and evaluated.
The theatrical part of the ritual is obvious to all spectators although the trances that affect the participants appeared natural and of unquestionable evidence.
Spectators are involved in various ways, they encourage musicians, and some shout to the women, recommending them to offer more beer to help the musicians play better.


Human behaviors have different “ways of being” that testifies of the “state” of a person: calm, nervous, aggressive, sleepy, awake, etc., all considered normal states.
The notion of trance describes a type of state of a person out of the ordinary; a state of transformation, a passage between the ordinary world and an unusual world.
This other world is invisible to observers but becomes apparent thru the ritual behaviors of the participants. Songs tell the story of these Invisibles beings and choreography  gives them a concrete image .
The possessed person becomes a part, an actor, of this world that spectators can see just by looking at his or her extraordinary behavior.
The first symptoms of Abisi spirit possession appear spontaneously, at any time of the day or during a Bori ceremony in which the woman is not participating.
These trances are caused by a particular musical rhythm to which she reacts.
These first trances are uncontrolled and the overexcited woman shouts frantically and runs around striking objects.
The women of the house try to calm and reassure her. These first trances may occur two or three times before she is will participate in a public ceremony.

Bori Ceremony

These ceremonies are all organized in the same pattern but the content varies depending on the type of spirits that is embodied.
Lasting approximately 4 hours, the possession ceremonies usually start around 3:00 in the afternoon and end at sunset.
They can be divided into phases: ·
  • An initial phase when the first trance symptoms appear. ·
  • A climax phase marked by a public ceremony. ·
  • A terminal phase where the possessed has identified and tamed the spirit that will help her search for health.
The spirits are expressed through dances and are called by the rhythms and special songs composed by musicians. They use a variety of songs to entice spirits to leave their invisible world to enter the human realm by borrowing women’s bodies.
The number of songs varies from three to five and generally accompanied by musical instruments: one or two /idom/  (chordophones made of a calabash covered with leather, an armpit drum, a percussion pot producing a loud noise by striking the aperture, a metal hoe or rod struck with short iron clubs.
Abisi drummer

Possession Display

Initial phase

The initial phase of Abisi Bori follows a standard procedure after which the climax phase depends on of the kind of spirits. The first phase of the ceremony begins in the central place of the host house.
The musicians, sitting in the shade of a room or of a drying platform, drink a welcoming pot of beer given by the host. They will drink many others during the ceremony.
Abisi Bori musicians
Three or four women participate in the same ceremony, having affinities with the same spirits. In most rituals, there is a novice and some experience initiate who knows the spirits and their reactions.
The participating women wait inside a room until guests, relatives, friends and spectators arrive. The ceremony begins when these women are seated on mats and are covered by a large dark-blue fabric.
Women waiting for a trance
The musicians play and sing different songs that induce the spirits to express themselves.
When the right song is played, women gradually begin to vibrate and scream, each according to the sensitivity of her spirits.
In an inventory of some 40 Bori songs, the first 22 were sung during the preparatory phase of the ceremony and encourage women to trances and to dress up.
These songs aim to wake up the spirits and musicians use trial and error to find which one is ready to come down. This phase concludes with specific songs for each dancer, the spirits being identified.
The other 17 songs are for the most elaborate stages of the ceremony while women express specific spirit behaviors.
At the beginning, they sang Allah bamu lafia which explicitly ask Allah for physical well-being and happiness.
In fact, the meaning of this song borrowed from the Hausa context is only Muslim in sonority because the musicians sing it to thank their hosts for the gift of three good pots of beer they have just received!
The next song is called Fine Clothing and encourages participants to get up and put on their rituals dress.
Women gradually begin to vibrate and scream, depending on the sensitivity of each spirit.
The musicians then wonder what kinds of spirits make them “Vibrate like snakes and they sing, “Who holds the snake while multiplying different rhythms to identify all possible spirits.
The next song is called “The Master must lead like a spear to get the host woman initiates to rises up and starts like if they were spear carriers horse riders who precedes the touts and the foot archers.
Women in the assistance hoot to encourage the dancers to emerge gradually from their initial trance and begin the ceremony.
Some songs address each woman individually, by name or by their section or patriline or by the name of their husbands.
Women gradually begin to vibrate and scream, each depending on the sensitivity of her spirits.
They give them nicknames and titles like the “Best Dancer, the Dodo Wifes (dodo mask men) or “Skinny Woman which is the physical look of a good dancer.
Other songs warn the women that this is just a ceremony and that they should not behave and scream as if they were about to fight an enemy.
Musicians then sing to encourage them to finish their trance:
 “Vibrate, vibrate, mother of the infirm girl.” If you are one of “those to whom something missing,” you must start again, “quick, quick your trances if you cannot dance, if the spirit is not in you. “
Finally, the song Be not ashamed orphan encourage those too shy to dance in front of the others by stating that the possessed one becomes marginal and shameful like a poor orphan who must nevertheless go out in public.
After 10 or 15 minutes, the spirits are awakened and women put on clothes associated with them.
Some wear sleeveless shirts, others use a white fabric knotted into shorts.
They all have wide leather belts decorated with cowries (ibami), and bells around their knees (asampani) and other special objects like hats, bags, cow tails, collars of strunged British pennies.
Spirits are coming
Bori spirits behave like riders mounting their horses.
Asampani bells
All these clothes are put on in reverse. For example, the shirt is inserted after being turned inside out, neck first and rolled back over the body.
All this dressing phase is ritualized and lasts about thirty minutes.
When this first phase of preparation is completed; the actual ceremony can begin.

Climax phase

For an hour, the women dance, stepping backward, to the sound of bells and music.
During this time the audience gives the dancers small donations in cash or in kind (sorghum, peanuts).
Donations are ostentatiously distributed in front of everybody. For example, by placing coins one by one on the forehead of the dancers.
These gifts consist of one to three kobo piece and the total amount of money collected varies. For example, one woman had received 132 kobos and a novice had received 29 kobos but the elder and more experience initiate got only 12 kobos. These gifts were distributed by 40 men and 7 women.

These gifts were given by 40 men and 7 women. They were all immediately redistributed, the majority going to the musicians and a small amount to children and grandchildren of the women and to very old women.

.Around 5 pm, everyone moves out of the house and goes under a large tree. The dancers follow, walking backward.
There, the dances become more elaborated and dancers take specific behaviors attributed to their special spirits that next chapters will describe.
The terminal phase ends quickly when the Bori host, completely exhausted, falls back on the ground saying in a whisper “imawuzu” (I’m exhausted).
Other women will lead them in a room where they will gradually come back to their ordinary personality.

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