Animism and Benedictions

I think it’s safe to say that a highlight of any volunteers service, outside of the work we do, is getting to participate in cultural events. Volunteers flock to these type of events, if it’s culturally appropriate, and we spend as much time as possible feasting our eyes on the traditions; our minds teaming with questions such as: “Why did that person just do that?” or  “Where should I stand/ what should I do to be the most respectful in this situation?” and most importantly, “How inappropriate would it be if I pulled out my camera phone right now?”

Personally when I’m in these sort of situations I wish I could turn a sideways grace at another volunteer and see if they can shed some light on the situation, or at a minimum see if they are just as lost as I am. However, we often end up navigating these cultural faux pas riddled situations alone, but when we do have another volunteer it can make the event all the more interesting.

Several months ago I had an amazing opportunity while visiting another volunteer’s site. In her village, located in the South West region of Burkina, Animism is the predominant religion. As she has done such a thorough job of integrating into her community we were invited to participate in a traditional ceremony during my visit.

an·i·mism /ˈanəˌmizəm/


1.the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.

2.the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.


While sharing drinks and tales with Alanna’s close friends we started to hear a rhythmic drumming no too far off from the bar we were occupying. Curious as always, the drums peaked our interest- anyone who’s spent any time in Burkina knows that the sound of drums means some type of ceremony is going on and it could be quite interesting . (I, for one, have personally never been steered wrong by following the sounds of random drum beats to different corners of my village.)

Her friends told us that that particular day happened to be a big day for sacrificing in the village because the sacrifices were not for bringing blessings onto individuals or individual house holds but on the entire village. Since Alanna is seen as part of the fabric of the community she was encouraged to buy a sacrificial chicken; the chicken cost 2,000 CFA or about $3 USD.

After the purchase we were brought to a well shaded mango grove where the sacrificing and cooking was taking place. There we met the Chef du Village (The Village Chief) and lots of other men who were drinking dolo (a locally made alcoholic beverage), and snacking on cooked chicken.

We cut through the cooking area and were led to a courtyard behind someone house, which we discovered was the source of the drumming.

Alanna gives the village a benediction
There we were asked to remove our shoes while we waited for Alanna’s turn. A younger boy tapped out a slow beat on his drum while the man before us crouched and spoke over the chicken being held in another mans hand (the Sacrificer), giving the village his blessing. The Sacrificer then took his knife and slit the throat of the squawking chicken and allowed the blood to drain into a bowl sized dug out in the earth; which was already so saturated with blood that the additional offering pooled thickly at his feet. Next, he wiped the blade on the chickens feathers and released it. Upon release, the injured animal flopped off into the nearby corn field where it slowly died.

Alanna was permitted to step up next. Her friend, Felix, told her she was to give a benediction to the village to help the village prosper. Alanna asked, “Can I give it in English?” Felix responded, “Sure, that works. Whatever language.”

Alanna then proceeded to crouch next to the Sacrificer, while the drummer tapped out his steady beat, and gave a hushed benediction. Again, the Sacrificer slit the bird’s throat, and wiped the blade on it’s feathers while its life spilled into the earthen bowl. The bird was then released, like the last, to die in the lush corn field.

After the sacrifice I asked Alanna what she wished for the village and she said she wished that, “Everyone would win the lottery,” and giggled, “I didn’t know what else to say!”

We were then taken over by the big cook fire to help defeather the chickens. Which we quickly discovered we were not very good at. By the time I managed to finish a single chicken, the men next to use were moving on to their seconds on thirds. Meanwhile, Alanna was still struggling with her first and eventually had it confiscated by her friend Augustan who quickly dispatched the bird. The oddest thing about defeathering birds by hand is feeling how warm they still are, and honestly I’d rather be buying my chickens already processed.

The cook fire
After our failed attempt at defeathering, we were told our chicken would be cooked up on the roaring flames and delivered to Felix’s bar where we would be able to enjoy it with everyone, and in less than 30 minutes we were enjoying hot sacrificial chicken and another round of cold beers.

Note 1: Lots of chickens were harmed during the making of this post.
Note 2: We were given permission to take pictures of the event.

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