The Creatures in the Shadows: West Africa - Fantasy-Factionfantasy- ?· The Creatures in the Shadows: West Africa Elves, trolls, dwarves, goblins ... The Abiku dwarves, on the other hand, also of the Yoruba, ...

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    The Creatures in the Shadows: West Africa

    Elves, trolls, dwarves, goblins... Theres no denying that the Western fantasy is stronglyentrenched in a Northern European mindscape: those ancient myths of the Celtic and Germanicpeople that inspired Tolkien and his epigones. Writing about elves and dwarves is always a safebet; when an author wants to be original and adventurous, they might look into the myths of theMediterranean: Greek, Roman, Egyptian. Sometimes we venture into the Far East, andpopulate our worlds with qilin and long dragons, or, even rarer, into India or Persia. This seemsto be the farthest horizon of our inspiration. Beyond that is the weird territory, with creaturesborn out of the writers own half-deranged mind in an attempt at uniqueness not that theresanything wrong with that.

    But the world is vast and old, and every culture has its share of strange and fascinating; there isa vast stock of ideas out there that you can tap into before running out of inspiration. In thisseries I will attempt to present some of these myths and legends. In the first episode, I tacklethe mythologies of Western and South-Western Africa, a region stretching from Sahara Desertto the jungles of Congo, populated by a complex mix of cultures, nations, tribes and peoplesdescended from ancient Empires.

    Vampires of Light

    One of the most fascinating creatures of the West African folklore are the vampiric beingswhich, unlike their European counterparts, seem to have an affinity to the light instead ofdarkness. Take the Adze of Togo and Ghana: a blood-sucking, shape-shifting witch thattransforms itself into a firefly.

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    As a firefly, it can pass through closed doors and windows at night, and, after it turns back into ahumanoid form, sucks its victim dry.

    Or the Obayifo of the Ashanti, also known as Asiman in Dahomey: this vampire sorcerer travelsas a ball of light, able to possess animals and humans. The possessed human shines light fromits mouth, armpits and...other orifices; this doesnt stop it from prowling in the night, searchingfor prey. The Obayifo is a powerful, malevolent spirit, causing blight to crops, withering fruit, andfinally, sucking blood of humans. Like the Adze, the Obayifo have a special taste for children.

    The Asanbosam is perhaps the most awesome and imaginative of the vampiric creatures: agreat ogre with iron teeth and iron claws, hanging from trees, waiting for the prey to comebelow. Its kin, Sasabonsam, has huge, bat-like wings, is as tall as a tree and teeth sharp likespears.

    Lost World

    The tropical jungles of Congo and Zaire have, in local legends, been populated by a host ofmythical, cryptid monsters, giving rise to the tales of the Lost Land where the dinosaurs stillroam as if no extinction has ever happened. For the less imaginary Victorian explorers, thesewere all supposed to be real animals, remnant of the ages past.

    There are benign ones, like the Ambize Angulo, or hog-fish so called because it is as fat as ahog, and produces lard; and the fierce monsters, like the breaker of boats Kongamato ared-and-black pterosaur with leathery wings and terrible claws. The Ninki Nanka is a dragonliving in the swamps of Senegal and Gambia, while the Mokele-mbembe he who stops theflow of rivers is an elephant-sized creature with long neck and a small tail, Kongos distantcousin of Nessie.

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    The pygmies of Central Africa live in fear of many-horned, rhinoceros-like monsters which wereoften assumed to be surviving ceratops: the six-horned Ngoubou, or the dreaded Emela-ntouka,the slayer of the elephants. The Congolese also speak of a smaller beast, a donkey-sizedunicorn called Abada. Finally, there is the Nguma-monene, great python a 10-meter long,greyish-brown lizard with a ridge of spines on its back, so big that it hunts hippos, and itssmaller, green, herbivorous cousin, Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu.

    If you are in need of a really grand dragon-like creature, you could do worse than makingacquaintance of the Rainbow Serpents the God Serpents, Damballa and Aiya Weddo, presentin myths of peoples of Benin, Dahomey and Nigeria, and, through Voodoo, transported into theCaribbean. These snakes took part in the creation of the world, and are mounts for the Gods and when they ride out, they form rainbow in the sky.

    Forest Fairies and Evil Children

    The forests and jungles of West Africa are inhabited by a multitude of fairies and gnomes, mostof which are either benevolent or, at worst, trickstery. The few evil ones usually take possessionof children, either causing them to die from some wasting disease, or else misbehave and ruintheir parents. The Emere of Yoruba culture are a sort of super children, who can travel betweenthe worlds at will, are beautiful and powerful the Elves of West Africa. The Abiku dwarves, onthe other hand, also of the Yoruba, will eat and drink anything the child eats, and when itinevitably dies, it moves on to another victim.

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    Of other forest creatures, the Yumboes are silver-haired white dwarves who care for a chosenfamily and grieve whenever something bad happens. The Wokulo of Mali are hairy, 3ft highmostly invisible creatures who steal food, and are strong enough to defeat the most powerfulwrestlers. The hairless, grass-covered, sharp-clawed Eloko of central Congo haunt the huntersand scare their hapless wives, often eating their victims. The Aziza of Dahomey are theirbenevolent counterparts: tiny, hairy, living in anthills, smoking long pipes and providing whitemagic and spiritual advice for the hunters. Finally, theres the Egbere fairy, with its precioussleeping mat take it away, and it will follow you everywhere, wailing.

    Not all forest dwellers are diminutive; the terrible Yehwe Zogbanu of Dahomey is an ogre-sizedgiant, with thirty horns on his head and body.

    Rivers and Tricksters

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    The rivers of West Africa are dangerous, too: in Nigeria live the Ikaki, human-slaying waterspirits of Nigeria, taking the shape of an evil tortoise; in Congo, you can meet the disease-spreading water nymphs, Bisimbi Bi Masa, who are so dangerous only the bravest hunters andwitch doctors dare to enter their abode.

    A separate breed of mythical creatures are the tricksters: often taking the shape of a particularanimal, the tricksters are common to most cultures of the world; in West Africa, some of themost popular ones are Ngofariman, the cunning chimpanzee of Mali, and of course Anansi theSpider, originally from Ghana, now spread throughout the Caribbeans and USA, the favourite ofchildrens stories.

    These are just some of the legendary creatures you can meet in the fantastic West Africa; thereare many more, from wise talking oxes to smoke ghosts possessing tribal dancers. In the nextinstalment, Ill be moving to the East and South on a grand journey from the Cape of GoodHope to the Horn of Africa.

    Check back next month, we'll be looking at Eastern and Southern African creatures.

    Title image by Francesco Francavilla.

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