Africa History Nigeria Uncategorized

The links between ‘yan daudu, karuwai and bori

Another one from the drafts. In an earlier post I shared what I had read from Renee Pittin’s research on gidajen mata in Katsina, Northern Nigeria. Here I will share another aspect of these houses of women, that of the connection between ‘yan daudu, karuwai and the bori “cult”. Unfortunately, bori is often described as a “cult”, like xxx I will use kungiyar bori here when referring to bori as a group that is not evil. I will advice readers look at my “Houses of Women” post before proceeding with this one.

Kungiyar bori is descended from the pre-Islamic Hausa animism. Sinikangas writes that the bori is said to be a marginal “cult” for marginal people such as the ‘yan daudu and karuwai these days. Andersson includes mentally disturbed individuals and divorcees to this list. Although of course it must be mentioned that there are people who practice bori that are married with children.

Before the 14th century, bori was attached to powerful priestesses and veneration of a league of deities sometimes referred to as spirits, known as iskoki. However with the adoption of Islam, bori morphed appropriating bits of the religion and today individuals that practice bori also proclaim to be good Muslims. In bori, through possession, faithfuls are able to communicate with iskoki and call them using music. During a trance, a deity is said to mount a devotee. The relationship between iskoki and the devotees is described with a metaphor of a rider and a horse where the rider (that is the deity) mounts the horse (that is the devotee). Following this, possessed women and men are referred to as mares of the bori. Similar terms appear in other indigenous spiritual systems across West Africa.

Some rites of bori involve using a hallucinogenic plant known as babba-jiji. Adepts of bori can also be healers. Other than the devotees who are mounted by deities, there are several other members that occupy various positions. According to Sinikangas the highest authority is Sarki Bori, usually a man, his authority and tasks vary but in general he is the one who promotes the services of bori and takes care of gifts. Sinikangas places the second person in charge as the Magajiyar Bori, subordinate to the Sarki Bori. Also known as the Inna, Iya or Magaram is the head of bori adepts and the state appointed authority of women. The Sarki as head and Magajiyar as second in charge may not have always been the order of things, as women are said to have ruled the activity of bori in the pre-colonial days. In fact, others point that women not only formed the majority of bori adherents but also occupied leadership roles.

The Magajiyar Bori is associated with karuwanci since she often owned and ran gidan karuwai. Her position was directly attached to the king who appointed her. Sininkagas explains karuwanci as the status of an unmarried woman in the Islamic Hausa society. Thus, karuwa is a woman who has refused to re/marry and insists on being independent, she lives in gidan karuwai along with other women and the ‘yan daudu under the protection of the older Magajiyar. As part of the institution of karuwanci, she offers sexual services and companionship as a means of income.

Interestingly there is one speculation on the possibility of some karuwai being WSW, whoever updated the Wikipedia page on Hausa animism added a section on homosexuality in which the karuwai are described as a guild of “mostly lesbians and renegade women”. This according to author leads to a “visible homosexual aspect” to bori.

Bori has been tied to karuwanci as early as the eighteenth century. However like bori and ‘yan daudu, karuwanci likely predates Islam in Hausaland as an institution. The link between karuwai and bori is clear from the office of the Magajiyar Bori. In addition to this, karuwai often organise bori ceremonies.

‘Yan Daudu
‘Yan daudu have been categorised as homosexuals, transsexuals or transvestites however not all have same-sex sexual relations with other men. For his thesis Abdullahi (1984) interviewed several Yan daudu and 57% of them admitted being ‘yan daudu for economic reasons having come from the villages to the town.

As members of bori, the ‘yan daudu are apparently never possessed by iskoki but participate through dancing and preparing food. They dance dances associated with women and donate money especially when Dan Galadima appears as dan Daudu is said to be derived from Dan Galadima, a deity considered to be a loose living and handsome man popular among women.


Despite adopting women’s mannerisms and clothing, ‘yan daudu are not considered to be transgendered in Hausa society. Both institutions of the ‘yan daudu and karuwanci share a bond sans limitations. Pittin states that ‘yan daudu act as intermediaries between karuwai and their clients. Outside that, their relation includes intimate conversations and erotic lore.

They both transgress gender norms. ‘Yan daudu are “feminine men” as cross-dressers and/or men who engage in tasks traditionally assigned to women such as cooking. On the other hand, karuwai cross strict gender boundaries by being independence, unmarried women and deviating from the society ascribed female role. Kungiyar bori on its own provides enough ground for subversion after all in it, the deities that possess the women tend to be male and while in a trance, the women may perform male gender norms. Even though authors like Pittin describe the karuwanci nearly as a positive and appreciated phenomenon, they are socially in very low ranked category. Granted the institution today is definitely not what it was in the past.

What I read
Bergstrom Kari, “Legacies of Colonialism and Islam for Hausa Women: An Historical Analysis, 1804 – 1960”, Women and International Development Working Paper #27, 6 October 2002
Pittin Renée, “Houses of Women: a Focus on Alternative Life-Styles in Katsina City”, pp 291-301, in Female and Male in West Africa edited by Christine Oppong
Sinikangas Maarit, “Yan Daudu: A Study of Transgendering Men in Hausaland West Africa”
Anderson Ulrika, “Working with Spirits among Muslim Hausa in Nigeria A Study of Bori in Jos”

Image source
Vodun, trying to grasp the ungraspable