By Segun Odegbami
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, have been discussing those experiences and he can’t hold back his fascination and the possibility of a movie coming out of it! 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 crude cultural practices. But 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 metaphysical aid 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 medals and trophies, there is the power and ecstasy of fame and fortune to contend with. 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 than in sport! Juju, by the bigger definition, is everywhere, and in every sport, in different forms, subtle and 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 spiritual rituals before and during his matches. Watch Zamalek or Al Ahly Football Clubs of Egypt before they file out for their matches, what they and their supporters do – their faces turned towards Mecca in special supplication. Go to the beaches of Copa Cabana in Rio De Janeiro, early in the mornings of any day, and see how the most Catholic of people (and players) worship and litter the beachside with idols in search of divine interventions and favours.
I have been to the top of Mount Olympus in Greece. I observed what people did that you would also find on virtually every high ground or mountain in Nigeria, and observe the practices going there of people of all faiths, even the most popular, practice rituals that will be considered fetish as they try to touch the face of deity in the skies. By that simplistic definition, it is easy to conclude that most people believe in spiritual powers for interventions and oftentimes, unmerited favours.
Why should sports be 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 publicly because of the impact of modern Christianity than for any other reason I know. Pentecostalism 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 firsthand that would make Tunde Kelani wish he had a camera to cover and make into a movie.
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 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 culture. Then I went into ‘serious’ football for the first time and had my baptism into the experience of spiritual intervention 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 very young team of some teenagers like us 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 even exist in their imagination. They registered to make up the numbers in the annual competition that had the great national teams, 1970 FA Cup Champions WNDC, Water Corporation with its best collection of higher School students in one team in 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, all giant clubs in the West in those days. In that field, NTC did not exist.
Anyway, let me cut a long story short. By the end of that season and at the finals of the Western State FA Cup, there were Water Corporation and NTC FC. All the giants had fallen and by the divine twist of fate one young, unknown, slow striker from Jos, had led some equally unknown young players, marshalled by old warhorses ‘Alfa Joe’ in attack and Elija in midfield, in performing the impossible mission. I was the ‘damager general’. So, shocking was our success that even the owners of the club, NTC, were overwhelmed. The very next season after that huge success, they scrapped the team. It was too much to achieve. We won the FA Cup finals rather easily and qualified to represent Western Nigeria in Benin at the zonal rounds against Mighty Jets of Jos, home of the most reputable club side in Nigeria at the time, 11 times ‘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 was seen by the officials not just of the club, but also of the Sports Council, as a club that could not defeat Mighty Jets on its own. People we had never seen before, became advisers offering all manner of services including 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 with all manner of concoctions to be used, splashed on the body, blown in the wind, rubbed on shoes, worn inside socks, followed prayer sessions after prayer session – traditional, Muslim, Christian, white garment, pastors, imams. It was a real invasion. I was in shock, completely mesmerized by it all. The problem was that it was eating into our preparation time on the field, in the evenings before bed, our psychology and so on. Indeed, on the eve of our trip to 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 was to mark the end of my ‘journey in that year’s FA Cup, the defeat of NTC and the end of the club’s existence. But not before we arrived in Benin City in readiness for the match. I could not train in Benin, of course, with my strapped ankle. Different things were applied to get it right again including local herbs and ointments, massage, injections to the spot, etc. In the camp, the invasion continued with spiritual persons from everywhere with their concoctions of things to drink, to rub, to blow, to incant to, to wear, and so on and so forth. I was in a trance, my little, innocent faith from Jos being tested and shaken to the brim.
On match day, the team had been assured that my ankle would be healed and I would be able to play. 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 brown powdery stuff to be blown into the Benin City air as we exited our dressing room to enter Ogbe Stadium pitch. The gust of the wind outside the door blew the powdery substance back onto our faces. Our last warm-up in the dressing room saw another round of prayers, distribution of some water to be splashed on all, some incantation and so on. I called the coach aside and announced to him that the pain in my ankles were impossible to bear. I could barely walk. He called the team manager aside and told him. The man burst into tears. The TM later revealed that NTC lost that match because their own juju was hinged on my playing that match. I was the talisman ‘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 near the tennis courts, to gain access to the terrace to watch. There was a small crowd gathered around a bare-chested man and with all paraphernalia of a traditional herbalist, charms, amulets and beads from his waist down to his ankles. a giant pot was in front of him bellowing fire. The rising smoke from the fire drifted into the air and spectators just walked past as if nothing was happening. I was curious and moved closer. The man burning some incense and throwing some pieces of paper in a small basket by his side. He was picking out those pieces of paper, incanting something and throwing the pieces of paper in the blazing fire. Initially, I could not make out what he was saying. I was curious and moved even closer. His eyes were in a daze, totally oblivious of the few persons around him. Then I heard a few of what he was muttering in a chant. They were names. Every time he looked at the paper, he would call out a name, throw the pare into the fire and it would go up in ablaze. It was when I heard my name pronounced that I realized what was going on. It was the names of NTC players. I stared in shocked and 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 checked myself. I was alive. Nothing was happening to me. I went through watching the rest of that match in a trance, deep in my private thoughts about the totality of my experiences. That moment was to have a profound influence on the rest of my football career and, probably, my life.