Juju or Ju-Ju is a word of either West African or French origin used previously by Europeans to describe the traditional West African religion. The term Juju refers to the use of such objects and other things to perform a form of “witchcraft.”
“An object of any kind superstitiously venerated by West African native tribes, and used as a charm, amulet, or means of protection; a fetish. Also the supernatural or magical power attributed to such objects, or the system of observances connected therewith; also a ban or interdiction effected by means of such an object (corresponding to the Polynesian taboo).”
The term juju, and the practices associated with it, travelled to the Americas from West Africa with the influx of slaves and still survives in some areas, particularly among the various groups of Maroons, who have tended to preserve their African traditions
Isoke Aikpitanyi, a former victim of trafficking and now the main reference point for Nigerian women in Italy, knows how this business is managed in Caserta’s area. As she walks in Castel Volturno’s historic centre, she explains: “Today in Italy there are almost 10,000 madams, each one in control of an average of two or three girls.”
Madams are the key, she explains. They are the main actors in this exploitation. They force girls into prostitution and ask for money to repay the debt. They work with “brothers”, men who are in charge of physically trafficking the “babies”, as girls forced into prostitution are called.
But Nigerian human trafficking is often associated with drug smuggling and a distorted use of religious tradition.
The women and girls are often forced to undergo a Juju oath-swearing ritual that commits them to repaying the money they owe to their smugglers on pain of death or insanity. “The Juju, the voodoo rite, it’s not a bad practice. It was used to bring justice, but they ruined everything,” says Isoke with anger. “They don’t care how they make their money as far as they make it. They use Juju to enslave.”
Even in this hell, there are people who try not to lose hope. Sister Antonia, a Nigerian nun of the Sacred Heart of Jesus order, manages a shelter, the Casa Santa Maria dell’Accoglienza, launched in 2000 in the Fernandes centre by the Capua-based Caritas. Here, more than 70 women have found a place to stay and 10 children have been born. “We were called by the bishop of Capua, Mons. Bruno Schettino, to promote these girls’ integration. They are all former prostitutes. If they want to change their lives, they know they’ll always find a place here,” Sister Antonia says.
The women can stay for between six months and a year, a period when they dedicate their time to education and “to gain[ing] their dignity back,” explains Sister Antonia. The nuns give the girls the opportunity to write down their stories and explain what happened and who forced them into prostitution. “We try to make them understand that Juju won’t have any effect on them,” she says.
But we met girls who still work on the streets and believe in the agreements they made. Some of them have to repay debts of up to $58,000 and are still terrified of the powerful consequences of Juju on their families and themselves.
The Nigerian Connection II, Juliana Ruhfus follows the trail from Italy back to Benin City in Nigeria, from where women, desperately seeking an escape from grinding poverty, are trafficked to Europe.
To pay for their travel, many of them incur massive debts to organised crime gangs in the false belief that a lucrative regular job awaits them at the other end. Often they are forced to undergo a Juju oath-swearing ritual that commits them to repaying the money on pain of death or insanity.
When they arrive in Europe, they discover the only way they can do this is by agreeing to work in the sex trade. A Juju priest who is involved in the trade justifies the use of ritual practices on the grounds that he is offering a service to the community.
But as Juliana discovers, it is not just traditional African religions in West Africa that contribute to this trade on bonded labour. Evangelical Christian pastors have been involved too.