Football Dreams, Pentecostalism and Migration in Southwest Cameroon

7 September, 2016 by Uroš Kovač

Uros Kovac - football, training, Buea, 2015. Footballers hard at training at the town stadium. The young athletes dream of places afar and are ready to migrate at all costs. Buea, Cameroon, February 2015. Photo courtesy Uroš Kovač.

Footballers hard at training at the town stadium. The young athletes dream of places afar and are ready to migrate at all costs. Buea, Cameroon, February 2015. Photo by Uroš Kovač.

At Buea Young Star FC (a pseudonym), a football academy in Buea, the capital of the Southwest region of Cameroon where I conducted fieldwork between September 2014 and September 2015, training sessions always started and ended with a prayer. Typically, we would all come together in the middle of the field and form a circle. One of the players would interrupt the casual chitchat saying, “Let us pray, in Jesus’ name”. The rest of us would respond with an “amen” in unison, bowing our heads towards the ground and closing our eyes. The player would then begin:

In the mighty name of Jesus. Eternal rock of ages, mighty and everlasting father, we thank you for a day like this. Father, we thank you for our lives, we thank you because you are God. Father, we worship you, we bow before you, oh Lord…

The elaborate prayer would continue for about two minutes until the speaker concluded, “In Jesus’ name, we pray”. We would all respond with an “amen”, the solemn moment would be over, and we would disband and continue with the chitchat and warm-up for the training session.

In some cases, the person saying the prayer would address more concrete issues related to football. Often the players would pray that they not sustain an injury on the field. At other times, they would emphasize that, now that they had chosen football as their “career”, they prayed to be able to pursue their “dream” in good health. Some players would respond to these poignant moments by frowning with concentration and exhaling a long “yes”, emphasizing the gravity of the spoken words.

This kind of prayer was a fairly typical way of starting and ending a training session in all the football clubs I trained with or visited during my fieldwork. On a global scale, the image of a football team assembling in the middle of the field and celebrating a victory with a prayer has also become common, mostly following the lead of members of the Brazilian national football team, who seize every opportunity to display their evangelical faith.

But a deeper investigation into what young Cameroonian footballers call the “spiritual life” raises new questions. Why is Pentecostal Christianity so attractive to the young athletes, and what can the relationship between sports and religion tell us about their aspirations and the difficulties they are facing?

Uros Kovac - football, prayer, Buea, 2014. Every training session starts and ends with a collective prayer. An increasing number of young footballers are joining Pentecostal denominations. Buea, Cameroon, September 2014. Photo by Uroš Kovač.

Every training session starts and ends with a collective prayer. An increasing number of young footballers are joining Pentecostal denominations. Buea, Cameroon, September 2014. Photo by Uroš Kovač.

Pentecostalism and witchcraft in football

While present in most parts of West Africa, charismatic Pentecostal Christianity has gained visibility in Cameroon only recently. As in many other parts of the world, Pentecostal churches distinguish themselves from other Christian denominations by emphasizing what they call “gifts of the Holy Spirit”, the gifts of prophecy and healing. There are many different Pentecostal denominations in Cameroon, but most emphasize believers’ individual experience of the Holy Spirit, a strong bodily engagement with the spiritual world through vigorous dancing and loud prayers, spectacular deliverances from evil spirits, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. In contrast to “older” Christian denominations that emphasized an ascetic lifestyle, the new version, often called the “prosperity gospel”, preaches the benefits of material wealth. This neo-Pentecostalism has gained traction in Cameroon especially since the beginning of the economic crisis that the country experienced in the early 1990s. Cameroonians find Pentecostal denominations attractive for another key reason. The charismatic prophets and preachers, often called “men of God”, address one of the key concerns that more established Christian denominations (e.g., Catholic, Baptist, and Presbyterian) have long neglected: they take accusations of witchcraft seriously and tackle the dangers of black magic head on.

No wonder then that Pentecostalism has found fertile ground among footballers in Cameroon. Cameroonians have long considered the sport saturated with witchcraft and black magic. The stories of witchcraft in football started from those in which the footballers use what they call “medicine” or “jars” (Pidgin English term used in Cameroon and Nigeria), which allowed them to achieve amazing feats on the football field: score glorious goals, run with exceptional speed, or guard the goal with staggering consistency. But the quest for better performance and higher visibility on the field could easily backfire. In one of the more amusing stories I was told, one goalkeeper of a first division team was unhappy when he was removed from a starting lineup in a friendly match. Jealous of his teammate who took over his opportunity to display his talents, he contacted a “medicine man”, a traditional healer, and paid him to sabotage his rival. However, he was not careful: the team coach overheard his phone conversation with the traditional healer. As the match was about to start, the coach made a surprising move: he put the unsuspecting goalkeeper back in the game. The deed had already been done, and it was too late to run away: the envious goalkeeper had a taste of his own medicine and embarrassed himself by conceding no fewer than five goals!

While many stories of “jars” have a humorous undertone, they should not by any means be taken lightly. More serious stories concerned grave career-ending injuries that players and their friends and families attributed to witchcraft attacks. In one of the most disturbing interviews I did, a former aspiring player narrated to me how his future as an athlete was interrupted at the age of 16. He was already recognized as a promising goalkeeper at the football academy he attended, until he broke his leg without any obvious cause: there was nobody around him, there was no physical contact, and the ball was not even in his vicinity. He was taken home and treated by medical doctors, but the recovery was excruciating and the wound was not healing. Suspecting a witchcraft attack, his family hired a traditional healer who shed some light on what had happened. On a particular day before the incident, the boy had washed his football boots and left them out to dry outside his family compound. Somebody, perhaps a jealous neighbor, used this opportunity to put “spiritual poison” on the boots. The boy wore the boots to his training session, and the tragedy ensued. It was only after this revelation that he recovered, although painfully and at length, and only after several months and with a combination of herbs prescribed by the medicine man was the boy able to walk again. He was eager to return to football, but his mother was having none of it: she would not allow her son to be involved in an activity so saturated with dangerous spiritual activities, and his dream of a professional career was over.

Young footballers engage with Pentecostal denominations seeking to protect and distance themselves from the dangers of witchcraft. In this way they initiate what many anthropologists of Christianity call a “rupture”, a break from and a strong opposition to what African Christians call “traditional practices”. The young Pentecostal players pray frequently and vigorously. They rub anointed olive oil and holy water on their legs and ankles before important matches. They spend many hours in their bedrooms in individual prayers, attempting to distance themselves from a vibrant nightlife and other distracting temptations in the town. They socialize with Pentecostal preachers and prophets who advise them on how to maintain a lifestyle devoid of sin and focused on self-discipline. The footballers contact the prophets to deliver them from evil spirits and provide them with protection from forces of witchcraft.

The question however remains, to what extent are the footballers making a “complete break with the past” and with “African” forms of spirituality. The discourse of rupture is certainly dominant among the believers, but a closer look at the practices of the young players reveals a more complex picture. When I accompanied my teammates on their visits to their spiritual advisors, the charismatic “Men of God”, many of them told me that they were seeking to “tap the power of the Holy Spirit” explicitly through the use of Pentecostal paraphernalia such as anointed oil and holy water. Consider this excerpt from an interview I conducted with Akwe (a pseudonym), one of my best friends and a teammate:

Most times when you use anointed oil or holy water, after you rub it, inside you feel light, you feel lively. Even in the field you can do some things you could never do. It is just like magic. Because when you do it, the Holy Spirit is in you, you can do all kinds of things. Also, you have a lot of luck. I can just kick the ball anyhow and it will enter the goal.

What is striking about this example is the emphasis on the use of anointed oil and holy water as potentially causing miracles, a contested practice among Pentecostal preachers. The use of objects is reminiscent of how the medicine men would provide the footballers with fragments of grass, thread, or potion to give them an advantage on the field. To be clear, this is not only an anthropologist’s interpretation: Akwe himself told me how in the late 1990s Pentecostal paraphernalia directly “replaced” the “jars” in football. Pentecostal paraphernalia is especially intriguing because charismatic Men of God constantly warned their spiritual sons and daughters not to fetishize Christian paraphernalia as objects that have power; they are only mediums of God’s power and only work if the user believes in God. According to some preachers, the objects could even become obsolete for the real believers who lead a prayerful life. Yet, time and again, the preachers distributed the anointed paraphernalia – olive oil, stickers, water, pieces of cloth – and cited examples of how good luck can be made or unmade with these objects.

Also striking in Akwe’s explanation is the way he emphasized the effectiveness of the spiritual practice. For him, it simply worked. Some players also stated that praying aloud allowed them to “fill themselves with the Holy Spirit” which then gave them miraculous bursts of energy and made them unstoppable in the field. The footballers’ focus on efficacy and material results of spiritual practices is reminiscent of the main complaint of many European missionaries who worked amongst the Yoruba in Nigeria in the early 20th century: that Yoruba Christian converts were most interested in gaining power from the new religion and were seeking confirmation of this power in the physical world. The neo-Pentecostal churches seem to be much more comfortable in demonstrations of God’s power in the physical and material world, and this experience of efficacy is one of the main reasons why the young footballers are drawn to them. So while the footballers distance themselves from what they would call “tradition” through Pentecostal Christianity, they also use Pentecostal tools as they would use “traditional” paraphernalia: to have a direct effect on them in the physical world, to gain power and perform miracles on the field.

Uros Kovac - football, boot, Buea, 2014. An inscription on a footballer’s boot reads “Holy Trinity”. Charismatic Christianity allows the young athletes the grapple with uncertainty. Buea, Cameroon, December 2014. Photo by Uroš Kovač.

An inscription on a footballer’s boot reads “Holy Trinity”. Charismatic Christianity allows the young athletes the grapple with uncertainty. Buea, Cameroon, December 2014. Photo by Uroš Kovač.

Making moral subjects

Akwe’s story did not end there. Like almost all Cameroonian footballers, Akwe did not think he had a future in his own country. Effectively all Cameroonian aspiring footballers are looking for ways to migrate and build transnational careers in the sport. The young athletes dream of places afar, they despise the conditions in which they train in their own country, and many are ready to migrate at all costs. The Buea Young Star FC academy was the prime example of this trend: the academy, guided by a young Cameroonian business-oriented man, focused exclusively on training the most talented players they could find and finding ways through complicated migration procedures to transfer them abroad. Their advertising video made this quite explicit and attractive for the young players:

You have to do all that you are able to do to realize your dream. With, probably, our support, we can realize, for some of you, the dream to go to Europe.

One of my key research participants, Saint Austin Aliche, a young man in his early twenties and a charismatic Man of God who was particularly in demand among footballers, told me a story that highlighted the young footballers’ strong aspiration to migrate. The story, again, focused on our mutual friend Akwe, who had sought his advice at a moment of uncertainty and struggle.

A few years before the start of my fieldwork, Akwe was displaying outstanding feats on the football field. Not surprisingly, Buea’s rumour mill was immediately activated, and accusations about him using “jars” in order to overpower and outsmart his opponents started to circulate. Supposedly, his father was well versed in the workings of “jars”, and he would prepare a special potion that Akwe would rub on his face, hands, and feet before an important match. Once in the field of play, he was unstoppable.

Eventually, the manager of Buea Young Star FC approached Akwe with a proposition to take him out of the country, ideally to Europe, for trials, where he would hopefully land a professional contract. Akwe accepted and the manager had a passport made for him, his first. However, obtaining a visa for Europe proved to be a daunting task, and he kept being rejected at the embassy.

The Man of God found out about the problem through what he called the “gift of prophesy”. While talking to Akwe’s brother, “God opened his spiritual eyes” and he had a vision that a member of the family was unsuccessfully applying for a visa at the embassy. He instructed Akwe to come to his house in person for consultations and to bring his passport. Some of Akwe’s friends who were dedicated Pentecostal Christians encouraged him to go, as they suspected that it was a witchcraft problem that was preventing him from traveling abroad.

After some hesitation, Akwe came to the house. The Man of God took a long look at his passport, and it was revealed to him that a woman was the cause of the setback: one of the young women whom he was dating at the time was possessed by an evil spirit from what he called the “marine kingdom”, the “sea”, the “kingdom of darkness”. This spirit, he told Akwe, was preventing his star from shining. After praying with him and delivering him from the evil spirits, he sent him on his way, telling him that he would soon travel out of the country. It went without saying that he had to stop seeing the woman, supposedly one of many that he was dating at that moment.

And so it happened: not long after this episode, Akwe broke up with the woman, was finally granted a visa, and traveled to Europe for trial matches. His first trip was not as successful as he hoped and he had to return to Cameroon, but the next time he applied for a visa he managed to get it with much less hassle than earlier. He finally even managed to land the promise of a professional contract.

This story encapsulates the way that young Cameroonian footballers attempt through Pentecostal Christianity to address key issues that trouble them in their pursuit of an athletic career: crossing the impermeable borders between Cameroon and the rest of the world, and meeting the demands of being moral men. Many young people in Cameroon are desperate to migrate, but for the aspiring athletes and their coaches and managers a football career is a specific kind of migration, one that involves the strict disciplining of gendered behavior. According to the stereotype of many in Cameroon, the footballers are known for living a sinful life: getting involved with many women, drinking and partying in nightclubs, and capitalizing on their status amongst their peers that only football can bring. But being involved in Pentecostal Christianity, with its emphasis on self-discipline, is a way for them to transform themselves into moral subjects and finally overcome forced immobility. This points to another key reason why the athletes are attracted to Pentecostal Christianity: while charismatic denominations do rely on the demonstration of miracles in the present and in the physical realm, they also look for long-term commitment and transformation of their subjects, in this case the aspiring male athletes who strive for mobility against all odds.

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