Name: Rafee (from Eccentric Yoruba)
Country of Origin: Nigeria
A few months ago, possibly June, I had the the pleasure of reading Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda. That book is a short but very amazing one, I immediately fell in love with the characters especially the hero Toloki and the other most important character, Noria. As the title suggests this book is obsessed with Death. Toloki leaves his village for the city and becomes a professional mourner who sings dirges at funerals for a fee.
Ways of Dying is the first book by a South African author I’ve read but what struck me the most while reading the book is that I could see parts of the story happening in Nigeria. This was especially in connection to the supernatural element present in the book which I appreciated. The more I read books from several parts of Africa in which ‘weird’ supernatural things happen, the more I thought of this possible ‘supernatural’ connection between African countries. Now, I have been forced to consider the ‘supernatural’ connection in my African childhood.
I grew up knowing and fearing all sorts of creatures from Nigerian and African folklore. When young children misbehave, even today, they are told that if they are stubborn, ojuju would catch them. I have no idea which language ojuju comes from but I believe it refers to a masquerade. The ojuju was my earliest encounter with the supernatural and fear of it reigned supreme especially when lights were turned off during bedtime, you never knew ojuju could be hiding under your bed or lurking in shadowy corners.
There was also the famous Mami Wata, that beautiful woman with thick long hair who lured people to her underwater kingdom. She was always described as a witch by distant aunties and uncles who had stories to tell about their encounters with the Mami Wata. They would tell me how while walking in the open air market or driving down the highway they saw a beautiful woman and how though she tried to tempt them with either her beauty or her riches they managed to escape her evil clutches.
I grew up in a Muslim home which means I was also introduced to supernatural beings from Islamic folkore; the jinn. Jinn are also known as genies and no, they are not friendly and they do not live in lamps or grant people three wishes rather they are downright fearful and menacing. Jinn are beings made from fire who live on earth like humans but whom humans cannot see. They are also powerful and can perform magic spells. They can also take likings to humans during which they ‘possess’ people and do all sorts of horrible things to them. The only way to be free of the jinn is to be prayerful and hope not to encounter one of their kind.
There were mermaids who also doubled up as witches, there was the Lady in White in secondary school who could supposedly be seen on dark nights, there were ghosts and spirits that were just aching to possess’ you so that they could use your body to live a second time, there was the abiku the hungry being that latches on to children for
sustenance and so much more!
Now, no one can frighten me with tales of otherworldly beings yet I possess this profound interest in the supernatural which I trace back to the stories I heard while growing up. Masquerades don’t scare me and I regard Mami Wata not as a witch but as a goddess who is worshiped by some practitioners of African traditional religions. I don’t believe in witches and demons who are just out to make my life miserable. Yet any time I see mermaids depicted in a Yoruba movie I am watching, I get delirious. I enjoy reading books by African authors that introduce the supernatural for example in Ways of Dying, Noria had to wait for a ridiculous number of months (I think it was more
than a year) before giving birth to her baby boy. (I am not going to go into that time when I was 12 or 13 and I read about a woman who was pregnant for 14 months or so before giving birth to an animal!)
When Noria’s son was tragically killed as a child, she found herself pregnant again even though ‘no man had touched her’ and she gave birth to another son who she recognised as her very first son. I am a wanna-be author who finds it difficult to write a story without adding something extra or ‘weirdly’ supernatural. I personally believe that my African childhood is the root of my interest today in speculative fiction and fantasy. What was real to me as a child became a source of fictional inspiration as a adult. And while I maintain a grotesque love for the supernatural, it hurts my heart when adults take the supernatural for real. That should be for children.