As we sat in her living room, eating care-package Indian cuisine, Kristin and I stopped for a moment. Cocking our heads to the side we listened. The thump-thumping of drumbeats was obvious from her house, positioned only a five minute walk from the celebrations. The Jujus had come.
Njinkom’s second class chief had died and in the wake of his passing a massive cry-die had formed. It was the party of the year, in the truest sense. Thousands had come to celebrate the life of Some Old Dude, and I then and there made a note to myself that, should I go anytime soon, a cry-die is how I want to be seen out. Stacks and stacks of crates line the procession to the family compound, filled with empty beer bottles, proof of the intensity and longevity of this shindig.
Foolishly, I wore jeans on my trek to Njinkom. It’s just easier to travel when you’ve got trousers on, and in my attempt at comfort I failed to realize that for such a traditional gathering, perhaps men’s clothes wouldn’t go over so well. Sure enough, on the way into the compound we were stopped. Mamis and moto-men alike directed us back to the house, pleading with us to change before the Jujus spied us and inflicted punishment. We decided they were right, and turned back.
Too late. Yips and yells came from men wearing dirtied potato sacks—palace Jujus sent to police the area for traditional faux-pas, a category I most certainly fell into. As they pestered me I dug through my purse, looking for bribery. Their sticks poked the back of my head as I foisted small money into their waiting hands. Unfortunately Kristin got caught in the hubbub and also gave into paying off the pests. Mamis pitied me and helpfully took my prayer scarf from around my neck. The size of a small blanket, it had no problem fitting around my waist. With a knot they had made me an impromptu skirt, easing the nerves of me, and everyone around me, who had collectively winced when the Jujus charged us.
We eased forward towards the compound, too scared to actually enter inside its walls. We’d been warned that the compound Jujus wouldn’t take kindly to our presence as women, and that we were in for a world a worry if we decided to take the chance and push through the crowd. We instead sought refuge among a grove of banana trees that provided a sliver of sight into the festivities. There we waited.
Jujus came and Jujus went. Some were dancers, entertaining the crowd with the rhythmic slap of ankle-bracelets adorned with nut husks. They perform their routine, a testament of coordination and precision, to pound the spirits from the ground, happy masks depicting people and animals balanced carefully on their heads. Other Jujus were far more intimidating, including Nkor, a Juju akin to the Minotaur, who was restrained by a troop of bare-chested men. They wore traditional skirts and held on tight to ropes fashioned to Nkor’s waist, preventing him from wrecking havoc on the crowd. Nkor for some of his performance carried a goat, alive and kicking, around the compound in his mouth. The goat would later be slaughtered.
Some Jujus have a penchant for beating people, and caught up in the excitement of the day, Kristin and I joined the hundreds running through the tropical forest, hoping to avoid an open-handed smack from a Juju on a power-trip. We hunched behind trunks and bushes, even as those around us assured us that they’d never harm us. Our whiteman magic was our protection.
Our friends, Immaculate and Marvin, proved to be our litmus tests for the day. Calmly they would place hands on our shoulders and tell us when it was okay to snap a picture, or to not worry about fleeing for this particular Juju, usually a lesser one who didn’t have permission to smack a white woman, anyway. When we were too cowardly to sneak in close to the Juju they’d take our cameras and do it for us, steeled with the expression of National Geographic photographer, fearless in the face of danger. Only once did we see them, too, hightail it to the woods. They acted as our interpreters for the day, explaining the background information for each Juju, stories they’d known since they were small.
The crowd, who had all day been hootin’ and hollering in the spirit of celebration, changed their tune when the most senior and grave Juju in Njinikom came to pay homage to the departed chief. He was a Juju who, in times past, was charged with slaughtering those who had done wrong and deserved to die. Occasionally he would toss the offenders off a local cliff, until one day a fugitive instinctively grabbed at the Juju, taking him over the cliff as well. Now the Juju’s ancestral spirit resides in a different corporal form, of course, and that guy is taking no chances and sticks to killing only livestock.
By the time the sun started heading over the mountains surrounding Njinkom, our group was ready to retire. We had spent the last four hours standing, with the exception of crouching and bowing to the Killer Juju in an effort to not be his next victim and a brief stampede caused early in the day by a Juju vs. Villager scuffle that left me crab-walking in the banana grove’s muck, a large Mami sitting on my knees, as she too had been caught in the crowd’s fleeing.
The party continued without us, as every Juju and groupie in the area made its way to pay respect, as their absence would mean their banning from future events and performances. We let them go on without us, and instead turned in early, exhausted. As we curled up in bed we could still hear, not even a five minute walk away, the thump-thump of the drums welcoming the Jujus in the night.