In 1968, Rowland “Joe” SaiSai, and his friends were signing up for the army on the rebel side in the Nigerian Civil War. When most boys were lining up at the theatre for the new sci-fi movie, Joe, 12 years old, was singled out from his peers and accepted into the army because of his large size. After only two (2) weeks of training with fake guns, Joe was placed in the heart of the battle, on the front line. Joe’s testimony reads like a Hollywood movie script; Joe, a former Nigerian Olympian, the son of a voodoo high priest, enlists in the Nigerian Rebellion Civil War at 12 years old and fights the oppressive government. Before we hear about Joe’s heroic war story, we get a glimpse of his beginnings as a child in a voodoo culture.
In Joe’s village, voodoo was widely practiced, and the alligator was a god to be worshipped. Sacrifices were offered to alligators in hopes of individuals and/or families receiving protection from predators. Joe’s father was the high voodoo priest of their village named Ijaw located in West Nigeria, and it wasn’t uncommon for a priest to ask a mother to give over her children as a human sacrifice to appease the gods. Joe’s father had two (2) wives one of whom was his mother. “Polygamy was the norm in the Nigerian community”, says Joe, “Most every man has more than one wife. It’s a symbol of status.” Joe’s family had status due to their legacy of voodoo priests.
When Joe’s mother was pregnant with him, she feared being requested to give her unborn child over as a sacrifice. She knew she would refuse such advancements and this would incite ridicule, chastisement, and even severe persecution. This created a sense of urgency for her to escape from the village, as she had no intention of sacrificing her unborn Joe to the alligator god. Pregnant, determined, and fearful, she escaped from Ijaw with her eldest son who was about seven (7) years old at the time and sought refuge with her brother. She was now the wife of a voodoo priest on the run and soon to be faced with an even more challenging trial.
When Joe was five (5) years old, his 12-year-old brother became gravely ill and this was an unexpected and frightening ordeal. Although fearful for her life, Joe’s mother risked taking her ill son back to the village they had escaped to solicit the assistance of village witch doctors. She believed that the only hope for her son was the medicinal craft of these respected sorcerers. Joe’s brother was sent on numerous visits back to the village, where he was subjected to customary treatments and spiritual incantations by various witch doctors; however, none of their efforts were working. Joe’s brother’s condition continued to deteriorate, and the witch doctors blamed the failed results on the sins of Joe’s forefathers. They concluded that the gods were punishing Joe’s family, because of their refusal to perform the appropriate sacrifices throughout the years to the gods. This diagnosis was terminal for Joe’s brother until hope presented itself in the most unlikely person for the most unlikely reason, considering his families belief system.
Hope came from a Christian woman Joe’s mother met in the city. This woman asked Joe’s mother to attend a night prayer service after learning about her son’s grave condition. “My mom took my brother to the service out of desperation”, Joe says. His brother’s condition was worsening and their familiar customs and religious practices had failed their family.
Joe’s brother’s conduct was what many would consider demonic. “At first my brother was acting like the devil; demon possessed; throwing up; foaming from the mouth; talking in demon tongues; and making deep sounding voices that didn’t sound human. I was five, and it was scary. The pain I was feeling the most, was the emotional pain my mother was going through.”
Joe’s brother’s behavior was so disruptive that the church leaders chained him outside the church. The prayer service went forth with intensity and as it did, Joe’s brother began describing the demonic beings he was seeing. Finally, at the end of the service, which was late in the evening, Joe’s brother appeared to be sedated by a spirit of peace. Three days later, he had fully recovered. “At that time, I made the decision since this is the God who saved my brother; this is the God I will serve. Every church service we were there,” said Joe.
Having dealt with the demons and challenges that haunted his childhood, Joe takes me back to his civil war experiences and tells me about the challenges he faced as a 12-year-old soldier.
In 1966 the Civil War in Nigeria started. “We lived in the part of the city that wanted to break off and be a country of its own,” Joe explains. He and his friends immediately went to voluntarily sign up for the army out of naiveté, thinking military combat would be fun and exciting; however, reality hit after only 2 weeks of training when Joe was sent to the frontline. He was 12 years old, without a uniform, without his friends, and armed with a Mark IV single shot rifle.
The rebel soldiers did not have money budgeted for uniforms. The way a rebel soldier obtained a uniform was by killing the enemy and taking his uniform as part of the plunder. After obtaining the decease’s uniform, the soldier had challenging decision to make, wear the uniform and risk being attacked by his fellow rebel soldiers for the opportunity to infiltrate the enemy, or continue on without the uniform and risk being identified and attacked by the enemy still. Despite the risks, it was common practice for a rebel soldier to kill an enemy and use the uniform as a strategy to gain control over the enemy’s base. The possible success of an infiltration out weighed the risk of death, and it was a leap of faith to exercise this strategy.
Joe’s faith in God increased through his military experience, in that he believed God’s divine protection was covering him. I’ll let Joe testify in his own words now: “You can smell the smell of death. We had a Mark IV rifle that fired one bullet at a time, and the government had machine guns. You’re in the front; you can’t go back. I thought what did I get myself into, bullets flying by your head so close that you can hear them? I must have been in a trance. God was protecting me big time.”
Joe described an incident that happened in a foxhole, as his troop was advancing to take over one of the government’s bases. “Both guys on my side were dead. I stood up out of fear and ran back. People were telling me to get down. I jumped into another foxhole, and my troop was mad and started hitting me,” Joe leans back and chuckles. “I threw a tantrum and left for another fox hole. As soon as I left, it was bombed. I saw body parts flying everywhere. Most of those around me had shell shock. I didn’t. I was perfectly fine.” Things didn’t stay fine for Joe. He would soon find himself in a confining situation.
Joe was incarcerated in military prison camp for 2 weeks for the charge of Absent Without Leave (AWOL). He received this charge after bravely transporting a wounded rebel soldier back to safety. After a short time of incarceration, a Lieutenant, who was the father of one of his childhood friends granted him a release. When he was about to exit a mililitary checkpoint, he was immediately detained. Unfortunately for Joe, the other high officers were not given notice of Joe’s unofficial discharge, and he served two weeks in the prison camp without a meal before going to trial. “Occasionally, if it was a nice M.P. (Military Police) he would let me go to the farm and pick yams or palm tree nuts.” Joe said.
After serving the two weeks in prison, Joe had a trial and once again he was sentenced back to the front-line. A few days later, the war had ended, and the rebels had lost. Joe found out that his father, who was fighting in the war, had been killed. Although Joe had been estranged from his father, the news was devastating. Almost immediately, Joe had to transition from this chaotic life of being a rebel solider and fatherless back to the life of a carefree schoolboy. During this period, Joe would return back to the village for a rites of passage ceremony. He would now have to kill a large python to prove his manhood. Joe was 13 years old and naturally strong and athletic, just a few of the skills he would need to meet his rites of passage challenge and that would gain him opportunities he never dreamed of.
Joe’s athleticism afforded him national attention in Nigeria. As he continued to develop, his talent gained the attention of Palomar University in San Diego, California; a university on the other side of the world. Palomar University awarded Joe a full athletic scholarship, and he made good use of it by obtaining a Bachelor of Arts Degree (B.A.) and a Masters of Art Degree (M.A.) in physical education.
“When I was running, I knew it was by God’s inspiration I was winning.”
In 1976, Joe made the Nigerian Olympic team; however, due to his country’s protest of apartheid in South Africa, Nigeria refused to compete. Joe has since utilized his education from Palomar University and his wealth of life experience to help misguided youth at the California Youth Authority (CYA) get back on the right track in life.
“Even though the state tries to separate the church and the state, it is the Godly counsel that has impacted most of the kids to a permanent change in their lives. Secular counseling has only provided a temporary bandage, in that it’s only a temporary change,” Joe says.
“Since my brother’s illness, church has been a part of me. Looking back at my dad and all the things he worshipped and was into, I would have been in that lifestyle, and probably a voodoo priest. I believe God opened up the way for me to be here.”
From voodoo, to war, to prison, to college, to counseling, to married family man, one thing Joe experienced has remained constant in his life, his belief in God and the power of faith. If God can open up the way for Joe and bring him through situations where he was destined for disaster, what more will he do for you? Hearing Joe’s story truly conveys that there is nothing too hard for God.
By Rayford L. Johnson
Author: "Thug Mentality Exposed"
Thug Mentality Exposed will take the reader on a raw and bold journey into the heart of the thug world through the eyes and experiences of a correctional counselor and photojournalist. Trends such as the hyphy, crunk, gangsta, goth and witchcraft movements among others are stealing the identities of ordinary kids and transforming them into hardened thugs through out America and many parts of the globe. These trends base themselves at the core of thug mentality and are ripping apart our society in ways that will forever change the social, moral, and financial foundations we have come to rely upon in our daily lives. Now is the time to educate ourselves on these deadly social issues that can drastically impact our loved ones. With this knowledge, we can begin healing by providing truth and hope to an expected at-risk population from being incarcerated or held bondage by powerful addictions which are leading many to an early grave.
Did you know that “pant saggin” actually started with male prostitutes in the prison system and that the word Thug actually derived from India out of a murderous religious cult? Johnson narrates for us the purpose, behaviors and attitudes of Thug Mentality and why our youth follow these patterns. He appropriates the needed lessons for humanity under the word of God to help sanctify those in need. Johnson, a Peace Officer for over 11 years, provides us with enlightenment for those who seek the counsel of professionals working with these at-risk youth.