Putting a Cap on Bad Juju Conjures Up a Good Business

Will Connors, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 19, 2010

This megacity’s motorcycle taxis are so dangerous that local hospitals have special orthopedic wards meant just for people who have suffered accidents while riding them. So you’d think a law requiring passengers to wear helmets would be well received.

But it turns out that, for many Nigerians, the only thing scarier than a motorcycle taxi is a motorcycle helmet. Many people refuse to wear them out of fear of juju, or supernatural powers. Some fret that previous passengers may have put nefarious juju spells on the helmets to steal someone’s good fortune, or to make a person disappear in order to be used in a sacred ritual, say motorcycle taxi drivers and passengers.

“Our people are quite superstitious about anything dealing with their head,” says Ralph Ibuzo, a 43-year-old architect whose closely cropped hair is beginning to gray. “People believe that if you put on a helmet, [others] can take away your brain, or your good luck.”

So Mr. Ibuzo created the “Original Lapa Guard,” a cloth cap that he claims can protect wearers from disease and sudden disappearance. The cloth provides a thin layer of separation between the head and a helmet full of potential trouble.

The biggest city in sub-Saharan Africa is a cosmopolitan place, home to millions of Christians and Muslims, renowned musicians and artists, and professionals commuting to work in designer clothes. But the fear of juju isn’t new here, and product roll outs have been tricky. Indomie, now the market leader in instant noodles, was at first rumored to contain worms from Asia. When condom distribution drives picked up in the 1990s, talk was that men using them would vanish. And when mobile phones became popular, some said certain numbers meant a person was going to die.

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Juju is widely feared in Nigeria and throughout West Africa, but that isn’t commonly acknowledged among city sophisticates.

“Some people blame juju [for bad things], others don’t. But juju is real,” insists Israel Alofohkai, an okada union secretary in the Onigbongbo area of Lagos, who has started selling Mr. Ibuzo’s caps. “It’s very rampant.”

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On a recent sweltering day, sales rep Mercy Obi picked up a box of caps and walked into the Ketu neighborhood of Lagos to make some sales. She says she tends to avoid extolling the caps’ use against juju because she doesn’t want to be responsible if something does happen.

“We don’t tell them about rituals and juju because they might believe us and it might still not work,” Ms. Obi said.

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Though Mr. Ibuzo says concerns surrounding juju-laced helmets will fade over time as they have with other products in Nigeria, some of his sales people are striking while the issue is hot. At a party last week, Adewumi Momoh, a marketer working for Mr. Ibuzo, hired the emcee of the event to talk up the Original Lapa Guard. “He would say, ‘Somebody disappeared yesterday. You want to disappear? You want craw craw [infection]?’ People said, ‘Nooo!’ so he says, ‘Come, buy this thing.’ And they rushed to buy it.”

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