The Tokolosh (Tokoloshe, Tokoloshi, Thokolosi, Tikaloshe) Africa's Brownie

tokoloshe  (c) DJT

Widespread in South Africa is a belief in the tokolosh. (I shall vary the spelling occasionally, as nowadays literature must appeal to search engines as well as people.) The name "tokoloshe" is believed to be of Xhosa origin, but is used by all of the peoples of South Africa. The names "hili" and "gilikango" are sometimes used to refer to the same creature. Occasionally, anthropologists include other paranormal entities, such as lightning birds, under the generic heading "tokoloshes".

Sometimes, the name "tokoloshe" refers to a dwarf zombie. Apparently, such a zombie can be created after removing the eyes and tongue from a full-sized corpse. The corpse is said to shrink after a heated iron rod is thrust into the skull. Life and obedience are breathed into the zombie by means of a secret powder blown into its mouth. Whatever means are used to create a tokoloshe, the price includes the death of a relative within a year. The spirits do not give life freely. If you are prepared to create an unnatural person, you must be prepared to destroy a natural one.

Originally a water sprite, the tokoloshe is nowadays often a domestic spirit in the households of witches and warlocks. Usually described as a brown, hairy dwarf, it is virtually identical, in habits and appearance, to the brownie of European folklore. The tokolosh is said to speak with a lisp. It is usually naked, but sometimes wears a cloak. In European folklore, a naked brownie often "helps" around the house until it is "paid" with clothing, after which it may disappear. The tokolosh has a single buttock. (Interestingly, in European folklore, demons are also supposed to lack human buttocks, Satan supposedly being frustrated in his attempts to replicate this uniquely human feature. When he felt oppressed by devils, Martin Luther is said to have bared his buttocks to frighten them away.)

The penis of the thokolosi is so long that it has to be slung over his shoulder. Thus sexually well-endowed, the duties of the tokolosh include making love to its witch mistress. In return, it is rewarded with milk and food. In common with European myths and legends concerning familiars, salt must not be added to food offerings for tokoloshes. The witch keeps the tokoloshe docile by cutting the fringe of hair that hangs over its eyes. Witches sometimes inherit these demon lovers from their mothers.

The tokolosh is usually invisible to adults, but if you do see one, you should on no account annoy it by speaking to it, or pointing at it. The tokoloshi achieves invisibility by means of a magic pebble, which it keeps in its mouth. The creature is mischievious, but only malevolent when controlled by an evil sorcerer.

The tokolosh is fond of stealing milk from cows, but may be caught by a skilled medicine man or witch doctor (inyanga or sangoma). Witch doctors manufacture a magical substance made from the body of a dead tokoloshe. By sprinkling the substance at the rear entrance of a cattle kraal, the witch doctor can trap and paralyse the tokolosh. It becomes visible, and can be killed. Sellers of muti (traditional medicine), who may have small shops or stalls all over South Africa, often advertise and sell products used for protection against this supernatural being. These products include a concoction made with tokoloshi fat, which should be smeared on the skin as a repellant. It is said that you can recognise the genuine article by the cold mark that it leaves on your skin.

(Incidentally, although the term "witch doctor" has come to refer exclusively to the traditional healers and shamans of Africa, early British explorers and settlers used the name because the "job title" was well-known in England. There, witch doctors were often consulted, until well into the nineteenth century, by people wanting protection from witchcraft.)

Belief in the tokoloshe has spread to all races, nations and cultures in Southern Africa. Even people of European descent have been known to buy protection against the sprite, and members of the Cape Muslim community knew about the tokolosh long before South Africa's Bantu peoples became a common sight in Cape Town.

In the late 19th century, Mrs. Minnie Martin, the wife of a British official in Basutoland (Lesotho), was with a servant and a dog when they encountered a tokoloshe escaping from her cowshed. In late 1918, an Afrikaans household in Steynsrust, in the Orange Free State and near the Lesotho border, was troubled by the nocturnal goblin, which remained invisible. A witch doctor who had been imprisoned for burglary was suspected of invoking the tokolosh for revenge.

In September 1998, a Queenstown woman, Nothemba Bekebhu, had a strange visitation. Her furniture was taken over by five tokoloshes who made themselves comfortable. They had come to demand equal housing rights, and insisted that their grievance be passed on to President Mandela. Ms Bekebhu, a remedial education specialist and part-time sangoma, contacted Mr. Mandela's office. However, staff at the office wanted to speak to a tikiloshe spokesman before taking action, and the tokoloshes refused to cooperate.

In 1999, a woman of in the Bradfield suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, paid an inyanga (n'anga) to exorcise her home. Although of Portuguese descent, the woman had grown up in Africa. She believed that a neighbour's maid had summoned a tokoloshe that was tormenting her. The exorcism was apparently successful, and the suspected maid fell ill and had to leave. In the same year, Mr. K. K. Manyika, director of security for Zimbabwe's parliament, said that he had been attacked by several invisible tokoloshes sent by a disgruntled employee. In July of that year, six women in Guruve, Zimbabwe, resigned as teachers after accusing a male colleague of using a tokoloshi to bewitch them so that he could rape them as they slept.

There is even a UFO connection with the tokoloshi. On September 16th, 1994, three flying saucers were seen hovering over Ariel School, in Ruwa, Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, UFOs are so common that local people have an indigenous word for the flying saucer, "ruserwa". One of the spacecraft landed, and a small being with long black hair and large eyes emerged. The being certainly satisfied many descriptions of the tokoloshe, and some pupils took it to be one, and fled for their lives. Perhaps tokoloshis do have an extraterrestrial origin. Some of the children felt that the alien was telepathic. The incident was investigated by the Zimbabwean ufologist Cynthia Hind, and by the abduction expert Dr. John Mack.

South Africa's Sunday Times for April 4th, 1999, reported a strange find when car thieves were arrested in Groutville, Natal. In the vehicle, police found a skull on a plate. In the skull was a piece of meat, food for a tokolosh that the thieves thought was protecting them.

The Sunday Times reported another tokoloshi infestation on January 30th, 2000. The victims were the Sejake family of Motlonyane village, near Mafikeng (Mafeking). Household objects were thrown about, insulting writing appeared on walls, family members and visitors were spat at, and swearing was heard. The culprit was never seen, except by Mr. Sejake's son. The tokoloshe was unusual in that it hated the child, and repeatedly destroyed the boy's homework until he had to leave his books at school. (Now that I come to think of it, that probably meant that it did like the boy.) Family members sometimes woke up to find their bodies smeared with Vaseline and other lotions. Even more bizarrely, they might awake to find themselves outside the house.

In 2001, a team from South Africa's television documentary series, Carte Blanche, accompanied Mr. Mohammed Abid, an imam from Pakistan, when he exorcised an Indian household in Stanger, Natal. A boy in the house was possessed by a tokoloshe. Video recordings made in the house were inexplicably distorted.

The nuisance of the tokolosh shows no sign of abating. In June of this year (2002), five buildings burned down at the Tihalogang Community Secondary School, 25 miles (40 km) from Francistown, Botswana. At the same school, girls accused a tokoloshe of harassing them in various ways. Exorcisms by the indigenous Zion Christian Church were successful.

On at least one occasion, material evidence has substantiated the tokolosh legend. An old folk tale of Manicaland, in eastern Zimbabwe, concerned a beautiful maiden who was loved, or lusted after, by a tokoloshe resident in a stream. Naturally, she did not return the sprite's affections, and accepted from her human lover a gift of nine bangles. These she wore on her arm. This so enraged the tokolosh that when the girl went to bathe, it cut off her arm and threw it into the water. In 1924, a prospector found the remains of an ancient human arm in a riverbank. Around it were nine metal bangles. In 1935 the prospector, Captain Valentine, gave his find to the museum in Harare (then Salisbury). I think that it is still there.

The tokoloshe can be seen by children, but fortunately is friendly towards them (invisible playmates are common all over the world). Even when on a mission for a sorcerer, a tokolosh may disobey its master and spare a child. The friendship is discouraged by adults, who fear that if it continues into adulthood, the children may become witches or wizards themselves.

The tokoloshe is also friendly with the monitor lizard, or leguaan, and sometimes shares a den with this reptile. As a water spirit, the tokolosh prefers the riverside home of a water leguaan (Nile monitor lizard). If a leguaan is seen to stamp its feet, it may be accompanying a tokolosh in a dance.

The tokoloshe has reached the world of cinema. Sid James appeared in the 1971 film Tokoloshe, the Evil Spirit. More recently, Nigel Hawthorne appeared as a judge in the film A Reasonable Man, based on a true story. A man was tried for killing a child in the belief that it was a tokolosh. Both Sid James and Sir Nigel Hawthorne were born in South Africa.

It is possible to exaggerate the fear of the tokoloshe in Southern Africa.

In South Africa, where many white families had maidservants, the maids would often raise their beds by placing the legs of their beds on bricks. It was an almost universal belief, among white people, that this was to keep the occupant of the bed out of reach of the tokolosh.

As a teenager, I lived with my family on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Our own maid raised her bed in the manner described above. Eventually, my parents bought her a bunk bed, so that she could sleep on the upper bunk and save herself the trouble of raising her bed on bricks. (It also seemed safer, as the single columns of bricks under the legs were not mortared.) To our surprise, she slept on the lower bunk, and used the upper bunk for storing her belongings. I felt rather bad about that, as I thought that she would be forced to spend her nights in fear of the tokoloshi.

I found the subject too interesting to ignore, and was determined to discuss it with our maid. The conversation was supposed to go something like this :

Me   : Why do maids raise their beds on bricks?
Her : To keep them out of reach of tokoloshes.
Me   : Couldn't the tokoloshes climb up?

And so on.

This was the actual conversation :

Me : Why do maids raise their beds on bricks?
Her : So that our suitcases can fit underneath.

Maids' rooms did tend to be rather small, now that I think of it. Besides, until well into the twentieth century, most African women slept soundly on mats, on the floors of their homes. However, I suspect that the belief by whites, about why beds are raised on bricks, is gradually spreading to South Africa's black population. This is partly because it is not in the financial interests of sangomas to discourage any form of superstition.

I have to confess that the tokolosh even gave me quite a scare, as a teenager. There were rats in the loft, and their scurrying could be heard at night. Occasionally, though, we would hear a loud, slow, "clump! clump!", as though somebody was walking on the roof.

One night, I was lying awake in my bedroom. Sure enough, there was the scurrying. Then the "clump! clump!". Then, to my surprise and horror, there was a thud on the ground outside my bedroom window. Moments later, there was a sickening, screeching noise as something clawed at the window. I was too terrified to look, but eventually it stopped.

In daylight, I now think that it was probably a neighbour's cat that frightened me. The sound of its padding on our roof was probably magnified so that it sounded like human footsteps. Late at night, however, especially if I have read a ghost story or watched a horror movie, I sometimes wonder whether I am wrong. And, if it happened tonight, I am still not sure whether I would have the courage to look.

More about the tokoloshe on on the tokoloshe

More on the subject of tokoloshes and bed raising

Are tokoloshes melon heads or Catskill gnomes?

TEXT COPYRIGHT © August, September 2002 : No material on this site may be copied by any means, without the author's permission.


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