SI Vault
 
WHICH WITCH? A LOOK AT THE MAGIC MARKET FOR TEAMS THAT NEED MIRACLES
Martha Smilgis
October 06, 1975
The Baltimore Orioles had reason last weekend to file a malpractice suit against witch doctor John Agunga of Kenya, who was hired to put the whammy on the Boston Red Sox. But for awhile it seemed there was something to the mumbo jumbo. No sooner had the spell been cast than the Orioles began to win (7 of 10) and the Sox began to lose. First, it was to the Brewers. Next Boston lost Jim Rice, its fine rookie, when his left hand was broken by a pitch. Inexplicably, Luis Tiant's back began stiffening, Bill Lee had elbow twinges and Rick Wise had trouble throwing curves.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 06, 1975

Which Witch? A Look At The Magic Market For Teams That Need Miracles

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The Baltimore Orioles had reason last weekend to file a malpractice suit against witch doctor John Agunga of Kenya, who was hired to put the whammy on the Boston Red Sox. But for awhile it seemed there was something to the mumbo jumbo. No sooner had the spell been cast than the Orioles began to win (7 of 10) and the Sox began to lose. First, it was to the Brewers. Next Boston lost Jim Rice, its fine rookie, when his left hand was broken by a pitch. Inexplicably, Luis Tiant's back began stiffening, Bill Lee had elbow twinges and Rick Wise had trouble throwing curves.

Then the rains came, diluting the hex, and by Sunday Baltimore was washed up. What had gone wrong? Was the makeshift witch doctor hired by the Sox (for the $2.25 price of admission to the ball park) a more potent force than Agunga (who cost $168, two cases of beer and a batch of Oriole T shirts)? It seemed unlikely. The Bostonian had appeared draped in a Persian rug with an aluminum foil spear. His dervish dancing on the roof of the Oriole dugout was amateurish. In contrast, Agunga is Africa's leading witch doctor, a man as highly respected as the best barrister or surgeon in Nairobi. He is not, as most would suspect, a hyperkinetic figure in a hideous wooden mask swinging monkey skulls and brandishing a fly whisk. Instead, he is a dapper 42-year-old with a Clark Gable mustache whose one exotic touch is a dead wagtail pinned to his blue beret. (When the Orioles were eliminated last Saturday, they belatedly questioned the symbolic significance of this dead bird so conspicuously worn.) Agunga attires himself in an embroidered waistcoat instead of leopard skins, and in Levi's, not an ostrich-feather skirt.

Sorcery represents only 25% of Agunga's trade. He also specializes in curing barrenness in women, eye diseases and whooping cough; he brews love potions, professes to be able to alter the sex of unborn children and casts spells to change the ways of nagging wives or errant lovers.

Agunga's consulting room in the Nairobi suburb of Kaloleni (he makes house calls on request) is close by the sports stadium that has been the scene of many of his soccer triumphs. The room is packed with the mysterious paraphernalia of his craft—a gnarled stick made from twin root, gazelle horns filled with the black and brown powders of crushed and burned seeds, baboon bones, snakeskins, chicken and eagle feathers and an 1895 Kenya penny which he inherited from his grandfather (Agunga comes from a long line of witch doctors). One of his most powerful objects of magic was the mummified hand of a mountain gorilla, which he dispatched to the Orioles "to insure accuracy in catching the ball."

In Africa witchcraft fees are included in a soccer team's budget and may total as much as $6,000 annually. A team may employ as many as 10 sorcerers in the course of a season. A witch doctor with a fine reputation like Agunga or his chief rival, Shariff Abubakar Omar, who operates close by in Kibera, may command as much as $300 for touching a player's legs or making a gesture toward an opponent's goal. Some witch doctors are reputed to be able to make a ball disappear in play or turn into a snake. Badly beaten goalkeepers have complained of seeing cobras attacking them in the course of a match. The more powerful the charm, the more expensive the potion. A brew made from granulated hooves of wild animals, cat's fur and human fingernails is sometimes prescribed and team members will down this much as U.S. athletes drink Gatorade.

Soccer clubs prefer older, more experienced witch doctors who take pride in their work and are anxious to maintain a good reputation; younger men tend to be get-rich-quick charlatans who charge high fees for botched jobs. Payment is made on prescription, and is not refundable if a team loses.

Agunga had to resort to unusual methods to cast his spell on the Sox. All he had to work with was a ball signed by the Boston players, a glossy team photograph and one of Carl Yazstremski's caps. Agunga sprinkled the ball and photo with herbal ashes as he chanted softly in Swahili. The cap was likewise consecrated with hanks of monkey hair and pulverized bird beak. Then Agunga wrapped all three in papyrus, tied it with hemp twine and attached the gorilla's paw. For good measure, he played his magical piano, a crude instrument made of thorn tree wood and metal prongs.

He dispatched abracadabras, poultices, and nostrums to the Orioles and warned them to respect certain taboos. All players were to abstain from meat seven hours before each game, cut down their intake of sweets, add one new motion to their warmup procedure—such as coming onto the field from a different direction—and refrain from sex 12 hours before each game. The Orioles insist that they followed these prescriptions and prohibitions to the letter. As one put it, "We spent the night before games dutifully reading The Joy of Hex."

So what went wrong? Agunga says an Oriole must have broken the taboo.

Though the Orioles fizzled, wizardry still may triumph. It is rumored that the Montreal Expos want to hire a full-time witch doctor next season.

1