Fans of the paranormal will have an appreciation for archetypes; archetypical figures who carry their story across the span of continents and time. No matter where you are from, stories share similarities, and ghouls and ghosts take the same shape.
I first became aware of African lore when I was a little girl growing up in a farming community in South Africa. I didn’t grow up in a superstitious household, but being a Caucasian living in Africa will inevitably cause you to live with one foot in reality, and the other in mystery.
Beds on Bricks – or the Tokoloshe Will Kill You
Louisa. She was my very first introduction to an evil spirit before I knew they existed. Louisa was my Malay nanny since I can remember. She had not only raised my mother, but myself as well, but I digress. I was often playing in her room and never thought to question why her bed was raised on bricks. It never occurred to me to ask . I have seen many nannies do the same. I chalked it down as being a cultural thing and put it out of my mind.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I finally asked Louisa to tell me what the deal with the bricks is.
Partly blind and completely toothless by then, she said;
“So that the Tokoloshe can’t get me”.
At first, I thought it was the ramblings of a senile mind. However, it occurred to me that I have seen these brick-beds often. Eventually, I became fascinated by these African demons who stalk their prey at night.
Traditionally, the Tokoloshe appears in Zulu mythology. Nevertheless, in my experience, the Tokoloshe is not exclusive to tribe or culture, but instead appears in many stories across Southern Africa. Accounts of the Tokoloshe vary widely, but the common consensus is that they are small, spiteful, and terrifying creatures that really messes up a good night’s sleep.
Tokoloshes are sometimes only blamed for being mischievous. A few ambitious youths have blamed a Tokoloshe for destroying their homework. However, they are generally caught stealing milk from cows. Tokoloshes will turn extremely malevolent once they are under the power of a witch doctor, or Sangomas – like we say in Africa. Essentially, Tokoloshes can only be seen by children, but they abuse young and old alike. Sometimes, they will crawl and drag their way onto the bed and simply scare people, other times they will choke their victims to death with bony fingers. Still, other reports have said that a Tokoloshe will leave long, open gashes across a sleeping body, or perform deviant sexual acts with their victims. Or bite off all your toes. The list of their nightly crimes is endless.
Tokoloshes go invisible by drinking water or by swallowing a pebble (depending on who you ask) but if you ever see a Tokoloshe, you will be best advised to play blind, and hope and pray that it goes away.
The appearance of a Tokoloshe
Tokoloshes are described in many numbers of ways. Some believe that they can shape shift into other animals, but a common consensus is their small size. Some describe them as small, brown, and hairy dwarves. They share a similar appearance to the European Brownie, which does not sound really terrifying at all. Others describe them as small primates with large black eyes. Dwarf or primate, a Tokoloshe only has one buttock and an incredibly large penis. So large, in fact, that he has to fling it over his shoulder. His witch-mistress will reap the benefits of this well-endowed monstrosity.
“Another common belief is that witches inherit their demon lovers from their mothers.”
The Creation of a Tokoloshe
According to legend, the Tokoloshe was originally a water sprite before it became bound as a terrorizing domestic spirit. At least one piece of evidence has been found concerning the legend. In Eastern Zimbabwe, a beautiful maiden was lusted after by the water sprite. As these stories go, the maiden did not return his affection, and instead accepted a gift of 9 bangles from her lover. This enraged the sprite so that when his love interest came to bath, he cut her arms off and drowned her in the river. In 1924, a prospector did find the remains of a human arm, and nine metal bangles surrounding it on the riverbank. Apparently, the prospector donated this to the Harare Museum of Human Science, but I have not confirmed its existence myself.
Back in the present day, Tokoloshes are called upon by witch doctors to cause pain and destruction to either an individual or a community as a whole. A Tokoloshe is essentially a dwarf zombie, for a lack of a better description. To create one, a Sangoma has to find a dead body for the Tokoloshe to possess. The creator also needs to promise the soul of someone dear to them, but the Tokoloshe will decide for himself who he will take within a year. The spirit does not exact vengeance for free, and the creators are well aware of this. In the worst cases, when a dead body cannot be found, it can be arranged…
The eye sockets and brain are then pierced with a burning iron rod to destroy any free will the creature may have had, and life and obedience are breathed into this now shrunken corpse. Sangomas keep their creatures docile by feeding it curdled milk, which may explain why they love cows so much.
The Tokoloshe has even been linked to a UFO sighting over Zimbabwe, but that is a different story altogether. However, the sight of a small extra-terrestrial emerging from the UFO has speculation running whether Tokoloshes may have an alien origin.
Protection Against a Tokolshe
There are a few ways to get rid of a Tokoloshe, or protect yourself from one. Sangomas sell Tokoloshe salts to sprinkle around the house to keep him at bay (talk about creating a market for your products). A Sangoma or holy man can also perform an exorcism if individuals are affected, or a cleansing ceremony around the house.
A concoction made of Tokoloshe fat is a very popular option. A skilled witch doctor, it is said, can magically capture and paralyze another Tokoloshe by sprinkling a mysterious substance on the ground. Once the Tokoloshe has been killed, the fat is then used to make a poultice to protect others against a Tokoloshe attack. You can find Tokoloshe fat in any of the numerous muti (traditional medicine) shops across the country. The real deal, apparently, will leave a cold mark on your skin.
Aside from the slight variations, it is generally accepted that the Tokoloshe is prominent in African culture and absolutely terrifying to those who beheld it. But I have often wondered why the sleeping is so afflicted by the creature. There is one theory that stands out above the rest, albeit provides a bleak reality.
Traditionally, many Africans sleep on grass mats to that encircles a wood fire in the middle of the hut. Contrary to popular belief, Africa can get bitterly cold in winter. Healthy people have inexplicably been found dead the next morning, sometimes en masse, and not from hypothermia. It makes sense to blame their deaths on a vicious creature, of course. In reality, it is highly possible that these poor souls died from oxygen deprivation as the home slowly filled with carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is heavier than oxygen and will sink to the floor. So put your bed on bricks. Keeping out the Tokoloshe’s way also keeps carbon monoxide poisoning at bay.
Whether or not the Tokoloshe is real is not what scares me. A very dreary and macabre reality is the corpses the Sangomas still practice their craft on. Like I said, if a corpse is not available, they will go to extreme lengths to ensure they get one. Thousands of people disappear in South Africa every year in Tokoloshe-related killings, as can be seen on the discovered corpses.