A clash of cultures when an African demon appears at a family's home
Written for June 2009 round of "Project Write World" to the following prompt:
An expert is a man who tells you a simple thing in a confused way in such a fashion as to make you think the confusion is your own fault.
“Mom, there’s something wrong with Chipo. Have you spoken to her this morning?”
Claire looked up as her daughter Tara came through to the patio carrying the jug of milk she’d heated up in the kitchen. Her husband Nigel glanced up from his newspaper, peering at his wife over the top of his glasses. Claire sighed and deliberately stirred her coffee, annoyed that her enjoyment of her peaceful morning garden had been interrupted.
“Good morning, Tara,” she answered. “And no, I have not spoken to Chipo because I haven’t seen her yet. She was late.”
“What’s wrong with her now?” Nigel’s crisp London voice was brisk in the tranquil morning. Claire sighed inwardly, imagining the tiny masked weavers gathered around her bird bath frantically flying away in terror at the sound of her husband’s voice. His bossy baritone was perfectly suited to his position at the British High Commission’s offices, but here at their lovely home in Harare’s Belgravia suburb it was obnoxious and annoying.
“Well, she looks like she’s been crying,” Tara said, loudly biting into a piece of toast. “And she’s walking around all hunched over and miserable, as if she’s sore. I asked her if she was okay, and she just shook her head.”
Nigel rustled his copy of The Herald loudly. “Better give her the weekend off. Give her some time to get over whatever is bothering her.”
“That’s hardly practical, Nigel.” Noisily Claire pushed her chair back from the table. “Have you forgotten about the dinner party tonight? Max and Sharon are coming, and so is your boss – the Ambassador. If you want this dinner to be a success then you need to understand that I need Chipo to help me today. If she’s that sick she can go tomorrow. I’d better go and see what’s wrong with her.”
Claire shoved her chair back under the table, wanting to make more noise than her family. It had no effect on either of them. Tara continued crunching toast and Nigel rustled the newspaper.
Claire found Chipo in the scullery, listlessly sorting out the laundry. Tara was right; their housekeeper was not her usual, cheery self.
The family had moved to Zimbabwe three years ago when Nigel accepted a transfer to run the trade department at the British High Commission. Chipo’s older sister worked for Sharon, their next door neighbour who had become one of Claire’s closest friends. Sharon had ensured Claire slipped easily into the role of accomplished diplomatic spouse, encouraging her to join the bridge club and enlisting her as her partner at regular social tennis afternoons.
Sharon and Chipo had met them at their new home the day they arrived in Zimbabwe. Initially, Claire expressed concern about employing Chipo to run their new home, believing it would be no different to their townhouse in London. Claire was a practical woman, and she ran her home and her family’s life smoothly and efficiently.
Before they moved Nigel told her they’d be living in a much larger home, and would need staff to help them look after the house and the garden. Claire informed him she didn’t need any help, reminding him of how well she’d run their lives for the last fifteen years. Unfortunately Nigel was insistent, and determined they would take advantage of one of the remnants of the country’s colonial lifestyles – servants.
“Everybody has them,” he said. “Gardener, housekeeper, cook, childminder - whatever you want. They’re not expensive, and every suburban family employs a few of them.”
At their first meeting Chipo had curtsied to Claire, much to the latter’s horror. Despite Nigel’s obvious enjoyment at this quaint custom Claire found it embarrassing and asked Chipo not to do it again. Chipo had apologised, smiling shyly at her new employer. She was a neat girl with a smooth, shining skin and close cropped hair. Her brilliant white eyes and teeth shone out of her happy, contented face. She always wore a colourful patterned uniform to work, with a matching covering her head and a neat white apron with a frill matching the shirtwaister-style dress. Her favourite shoes were the local Bata lace-up sneakers, worn with achingly bright white socks.
Today, however, Chipo’s bright uniform simply highlighted her distress. Leaning over the laundry basket she looked exhausted. She started when Claire greeted her.
“Oh, Madam I am not well today. I have a very big problem,” Chipo shook her head slowly, drawing out the word “very” to emphasise the extent of her “problem.” Claire asked her to explain.
“Madam, for two days now it has been bothering me. It wants to come into my room, and it was banging on my door. It is very, very loud. So I asked Samson for some bricks to keep me safe. But that is not working. Last night it was scratching and shouting and screaming at my window. I could not sleep. It wants to get me.”
Fat shiny tears shone in Chipo’s sad, bloodshot eyes as she finished her explanation. She wiped them away with the crisp white handkerchief she kept in her apron pocket, and started weeping. Claire sighed. Obviously Chipo was suffering from a recurring nightmare.
“Do you want to move into another room, Chipo?”
“Ah, no Madam,” Chipo's voice was loud in her desperation. “It doesn’t matter if I move, because it will find me. It wants me and now it’s going to get me!”
Poor Chipo wept, wailing as an African person does when grieving the death of a loved one. Between her sobs her fear was evident. She slid to the floor, moaning piteously.
“It will get me and I can do nothing! Nobody can help me now!”
Alarmed at the sounds from the kitchen, Nigel and Tara came through the door. Chipo was curled on the floor in a foetal position, mourning her imminent doom. Claire’s patience stretched further.
“’It’? Chipo, what is ‘It’?” She knelt next to the housekeeper, and touched her shoulder, trying to comfort the distraught girl. Chipo screamed loudly at Claire’s touch, crawling away from her hand.
“Madam, don’t touch me! If you touch me it will get you too!”
“Good grief!” Nigel, unable to cope with feminine tears, became brisk and practical. Bending down he put his hands on Chipo’s shoulders. “Come on, now - pull yourself together, girl. What's all this fuss about?”
Chipo’s tears subsided, and she looked up at Nigel with eyes huge with fear. Her faint whisper was barely audible.
“The Toko-“ she swallowed a sob. Nigel frowned.
“The Tokolosh!” Tara’s excited voice finished Chipo’s sentence. “Chipo, have you got a Tokolosh?”
“Yes, Tara,” Chipo answered. “But I don’t know why it has chosen me.”
Nigel shook his head, and left the kitchen. Claire told Tara to give Chipo a cup of tea, and followed her husband. He was getting ready to leave for work.
“What is a Tokolosh?” Claire asked him.
“Some ancient tribal belief that terrifies these people. It seems to feature in tribal cultures all over Africa. It’s ridiculous. If she can’t get this idea out of her head then I don’t want her working here. She’s obviously unstable. Would never have thought it of her, though – always seemed such a nice, sensible little girl. Please sort her out, darling. Remember, plenty more of her kind looking for a job.” And planting a kiss on Claire’s pale cheek he strode out of the house to his waiting driver.
Furious, Claire slammed the door. Nigel’s latent bigotry had only come to the fore once they moved to Zimbabwe. No wonder the people couldn’t wait to see the back of Rhodesia she thought, remembering Zimbabwe’s colonial name. Bigots like Nigel are an embarrassment to England.
“A Tokolosh is a bad thing, Mom,” Tara’s serious voice startled Claire.
“Where is Chipo?” Claire said, pouring herself a fresh cup of coffee from the filter machine on the oak dresser.
“In the kitchen. She’s too scared to go to her room. Mom, a Tokolosh is a demon. He’s really small and ugly. The girls at school are petrified of them. They attack women, and some of my friends put their beds on bricks so the Tokolosh can’t climb onto the bed.”
“So that’s why she asked Samson to get her some bricks,” said Claire. “I think perhaps if she’d thrown a brick at this ‘Tokolosh’ she might have got rid of the thing.”
Tara followed her mother into the kitchen. Warming to her subject she began to speak faster.
“They work for witches. Adults can’t usually see them because they suck on a pebble to stay invisible. They like children, though, and won’t hurt them. And if you see one you mustn’t look at it, talk to it or even point at it or it will attack you. My friend Tsitsi said last year one moved into their house. Every night after she and the family went to bed it would come into the house, and play on the computer. Every morning they would find the computer switched on, even after they turned it off before they went to bed.”
Claire stifled a quick smile. The stories shared at various tea and dinner parties about the African people’s belief in witches and wizards and ghosts were a source of much amusement. Usually dismissed as a fabrication of the mind, the general consensus was that once an employee began to be troubled by a supernatural being it was time to fire them.
Chipo was staring miserably into her tea cup. Claire sighed, prepared to make allowances for the unfortunate girl. She sat down next to her, and put her arm around her.
“Don’t worry, Chipo. We’ll see what we can do to get rid of this...”
“Tokolosh,” Tara finished her mother’s sentence. “You can’t just tell it to get lost, Mom. It’s not a pest. Only a witchdoctor can catch a Tokolosh.”
“That’s absurd,” Claire replied. “I’m sure Father Michael can cleanse the room. I’ll ask him to come over after lunch. He can say a few prayers. If it’s a demon a priest can exorcise it.”
Tara sighed. “Mom, it’s an African belief, not a European one! This isn’t ‘The Exorcist’! Samson’s uncle is a He can come and catch it. I’ll call him.”
Samson was their gardener. As Tara rushed off to find him, Claire began to feel surreal. Things like this didn’t happen in everyday life. This was like reading a ridiculous and silly ghost story. To practical Claire the idea of spirits and demons lurking around her maid’s room sounded frivolous. As poor Chipo shivered with fear, Claire began to feel angry that her culture encouraged these ideas. Even worse was realising the stories were thriving in modern educational facilities. Tara’s school was one of the top private schools in Harare. Surely they should have known better?
Samson appeared at the door, a nervous grin etched across his face. Claire asked him if his uncle had ever dealt with a Tokolosh before.
“Ah, many times, madam,” he confirmed, eyes dancing with a combination of excitement and fear. “He is a Tokolosh expert, and he has the to treat the Tokolosh.”
With a flourish he produced his cell phone and spoke to his uncle, who confirmed he would be at the house within two hours. Chipo seemed to relax at this news, and decided to go upstairs to clean the bedrooms.
Samson’s uncle arrived before lunch. Claire, expecting a man dressed in leopard skins with a bone through his nose and carrying a was surprised to be greeted by a well dressed man wearing an old, but immaculately clean and pressed pinstriped suit. Tall and slim, he was middle aged, his head peppered with grey hair and a neat goatee on his chin. He carried a black briefcase.
“ ” he greeted Claire politely. “My name is Leyland, and I have come to remove your Tokolosh.”
“Leyland? That’s not an African name,” said Claire.
“No, it is not,” he agreed. “My father was a driver, and he drove a British Leyland truck. I was named for the truck. They are very good trucks.”
Claire knew of the African tradition for naming their children in honour of a respected profession, an emotion or even an object. During the three years in Zimbabwe she’d met people bearing names like Doctor, Happiness and Radio. Leyland was unusual.
“Well, it’s not my Tokolosh,” Claire said indignantly as she shook his hand. “It’s not an invited guest, but it seems to have taken a liking to Chipo here.” Claire waved her hand at Chipo, who was staring at Leyland with a mixture of awe and terror. Sangomas were powerful people in African culture. It was said they could cast spells on people, and concocted powerful potions made of human body parts.
“Right – what do you need from us?” Claire asked, rubbing her hands together to hide her sudden discomfort.
“Mum,” Tara had been watching the proceedings from the dining room, where she was studying for her O-Level school exams. “He doesn’t need our help. He’s got the right muti to capture the Tokolosh, haven’t you?”
Leyland nodded. He then removed his jacket and tie, solemnly handing them to Chipo, who carefully put them over the back of the chair at the kitchen table.
“The payment is two hundred dollars,” Leyland told them, rolling up the long sleeves of his shirt to expose thin, sinewy forearms. “American dollars, please. Not Zimbabwean. If you have British pounds then it will cost you one hundred and fifty pounds. I can also accept South African rand, which amounts to two thousand.”
Claire was outraged. The witchdoctor’s business mind was as contradictory as his clothing.
“What? That’s more than a visit to the doctor! Leyland, I have to say this is an outrageous amount of money. I don’t know how you can justify that charge. ”
Opening his briefcase, Leyland took out a necklace and put it over his head. A series of long, yellowing fangs lay menacingly around his neck. There was an object shaped like a hairbrush, with small metal circles that clanged like a tambourine when he picked it up. Finally, he withdrew a small snakeskin bag, and carefully untied the drawstring. The silence unnerved and embarrassed Claire.
“This bag contains muti made from the body of a dead Tokolosh,” Leyland explained, his voice quiet and almost reverent of the contents. Instinctively all three women stepped back from the table.
“Maiweh!” Chipo’s gasp was hoarse with terror. Tara grasped her hands as Chipo continued to moan, shivering in fear.
“Don’t make a sound,” Leyland cautioned. “It will wake up, and run away. Also, the noise will cause this muti to stop working. The element of surprise is very very important when we deal with a Tokolosh.”
He turned to Claire. “If you do not want to pay, then I cannot help you. Those are the standard fees for the removal of a Tokolosh. I will have to leave this muti here, because once I have opened the bag it must be used. If I do not use it to kill the Tokolosh it will attract more Tokoloshes to your house.”
“No more, madam! Please let him kill the Tokolosh! One can hurt me, but if it brings some friends they will all kill me!” Chipo begged, crying again.
“Alright!” Claire’s patience had reached the end of its tether. “Just get rid of the thing! I will fetch the money from upstairs.”
“Thank you,” Leyland smiled congenially at Claire. “Now, please wait here. Remain silent and I will deal with the Tokolosh.”
In the ten minutes it took Claire to collect the money and return to the kitchen Leyland managed to capture and kill the Tokolosh. Unable to believe the source of such superstition had been dealt with so quickly, Claire asked Leyland to show her the body.
He refused. “If you look at a dead Tokolosh its spirit will come back. I need to dispose of this Tokolosh so it can never rise again. A witch will use a Tokolosh spirit, so I must make sure this one does not return.”
“So, where it it? Where will you take it?” Claire handed over the money.
“In this bag, and where I will take this must remain a secret known only to me.” Leyland lifted the plastic grocery bag in his left hand, and took the money with his right hand. The shape in the opaque polythene bag was small, dark and heavy. Leyland had knotted the bag’s handles tightly together. He opened his briefcase and somehow fitted the bag and its contents inside before closing it and using a tiny key to lock it. He carefully pocketed the money and clasped Claire’s hand the traditional way, between his own two hands.
“I have given Chipo some muti to put in her room and outside the door. She will never be bothered again. Thank you very much for inviting me to help you.”
Samson escorted his uncle from the property. The excitement over, Claire and Chipo spent the rest of the day preparing for the dinner party. The tension had given Claire a pounding headache. Painkillers did not seem to help, and Claire had to lie down and rest, leaving Chipo to finish the arrangements for dinner.
By the time the first guests arrived Claire was feeling better. The table was perfectly laid and the meal was delicious. After dinner, Claire led her guests out to the veranda. The Ambassador and his wife complimented Claire on the meal. Graciously she thanked them, and introduced Chipo who was clearing the table. After accepting the guests’ praise for her culinary skills Chipo left to tidy the kitchen. Two glasses of wine with dinner had relaxed Claire, and she told her guests about the Tokolosh. They were fascinated and impressed that she’d had dealings with an authentic sangoma.
“Amazing how superstitious these people can be,” Sharon said. “Apparently you can scare them to death simply by talking about a demon. That’s why we named our cat Tokolosh. The African bush telegraph is far more efficient than the telephone system, so anyone thinking about robbing our house might be deterred by the cat’s name. Oh – did I tell you we found Tokolosh, Claire?”
Icy fingers ran down Claire’s spine as she thought of the contents of Leyland’s plastic bag. She shook her head. She hadn’t known the cat was missing.
“Silly thing – we had him neutered, and he vanished the day after we brought him home from the vet. He’s been missing for three days, and he came home this afternoon. Samson found him. Apparently he’s been chasing fruit bats in your loquat tree. He’s absolutely filthy, but otherwise fine. I thought Samson might have told you.”
The conversation switched to Tara’s exams, but Claire’s mind was otherwise occupied. Perhaps Chipo’s Tokolosh really was simply Sharon’s cat, howling and trying to get into the maid’s room. Perhaps the frightened bats were responsible for the terrible noise and scratching Chipo had heard. For sensible, practical Claire this was a far more logical explanation.
Then she thought about the dark lump in the plastic bag. It was obviously not the cat, because it was home with Sharon. So what had Leyland put into the bag? It had been larger than a cat. Claire frowned. Had she been duped by her staff? Perhaps, but unlikely.
“Great story for the grandchildren,” she thought, and taking a sip of her sherry moved back to her guests.