Juju better believe it

Andrew Walker, copy and training editor on the Daily Trust, a newspaper based in Abuja, on superstition and scepticism in a Nigerian newsroom.

I looked around the editorial meeting for a sign of dissent but found none. Everyone was nodding their agreement. Some were cracking smiles as they saw my perplexed look.

‘It happens. It has happened,’said the deputy news editor. ‘But how do you know? Can’t we start from the position that it didn’t happen until we have evidence otherwise?’I sputtered. No one responded. It was as if I’d blundered into a family secret.

We’d reported that a commotion had broken out in one of the satellite towns around Abuja. The cause? A couple had been brought to the police station coupled together in sexual union and couldn’t be separated. They were being held in a cell until the woman’s husband could be found. The police wanted him ‘to explain certain matters”.

Although many people claimed to have seen the unfortunate couple – found when they started screaming – the police were not letting anyone see them. As I understood it, the station was besieged by that nursery of rumour, the spawning host of fibs and exaggerations: a large crowd.

Mugu, the dark art of juju-enforced chastity, is a serious business, it seemed. A man can apparently cast a mugu spell on his wife by tricking her into stepping over a broom handle, or by hiding a charm in her clothes. Once the spouse indulges in extramarital sex, they’re stuck.

I had to admit it was a great story. Anything that gets a flock of people to camp outside a police station like that for hours on end must be. It would definitely shift papers, and I had to admit I was intrigued. But were we making ourselves look foolish by swallowing all this juju stuff hook, line and sinker?

If I insist on people verifying information from anonymous single political sources, shouldn’t I be insisting on the same for this story?

‘Mysterious’is the code word in the Nigerian press for anything jujurelated. There was the ‘mysterious’swarm of bees that attacked a governor on the campaign trail and, most dubiously, the ‘mysterious’spate of ‘genital thefts’which cause riots up and down the land.

Eventually the editor stepped in. ‘The reporter should ask some more questions… and try to get some pictures. Why haven’t they been taken to hospital?”

Apparently the husband was waiting for his in-laws to come and see for themselves what their daughter had been doing. Later it transpired that he was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a policeman himself.

I think everyone was smiling because they knew they shouldn’t believe in it, but I felt my scepticism had opened up a gulf between me and my colleagues. As a Catholic missionary later told me: ‘Discount the power of juju at your peril!”

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