“Ju-Jus” on West African Masks and Sculpture

What are those leather pouches around that warrior’s arm? Those sacks tied around a young woman’s waist? The scrolls inside a West African silver ring?

A ju-ju, or “supernatural object,” is a type of West African charm attributed with magical powers. Still widely crafted today, West Africans within many countries still practice superstitious beliefs that lead them to wear and adorn their homes and children with tokens of good fortune and health.

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To some, ju-ju making is a form of witchcraft, but as part of everyday life even for urban and well-educated West Africans, it is a more serious tradition rooted deeply in many cultures. Even university professors are seen today wearing ju-jus underneath their clothing, and it has been an explosive area of curiosity for researchers, volunteers and tourists to the region.

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African mask with cowry shells

While some African cultures still believe in the spiritual nature of items such as cowrie shells, most ju-jus are intentionally crafted objects blessed with incantations or containing inserted Arabic scripts. The most common crafters of ju-jus are marabouts, who place the scripts inside a necklace, bracelet, ring or other pouch and sew it shut tightly. These West African marabouts are often referred to by outsiders as “witch-doctors,” and they earn a living exclusively from the local people who seek out his services.

While many West Africans employ the marabout to make healing ju-jus, there are many other types of ju-jus. Scripts can be written with the hope of certain marriage arrangements, agricultural harvests, business transactions and even bad omens upon enemies. Ju-Jus are also commonly requested by wives and mothers seeking a spiritually-accepted form of birth control.

Outside of West Africa, many escaped slaves in the Caribbean and America continue the practice of making ju-jus, although the separation of time and geography have caused differences in the ritual ju-ju making and their intentions.

In addition to the very real practice of wearing ju-jus, many African masks and African sculptures are adorned with these curious embellishments. Often mistaken as simple accessory or jewelry, a studied eye will recognize the significance of a ju-ju adorning a mask or sculpture within his collection.

Most figures and sculptures of West African warriors, for example, will include different types of ju-jus hanging around the neck, as an armband or even at the waist. Although more rare, there are types of African masks where ju-jus will grace the forehead or ears of the figure. It is considered quite taboo to open a juju and read the script inside, and often the passage time mixed with the cryptic hand-scribed Arabic letters would only offer a small insight into how and why a particular ju-ju was created–letting the mysterious quality of the object be the most alluring part.