Africa is a land of wide open spaces and many tribes exist who are still living today more or less as they have done for centuries, perhaps even millennia. Their oral traditions live with them in the form of wonderful African myths and legends – stories told again and again over the fires and thereby passed down through the generations. Many are cheerful, full of benign gods and helpful spirits – but others have a distinctly darker tone. The presence of elders especially if they are the ones telling the stories convey a sense of reality making such African legends and myths even more believable. If you have ever thought about some of the mysterious African stories, then it is worthwhile reading through this article as we explore five most creepy of those African myths and legends.
1. The Human-Eating Tree of Madagascar
Trees in African lore are generally good things; the people need firewood, goats eat the leaves, bees and birds make their nests in them, drums and boats are made from the wood. Big trees are believed to have spirits, to which the people listen carefully, and if kept happy the spirits will, for instance, protect boatmen riding in boats made from their tree. However, in Madagascar, there is a tree that will use its branches to catch people up, then opens its bark and swallow them whole – and the friends and relatives will hear the victim singing a goodbye song from inside the trunk. The only way to save them is to pay a fee to the Woodpecker so that he will use his magic powers and sharp bill to open the tree and release the trapped person.
2. Oi, the Spirit of Disease
The Suk of Mount Elgon in Western Kenya used to live as a tribe of strong warriors and hunters, with a reputation that in the nineteenth century, was fiercer than that of the powerful Maasai-Samburu. However, they decided to change their way of life completely and moved down to the Kerio Valley to become peaceful cattle-herders. In their beliefs, illness or disease in an individual is blamed on the spirit of disease, Oi, and he needs to be expelled for the person to recover. To do this, they believe they must first empty the house of the sufferer, so when the priests come in to cast out the evil spirit it will have nothing left to lurk behind. When someone dies, death ‘infects’ their hut and the family will move out after burying the dead within it and shaving their own heads in bereavement (although mourning only continues until the next new moon). The loss of the home was not a great problem as the nomadic tribe would be moving on anyway.
3. Life After Death?
One of the most popular African myths and legends is the one that has long been told about the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, where people are expected to return to the clan in the form of a newborn baby, and who a child is can be determined by its resemblance to the original person. A boy that resembles his paternal grandfather will be named Babatunde (‘father returns’), the female equivalent being Yetunde (‘Mother returns’). When dying, a person’s spirit may visit relatives to inform them of the impending death, which they will feel even from a great distance as a cold presence. Most strange, however, is their belief that if a person dies young, their ghost can go to another town and live there as if they were not dead, even marrying a living woman who would not realise he was already dead! Eventually the ‘final hour’ arrives and the man dies a second time, with the wife, presumably, never knowing she had been married to a ghost!
4. The Spirits of the Kikuyu
One of the most famous African legends is attributed to the Kikuyu tribe of Mount Kenya, which has it a person’s spirit can be a terrible thing. After death this spirit, ‘Ngoma’, becomes a ghost, and if the person was murdered, the Ngoma will pursue the one who murdered him until the murderer comes out of hiding and gives himself up to the police, with imprisonment being considered a better option than continuing to run from a vengeful spirit! The spirits of elders are especially feared, so their burial rituals are executed meticulously to ensure the spirits are not upset. Fortunately less important people have less dangerous spirits.
5. The Origin of Elephants
Since elephants are as intelligent as humans, the Kamba tribe of Kenya believes that they must have originated from man. In their beliefs, a very poor man consulted someone called Ivonya-Ngia (‘He that feeds the Poor’) for help in alleviating his troubles; although offered cattle and sheep, he refused the gift, asking instead to be told how to become rich himself. The strange reply is to be given a flask of ointment which he is told he should rub on his wife’s canine teeth, wait until they have grown and then sell them! He does this, extracting the teeth when they are a couple of feet long and selling them in the village for a herd of goats.
However, when the wife’s teeth grow again she refuses to let him remove them and now her body grows too and her skin becomes thick and grey, until she bursts out of the hut and walks away, going to live in the forest as an elephant. Her husband visits her there but she refuses to come back, and in due course she has several healthy children, all elephants as well, who form the first herd … well, it’s as good an explanation as any!
African legends have been told for long and some of these stories are ages old but one thing remains certain: there will always be new legends but how wide they would be able to travel remains a question. You can use the comment box below to add more African myths and legends you know.