One of the men, a sexagenarian, scribbles some words in Arabic on a wooden board covered with white sand.
“Yarabi,” he shouts loudly, as a group of young men at one end of the room watch attentively.
The young men are devout local supporters of England’s Arsenal Football Club. They want Mzee Shaha Viwahi, a reputed witch doctor, to foresee the future of their favorite club which has gone for four seasons without a trophy.
Arsenal has trailed way behind arch-rivals Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in the battle for the English premiership.
Scenes at Mzee Shaha’s are part of daily life in the local football fraternity in the Kenyan coast region—an area where “sorcery” is widespread with some saying it’s nothing other than the use of traditional medicine while others blame it for mysterious deaths or accidents.
But the over-reliance on witch doctors by teams hoping to win matches or to settle scores with opposing teams has reduced once-vibrant sport here to occultism.
“Coast people are very superstitious. Football cannot go on without witchcraft,” said referee Patrick Renson.
“Officials consult the witch doctors to help them ‘win’ matches and uphold their positions using the club funds. Even players themselves go to the witchdoctors for the charm against each other,” he said.
The practice is not confined to Kenya.
Mzee Shaha and his partner Mzee Shariff Omar, both born in the Zanzibari island of Tumbatu, have been in the forefront of a booming business now spreading across east and central Africa.
Two of their countrymen have reportedly been on the payrolls of Yanga and Simba, two top Tanzanian club sides involved in a bizarre ritual incident in September 2004.
Before a league decider, Simba players had been sent to sprinkle a strange powder and broke eggs around the goal area while Yanga, counteracted by sending two of its players to urinate on the field.
The Football Association of Tanzania (FAT) fined both clubs 500 dollars each for what it termed “unacceptable” conduct involving the match, which ended in a 2-2 draw.
In the past, witchcraft took the form of sacrifice of animals such as goats, cows and even snakes whose blood would be sprinkled around the stadium, or the planting of magic wands and the burial of dead human body parts—often obtained from mortuaries—in the stadium.
But in recent years voodooists have moved with the times.
“You don’t have to be there in person,” said Juma Mohammed Mwanachuwoni, a well-known Kenyan witch doctor working for some of the top coast provincial league clubs.
“We do it by remote control. You write the names of the star players on a tree trunk, cover them up with a black cloth as to blindfold them, and on the match day they will not be seeing the ball,” said Mwanachuwoni.
“You can also use the charms to confuse the referee to favour your team.”
“Teams cannot play without witchcraft,” he bragged. “Winning is ultimate—as I speak, three secondary schools have come to see me asking for ‘assistance’ to win the provincial championships title.”
But he said some club officials become “too greedy” and forget to pay for services rendered by witch doctors.
They usually will have themselves to blame because “the same spell turns against them, and they will not succeed,” claimed Mwanachuwoni.
Kenyan football officials have not spoken out publicly on the witchcraft allegations.
But privately, local football officials say the spells of “jujumen”, as the witch doctors are called, tend to target good players, scaring some off or making them so disgruntled they leave.
Former national league clubs such as Feisal Football Club, Mombasa Wanderers and Mwenge have all folded in recent years while Bandari and Coast Stars have seen a mass exodus of players to other national teams—with some blaming the “occult” atmosphere on the coast.
Even Kenyan supporters suffer fallout from the witchcraft, some of whom have committed suicide after favourite teams lost matches.
“They will sell their assets, land title deeds or even mortgage themselves to go to the witch doctors to help them win on the bets which sometimes end very tragically,” said sports journalist Sumba Were, saying one man hung himself and another jumped into the Indian Ocean this year.
“The cases of people getting so obsessed with these clubs and the amount of betting that goes around them is so alarming,” Were said.