The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rwanda bars witchcraft from soccer after player interrupts game to dig up bad juju

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When Moussa Camara scored a late first-half equalizer against Mukura earlier this month in a Rwandan Premier League match, fans of the Rayon Sports forward didn’t know for what to cheer: the player’s skill or his apparent belief in witchcraft.

Just three minutes before the Mali-born player booted in what would be the final goal of the 1-1 draw, he was spotted fiddling with something near the opponent’s goal post. According to Hamza Nkuutu, a columnist for Rwandan newspaper the New Times, Camara removed an item that the Mukura goalkeeper had allegedly planted as part of a witchcraft ritual to protect the goal.

Witchcraft has been banned from Rwandan football after a bizarre incident. Moussa Camara cast a spell on the goalmouth, scoring 3 mins later
— Ball Street (@BallStreet) 29 December 2016

“This happened twice, which meant the referee had to stop the match twice, to deal with the running battles and one or two fans [who] were arrested by the police,” Nkuutu wrote in his Dec. 18 column, “There is no place for juju in modern football.”

As it turns out, the above scenario isn’t unique. The practice of juju, or witchcraft, by players, teams and fans has long been a factor in African soccer.

“Traditional medicine and religion play an important role in most African societies,” Oliver Becker, a German documentary filmmaker who has researched African cult beliefs and witchcraft in soccer, once told National Geographic. “Soccer is by far the number one sport in Africa, so it’s logical that traditional beliefs would also play an important role in soccer.”

More and more, however, African soccer regulatory agencies have had enough. According to Der Spiegel, the Confederation of African Football banned witchcraft on the pitch following the Rwandan national team’s 1-0 victory over Uganda in a 2003 CAF Confederation Cup qualifier that nearly ended in a riot when fans and players got into it over alleged juju on the pitch.

“A couple of early saves by Rwanda keeper Mohammed Mossi incited the 60,000 crowd to claim that the Rwandan goalkeeper was using supernatural powers,” Professor Grant Jarvie of the University of Edinburgh wrote in his book “Sport, Culture and Society.” “Abubaker Tabula of Uganda started digging behind the Rwandan goal to find the offending juju — a witchcraft doll placed by the Rwandans behind their goal. Mayhem followed . . .”

Despite various bans at the international level, the practice of witchcraft remains prevalent in regional play in Africa, including in Rwanda where the antics of the Mukura-Rayon match went viral this week.

Scenes like that, however, may be coming to an end in the country thanks to new measures adopted by the Rwanda Football Federation (FERWAFA) last week. Now, players found guilty of practicing witchcraft will face a three-match ban and a roughly $120 fine. Coaches who use juju will face a four-match ban and a $240 fine. And if a first-division team is found guilty of using witchcraft, it’ll lose three points in the league’s standings and pay more than $600 in fines, according to the New Times.

“Since there is no scientific way to prove the use of witchcraft, these measures will be based upon reports from match officials and anything that is deemed to incite witchcraft will be put under consideration,” FERWAFA Vice President Vedasite Kayiranga told the New Times after the group implemented the new rules last Thursday.

He noted previously FERWAFA didn’t adopt the new measures to make the game more fair, but in hopes of staving off physical fights that these perceived acts of cheating can spark.

“[T]here is nowhere in the world where [witchcraft] has been proven that it can influence the outcome of a game,” Kayiranga told the New Times last week. “However, with the violence between players because of allegations that one team is using it, we have decided to enact laws.”