As South Africans there are words and names that we all know – there’s no context needed to understand what these words mean or recognize the names.

Koeksisters, eTolls, braai, pap – there are plenty of words that you can add to this list. And one of the words that definitely belongs there, too, is Tikoloshe or Tokoloshe.

We’ve all heard of this creature – and most of us use the term as a joke, or even to scare people. Perhaps it can even be used as an insult, as in: You look like a Tokoloshe! But all of these jokes and yes, even the stories, hide the information that really matters: where did the Tokoloshe come from? What is it? What does it do? Does it truly exist?

Let’s look at the information that’s available:

As every culture that has ever existed (and will ever exist) has mythologies – tales that explain the origins of people, creatures, beliefs, etc.- so does the Tokoloshe. In Zulu mythology the creature is said to be a mischievous, dwarf-like water-sprite that can become invisible when it drinks water. Those who know how can call upon a Tokoloshe to do really bad things, ranging from making the targeted person ill to even going so far as causing their death. The Tokoloshe can only be banished by a n’anga or witch doctor, so be careful, folks! 😉

Some have described the Tokoloshe as a type of zombie, gremlin and even a poltergeist (probably after it drank water to become invisible), and some believe that offending a shaman will get you targeted by a Tokoloshe.

It has even been described as having a bear’s form, which might be going a bit far since bears aren’t native to the continent of Africa (except for the Atlas bear, which lived in the north of Africa but went extinct in the 19th century).

Most people, however, agree that the Tokoloshe is mischievous and that one of the only true defences against it is to set your bed on bricks, raising it high enough off the floor so that the naughty, dangerous thing can’t reach you.

You want to know what’s scarier than a Tokoloshe scampering across your bedroom floor toward you? How about a serial killer blaming what he did on the Tokoloshe!

Yep, in 1953, a Tokoloshe apparently instructed Elifasi Msomi (also called The Axe Killer) to kill women and children. After an 18-month killing spree, during which Msomi murdered (and sometimes raped) 15 people, he was hanged, but not before telling anyone who would listen that a Tokoloshe made him do it. Apparently, the Tokoloshe attached itself to him after he visited a Sangoma, and when the Tokoloshe told him to begin killing, he did.

What’s also interesting is that Msomi’s story caused consternation among the Zulu in Natal of that time, and nine Chiefs and Elders were allowed to attend Msomi’s execution to make sure that the Tokoloshe didn’t save the murder.

So, what do you think? Is it a real creature? Well, I personally know a couple of people who have seen it, and if there’s one thing I know it’s that it’s dangerous to discredit or laugh about something you know nothing about.

Who knows…? One evening you might wake up to see a long-fingered, weird hand reaching across the duvet towards your face… 😉

In my next article, I’ll tell you about the creatures that might have inspired the Tokoloshe’s legend.