50. The Tokolosh.

I have just come back from a night away in a game reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province. It’s a strange old place. It’s a bit of a backwater in South Africa. It doesn’t have any big cities, and the provincial government is riddled with corruption and incompetence. But that doesn’t mean that nothing interesting goes on there. On the contrary. For example there has, of late, been a sudden and massive surge in sales of coloured salt in the Limpopo. Special salt. This salt;

As subtle as it is effective.

As subtle as it is effective.

It is a local solution to a nationwide problem. Most people tend to tackle the problem with paint tins.

When I was small, we, like millions of other South Africans, had a live in maid; a woman who had a small flat on our property where she stayed during the week. We were all very close to her, and would sometimes visit her in her rooms. Which were ordinary enough except for one thing. Her bed was raised up on paint tins. She was neither a tall nor a particularly athletic woman, and the setup looked positively life threatening. It was, she told us, for protection against the Tokolosh.

Not pictured; the springboard used to get into bed at night.

Not pictured; the springboard used to get into bed at night.

No, that is not her bed. That is an art. But it is an art based on a widely observed practice. Throughout the country, people sleep in beds raised up on bricks or paint tins. The Tokolosh is not to be trifled with.

And what, you may ask, is a Tokolosh? Or a Tokoloshe? Or a Tokoloshi? That’s kind of hard to explain, because it is many things. It is the local version of the bogey man. It is the terror that goes bump in the night. It’s a poltergeist. It’s a succubus. It’s a brownie. It’s a Zombie. It is the story that parents tell their children to scare them straight.

It's a burnt potato.

It’s a burnt potato.

It started out, from what I can find out, as a Zulu water sprite, but that’s not what it is any more. There is no clear description of what it looks like, but everyone agrees on a couple of things. It is short. It is hairy. Thanks to a magical pebble that it holds in its mouth, it is invisible to all but children. Then things get a bit freaky. It has a single buttock, and a penis so long it is carried over the shoulder.

Whatever else it may be, it is not pretty.

Whatever else it may be, it is not pretty.

Like the hidden folk of western folklore, it doesn’t really have a single origin story. One tale says that it was once a naughty little boy who constantly taunted a local wizard, who lured him down to the beach and threw magic salt on him, tuning him into a hideous little creature. Another says that Tokoloshes are created by evil inyangas or sangomas (essentially traditional healers, but for the purposes of stories like these, witches or wizards) by performing a spell on a dead body, which they bring under their control by sticking a red-hot poker in its head.

The Tokolosh covers a lot of bases. It is, at its mildest, a mischievous little imp, fond of children and full of playful, if slightly mean spirited, tricks. Mock him though, and he can turn truly nasty, poltergeist style. Under the control of an evil witch or wizard, he is malevolent in the extreme.

That’s all just background though. What I wanted to tell you today was that the Tokolosh is real. Maybe he’s not hiding behind the cupboard or anything, but he does have a profound effect on the behaviour of millions of South Africans. Here’s a little bit of news;


Tokoloshe story by Sboniso Shozi and Abraham Kortjaas


You will notice that those headlines and reports are all from the same paper. But it is the paper most read by those for whom the Tokolosh is real. This stuff is taken as gospel.

But the solution is on the horizon.

But the solution is on the horizon.

It’s easy to laugh at these people. But bear in mind that brownies and elves and fairies might be children’s’ stories now, but for thousands of years they were all too terrifyingly real. And they weren’t the Enid Blyton versions, either. They were there to serve a purpose. As odd as it seems to us now, they made the world easier to understand. They were the reason some people went mad. They explained things like epilepsy and food poisoning and lightening. They accounted for disappeared children.

Millions of people in South Africa are poorly educated, and just poor. The Tokolosh, for them, serves the same purposes.

South Africa is a violent and fractured place. Part of that violence is sexual.


The Tokolosh is a sexual being. And not in a good way. He is a rapist. Those beds up on tins and bricks are there to keep people out of reach of that shoulder-slung penis. On one level, he can be used to explain away pregnancies and infidelities, but on another, far more horrifying level, he can serve an abused child as a substitute for the trusted, loved abuser. And now he’s doing this, too;


Do not mistake the Tokoloshe for a “black” thing, either. This is Nicolette Lotter.


She, with her brother, murdered her parents. At her trial, as part of her defence, she stood up and testified that she had been repeatedly raped by  a Tokolosh.

Belief in the Tokoloshe has become a universal thing. White people from the poorer streets of Pretoria fear it. Indian people down in Durban fear it. Malays from Cape Town fear it. Zulus fear it. Xhosas, Pedis, Vendas fear it.

But you need not. Should you find yourself visiting our sunny shores, just pick up a jar of Day-Glo salt at the airport. I’m not suggesting for a second that you would be credulous enough to believe in the little buggers, but it’s not worth taking any chances and besides, protecting yourself is cheap and you can colour coordinate your protection with your luggage.

Now also available in basic black.

Now also available in basic black.

43 thoughts on “50. The Tokolosh.

  1. BBM says:


  2. […] 50. The Tokolosh. (23thorns.com) […]

  3. dweezer19 says:

    Wow. If only Id known he was around to blame everything on before now….😉

  4. Fascinating! And weird as hell. And scarier than it is weird.


  5. Office Diva says:

    I like the part about the Tokoloshe being used to “explain” the bad things that happen to people. It’s surely the truth the people cannot fathom why bad things happen, and so they create their answers. Makes a lot of sense. Great post, and I learned a lot. Thank you!

  6. Dr. K says:

    Nice description of a set of cultural practices that, as bizarre as they may sound to outsiders, have a real effect on people’s lives. This is what we anthropologists study all the time and it makes the world a much more interesting place to learn about how other people understand their worlds and the threats in them. Thanks for a very interesting blog. Now here did I put those paint can….

    • 23thorns says:

      It’s a constantly evolving thing, too. This is not some rural throwback to the distant past. The Tokolosh has come to town, and he’s keeping up with the times. I think he mostly serves as a repository for cultural fears.

  7. I’m not sure what to comment so i won’t… maybe tomorrow!

  8. Mpho says:

    I also have to say, I didn’t know the reasons for beds on tins. I just though maybe the original ones broke. And I grew up near a mountain, snakes were common, maybe not the deadly type but a snake is a snake so a bed on the floor was askining to wake up with one. And mama really left no room for superstitious gargage, her words. Lol!

  9. Mpho says:

    I have tears in my eyes from laughing so hard…I have to admit that looking at the Daily Sun newspaper people from outside would think we’re living in a real-life Haven. I prefer the English word goblin for tokoloshi, description matches closer than vampire or zombie. Anyway, and Aussie friend of mine tagged m on the link below on FB, check it out. Ridicoulously funny. I don’t know why I find this funny, I guess I don’t take superstitions much seriously. http://thewatchtowers.com/goblin-attack-closes-zimbabwe-medical-clinic-nurses-refuse-to-return-to-work/

  10. safia says:

    Do they do that salt in lime green?

  11. I think I now better understand why people continue to re-elect the ANC given such a superstitious mindset…

    A fascinating insight into South African culture!

    • 23thorns says:

      I don’t think that has anything to do with superstition. It has everything to do with the fact that they were liberated by the ANC, and the only credible opposition looks rather startlingly like the people they were liberated from. But things are slowly changing.

  12. Lyn says:

    Dear Mr23Thonrs, your knowledge of the wonderful, the strange, the macabre, the mundane, the terrifying is astounding! Mrs23Thorns and your Thornettes must be immensely proud of your ability to educate and entertain those of us in blogosphere who follow your daily dose of writerly delights. Another fine missive!

    • 23thorns says:

      Thank you. If I tell the thornettes about the Tokolosh, I will have to sleep on quite a few paint tins to stay out of reach of Mrs 23thorns

  13. mariekeates says:

    Certainly makes our garden gnomes look quite tame and they used to scare me senseless when I was little.

    • 23thorns says:

      If you delve into the legions of the “hidden folk” in Britain, there is plenty there that makes the Tokolosh look like a garden gnome.

  14. I’m not in the habit of laughing at people’s beliefs, even if I disagree with them. I am, however, in the habit of laughing at tabloids. Hey, your gossip rags have the Tokolosh, ours have Bat Boy…so I guess it could be worse.

    • 23thorns says:

      Nope, nothing to laugh at here really. The Tokolosh is an object of real fear and distress for millions out here. As for the “Daily Sun”, it is an object of real distress for me. To get the ear of so many who have no other access to information, and to use it like this…

  15. narf77 says:

    Why on EARTH would I laugh at the people that hold the Tokoloshe sacred when I live in a country that harbours Min min. Min min come and steal children. Then they eat them. No getting them back after that…at least the Tokoloshe gives you a bit of a running start and a chance to get them back, albeit scarred for life…We also have the Aussie version of Bigfoot in the form of Yowies. They seem to just yell a lot and a cynical person might be forgiven for thinking that Yowies are heard most often (in both bush AND city) on Friday and Saturday nights and well into the early mornings…and the mind boggles at the plethora of grotesque apparitions that are conjured up on a regular basis (usually at night) in every single country on earth…one Mr David Icke appears to be the chief harbinger of “the truth” about just about every single one of them. Maybe if we stand him on some paint cans with an armed guard the Tokoloshe will lose their power? Either that or we can just all buy some of that wonderfully luminescent Tokoloshe salt and sprinkle a rainbow of truth on Mr Icke and surely he will do what all slugs do and melt? Might be worth an experiment the next time he is peddling his “truth” in Africa 😉

    • Don’t forget the bunyip and drop bears either.

    • 23thorns says:

      We seem to have taken almost every mythical creature out there and worked part of it into the Tokolosh.
      As for the good Mr Icke, I’m sure I’d be enraged by his ramblings if only I could read more than three lines at a time. Eloquent he is not!

      • narf77 says:

        Agreed…but you should see him work a video! 😉 We have a crazy Californian friend who is completely and utterly enamoured of Mr Icke and his theories of relativity and who feels the need to give us copious quantities of C.Ds and literature (conversely reminiscent of an anti-Jehovah’s witness) and once you get past the dragon people, the aliens, the fact that we are all just streams of enlightenment that the government is trying to steal it’s all gravy! 😉

  16. I still believe brownies are real. I made a pan of them the other day, and they weren’t scary at all. Just chocolate.
    Great post, I feel all high-brow because I learned something about another culture. Going to color salt and sprinkle on my children now.

  17. sisteranan says:

    So… not to be dense or anything, but how exactly is this salt supposed to be used? *holds jar of orange salt perplexedly… thrown over shoulder? dissolved in bath? stuffed up both nostrils? I need to know the proper tokoloshe-banishing technique, or goodness only knows what could happen.

    • 23thorns says:

      I have absolutely no idea. I only learned about it last week. Try it on a large, flame grilled, medium-rare steak and let me know if that works.

  18. Ha ha. The Tokoloshe….great memories of Africa and it’s wonders.

  19. Why do I feel like crying and laughing? You are so smart. Pleaaaaaase write a book. And please give Mrs. 23 huge kiss and hug and anything else she asks for. I love your family. Stay safe.

  20. Yikes. He’s a nasty little chap isn’t he… I think it advisable to wear protective Tokoloshe galoshes when out and about.

  21. TamrahJo says:

    Wonderful post – and congrats on the 1/2 way mark to 100!

  22. Buzzwordz says:

    You bring back the best memories! Please pass the salt.

  23. johnjroberts says:

    This Toko thing sounds a little like my neighbor. Do they migrate?

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