Where Has All the Magic Gone? Juju, Africa, and Superstitions in the Game

Amidst all the tragedy, politics, business, and even bits of sport that have made news from the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, I’ve been intrigued by something conspicuous primarily in its absence: there have been virtually no stories of the juju / muti / witchcraft commonly used to exoticize the African game.  Confederation of African Football (CAF) administrators must be pleased.

In the midst of several embarrassing incidents during the last decade, most notably the arrest of Cameroonian coaches (one of whom was German) during the 2002 Cup of Nations in Mali for “trying to place a magic charm on the pitch,” CAF has worked hard to “modernize” the image of African soccer.  As a CAF spokesperson noted after the Mali episode: “we are no more willing to see witch doctors on the pitch than cannibals at the concession stands.  Image is everything.”

But with my sympathies to CAF and all due respect to the marketing industry, I find it much more interesting to think of “image” as merely the most obvious thing.  Behind the image is where you find the good stuff: the ways that the local and the global get mashed up into dynamic cultures of the game.  In African soccer stories of witchcraft and black magic are simultaneously fun and controversial, illuminating and misleading.  They are also extraordinarily common.

Among my own favorites from working in Malawi many years ago was one from a school teacher friend whose team was playing a local rival.  The game was delayed by a crucial decision about the game ball: they couldn’t agree on which to use.  Each team was sure that the other had put some type of juju curse on its own ball, and neither would concede the advantage.  Eventually a Solomonesque compromise was reached—they would use one school’s ball, but the other school’s players would be allowed to urinate on that ball in order to dilute any potential curse.  I assumed the first half was mostly short passing.

I was also thoroughly intrigued—why do seemingly rational people believe seemingly irrational things?  How similar is the popularity of juju in a place such as Malawi to the popularity of sports superstitions everywhere in the world?  And now, does the seeming absence of stories about juju at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations signify meaningful changes in the nature of the African game?

Ivory Coast, 2007. By Michael Hughes on Flickr.

Ivory Coast, 2007. By Michael Hughes on Flickr.

Believing and Questioning

To start, it is important to note that there is no one African experience with what I’m referring to as juju—there are different names, rituals, and degrees of belief both between and within the diverse nations on the continent.  There are also important technical differences between “black magic,” “witchcraft,” “traditional medicine,” and other loosely related concepts which I’m crudely aggregating into a broad colloquial category of practices and beliefs based on supernatural powers.  But as a generalization, from my experience juju in African soccer is mostly strange only when considered from afar.

For one thing, the use of curses and forms of witchcraft is not exclusive to African soccer: it is relatively easy to find examples from other parts of the world, including rumors that in his desperation (and apparent lack of managerial skills) Diego Maradona turned to Argentina’s version of juju before playing Paraguay in their crucial World Cup qualifier.  Maradona is also one of many managers who looks to religion to buoy his team’s prospects—Giovanni Trapattoni, for example, famously brought a bottle of holy water with him to the sidelines of Italy games in the 2002 World Cup.  Such analogies do not go without notice in Africa: as a South African fan noted to the Guardian following up CAF’s response to the 2002 Cup of Nations: “Will they ban Catholic players crossing themselves?  Will they shut the chapel at Barcelona? If you believe, muti makes you stronger.”

For another thing, it is not entirely clear whether calling something juju makes it all that different from the types of superstitions that are prevalent amongst athletes everywhere in the world.  When Tottenham striker Jermaine Defoe replied to a journalist asking about a particularly short haircut by noting “I had to, I only ever seem to get injured when I have longer hair,” was his logic that different from the Rwandan player who planted a ‘magic stick’ in the goal to ward against unlucky bounces?  Or when Raymond Domenech allowed his interest in astrology to mitigate against picking Scorpios such as Robert Pires to play for France, was his decision making any more exotic than Ghanaian fans who carried a “juju pot” in hopes of bringing the Black Stars good luck?  And all this is to say nothing of Robert van Persie’s apparent belief in the powers of horse placenta to heal a bum ankle.

Being fascinated by juju and African soccer may ultimately say as much about outsider perceptions of Africa and how we ourselves define what is “rational” as it says about Africa.  But I admit that it has long provoked my curiosity—so much so that when I spent a season playing in the Malawian Super League in the 90’s, I made an active effort to learn about juju.  It just sounded exotic and fun.  But when I started asking around the reality was considerably more mundane.

Sure, people had stories about juju and football.  But they almost always told those stories with degrees of humor, skepticism, and self-awareness.  The Malawians I played with knew that juju was not science, and it wasn’t something to be taken too seriously.  But, in some situations, it couldn’t hurt to pay it at least a little respect.  As one of my teammates explained to me:

“When I was playing at school, we played up to the finals and we used juju just because everybody was using it then.  We used to go to this guy who would tell you about the game…if we were going to lose he could give us some roots from different trees and tell us what to do, or have a certain person sitting on the bench with a certain thing in the hand pointing toward the goal and squeezing hard.  I can say I no longer believe in that, but at Civo [another Super League club] they used to take water from the mortuary, put in some small roots and put it over your face.  It was so if those guys are using some type of juju where you don’t’ see things clearly, then you could see things and play a normal game…why not?”

The guys I played with were relatively well educated and as such, I was told, we tended to use juju less than other local teams.  But my teammates would point out to me opposing players with small charms around their socks, or note opponents arriving at the pitch one by one after having stopped for individual “blessings” from a “juju man” in the locker room.  And most everyone recognized that juju was only a small part of the equation: “if the players are not dedicated [to training] then the juju does not work…but if you apply juju you try as much as possible to say—if I do this the juju has helped me.”

If anything, the guys I played with took advantage of how much attention other teams paid to juju.  This advantage was facilitated by one of our club officers and part-time bus driver, a jolly fellow named Nasimba, who happened to be one of the “chief supporters” for the Malawian national team.  And who happened to have a national reputation as a juju man.  When I asked him about it he would just laugh—never quite admitting nor denying.  He certainly played the role well, dressing in flowing African gowns and maintaining a mischievous look in his eye.  He also loved to tell the story of a time he had gone to Lusaka for a Malawi v Zambia international and been forced to leave a packed Independence Stadium under guard.  The Zambian authorities had feared that he was a Malawian witchdoctor.

His reputation was also the font for a trick played by my team during one of our biggest games of the year against Bata Bullets—at the time one of the two best teams in the Super League.  Bullets was full of national team regulars, and my UFC team had little chance of matching their skill.  So some of our players organized to conspicuously bring a hand-made rag ball into the stadium for warm-up, a plastic and twine construction mostly used by kids playing on the street or in the country.  I wasn’t playing that game, and from the sideline I first assumed that my teammates were just joking around—until a curious hush came over the crowd.

The fans and the Bullets seemed to watch carefully as the UFC players brought the ball to the middle of a tight circle of bodies.  Nasimba, decked out in a dotted orange outfit of flowing fabric, casually walked from the sideline to meet the team huddle.  After a brief silence, the group parted quickly and dramatically.  A designated player grabbed the ball, sprinted towards the bench, placed it on the touch-line, and cleared the way for Nasimba’s lumbering approach.  He hovered over the ball, methodically raised his arms, lowered his head, and allowed the stadium a moment of strain trying to hear his incantation.

Then, with a quick, shrill yell, Nasimba dropped his hands and joined the rest of us on the bench.  Either a curse had been put on the game, or a lot of people believed a curse had been put on the game.  In some ways it did not matter which.  Bata Bullets still won 1-nil.

In my mind this was how things usually seemed to work: juju might play a small role in Malawian soccer (sometimes relaxing players, sometimes motivating players, and sometimes intimidating players) but ultimately what mattered was still the game on the field.  And, while Malawians gave varying degrees of credence to juju, they mostly understood that.

Ghana, 2008. By malaise creole on Flickr.

Ghana, 2008. By malaise creole on Flickr.

The Business of Superstition

Over time what became most interesting to me in Malawi was the realization that juju had been around a lot longer than football—how was it that football as a European import became the site for what outsiders believe to be a “traditional” African practice?  It seemed to mostly be a matter of entrepreneurship.  As one of the older team officials on my Malawian team told me: “during my time juju was not popular in football.   It was just coming….because the doctors, they put their posters up somewhere there and people started to come…it was just a business opportunity.”  In fact, others told me this was still a problem for club’s accountants: where do you record your expenses for juju?  Under medical?  It didn’t quite fit.

The idea that juju in African soccer is actually an example of a modern entrepreneurial spirit rather than an African “tradition” fits with other analyses of the phenomenon.  In his interesting history of football in South Africa, for example, Peter Alegi argues that applying ritual magic to football was part of a broader “process of Africanisation.”  He notes that in South Africa “the infusion of agrarian beliefs and rituals reveals a way young African men de-colonised football through cultural practice and, in so doing, influence the institutional growth of black soccer.”

Scholars generally tend to be more sympathetic to the use of black magic in Africa than do CAF officials.  In fact, though it has nothing to do with soccer, one of the most famous works in the history of cultural anthropology is E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s classic from the 1930’s: Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande.  Though his analysis of the Azande near the upper-Nile was in many ways a product of the colonial times, it was also distinct in positing that the use of witchcraft was not so much exotic and irrational as it was human: all our definitions of “rationality” are constrained by particular cultural boundaries.  When the Azande relied on oracles to guide their decision making about who they should consider an enemy or about what medicines to take they were operating within a system of philosophical understanding that functioned in their society.

It may not be too far afield to suggest that when the US National Team employs a chiropractor or when Bundesliga teams employ homeopaths, despite questions about the “scientific” base of such practices, they are also operating within particular local ways of understanding the world that are as influenced by the entrepreneurial spirit as by pure rationality.  And I don’t mean to pick on alternative medicine; even more mainstream endeavors such as psychopharmacology depend greatly upon systems of belief—anti-depressants have generally been a boon to mental health care, but the most optimistic evidence suggests they still only significantly reduce depressive symptoms in about 60% of cases compared to reductions for about 40% of cases taking only placebos.

One thing science has learned is that placebo effects are real—in many cases thinking something will help does help.  And that process may partially explain both the persistence of juju in African soccer and superstition in all types of sports.  Just as Michael Jordan perceived a boost to his basketball luck when he wore his college shorts under his professional uniform, a Zimbabwean player explains that before games his team “put some powder in our mouths and had to spit it out as soon as we walked onto the pitch. In the game we would just fly. I will never know if these really worked but I remember some guys really got pumped up.”

Rationalizing the Irrational

Though I’m arguing that juju in African soccer may not be as exotic as it first appears, in the world of sports and superstition it does have some distinct qualities.  For one thing, in African soccer juju is often explicitly used against an opponent rather than just for one’s own benefit.  As such, it can get contentious.  In one scholarly paper arguing that understanding witchcraft in African soccer can help explain broader cultural notions of causality, for example, Wisconsin professor Michael Schatzberg describes violence provoked by manipulative threats of witchcraft in 2003 Uganda v Rwanda qualifiers.  Unlike Jermaine Defoe, whose superstition did no more harm than a bad haircut, one of the Ugandan players ended up with blood gushing from a head wound.

More tragically, a riot during a 2008 match in eastern Congo that killed 13 was reportedly provoked by accusations of witchcraft.  Of course, the real tragedy there is the lack of safety precautions that allow a sports event to become a riot, along with the fact that 13 deaths in Congo does not make much of a blip in the world news unless associated with unsubstantiated claims of the exotic.  In such cases claims of witchcraft implicitly and subtly encourage an ignorant belief that Africa is too “primitive” to take seriously.

But in my mind the best reason to take stories of juju and African soccer seriously is as an example of how all societies approach the game with rationality bounded by culture.  In the US, for example, I often think the assumption that we’ll conquer world soccer when we get a fully professionalized youth system in place is as much about our cultural reverence for “training” children for success from younger and younger ages as it is about the nature of the game.  We “believe” in professionalization.  Yet, a good argument could be made that American youths would become much better players if they just learned to enjoy the game and play for fun.  Unfortunately, such perspectives have only a marginal place in our own bounded rationality.

And if the 2010 Cup of Nations is any indicator, what counts as rational may also be changing in the world of African football.  It seems quite plausible that amidst globalization African players and teams are more likely to position themselves within a “modern” game that accepts belief systems such as those of evangelical Christianity or Islam much more readily than those of “traditional” African societies.  But despite the seeming success of CAF in eliminating stories about witchcraft and black magic, I suspect there are still players and teams at the Cup of Nations using juju more quietly.  Just as there are players and teams praying to their God for victory.  Just as there are players and teams investing in the latest sports science.  Just as there are players, teams, fans, and commentators trying to make sense of it all.

(Note: For anyone interested in other perspectives on this topic, the BBC radio show Heart and Soul recently put out an interesting program on “Faith and Football” that includes discussions of faith, religion, and juju in both British and African football; I’d also recommend the chapter in Ian Hawkey’s book ‘Feet of the Chameleon’ titled ‘Whispering at Pigeons.’)

Photo credits: michael_hughes and malaise creole on Flickr.

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