OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Antoine Ouedraogo didn’t run when Islamic extremist fighters killed his colleagues only feet away from him in northern Burkina Faso. Instead, the 53-year-old says, he simply recited a secret word and became invisible.
The father of 17, who used to arrest bandits and now fights the extremists as part of a local defense militia, says a secret medicine he took as a child continues to protect him from bullets and machetes.
“As adults, we still have that medicine inside of us,” he said. “Even now if something happens, I can disappear.”
Fighters like Ouedraogo are putting their faith in these traditional spiritual practices to protect them as attacks linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State ravage the West African nation, killing thousands and displacing more than 1 million people. The deeply rooted tradition holds that plants, animals and ritual objects mixed with verses from holy texts can provide protection before going to battle.
“Before someone faces a challenge, they know there are supernatural powers and spirits they can call upon in any situation,” said Jean Celestin Ky, professor of history at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University in Ouagadougou.
People have believed in these powers since the beginning of time and it remains strong in Burkina Faso because it’s been passed down from generations, he said.
Some people say the practice is rooted in animism, the belief that all things, from rocks and trees to animals and places, have a spirit. Approximately 15% of Burkina Faso’s population identify as animists, according to a report from the International Crisis Group, which says the belief holds considerable weight in the majority-Muslim country.
However, cultural anthropologists say regardless of the origins, what the rituals speak to is human nature when faced with violence.
“These fighters are taking incredible risks, often risks that they don’t understand and can’t control and that it’s hard to imagine anybody in that position who doesn’t rely on a really complicated set of belief systems and sometimes magical thinking in order to stay safe and understand their place in the world,” said Danny Hoffman, chair of the African Studies Program at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, who researched fighters using spiritual protections during the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Fighters in Burkina Faso were reluctant to divulge too much about the process and types of plants used, saying those are kept secret even from family members.
But they explained that one way to become “bulletproof” involves mixing 13 plants, inserting the paste into food and eating it out of a hole in the ground. The meal is prepared with water that was used to soak a metal arrow for 72 hours — the idea being that since the arrow is metal, a person will be protected from the heat of the bullet if shot.
While many Burkinabe grew up familiar with these practices, some never participated in them until the jihadis arrived several years ago.
Soumaila, a 19-year-old volunteer fighter tasked with helping the army combat extremists in rural parts of the country, said he only started using spiritual protection for the first time when jihadis attacked his village in the north.
Even before receiving a gun, community leaders gave Soumaila and other fighters bracelets, rings and special clothing that would stave off severe injury and death, he said. The AP is only using his first name to protect his identity as he feared reprisals for speaking to journalists.
Soumaila has survived at least 10 clashes with jihadis over a year and a half, a feat he attributes to a custom-made jacket he believes repels bullets. It cost nearly $90, a huge sum in rural Burkina Faso.
“When you go to dangerous fights and you survive, and nothing happens, then you realize that (the jacket) works,” he said. “If we didn’t have these protections, we would lack the courage to go to some fights.”
Made from cotton by a local tailor who studied the Quran for more than a decade in Mecca, the jacket is soaked in water from leaves and has several Arabic phrases written on animal hide sewn into it. Some of the writings include the name of the jacket’s owner, while others say different things which Soumaila said he could not reveal lest the jacket lose its powers. Being photographed in the jacket can also rid it of its powers, he said.
Some religious leaders, though, worry the rituals provide a false sense of security for fighters, many of whom are ill-equipped and lack training.
“If you rely on the power of the shirt and then go and fight and (the powers are) fake, you can be killed. It’s as if you caused your own death,” said Ali Kamena, an imam in the capital.
He called the practice “satanic” because the Quran says anyone who needs protection should ask God. Anything else is idolatry, he said.
Kamena has provided blessings to members of Burkina Faso’s armed forces from the Quran before going to fight, including for his son, a soldier in the army. One of the verses he uses says: “With the grace of God, you may come back healthy and safe.”
But for some fighters, these beliefs transcend religion. The Dozos, ancient hunters who have been drawn into the fight, believe people can rely on powers from their ancestors. Spiritual protections can be granted so long as someone is a good person, believes in the process and undergoes an initiation.
Since the violence broke out, many Dozos have been working with the army to help protect their country, relying on traditions to keep them safe. But many Dozos fighting on the front lines say they feel ill-equipped and want the government to provide them with better arms in order to stave off the jihadis.
Soumaila, too, said that if body armor were provided for him to protect himself, he would use it.
At a March celebration of Dozo culture in the western city of Bobo-Dioulasso attended by the AP, new initiates about to receive spiritual protections together with seasoned Dozos fired guns, danced and paraded with a dead leopard draped around their bodies.
Firing his rifle in the air and giddily twirling it between his fingers, Idrissa Cisse said he wouldn’t be able to help the army fight extremists without the ancestral powers he says make him bulletproof.
“When we go into the bush, our ancestors give us their goodwill and we go to fight, to do what we have to do,” he said.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.