LAGOS, Nigeria — Azoka Ebo picked up her new white Mercedes-Benz at the car dealership, drove it straight to her Christian church and said a prayer of thanks. Later, the car safely parked at her apartment building, she invited an elderly neighbor to help her pray for protection.
"We call on you, the god of iron, to protect this woman from accidents," the old man said as he sprinkled vodka on the hood, then the engine and finally the leather upholstery of the $20,000 automobile.
"If there is an accident in front, let this car be behind. If the accident is behind, this car will have passed on," he continued, breaking a kola nut over the engine block. "When this car is old, may it bring her a bigger brother or sister." (Translation: May she trade up.)
Part of Rural Fabric
Ebo, a government worker, wasn't sure that the ceremony, known here as a "car washing," was necessary. "But it's been handed down to us by our forefathers," she said. "And if it worked for them, it might work for us."
Traditional animist practices and superstitions such as witchcraft, black magic, juju and native healing have long been part of Africa's rural fabric, but lately they have been revived in some very modern settings across the continent.
Witch doctors, sorcerers and herbalists are used to bless automobiles against crashes, ferret out thieves and murderers and treat everything from infertility to AIDS. Occasionally, they are even successful.
The resurgence, in the view of some Africans, has been triggered by a feeling that important elements of the cultural heritage have gone missing in the continent's headlong plunge into the 20th Century.
Economic, Health Concerns
Others say that worries about foundering economies and deadly diseases, neither of which seem to respond to Western medicine, have people shopping around in their pasts for help.
Johannes Openda called a medicine man to Kakaeta Village in western Kenya a few weeks ago to find out who was to blame for the mysterious deaths of several of his children. The man, Oganda Nyangire, summoned everyone from the village and prepared a potion.
"If anybody knows that he caused the deaths of Openda's children, that person should come out in the open and confess," Nyangire said, according to later police reports. "If he takes this drink, nothing but death will result."
When no one confessed, Nyangire took a sip of his own concoction and then began administering it to the villagers. Within an hour, four villagers were dead and a fifth was in the hospital. As Nyangire was led off to jail, he insisted that his potion had successfully unmasked the culprits.
In northern Uganda, rebel fighters led by a local cult figure, Alice Lakwena, have been using an ointment they believe magically protects them from bullets. Last week, 185 of Lakwena's followers, their bodies smeared with the ointment, were reported killed in one battle. More than 800 of Lakwena's rebels have been killed in the past two months, the government says.
The use of traditional magical powers became a hot topic in Nigeria after Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian president, suggested last year that Africans should use juju to fight apartheid. Obasanjo, co-chairman of an international group studying conditions in South Africa, did not specify how that might be done.
The word juju, from the Hausa language of northern Nigeria, is used throughout West Africa to mean black magic, omens, curses, voodoo--and attempts to protect oneself from that sinister unseen world.
People Believe It Works
Nigerian newspapers recently have been filled with reports of juju among thoroughly modern Africans. Witchcraft is "enjoying a revival in the most unexpected quarters" of Nigeria, reports the New African, a monthly newsmagazine.
A state governor refused to move into his official home because magical objects had been left there, for example, and another governor sought the help of an elderly jujuman to rid his state of crop-eating insects.
In some cases, juju works because the people believe it works. Stolen goods often are returned soon after the thief hears that a jujuman is on the case. A jujuman helped Bendel State University find a missing typewriter--and the member of the typing pool who took it. A United Nations agency in Lagos used two native doctors to locate some car tires stolen by its employees.
Using protective charms is especially important to Africans because they believe that the world is ruled by forces that make life unsafe for all, especially the unwary, according to Osadolor Imasogie, a Nigerian professor and author of "African Traditional Religion."
Accidents Don't Just Happen
"It is easy to say, for example, that an African driver must be stupid to think that a charm on the roof of his car will avert accidents," Imasogie writes. "But for the driver, there is no natural event without a spiritual cause. What appears to be an accident is, for him, the result of a spell cast by an evil man.