Playing football with dwarfs and saints

Tue, 26 Mar 2013 Source: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

It has not been difficult to concentrate the mind on spiritual matters this week – what with a new Roman Catholic Pope dominating the international news and “Jerusalem pastors” leading news bulletins at home. The selection of the Pope is literally an Act of God since it is the Holy Spirit that is acknowledged to be the main chooser of the Pontiff. It is good to notice that Heaven moves with the times because for the first time in its long history, and after much campaigning in the media by Third World worshippers the Holy Spirit moved Catholic cardinals in the Conclave to select a Pope from the Southern Hemisphere. (The Anglicans also enthroned their leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, this week).

One of the ironies of the Pope’s installation last week was the presence of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe who at 89 was the oldest President to attend the investiture of the man who had inherited the papal mantle from Pope Benedict who resigned at 85 citing old age. Mr. Mugabe is set to stand for the Presidency of his country again. The Pope has set the tone for an ascetic papacy and the austerity is meant to signal his empathy with the poor which is the reason he has given for choosing the name Francis. His simple lifestyle will save money for the poor in our midst.

In Ghana too, saving money for the poor has been in the news, being cited as the reason why some people are against some 200 pastors and assorted church leaders going on a trip to Jerusalem. I cannot claim to begin to understand the Jerusalem trip issue from its beginning to last, try as I do, To start with, I cannot fathom how the government got involved if the excursion is not being organised and funded by government money. The President told a group of church leaders who visited him that the trip was being paid for by some private do-gooders, which is fine, but who are they?

Secondly, if as the President said, the state’s intervention is that of a facilitator, who initiated the facilitation? If a group of Ghanaians need facilitation to travel there are appropriate channels for them to use but if the facilitation was initiated from the government side then, perhaps the time has come for government officials to realise that even the most benevolent facilitation can raise questions if it is done using government resources, including time.

With matters of Jerusalem and other spiritual points dancing before my eyes the issue of juju and other mystical devices in sports appeared to be the icing on a week of otherworldly preoccupations. You may have heard of the football match between two GLO Premiership teams which started in a rather under-strength way this week. Instead of the maximum number of eleven players for each team on the field these two teams were a man short on either side. This was not illegal; Rule Three of Association Football Rules states that each team consists of a maximum of eleven players (excluding substitutes), one of whom must be the goalkeeper. Competition rules may state a minimum number of players required to constitute a team, which is usually seven.

This particular game started with ten players because it turns out that the two teams had been told by their juju consultants (perhaps the same person?) that the first team to bring on all eleven men would lose the match. According to media reports, both teams started with ten men but at some point in the game the teams managed to bring on their extra men. One of the team slipped in an extra player to gain extra-juju advantage and the other countered by bringing on its own hidden player. It will not be the last time commonsense will be stood on its head.

However, it is something of a surprise to realise that apparently football teams still believe that supernatural help can be invoked to help a team to win its match. Somehow I thought footballers, their coaches and financiers had more faith in buying referees and fixing matches but obviously the old superstitious ideas are still holding strong.

The report reminded me of my own brief cameo roles in football juju, even if only by indirect association. One of the most memorable was during my brief spell as a pupil teacher in a small town in the Gomoa area of the Central Region. The highpoint of the school year was the annual football match against a school in a neighbouring village and for the week before the match we talked of nothing else. It was during those hectic days that I learnt that about the juju squad in the village whose job was to work the cemetery every night. Their job was to gather the players at the local cemetery around midnight and invoke the “saints”. One of my friends confided in me that he was part of that effort and that to qualify for this special task force a person had to abstain from all kinds of foods, meat, wearing red colours clothing and of course sex, which somehow gets in the way of spiritual things. They always had to have a virgin boy on hand to actually “call” the “saint”. Although I turned down the offer to take part, he gave me a vivid picture of what they got up at the cemetery. The leader would ask each of them to repeat an oath which confirmed that they had not had sex, eaten pork or talked to any woman who was in her period. Having ascertained that no one had broken any of the taboos the group leader would proceed with the rituals known as “calling the saints”. This consisted of looking into a glass half filled with “holy water” and reciting psalms until the “saint”, usually Anthony, appeared in the glass. Now, here is the catch – only the young virgin would actually see the “saint” and put the wishes of the team to the saint, who would either grant them or call for more spiritual material such as candles or “Florida Water” to be brought the following night. If the “calling” was successful the team would go into the match assured of a win. A loss would mean that someone broke the taboos.

Perhaps many Ghanaian males would recognise the above from their own encounters or tales of football juju, usually featuring saints and dwarfd but the remarkable thing about the above episode is that, according to my friend, as they were concluding their “calling” two ghosts – they knew these were ghosts because they were shrouded in white – suddenly appeared from the other side of the cemetery. Pandemonium broke out as it turned to each one for himself! Cemeteries in Ghana, then and now, are not pleasant places with well-manicured lawns; they are dark places overgrown with thorny weeds so running away from ghosts at midnight led to many injuries to some of the key players who had taken part in the nocturnal rituals. Of course, the ghosts had been sent by the opposing team to disrupt proceedings and our team lost the match.

I am rather thrilled to note that in the year 2013, with 200 allegedly sponsored pastors on hand to go to Jerusalem every time, and more prophets in Kumasi than in the Old Testament, people still believe that football matches can be won or lost through “ways and means”. As the old French proverb says: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose - the more things change, the more they stay the same. SHELF LIFE:

Naturally SHELF LIFE for the second week has to highlight the book Juju, Magic and Witchcraft in African Soccer: Myth or Reality by Rev. Francis J. Botchway, which is available in several bookshops and from the author (0275480441)



Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi