BF Skinner, the father of behavior pyschology studied the association between ritualistic behavior and a desired outcome that leads to superstitions. This has also been used to explain the existence of religion. Skinner's work in 1947 was performed on pigeons that were starved of food and then held in cages where food would be presented at specific regulated intervals and then taken away, irrespective of whether the pigeon got to the food or not. But they developed a certain type of ritualistic behavior in between the presentations that included moving their head side to side, cooing, turning around in circles, etc.
Skinner stated that these rituals developed because the association of a particular response at the time of the stimuli of food, which led to the pigeons believing that the pursuit of these behaviors in the future would lead to the successful outcome of the presentation of food.
So what? These are bird brains you might say. But Skinner also laid the foundation of human behavior through these experiments.
In the Western world we have so many types of superstitions that it becomes almost impossible to document their numbers. Breaking a mirror, a black cat crossing your path, sneezing before setting of for a journey, wearing your left shoe first, there are thousands upon thousands of these funny little things that you should do or not do so that bad luck does not befall you. And that is why they are called funny little things because they seem far less extreme then the type of fetishism that is practised by juju men to bring good luck or ward off evil to people in Africa. But if the difference is in the degree, the thought behind it is the same.
Juju men have been around for centuries in Africa. They have the power to change the outcome of anything that they choose to do so. And in soccer, they have held their own. Many teams have turned to juju men for their success, even though many soccer associations have formally banned them. South Africa banned them from travelling with their team in the 2002 World Cup but in other countries the situation is far more fluid, notably in the example of the Ivory Coast. They won the Cup of Nations in 1992 and many Ivoirians credited the sports minister for recruiting juju men for their blessings on the team. But he reneged on his promise to pay them and in anger, the juju men hexed the Ivory Coast team. What followed was a decade of misery for the Ivoirians as their team failed time and time again. In desperation, the sports minister paid a visit to these juju men and gave them bottles of liquor and money worth $2000 to remove the hex. It seems that this has paid off as the Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup for the first time.
What makes the so called rational world (read Western world) to question juju men is that their practise are visceral and involves self mutilation, the sacrifice of animals to bathe the players in their blood, the spattering of blood of pigeons around the dressing rooms of players to ward of evil spirits, the remains of dead animals to be buried in the opponents half of the field. (This is the reason why FIFA made teams switch sides of the field after halftime).
But as the many successes of recent African countries in soccer in the world stage and the increasing export of a group of talented players to the big leagues have created a higher profile and shone the limelight on African soccer, the practises of the juju men have come under closer scrutiny and exerted pressure on the African associations to clamp down on them. The reason ostensibly is that soccer depends on hard work, skill and soccer savvy. But the fear that drives them is to present the Eurocentric soccer world with another reason to label Africa as a group of third world countries.
“Image is everything,” stated the Cairo-based Confederation of African Football before the African Nations Cup in January in Mali. The group said it instituted the ban to avoid presenting “a Third World image” during the continent’s
premier sporting event.
I wonder if we could consider the US or England, third world countries based on the irrational belief that breaking a mirror constitutes seven years of bad luck. On a practical level, this is what keeps a mirror manufacturers in business or janitors who have to clean up shards of broken glass for a living. Or horror films for that matter. But these superstitions serve another purpose, the control over the world, however ephemeral and questionable that might be.
As for Juju men, they can co-exist happily with the new Africa, providing yet another example of how wonderfully diverse the world is and that of soccer, and another rejection of an attempt to make this world an antiseptic place to live and providing another story. Because in the end, the world is nothing if not for stories.
Read on juju men and their influence