Academic journal article Africa

The Spirit of Competition: Wak in Burkina Faso

Academic journal article Africa

The Spirit of Competition: Wak in Burkina Faso

Article excerpt


This article examines the occult powers used to obtain protection or to gain an advantage in modern competitive arenas. In Burkina Faso, these powers are widely known as wak. The discussion focuses on sporting events, an area largely neglected in the recent literature on sorcery and modernity. Unlike what is often assumed or claimed about beliefs in occult powers, it is suggested that wak acts a complement and not as the condition of an individual's talent or success.


A few years ago a Burkinabe newspaper published an interview with Joseph Zongo, one of the country's greatest cycle racing champions. Half way through the conversation the journalist asked, `Do you believe in wak?'

`No, I don't believe in it. At one point in my career I fell victim to a series of problems. I kept coming off. I was constantly getting punctures. People told me to see this person or that person who might be able to help. But I never did. All I did was work harder and take care of my bicycle' (Le Pays, 29 April 1992).

To the uninitiated, wak might appear to be a new technique or a new approach to cycle racing. Yet most Burkinabe people would readily tell you that wak consists in the manipulation of ritual objects by experts in esoteric knowledge. (1) A year later the same newspaper ran a retrospective on African sport which included a description of incidents in a soccer match opposing the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire to the Tigers of the Central African Republic in the 1973 African Nations Cup (ibid., 30 April 1993). After getting off the aeroplane, the Tigers refused the accommodation offered by their hosts and chose to walk to the houses of compatriots residing in Abidjan. According to the article, a few minutes before starting time `the Central Africans engaged in a few fetishistic demonstrations which excited the crowd.' At half time the Tigers refused to return to their locker room and remained instead on the field from fear that their hosts would engage in mystical doings in their absence. A Tiger player got involved in an incident with a ballboy, which ended up in a general brawl involving the police and the crowd. When the disruption eventually subsided the Tigers had left the field for good.

In his description of these incidents the journalist reported the `fetishist practices' as an integral part of the competition, if not without some critical distance. Many Burkinabe `intellectuals' publicly deride the popularity of occult powers in African sport as a relic of rejected traditions in modern African society. Unaffected by criticism, a great number of practitioners of wak like to present themselves as defenders of African traditions yet not opposed to l'evolution, a term widely used to mean `socio-economic change'. Recourse to occult powers is widespread in Burkina Faso, as in many other African countries, particularly in national competitive arenas such as sport and school, and in the more exclusive political sphere. People from all walks of life--villagers, poor urban dwellers, the financial and political elite--and of different religious backgrounds have recourse to experts in esoteric knowledge, making some of them rich and famous. What, for lack of a better term, scholars call occult powers are known as maraboutage in French-speaking Africa. Specialists of the occult are called indifferently marabouts (2) or sorcerers but also wak-man in Burkina Faso, and the objects they manufacture are variously known as amulets, gris-gris, charms or seben (`writing' in Jula, the trade language of this part of West Africa) that consist of verses of the Koran sealed in leather pouches. The indiscriminate and widespread use of these terms is revealing of the integration of local and Muslim religious traditions in everyday life.

This ethnography is situated in both urban and rural settings in Burkina Faso. It is based on the observation of football matches and political campaigns in the city of Bobo Dioulasso and on the study of spirit cults and religious change in Sambla communities west of Bobo Dioulasso. …

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