For the Dagara people, offering sacrifices to small earthen idols or talking to deceased ancestors, who exist just beyond the realm of human senses, is not the practice of mystical religion. Instead it is the only way to navigate life; to find balance in a world that is often brutally forthcoming. The Dagara are an ethnic group living in southwest Burkina Faso and northern Ghana. The heart of Dagara land in Burkina Faso lies in the Ioba province. In many other parts of the world, religious differences have worked to tear countries apart. Christians and Muslims do not often see the strength of their convictions as a commonality, but rather as a point of departure to highlight their differences. Today vast numbers of Dagara have embraced Christianity, specifically Catholicism. Although Islam is not quite as common among the Dagara, they often live in communities with large Muslim populations. Within one Dagara family, there may be members that practice Christianity, Islam or the traditional animist beliefs. Faith is not a debate or point of conflict, but rather the most intimate way in which the Dagara define themselves and their relationship to the world that surrounds them. Many belief systems exist side-by-side in southwest Burkina Faso where the lines between them often meld. Out of this synthesis comes an often-unseen sense of tolerance and respect. What matters are not the differences in practice but rather the shared belief that faith is undeniable.
A Dagara boy attends a Sunday Church of Christ service.
The late afternoon sun creeps into a tailor’s shop on the main road in Dano. Although the owner Mr. Bari is a Muslim Fulani, most of his clients are Christian Dagara. He speaks fluent Dagara and works as a night guard for a Church of Christ missionary family.
The influence of Catholicism is never far from sight in Dano. Images of Mary hang in hair salons, restaurants, offices and people’s homes.
Children wait as their classmates prepare to practice a dance for an upcoming showcase marking the end of the school year. The Dagara do not have a strong written history but rather communicate their beliefs and culture in a predominantly oral form. Since only 28% of Burkina Faso’s population can read, many Christian organizations use the Bible as the basis for literacy campaigns.
Monsoon clouds darken the sky as a late night maquis offers tea and coffee. Although women play a vital role in Dagara society – children used to take their mother’s last name rather than their father’s – the restaurants and maquis cater to an almost entirely male clientele.
Dagara are known throughout Burkina Faso for their traditional clothing styles. Such attire is now primarily worn for special occasions.
The influence of Western ideals and values can be seen on the walls of one Dagara home.
Heat engulfs the small cooking room that Somé Tiesob uses for boiling shea nuts. The nuts will be laid out in the sun to dry before being turned into shea oil that the Dagara use for cooking.
The searing afternoon temperatures in southwest Burkina Faso can rise to 90 degrees Fahrenheit even during the monsoon season. Such a harsh climate makes it difficult to grow anything but the heartiest of plants. Millet provides the main source of nutrition for the Dagara but often supplies run out before the next crop is ready to be harvested.
Vultures are the last in line to get scraps from the Restaurant Avenir. Children who come to the restaurant to beg for leftovers are second on the food chain after the restaurant’s patrons. Wild dogs pick at their discarded waste and snap at vultures that try their luck too soon.
Patrons of Dano’s weekly Sunday market congregate under makeshift awnings as they drink dolo millet beer and visit with friends. Dano is comprised of seven neighborhoods and 22 surrounding villages. To cook enough dolo for all of the people living in this area, the Dagara use approximately 1,000 tons of firewood per month.
Silhouettes and shadows play side by side as the sun sets on the market.
Dolo bowls dry outside one of the 200 cabarets found in Dano and the surrounding villages. Dolo is used in special ceremonies, at family gatherings or as sustenance while working in the fields. Dagara cook the dolo in massive vats over the course of three days.
The interiors of Dagara homes form a shadowy maze punctuated by strands of light that leak down through holes in the roof. Turning the corner, an idol hangs motionless, seeming to stare out of the darkness.
Although such sacrifices are indicative of traditional animist beliefs, everyone living in the compound is Catholic.
After Somé Kandjan, center, and Somé Hourdor, far right, butcher the goat, Dabiré Maxim reaches in to divide the meat. The young boys at the sacrifice then build a small fire to cook the meat.
Each person present must eat a piece of meat to show that they are in agreement with the sacrifice. The Dagara believe that if a person eats a piece of sacrificial meat that has not been designated for them, they will die.
After using a small bell to summon the idols, a traditional Dagara medicine man motions to a gourd that is balancing on its narrow end. The upright gourd is evidence that the idols are present. The idols then guide his hand over a pile of small items such as cowrie shells, broken eyeglasses, batteries, pieces of plastic and bits of bone, stopping periodically to deliver a message which only the medicine man can interpret. Dagara come to medicine men with questions about their future, wishes for a successful school exam, desires for success in business and a multitude of other issues.
As the sun sets and the breathless heat of the day begins to give way, the cool stone of the prayer circle at the Catholic Church stands out against the dark grass. The gently curving white rows face towards a grotto holding a statue of The Virgin Mary. The lights around the statue have long since burnt out so she is hardly visible in the fading light. A small figure crouches near the front of the circle, noiselessly offering up a prayer.
Catholicism remains the dominant religion among the Dagara. At a mass baptism at Notre Dame de Lourdes, nearly 500 people are baptized in a single day. Many Dagara see no conflict between their traditional practices and their belief in Christianity. The traditional practices are a way to navigate everyday life. They are culture, society and personal identity all in one. Catholicism is religion, another way to define oneself.
The turbulent history of Africa intertwines with Catholic imagery in a mural that adorns the walls of the priest’s quarters at Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church.
While members of the Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church attend an evening service, others listen from outside. Saturday night services are held in the Dagara language and Sunday services are conducted in French.
Sister Dabuou Marie Odile Kousiele has been a Dagara Catholic nun for 52 years. After working in the larger cities of Bobo-Dioulasso and Gaoa, she moved to the Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church in Dano, where she lives in a convent with four other sisters.
Men and women sit separately during services at the Pentecostal Church, but they sing together as they raise their voices in praise.
In the Catholic Church at Maria Taw a large cross hovers above the pews.
Due to the growing number of Protestant congregations, the city of Dano has donated public land for a church to be built. Local church leaders gather in the speckled shade to elect officials who will act as liaisons with the town government.
While some Dagara scarification is decorative, it is also believed to treat infection and other ailments. Scars on the stomach may help with digestive problems or markings on a person’s face may ward off eye infections. At Protestant Church of Christ services such as this one, congregates take communion, while American missionaries preach that members should not partake in traditional practices. However, as belief systems begin to meld, new ideas and practices take shape as boundaries and understandings are continually being redefined.
If congregants only have larger denomination coins, they can make change out of the tithe basket while the church service continues behind them. With most of its residents making a living as subsistence famers, Burkina Faso is consistently ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world.
Although the American Church of Christ missionaries speak Dagara, they prefer to have members of the local communities lead services such as this one. In an attempt to spread Christianity, the missionaries printed an illustrated Bible in Dagara, which is the first full-color, hardback book written in the language.
The forms of Mr. Bari and his neighbors appear out of the darkness as they break their fast during Ramadan. Church of Christ missionaries have tried to convert the large Muslim population in Burkina Faso with little success.
In one of the poorest countries in the world, the Dagara have found a way to live, but they know that they cannot do it individually. Through their traditional beliefs, they reinforce the idea that strength exists in community. Sometimes that strength is used to help a person push his moped up a steep hill. Other times it is used to help care for a person’s child or to help farm another’s land. Such harmony is necessary because without each other, the Dagara would not survive.