Some years back, I used to coach a basketball club for young women. One Friday evening after our pep talk in preparation for a competitive match against a known club, the young ladies prayed as they always did. As we were dispersing, I overheard one player telling her friend ‘do not forget to carry salt.’ As we were walking to the car park, I asked the young lady who was talking about salt, whether they had plans for a braai after the match. She whispered to me that they were not planning to have a party, the club they were going to play the following day was known for using some form of juju (magic) that they handover to their opponents through handshakes before the match. The salt was for neutralising the juju by applying in the hands before the match. As I was driving home that evening, thoughts were running through my head on my team’s contradictory beliefs – Christianity (prayer) and juju (magic) in sport.

Most coaches and athletes in Zambia today will argue that scientific coaching methods are key to a team or athletes’ good performance in sport. If this is so, where do we place Christianity and juju in sports? Zambians have been linking Christianity to sport for a very long time. However, following President Frederick Chiluba’s unilateral declaration of Zambia as a Christian Nation in 1991, it was like evangelical Christianity suddenly spilt over into football grounds. Prayers before and after matches became a common spectacle suggesting the possibility of mobilizing God to take sides during a football match. The Zambian national football team even sensationalised it during the 2012 African Cup of Nations in Gabon during penalty shootouts in the final against Ivory Coast when they were visibly praying ‘in tongues’ and singing a gospel song ‘Kalombo Mwane’ meaning thank you, King.

This idea of asking for God’s favour during football matches has continued gaining roots in the Zambian game. This is seen in the ‘Favour sign’ popularised by Nkana FC that was also appropriated by the national teams. As politicians are good at jumping on the popularity waves of football, some leading politicians have been seen flashing the ‘favour sign’ during political gatherings and public events in an effort to identify themselves with the beautiful game and the masses. Lately, a slogan ‘Bola na lesa’ (football with God) emerged leading to local musicians releasing a song titled ‘Bola na lesa.’

Christianity in Zambians sports can sometimes deceive you that European missionaries succeeded in convincing the locals that their traditional practices were ‘backward and barbaric.’ As shown in the discussion with my basketball player in the introduction, Zambian sports is also deep in local traditional practices and religious beliefs. Depending on the context, athletes (and sometimes coaches) switch between deploying scientific methods, Christianity, and African traditional religious practices. As European missionaries and colonialists convinced us that our culture was inferior, we tend to project ourselves publicly as Christians (maybe we are actually), but when we are under pressure we switch to our default African traditional practices and beliefs. This resonates with some scholars that have argued that it is possible to have different, complex and even contradictory notions of causality (the relationship between cause and effect). Mostly, people involved do not even think about their conceptual switching and blending depending on their needs at that particular moment. This is the reason why we seem to fail to disregard the existence of magic, witchcraft and other supernatural forces despite most of us proclaiming to be Christians.

The main question is on the efficacy of both Christianity and African traditional beliefs in sport. Can God be mobilised to take sides in sports competitions? Or can the active manipulation of supernatural powers influence results in a sports competition? While these are tough questions to answer, we need to appreciate that what happens in sport is usually a reflection of that particular society’s worldview (philosophy of life or conception of the world). It is from this standpoint that I allowed my players to pray before matches or carry salt if they felt that it was useful in neutralising their opponents’ juju. These practice whether real or imagined have potential to give athletes something to believe in and play a role in their psychological motivation.

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