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Tokoloshe – Never Speak his Name!

It is true that many people in Africa are still reluctant to discuss the Tokoloshe as many believe that even using his name will call him to you and naturally trouble will follow. .



Photo: (C) Clint Pavenu

In a sense all these creatures are “spirits-beings” and African writer and shaman (sangoma) Credo Mutwa gets around the problem by simply claiming that the Tokoloshe can take many forms. In a sense, he is correct because while there are many spirits, they only really get given names when they are in our world. While all of these may be Tokoloshe – they are not The Tokoloshe.

The Tokoloshe is most often a dwarf of approximately 3.5ft in height. He is always male and has sizable genitals. (In some cases, his manhood is so long that he can carry it slung over his shoulder) He is often stocky in build with a potbelly that is said to develop from his taste for sorghum beer and sour milk, which he steals.

Some descriptions claim that he also has two animal horns that protrude from the side of his head. He favours being barefoot, and his feet and legs are said to be hairy, although this should not be confused with fur. His eyes are said to be red and capable of seeing as well in the dark as during the day. His fingernails are said to be sharp and strong. Although he is ugly to men, he can cast a spell to make himself handsome to women.

It is said that he still dresses in a traditional manner similar to the clothes worn by witch doctors or tribal chiefs and favours a cloak made of leopard skin, although he will wrap himself in the skin of a baboon if he is cold. He often wears a necklace of beads, stones, feathers and other magical objects that he has acquired during his life. It is common for him to carry a club (knobkerrie) made of hardwood and to conceal a knife in his clothes. Around his waist, you will find a pouch in which he keeps a strange potion with unknown properties.

Tokoloshe Mask from South Africa (1970s)

Tokoloshe Mask from South Africa (1970s) (C) Clint Pavenu

He is usually a very unpleasant character and his tricks can range from simple mischief to acts of violence and savage cruelty. He likes to visit women who are alone at night to have intercourse with them. Sometimes he is invited but just as often he is not.

However, there are also accounts of his generosity although these are rare. There is the story of an old woman whose husband had died, and she had no help to sow the crops or fix her home so as to be safe from the wild beasts. For seven nights she put out beer and milk which was always drunk and on the eighth day she found a Tokoloshe sitting on the step. He rubbed his stomach and thanked her for the beer and milk and asked what she needed doing. She told him politely, but he went away, and she was disappointed at his laziness. However, when she woke the following day the house and fence were mended, and all the crops sown. She put out beer and milk again that night, but it remained untouched.

Where do these creatures come from? The most commonly held belief is that they are “fully” spirit demons that can be summoned from the “other world” by witchdoctors or, on occasions, they simply choose to visit our world out of lust and a desire to cause mischief.

A second belief is that they are recreated out of the dead bodies of people and animals, given life and forced to serve the witchdoctor that created them.  Again, these are not the traditional Tokoloshe of Southern African folklore.


A third origin story from the 1970’s was a story told by an old African woman who was told it by her great grandmother.

“There was once a beautiful maiden that was so lovely that all who saw her admired her. Still, for all her loveliness she was wild, full of mischief and at times cruel to those around her. In due course she married an older man but soon became bored with his company. One day while he was away visiting a nearby Kraal (African village) she noticed a stranger sitting on the kopje (hill) behind the village.

Taking a large pot of her husband’s finest beer she went to him and offered him the drink for he was young and handsome, and she could see that he was strong and more a man than any other she had met before. In this she was correct for he was a great Sangoma (witchdoctor) from the other world journeying to meet his brothers. The woman was pleasant and the beer cold from sweating in the grass basket and so the Sangoma drank and presently became drunk. While in this state the woman seduced him and after he had fallen asleep, she left. When he woke, he remembered nothing of the event except for a pleasant dream and went his way. Sometime later the woman gave birth to a boy who from the day of his coming was strong and handsome.

As the years passed the child became a man but unions between this world and the other are rarely without mishap for it soon became clear that the boy was different. He had great strength, magical abilities and a will to lead others but he was also lustful, cruel, savage and vain. Although just one man he visited many huts. One day the men of the village decided that they should rid themselves of this problem and together they captured and beat him until his bones were broken then tied him to a tree deep in the forest to be eaten by wild animals. The pain he endured was terrible and finally the echoes of his screams reached the ears of his true father in the “other world” who came to see what the noise was about.

The Burnt Tokoloshe

The Burnt Tokoloshe (Shutterstock)

The great witchdoctor and teacher of all others at once recognised his son and freed him but was dismayed by both the damage to the young man’s body and the wickedness of his soul. The Witchdoctor tried to take his son back to the other world but was resisted. The young man pleaded for healing and a chance for vengeance – a chance to remain in this world. Seeing that his son was already lost to him the witchdoctor agreed and healed him as best he could, but the result was a dwarf of great ugliness.

Seeing that he had created a monster the Witchdoctor cast a great spell and lay commands upon the creature. To what was left of his son he said: “You were created from the act of seduction and so you will forever be a seducer of women.” As he spoke the dwarf’s manhood grew to an alarming size. “Because it was beer and milk that that created temptation you will forever crave these foods. Because you are half spirit you will have magic but not without limits.”

He then picked up the horns of an antelope and pressed them to his son’s head where they fastened themselves as if he had been born with them. “This is so that none shall confuse you with an ordinary man and because the men will want to beat you, I will say that you may beat any man that calls you without cause or even stands in your way.” So saying he gave over a knobkerrie (club) of the hardest wood and the gift of even greater strength. “But … because of the wickedness in your heart you are forbidden from going where you are not called by the wickedness of people. You shall only ever make sons and they will appear as you do so that all people will always recognise you and your tribe of descendants. And … because I am your father and I have saved your life you will always come when I summon you or any of my brothers do the same.”

Thinking that his son would reject these terms he asked for agreement which his son gave without hesitation. Realising that he truly no longer had a son he said: “I call you Tokoloshe – Avenging Spirit – and any that speak your name beware.” He then used a burning assegai to remove the boy’s heart which still contained good, and it turned into a bird that flew away.

Angry Tokoloshe

Angry Tokoloshe

The Tokoloshe then returned to the village and carried out his need for vengeance with carnal passion and unbridled savagery but it was not enough, and the hunger persisted and so it would forever. In time he had sons and they had sons and so the tribe of the Tokoloshe grew until every kraal in the world has one hiding in the darkness just waiting to be called by the wickedness of those that cannot control their desires.”

Unfortunately much of the history and memories of the African people were handed-down as part of an oral tradition that has left very little recorded in writing. (When compared to Europe) A few early colonists from the west did do their best to record what little they could but the new colonial authorities made little or no attempt to create records as they were far more concerned with disseminating their own beliefs and religion. It also suited them that the indigenous people had no “evidence” to refer to.

The result is twofold. Firstly, there are often gaps in many of the stories and histories. Secondly, as cultures merged – sometimes forcibly – the stories fused or split becoming new tales in the process. It is only recently that a serious attempt is being made to reconstruct the pre-colonial history and beliefs of Africa. The extraordinary book, ‘Things Fall Apart’ written by Chinua Achebe in 1958, explains this in detail.

With every new generation the belief in the “Other World” diminishes and fear of the Tokoloshe recedes but for many Africans still alive today they have no doubt that he exists. However, it is also fully possible the fear of the Tokoloshe is exaggerated somewhat – it depends on who you speak to.

For years the white community in South Africa and noticed that their maids tended to raise their beds by placing three bricks under each leg. The “belief” that was circulated amongst the “Whites” was that this was to stop the Tokoloshe getting into bed with them because it was now too high for him to reach. This practice is still continued to this day in some places.

However, given that he is an immensely strong and somewhat magical creature this always seemed like too little protection too late. It may be a classic misunderstanding. The maids did raise their beds but for two different reasons. Firstly, it made it much harder for snakes to get under the sheets and secondly it meant they could store their travelling trunks underneath. (In fairness, snakes were sometimes referred to as Tokoloshe and maids’ rooms were very cramped).

However, the two Zulu women who were interviewed said it was protection from the Tokoloshe. And explained that by putting themselves out of reach they were “telling” any passing Tokoloshe that he was “Not Invited”.

Several attempts have been made to explain the real origin of the belief in the Tokoloshe. Some of these include … It’s an excuse invented by women to explain adultery; it’s a Vervet monkey standing on its hind legs or even, it’s a species of water-baboon that is now extinct.

Still. perhaps it is what it is and always has been – A Tokoloshe!