For African soccer, days of juju men have mostly passed

Soccer players still come to see Kenneth Nephawe. Only not as many and not as often.

“About two, three teams,” he says.

Not long ago, it might have been several times that number, a friend says sadly, but times and preferences change.

Nephawe is a sangoma, a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counseling. Some would call him a juju man or traditional healer, the term he prefers.

Once, juju men were as integral a part of African soccer as the ball and the goal. But now the bright lights of the World Cup have pushed many believers to the margins, or even underground.

Ghana, which plays the United States on Saturday, the opening day of the second round, is one place where such methods are still getting attention at the highest levels.

For example, some in the West African nation — the only African team still alive in the tournament — say the injury that has kept star midfielder Michael Essien out of action is the result of a spell cast by his father, as revenge for being neglected.

And just last month, the Rev. Osei Kofi, a former national team star, said a Ghanaian club team had spent more than $60,000 on what he called “superstitions” last season.

Such controversy is one reason why experts say the Confederation of African Football recently banned traditional healers from associating with teams.

The move was made during the run-up to the first World Cup to be played on African soil, and it was deemed an official attempt to be taken more seriously in parts of the world where sangomas are looked upon as witch doctors and their practices dismissed as black magic.

To Nephawe and many other Africans, such views are ignorant at best, arrogant at worst. In South Africa and other nations on the continent, traditional healers play a vital role in society and have been enlisted in the fight against AIDS and other diseases.

A large barrel-chested man wearing a plaid shirt, gray slacks and Nikes, Nephawe, a 63-year-old former electrician, hardly looks the part of a witch doctor. And as a parishioner at a Dutch Reformed Church, the second most popular church among South Africa’s 31 million Christians, he puts little stock in black magic.

Nephawe says his “special powers” can help anybody — including soccer players, a few of whom still beat a path to his tidy brick house on a busy street in this dusty township of about 1 million.

He won’t name the teams or players that use his services. “That’s confidential,” he says with a gap-toothed smile. But when they come, Nephawe takes them to the tiny corrugated-tin shed out back — his ndumba, or sacred hut.

Taped to its musty walls are a Garfield comic strip and dozens of magazine and newspaper clippings, many featuring pictures of the late rapper Tupac Shakur. In the corner are three dozen old Nescafe and mayonnaise jars filled with herbal remedies.

The most important item in the room, though, is the bag containing eight small pieces of elephant tusks, known as bones. The practice of traditional healers is based on the belief that sangomas can access advice and guidance from dead ancestors by asking patients to blow on the bones before tossing them on a straw mat. Nephawe then “reads” the bones, which tell him what course of action to prescribe.

“Most of the strikers, they go to sangomas so they can score goals,” says Gift Ndou, who credits Nephawe with helping his brother walk again after he was crippled in an auto accident. “We, the blacks, we still believe in it.

“It gives you belief that you have power, that you have some control. That bad things won’t happen.”

That’s the key. “You must believe,” Nephawe says.

The South African Tourist Bureau reports that eight in 10 South Africans visit a traditional healer at least three times a year. Just last month at Soccer City stadium, the main World Cup venue, 300 sangomas sacrificed an ox in a traditional good-luck ceremony.

Though juju men are no longer allowed on the payroll, five of the six African nations which took part in this year’s World Cup — Algeria being a likely exception — have believers on their player rosters or coaching staffs. And while their ritual activities have been recently forced underground, the teams from Ghana and South Africa are thought to have practitioners.

Only a decade ago, African teams kept healers on the payroll as “special advisors” who would cast spells on soccer balls, smear goalposts with potions or infect opponents’ changing rooms with magic powders.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.

Zaire famously brought a team of traditional medicine men to the 1974 World Cup, yet lost all three of its matches by a combined score of 14-0.

Mark Gleeson, one of Africa’s leading soccer experts, recalls a time when the South African team was kicked out of hotels because of the stench its juju men caused while mixing their herbal remedies.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s they were slaughtering goats in hotel room baths,” he says. “But no one really took it terribly serious. It was part of the ritual of the game.”

Those traditions could be compared to eating a certain pre-game meal or putting your shoes on a certain way in Western culture, Gleeson says.

Andrew Guest, a University of Portland professor who played on a top amateur team in Malawi in the late 1990s, when juju men were common, agrees that the work of sangomas isn’t viewed much differently in African culture than religious observances are in the West.

He says that when Argentina coach Diego Maradona takes his team to a Catholic mass before a big game, or when American Landon Donovan makes the sign of the cross before a penalty kick, or when Javier Hernandez of Mexico kneels with his arms outstretched in prayer next to the center circle before the start of a match, those players are practicing what they believe in — just as some Africans do with sangomas.

“It’s a form of empowerment,” Guest says. “It’s easy to just write this off as just sort of silly and exotic, but that’s not quite right. People take this seriously.... And it’s important to keep that in mind.”