Those little men

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.)

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10 Responses to Those little men

  1. Dick says:

    Interesting. Easy to mock at worst or, at best, adopt the wry detachment of the Western anthropologist. But our culture is riven with superstition that, in the face of all of our scientific knowledge and philosophical sophistication, just won’t go away. From the avoidance of the underside of ladders to the entire panoply of Judao-Christian liturgy, we’re no great distance from those tokoloshe men.

  2. Bee says:

    I’ve never heard of tokoloshe . . . but I think that they might have “sprung” from the fantasies of men! I found the detail of the hair-cutting, a la Sampson, intriguing.

  3. Pete says:

    Dick – You’re right, and I think you’ve helped me to realise some of my discomfort around this case. As you say, it’s easy to laugh at others’ superstitions when we have so many of our own. Thanks for the perspective.

    Bee – I was also interested that the evil spirits are men and was thinking “why no female tokoloshes”? But I suppose there are enough witches that get demonised too. The hair-thing for me was a nice touch – the caring witch cutting her little spirit’s fringe.

  4. doctordi says:

    I’m with Dick. I’m such a sceptic by nature, and yet I find odd contradictions in my own behaviour all the time. I sort of believe (I’d prefer to use another word to distance myself from what I’m about to say, but I can’t find one) in mental telepathy (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found myself thinking intently about someone I’ve not been in contact with for some time only to have them call or email me that same day – and that’s the tip of the telepathic iceberg), but I don’t believe in many other things that are only as implausible as that. Why mental telepathy and not little men? Beats me. I’m becoming much more attached to the idea that people will always believe whatever they want to believe. Life’s too short to shoot down other people’s faith in all the great many things that probably don’t exist. People seem to need to believe in something – even if that’s nothing.

  5. litlove says:

    I have ‘lucky’ clothes that I wear and a marked tendency to put my right shoe on before my left shoe, so I’m in no position to criticise. I would love to stop being superstitious – doesn’t seem to happen, however much I account for it to myself as a creeping desire to master the vagaries of the universe. I read that more people will bet on dice before they are thrown than after, in the belief they can somehow influence the outcome with their fervent hopes. So, it’s in us all, one way or another. That bit about the penis being slung over the shoulder was hilarious in an alarming sort of way.

  6. Pete says:

    Di – Yes, I agree that we shouldn’t shoot down other people’s superstitions. But I also think there’s a difference between mild superstitions and more major ones (that start to look a lot like delusions). So I really think that blaming little men (or evil spirits) for one’s misfortunes rather than taking some responsibility for one’s own actions is unhelpful (and dysfunctional). But I guess it’s about respectfully disagreeing in such cases. But the telepathy sounds interesting. I like to play the telepathy game with P. “What am I thinking now?” I’ll say, usually when I’m thinking that some tea would be nice (and hoping that she’ll make it!)

    Litlove – I also remember reading (and commenting on) Dick’s blog that superstitions are part of who we are and they’re comforting. But at some point we also need to take responsiblity for our own actions. So yours are fine. As for the tokoloshe’s penis, that was hilarious (and very possibly wishful thinking on the part of the men who invented this idea in the first place).

  7. Little people similar to these are also legend in some European countries as well as among the Aboriginal peoples in Canada (Ontario for example). Since it’s such a universal part of folklore, I wonder where it comes from. But if a healing ceremony by a tribal doctor can cure the problem, isn’t that quicker than therapy (and has fewer side effects that meds) for depression?

  8. Pete says:

    Lilian – Welcome! Good point, but I’m not sure that the cleansing ceremony necessarily cures the problem. It will definitely help, but unless it encourages some sort of taking responsibility for one’s actions rather than putting the blame on others, I can’t see it as a lasting solution. Maybe organisations are short-sighted in not recognising traditional medicine but the only way to change that is for traditional healers’ organisations to take the matter up at a higher level. Placebos also work so there’s also that route.

  9. Riani says:

    Mmm, makes you think about your own belief system, doesn’t it? I’m a Christian, and I get fairly peeved off when people use science to refute the existance of God. Not because they can prove there is no God, but because they can’t prove there isn’t a God. So who are they to say I am wrong, when they can’t prove it? When confronted with other people’s believes, no matter how ridiculous it seems to me, that becomes my guiding principle. Just because it seems weird / strange / ridiculous (insert your adjective of choice) to me, unless I can prove it isn’t, it just might be.
    As for the therapeutic aspect. you talk about taking responsibility, and that is my instinctive feeling as well, but that is exactly the kind of “Euro centric” approach we have to guard against. I live in the Dubai, a very multi-cultural place, and I am constantly amased at the number of cultures where people don’t take any personal responsibility for their actions. It’s either a collective responsibility, or blame must be apportioned. To someone else. Maybe I should explore what psychological approaches there are to dealing with that in a culturally sensitive manner. Will tell you if I come accross anything.

  10. Owen Swart says:

    I did a brief sceptical analysis of the Tokoloshe mythology on my blog recently: http://01universe.blogspot.com/2008/11/tokoloshe.html

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