The man sitting in my office looked slightly embarrassed. How was he to explain to this white doctor about bewitchment?
“I’m requesting sick leave,” he started. “I need to be next to home.” We then spoke about bad feelings, bad dreams and being bewitched. He needed to go home for a cleansing ceremony because of the evil spirits, he said, looking only slightly uncomfortable about bringing deep rural South Africa into my consulting room. “You know,” he said, gesturing with his right hand about three foot off the ground. “The tokoloshe – those little men.”
I managed to keep the smile off my face and to keep my composure. The tokoloshe has always been for me a figure of fun. An amusing superstition which no-one really takes seriously anymore. I know that some black South Africans put their beds on bricks to protect them from the little men that can come and visit them in the night. And I also know that the tabloids have headlines such as “I had sex with a tokoloshe” since these tokoloshes are apparently quite randy and quite likely to have sex with you if you’re not careful and taking the necessary precautions. I also remember that some workers at our house got totally spooked by a shrunken sea-creature hanging on the wall of the laundry which was apparently a dead ringer for a tokoloshe.
So I did what any self-respecting mental health professional does in this sort of situation. I went to ask my OIC (officer in charge) at the sick bay. “Oh no,” she said immediately. No sick leave granted (unless the ‘bewitchment’ is of a serious enough nature to land them in hospital) and if he wants leave for a cleansing ceremony it will have to come off his annual leave. Problem solved.
But I was still left wondering about those little men. A quick internet search revealed 88,000 hits, including this un-PC (and rather ungrammatical) explanation:
The tokoloshe is a short, hairy, dwarf-like creature from Bantu folklore. It is a mischievous and evil spirit that can become invisible by swallowing a pebble. Tokoloshes are called upon by malevolent people to cause trouble for others. At it’s least harmful a tokoloshe can be used to scare children, but it’s power extends to causing illness and even death upon the victim.
The penis of the tokoloshe 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.
In South Africa, where many white families have 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 tokoloshe.
The way to get rid of him is to call in the n’anga or witch-doctor who has the power to banish him from the area.
Wikipedia even has its own entry for the tikoloshe (which is the more accepted term) here. The analytical part of me immediately made the connection between external and internal loci of control, and I tried to reframe it for him as depression. No, he said, he wasn’t interested in counselling. The only thing for him was a cleansing ceremony carried out by a traditional healer back home. (I’m still not sure what to make of the pebble that makes you invisible though. That’s one for the cultural anthropologists.)