Does Juju exist at all? Does it work? Does it exist in Sport?
I do not have any of the answers to the three questions but I have experiences that span almost 50 years since I played my first serious football competition as a teenager in my first year in Ibadan after leaving Jos at 18.
These past two days, foremost African Cinematographer, Tunde Kelani, and I have been discussing those experiences and he can’t hold back his fascination and the possibility of a movie coming out of them!
To start with, the use of the word Juju almost always connotes a local practice, an uncivilized trip into fetishism, or voodoo, or magic, or some crude cultural practice. But to look at it a little differently, as what people do physically in a quest to seek spiritual interventions in their affairs – fasting, sacrifices, incantations, routine rituals and so on – and the word takes on a new and more acceptable meaning.
But Juju is Juju. It is the seeking of the favourable ‘face’ of some deity to achieve results that are often selfish and unmerited.
Sport is powerful. Aside from winning games and enjoying the temporary orgasm of victory, and taking home some metallic medals and trophies, there is also the more irresistible desire for power, fame and fortune. I do not think there is a bigger field in human affairs than in sports (with political power, a close second) where ‘Juju’ is being more practiced all over the world.
Juju, by the bigger definition, is everywhere, and in every sport, in different forms, subtle and also loud!
Watch Messi when he scores a goal. He looks up into the sky, two fingers raised and whispers something. Watch Nadal when he goes through his repetitive rituals before and during his every single match. It is a clock. Watch Zamalek or Al Ahly Football Clubs of Egypt before they file out for their home matches, what they and their supporters do. They turn towards the East in special spiritual supplication and chant in unison. Go to the beaches of Copa Cabana in Rio De Janeiro, early in the mornings of any day and see the litter left on the beach side. Tons of idols left behind following over night ‘rituals’ by the most Catholic of people (and players) seeking divine interventions and favours. I have been to the top of Mount Olympus in Greece. Where I observed what people did, that you would also find on virtually every high ground or hill in Nigeria. People of all Faiths go there and carry out mostly candle-light rituals that can very easily qualify as ‘fetish’ to religious purists.
With these rather loose descriptions, it becomes easier to conclude that most people believe and attempt to consult with supernatural powers for interventions and, often times, unmerited favours. Why should sports be any different?
There is the practice of Juju in football. It is everywhere and in every team but in different guises.
Does it work? I absolutely do not know. It will surely be a matter of every person’s beliefs and experiences. But, without question, after almost 50 years of observing, I can state that it is flourishing, albeit less openly, as a result of the influence of modern Christianity and stigma, created mostly by Pentecostalism that has driven it underground.
Having said that, I have had my own experiences in my short years on earth, I have seen and experienced many things first-hand that would inspire a Tunde Kelani to translate into a movie one day.
Permit me to tell you my own baptism into that world.
I was born in Lagos, and spent the first 17 years of my life in the very cosmopolitan city of Jos. My father was one of the founders of the Ebenezer African Church in the city, so that’s where I had my childhood baptism. My mother was originally a Muslim. I went to primary school and secondary schools run by the Catholic Church, so I became baptised and confirmed in the faith. That means there was no dominant tribal or external spiritual influence in my early life. Juju only existed as a word but never as a practice in my little world.
Then I left Jos and went to Ibadan at almost 18. I spent the next 16 years of my life in the city thriving with deep Yoruba traditions and customs.
Then I went into ‘serious’ football for the first time and had my baptism into the experience of spiritual intervention that I now refer to as Juju.
My story in Ibadan has been told very many times – how I arrived there and as a student started playing for The Polytechnic. I was seen by several coaches of local clubs and was invited to join them. The first major club that I joined at the instigation of my school captain and friend, Architect Tunji Bolu, was the small football club of the Nigeria Tobacco Company, NTC FC.
So, I settled with NTC in my first year. It was a very young team of some teenagers, and one or two established players in the club.
When the team registered to play in the 1971 national Challenge Cup, the thought of silverware did not exist. Not even in their wildest imagination. They only registered to make up the numbers and serve as fodder for the greater and bigger teams starring the great 1970 FA Champions WNDC, Water Corporation with its collection of best footballers in higher School in Western Nigeria at the time (Anthony Osho, Muyiwa Sanya, Ben Popoola, Olumeko, Segun Adewale, Wale Adedeji, etc), Housing Corporation, NEPA, Police Machine, CRIN, and so on. Against these giant clubs in the West in those days NTC did not ‘exist’. That’s the team I joined.
Let me cut a long story short.
By the end of that season, at the finals of the Western State FA Cup, there were Water Corporation and NTC FC. All the giants had fallen by the way side, and by a divine twist of fate one young, unknown, slow striker from Jos, had led some equally unknown young players, marshalled by old war horses ‘Alfa Joe’ in attack and Elija in midfield, in performing the ‘impossible’. I was the ‘Damager-in-chief’, match after match to the finals.
So shocking was our success that even the owners of the club, NTC, were overwhelmed. The very next season after that monumental success, they could not stand the pressures anymore and scrapped the team. To be champions of the West was too much to achieve.
We won the FA Cup finals rather easily and qualified to represent Western Nigeria at the zonal preliminaries in Benin City against Mighty Jets of Jos, one of the most reputable club sides in Nigeria at the time, 11-time ‘visitors’ to the national finals of the FA Cup, with fresh experiences representing Nigeria at a continental competition.
That’s when our Juju trouble started.
NTC, as representatives of the entire Western region became ‘child’ of officials, not just of the club but also of the Sports Council. The belief was that on it’s own strength the club could never defeat Mighty Jets. People we had never seen before, became advisers, offering all manner of services particularly the topic of today’s article.
I cannot state it all here, but the NTC camp became invaded by people who ‘knew’ how and where to get the antidote to the myth of Mighty Jets. They came in droves and brought all manner of concoctions to be used, to be splashed on the body, to be blown by mouth into the wind, to be rubbed on the feet or on the shoes, to be worn inside the socks. All of these were followed by prayer session after prayer session, by traditional spiritualist, marabouts, Muslim, Christian, white garment spiritual faith leaders, etc. It was a real ‘invasion’ of our psyche, leaving me in total shock. I was completely mesmerized by it all.
The problem was that all those things were eating into our actual preparation time and work on the field.
Then disaster struck. On the eve of our trip to the Benin City Centre, during our last training session against WNDC, late Dauda Adepoju, that had suffered from my endless dribbles, gave me a dose of his ‘poison’. He kicked my right ankle and that small incident rendered useless all the spiritual preparations. It was to mark the end of my ‘journey’ in that year’s FA Cup, the humiliating defeat of NTC and the end of the club’s existence.
When we arrived Benin City for the match I could not even train. My ankle was heavily strapped. Different things were applied to fix it including local herbs and ointments, massage, injections to the spot, etc. In the camp the invasion continued with spiritual persons from everywhere bringing their concoctions to drink, to bathe with, to rub, to incant, to wear, and so on and so forth. I was in a trance, my innocent little faith from Jos being tested to the brim and and shaken to its foundation.
On match day, the team had been assured that my ankle would be healed and I would be able to play. After all I was the team’s talisman on whom victory mostly hinged. I even dressed for the match and joined the ride to Ogbe stadium, singing with the rest of the squad, my ankle heavily and tightly bandaged. I could not even feel any sensation in my legs.
At the stadium, someone had come with a brown powdery stuff to be blown into the Benin City air as we exited our dressing room. The gust of the wind from outside the door blew the powdery substance back onto our faces.
That’s when I called the coach aside and announced to him that the pain in my ankle was impossible to bear. I could barely walk. He called the team manager aside and told him. The man busted into tears.
That was the end. The elements had taken charge and broken the calabash of ’empty’ human devices.
The TM later said that NTC lost that match because everything they prepared was hinged on my playing that match. I was the person they had ‘loaded’ to do the damage to Mighty Jets. I was the last to leave the dressing room. Now in mufti, I headed with another colleague through the back of the State Box extension of Ogbe Stadium near the tennis courts, to gain access to the terrace to watch the game.
There was a small crowd gathered around a bare-chested man sitting on a stool around a big pot of huge flames. He had on the full paraphernalia of a traditional medicine man, charms, amulets and beads hanging around his waist down to his ankles. The rising smoke from the fire in the pot drifted into the air, and surprisingly, spectators just walked past as if nothing was happening. They were used to it. But I was curious and moved closer.
The man burning incense and throwing some pieces of paper from a small basket by his side into the fire. As he picked up each paper he would chant something before throwing it into the blazing flames. His eyes were glazed, and he was totally in another world, oblivious of the few spectators watching him at work.
Then I heard a few words of what he was muttering in his repeated chants. They were names. Every time he looked at the paper, he would call out a name, throw the paper into the fire and watch it go up in a blaze of flames.
Suddenly I heard my name come out of his mouth. Ha!!! Then I realised what was going on. He was burning the paper with names of NTC players in his pot of fire.
I stared in shock and temporary mortal fear, rooted to the ground. This was Juju at work, my first encounter, live and direct! And people were just walking around normally!
I pinched myself. I was alive. Nothing was happening to me. I was not burning anywhere. My colleagues were playing their hearts out on the field.
NTC lost the match to the superior performance of a much better team that day. I went through watching the match deep in my private thoughts about the totality of my experiences. That moment in Benin City was to have a profound influence on the rest of my football career and, probably, the rest of my life till now.