I have just come back from a night away in a game reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province. It’s a strange old place. It’s a bit of a backwater in South Africa. It doesn’t have any big cities, and the provincial government is riddled with corruption and incompetence. But that doesn’t mean that nothing interesting goes on there. On the contrary. For example there has, of late, been a sudden and massive surge in sales of coloured salt in the Limpopo. Special salt. This salt;
It is a local solution to a nationwide problem. Most people tend to tackle the problem with paint tins.
When I was small, we, like millions of other South Africans, had a live in maid; a woman who had a small flat on our property where she stayed during the week. We were all very close to her, and would sometimes visit her in her rooms. Which were ordinary enough except for one thing. Her bed was raised up on paint tins. She was neither a tall nor a particularly athletic woman, and the setup looked positively life threatening. It was, she told us, for protection against the Tokolosh.
No, that is not her bed. That is an art. But it is an art based on a widely observed practice. Throughout the country, people sleep in beds raised up on bricks or paint tins. The Tokolosh is not to be trifled with.
And what, you may ask, is a Tokolosh? Or a Tokoloshe? Or a Tokoloshi? That’s kind of hard to explain, because it is many things. It is the local version of the bogey man. It is the terror that goes bump in the night. It’s a poltergeist. It’s a succubus. It’s a brownie. It’s a Zombie. It is the story that parents tell their children to scare them straight.
It started out, from what I can find out, as a Zulu water sprite, but that’s not what it is any more. There is no clear description of what it looks like, but everyone agrees on a couple of things. It is short. It is hairy. Thanks to a magical pebble that it holds in its mouth, it is invisible to all but children. Then things get a bit freaky. It has a single buttock, and a penis so long it is carried over the shoulder.
Like the hidden folk of western folklore, it doesn’t really have a single origin story. One tale says that it was once a naughty little boy who constantly taunted a local wizard, who lured him down to the beach and threw magic salt on him, tuning him into a hideous little creature. Another says that Tokoloshes are created by evil inyangas or sangomas (essentially traditional healers, but for the purposes of stories like these, witches or wizards) by performing a spell on a dead body, which they bring under their control by sticking a red-hot poker in its head.
The Tokolosh covers a lot of bases. It is, at its mildest, a mischievous little imp, fond of children and full of playful, if slightly mean spirited, tricks. Mock him though, and he can turn truly nasty, poltergeist style. Under the control of an evil witch or wizard, he is malevolent in the extreme.
That’s all just background though. What I wanted to tell you today was that the Tokolosh is real. Maybe he’s not hiding behind the cupboard or anything, but he does have a profound effect on the behaviour of millions of South Africans. Here’s a little bit of news;
You will notice that those headlines and reports are all from the same paper. But it is the paper most read by those for whom the Tokolosh is real. This stuff is taken as gospel.
It’s easy to laugh at these people. But bear in mind that brownies and elves and fairies might be children’s’ stories now, but for thousands of years they were all too terrifyingly real. And they weren’t the Enid Blyton versions, either. They were there to serve a purpose. As odd as it seems to us now, they made the world easier to understand. They were the reason some people went mad. They explained things like epilepsy and food poisoning and lightening. They accounted for disappeared children.
Millions of people in South Africa are poorly educated, and just poor. The Tokolosh, for them, serves the same purposes.
South Africa is a violent and fractured place. Part of that violence is sexual.
The Tokolosh is a sexual being. And not in a good way. He is a rapist. Those beds up on tins and bricks are there to keep people out of reach of that shoulder-slung penis. On one level, he can be used to explain away pregnancies and infidelities, but on another, far more horrifying level, he can serve an abused child as a substitute for the trusted, loved abuser. And now he’s doing this, too;
Do not mistake the Tokoloshe for a “black” thing, either. This is Nicolette Lotter.
She, with her brother, murdered her parents. At her trial, as part of her defence, she stood up and testified that she had been repeatedly raped by a Tokolosh.
Belief in the Tokoloshe has become a universal thing. White people from the poorer streets of Pretoria fear it. Indian people down in Durban fear it. Malays from Cape Town fear it. Zulus fear it. Xhosas, Pedis, Vendas fear it.
But you need not. Should you find yourself visiting our sunny shores, just pick up a jar of Day-Glo salt at the airport. I’m not suggesting for a second that you would be credulous enough to believe in the little buggers, but it’s not worth taking any chances and besides, protecting yourself is cheap and you can colour coordinate your protection with your luggage.