Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Tokoloshes & Leprechauns & Finger nails
I'm sure you've all heard of a Leprechaun the mischievous little Irish imp from the mythical tales of Oisin in Tir na nOg and Irish folklore.
Well, the Tokoloshe is the equivalent mystical creature of the Nguni tribes of Southern Africa.
They feature in many of their oral legends but unlike the Irish pranksters, who never harm people, the Tokoloshe is usually far more evil and nearly always brings trouble.
Many maids working in the affluent suburbs of South Africa place the legs of their beds on three or four building bricks. This increases the height of the mattress from the floor and prevents the Tokoloshe from climbing into any of the orifices the maid has on offer. Should a highly superstitious African think that he or she might have been visited by the dreaded Tokoloshe, off they will run to consult the local sangoma or witch doctor hoping to acquire the right medicine or mootie as it is know locally, to banish the offending creature.
We Western Europeans do not have an equivalent malicious creature in our mythologies. So, the closest to my rather limited knowledge, is the leprechaun, who is said to be small, ill-natured and mischievous, and have minds designed for devilish cunning. The Tokoloshe is also small and mischievous, however when he fights a person he usually kills them, but should he loose the fight, he then will teach the human his magic.
So, bearing all this in mind I openly admit that I have been both a Leprechaun and a Tokoloshe whilst on my travels both in Ireland and Southern Africa. On both these occasions I have been in civilian mode and was not performing on stage or in front of a camera.
The eating habits of both these fabled creatures are bizarre.
The Leprechaun has a great liking for the mystical four-leaf-clover and I am told nibble on a potato or two.
I was instructed on the culinary delights of the Tokoloshe whilst I was on my second pony trek in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho with my friendly guide, Johann.
Sour milk and pebbles are two favourites of the Tokoloshe. The milk is an aphrodisiac for him and helps him in his sexual exploits with the fairer sex. The pebble is also a pretty useful tool for him, as by swallowing one he becomes invisible and can creep up on the unsuspecting female. So, who needs Viagra when curdled milk and a stone off the ground will do?
Johann, my guide on the pony trek into the mountains of Lesotho was being educated at the very upmarket school called St Johns College in Johannesburg. He was about to sit his matric exams, spoke excellent English, and was highly knowledgeable about the history of South Africa and in particular Lesotho.
He was the son of a local chief Mojaje. It was his mid term-break and he’d acquired the job as a guide with the Basotho Trekking Company high up on The God-Help-Me pass.
The God Help Me Pass, or Lekhalong-la-Molimo-Nthuse in seSotho, is a mountain pass in western Lesotho. The road ascends steeply from the village of Setibing, and near the summit is the Basotho Pony Trekking Centre, which offers a variety of trekking expeditions.
I had chosen the longest one on offer; a five day with four overnight stops. It was my second visit to the trekking centre so I was aware of what I needed to take. I had amassed, tins of corned beef, sardines, pilchards, a jar of gherkins, a case of beer, an assortment of boiled sweets, currants, peanuts, a full Toddie of good Polish vodka, and some jumpers which would come in handy on the cold nights.
All the heavier items would be packed onto the back of a very sturdy and sure footed pack-mule.
Part of the deal was free accommodation at the overnight stops which were going to be in the local’s huts at carefully selected villages. The final fourth overnight stay was planned at Johann’s father’s kraal.
On our first day out Johann told me it would be a very short thirty kilometer trek to the first stop-over. The shortness of the trek became highly evident after about six ks, when my backside said I should pause, as my privates were being squeezed up my rectum. We made six more stops and each time Johann told me all about how his country had developed and emerged as a single polity under King Moshoeshoe the first in 1822.
Moshoeshoe, was the son of Mokhachane, a minor chief of the Bakoteli lineage, who formed his own clan and became a chief around 1804.
Between 1821 and 1823, he and his followers settled at the Butha-Buthe Mountain, and joined with former adversaries in resistance against the Lifaquane, a tribe which was associated with the reign of infamous Shaka Zulu in the early eighteen hundreds.
The bizarre thing about this was that Johann had learnt all of this whilst studying at St Johns in Johannesburg and not from his early schooling in Lesotho.
He was not too fond of the British and their intervention in the war between Moshoeshoe and the Boers in the Free State. This war was a series of skirmishes, and in 1854 when the British pulled out of the region, there followed a series of wars with the Boers where they lost a great portion of their western lowlands.
The last skirmish was in 1867, when Moshoeshoe appealed to the British Queen Victoria, who agreed to make Basutoland a British protectorate in 1868. In 1869, the British signed a treaty at Aliwal North with the Boers that defined the boundaries of Basutoland, which by ceding the western low lying and fertile territories, thus effectively reduced Moshoeshoe's Kingdom to half its previous size.
British diplomacy at its best!
My head was spinning with all this information and I was very happy when we finally arrived at our first night stop-over.
The chief was in Egoli, Johannesburg, mining gold for Anglo-American Mining house and his first wife Rosie was left in charge of the kraal. I was given my own rondavel which was furnished with a mattress, a small bedside locker, a very large metal wash basin, a small port-a-loo fashioned out of an old bucket and a toilet seat attached to the top with farmers wire.
I carefully unpacked my belongings and unrolled my sleeping bag when Johann entered.
“You will be eating just after sun down with Madame Rosie, she has prepared her celebratory dish of sheep’s offal, including the tail, which is a sign that you are an important visitor. You give her something in return.”
I thanked him and told him I would be outside in a minute and share a sundowner with him.
In the dying light of the evening sun Johann, drinking a beer, and I sat on ridge overlooking a vast valley and continued our chat. The conversation moved as the sun set into the area of the supernatural.
There had recently been a newspaper story about a lady who lived on the South African side of the Lesotho border and it told of her encounter with extraterrestrials. She had claimed that she had been adducted by aliens and had given birth to an alien’s child.
This sparked off our entry into the world of beliefs. I quickly steered the conversation to my time with Gypsy Rose Lee and how she’d taught me that most things mystical and paranormal were purely a trick by a very accomplished con-artist.
By the time the sun had set and we made our way to Madame Rosie’s evening banquet, Johann had mastered the art of “finger-clicking” and had learnt all the ins and outs of Rose Lee’s supernatural trick. His cool somber black African face tended to add more magic to the deception than I’d managed to muster dressed in my Indian turban as a child on Blackpool’s North Pier.
I entered Madame Rosie’s beautifully kept rondavel breathing in the smell of freshly braised tripe and carrying a great deal of pride for my young trainee. The interior was spotless although there was an earthen floor. A fire shouldered in the centre with the smoke gently curling up towards a vent in the thatched roof. Around the fire were scattered Lesotho woven rugs. These were adorned with cushions also covered in the locally made woolen fabric.
The tripe was superb, served on a bed of mealie pap, with a butternut which had been roasted in the coals as a separate veg. I complimented Madame Rosie on her cooking, “As good as what my Grandma made.” She beamed and said. “Not many of you Europeans like the tripe."
“I grew up on it. Pop, my granddad, loved it, although we usually had either beef or pig offal.”
I described how my Grandfather used to slow roast an entire pig’s head for a Sunday lunch once a month. It was his specialty, but I was never allowed to have the brain as he said, “Ya’s clever enough as it is Cessy!” It was many years later, when I tried doing it myself, that I realised what a delicacy my grandfather had deprived me of.
The meal was finished and a young girl came in almost out of thin air and cleared away all the cooking utensils, the wooden carved boards we’d eaten off and generally tidied the place up.
Then she did the most unusual thing.
After she’s taken out all the eating accouterments, she walked back in carrying an old cobbler’s shoe-iron and a chicken under her arm. She gently placed the shoe iron down about half a metre away from the fire. It was only once she had done this that I realized the chicken was attached to the shoe iron by a long piece of string made from hemp fibre.
“Why the chicken?” I asked Johann.
“She peck up the crumbs we dropped. It’s the indigenous Vacum cleaner. Eco friendly.” He said smiling.
And sure enough the little chicken, restricted by the string, started pecking all the eating area around the fire gobbling up, unseen to the human eye, morsels of dropped mealie pap and tripe.
“She also keeps it inside overnight so collect any eggs she lays. Fresh eggs are very scarce in the mountains.”
This amazed me as I’d seen hundreds of chickens running around in all the villages we’d passed through.
Johann explained, “They mostly Cocks, for the eating. Most females run outside, the eggs are fertilised and they get more chickens for the eating. Young layers are sought after for the eggs and they keep them well protected.”
This information reminded of advice given by my Grandpa. He was fond of the expression “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.” And he used many recycling techniques that are now gaining exposure on the internet and on our TV screens. With his pigeons, he followed the same regime as Madame Rosie, he separated the good female racers for breeding, and any unattached males made their way into Grandma’s pigeon pie.
If only this type of information were still passed on to today’s youngsters, what a far better world we would have. Less need to join the supermarket queues for the ready-to-eat salt ridden fodder that is guzzled down by most of the Western world today.
I have to admit that I was wandering down memory’s lane and not really in the here and now. It might have had something to do with the smoke from the pipe that Madame Rosie had lit up. The soft delicate aroma of the dreaded weed, dagga filled the rondavel.
As I pulled myself back into present situation, Madame Rosie smiled sweetly at me. Johann gave me a quick nudge in the side, “She’s waiting for you.”
“To do what?"
“The passing on of the gift.”
It suddenly clicked. She was waiting for my present to her. I waved at her pipe, took out my cigarettes and asked if she’d mind if I smoked. I then handed her Toddie, indicating that she must take a sip.
She took the hip flask and deftly unscrewed the top and took an almighty huge gulp, worthy of Jack Nicholson, of the Polish Vodka.
There were none of the usual reactions that people who have not tasted the vodka before exhibit. No coughing, spluttering and shaking of the head, just her gentle smile; and then she took a second slug and handed Toddie back to me saying thank you in SeSotho.
Johann excused himself saying that we would depart at first light tomorrow. He suggested that I did the same as the trek the following day would be over eighty kilometers to the Maletsunyane Falls, one of the magnificent treasures of the mountain kingdom.
I agreed that it was a good idea but Rosie’s actions had me riveted to my cushion. She was carefully rolling small balls of cotton wool and then pushing them up her nose.
Curiosity got the better of me. “Why are you doing that?” I said as I mimicked her motions.
She pointed at my cigarette and said, “That smoke not good!” as she smiled and puffed out a huge inhalation from her dagga pipe, “This good!” she continued.
I can’t remember what time it was when I returned to my rondavel. All I do know was, when I was woken in the morning by an eager Johann that Toddie was empty, and I had a mouth that was as dry as a Nun’s nasty. Fortunately I had packed another bottle of “Wybroka” in one of the pack mule’s satchels.
Dawn light was creeping in over the horizon as I left my rondavel. I had rinsed my face with icy cold water, brushed my teeth and completed my morning’s ablutions. Johann had said we’d breakfast on the trek, so I’d extracted some provita biscuits and a tin of corned beef from the mule’s side pack to put in my personal shoulder bag with a refilled Toddie.
Madame Rosie was there to wave goodbye, “I thank you for a wondrous evening.” She beamed as I handed her the tin of corned beef from my bag. She gave me a huge hug and pulled the ball of cotton wool from her nostrils.
We were on our way.
The trek to the waterfall which is near the town of Semonkong, the site of smoke, was grueling and energy sapping. I do not care to remember the number of times we descended on my pony’s ratcheted knees into a valley, and then climbed to the other side, but the view of the Malesunyane Falls was worth the pain and agony that my backside endured.
Words can not describe the beauty and magnificence of this 192 metre cascading waterfall. The sound also in the valley floor will resonate in my ear drums for years to come. That night we stayed at a back-packer’s hostel. I took the decision as the other alternative of riding another three hours to reach the planned kraal did not appeal to my bruised rear end.
The hostel too was the ideal place to test Johann’s finger clicking skill on the gullible visitors from the UK, Australia and New Zealand. We ensconced ourselves at the bar and awaited our first punter. It was going to be a serious test of Johann’s hearing as the piped rock music was blasting from the speakers. I told him to focus and ignore all other sounds just pick out my clicking finger nails.
Although he did not fail, it was only by the third attempt he was passed with flying colours and I didn’t have to pay for a single drink that night. A smart move, as funds were as always low, and I’d decided to imbibe the very expensive Irish Whisky that was on offer.
Our third day was virtually a return trek along the route we’d followed to the Falls. We took it very slowly as my rear end was in need for a gentle massage by a Thai masseur. For part of the journey I tried riding side-saddle.
Whenever I’ve seen British royalty employ this mode of travel they always seem to be completely relaxed and a hundred percent in control of their horse. I quickly realized that it was not a technique that I would not master on this rocky terrain, and when Johann started laughing at me I reverted to the standard position.
Our third stop-over was uneventful, after another rich stew, this time goat shin, which was delicious, a few beers; I retired again to a rondavel especially reserved for tourists. It was more up-market than Rosies’ with a camp-bed, a small dressing table with a mirror, a modern chemical toilet and a wash basin in an old ornate wooden stand.
As the sun set Johann asked a village boy to find some fresh eggs in exchange for a bag of boiled sweets.
At breakfast in the morning after an early morning cup of tea, Johann said he had a surprise for me at breakfast.
I sauntered out of my rondavel to see a table laid out for one, with a white table cloth, and dressed with the finest silver cutlery. On it were three boiled eggs in silver egg-cups.
“You make the choice?” said Johann who’d dressed himself in the style of an English butler, wearing a bowler hat.
“Avoid the hydrogen sulphide.” he said smiling as he knelt next to the small fire toasting some bread.
I was fully aware of what might happen and held a napkin against my nose as I cracked the top off the first egg. A beautiful yellow yolk cooked to runny perfection greeted me and with Johann's fire-toasted bread it went down a treat.
The opening of the second one rocketed me out of my seat as the smell of an open sewer wafted up from the egg’s blackened innards. It was vile, worse than Crewe railway station in the days off steam trains!
Johann laughed his head off and explained that it was a childhood prank of his to get everyone out of the rondavel so he could steal some biscuits.
He then showed me the secret of testing an egg to find out if it's off.
This involved the use of the Tokoloshe’s favourite tool, a small stone. He showed me that the sound when a good egg is tapped with the stone is totally different to the sound emanating when a bad one is tapped. The difference is only heard by a well trained ear and he said it was his gift to me in exchange for teaching him the finger clicking scam.
“The Tokoloshe and Leprechaun both have good hearing.” He said confirming that the third egg was a good one. And sure enough it was.
He told me that the trek to his father’s kraal would be about eight hours and we’d arrive just before sun set. The chief’s second wife would be in charge of all the cooking and welcoming.
He told me that the first wife, his mother, had died five years ago of TB, a terrible disease that still ravages the rural African villages and townships. It has apparently increased dramatically since the arrival of the anti-viral HIV medications. Because the drugs are slowing down the HIV symptoms, they are making the affected people more prone to TB.
It was for this reason that Johann wanted to become a doctor and was aiming in getting a least six distinctions in his matric-exams. The drive, passion, and determination of this young rural African who was receiving a top class English education, was growing on me. My grouchy self was taking on a pleasant mood, I was hoping that in years to come I would be seeing his name on TV screens across the globe, either extolling the beauty of Lesotho, or performing the most revolutionary transplant surgery.
At about three thirty in the afternoon we arrived at his father’s kraal. We were immediately swapped by the children of the village who swarmed round Johann and took turns in hugging him, their eyes then turned expectantly towards me.
“Feta mpho” said Johann and I remembered the translation he’d given me after I’d given Rosie the tin of corned beef. “Passing the gift”. I moved over to the pack mule and extracted the largest bag of boiled sweets I could find.
“Scatter them,” said Johann, “It gives them a game and they’ll get divided equally.”
With a grand twirling motion reminiscent of the Naido’s action when catching the cray-fish at Disappointment Bay, I scattered the sweets. The children dived in laughing, screaming and thoroughly enjoying them selves picking up Beacon’s finest. Mojaje’s second wife Morwa, watched and applauded. She then guided me towards my quarters.
It wasn’t a rondavel, but a sturdily built oblong stone house, made from the local rocks, a small wooden door, and a window in each wall, a raised concrete floor and a thatched roof.
Inside a bed made from gum-poles, a dresser, a side table, a main table, a wardrobe, an antique basin dresser and what really surprised me, Hi-fi equipment, up to date 1980’s CD player, cassette and radio. It was without power as Eskom did not deliver that far into the mountains, but I discovered behind an old settee six 12volt car batteries.
After a quick wash down I was back outside to watch yet another glorious sun set. Because of the mountains the light vanished quickly on the western valley slopes yet hung like a never descending curtain on the Eastern side. This created a mottled almost surreal effect that transfixed the eye till the sun slid over the western ranges.
As I was sitting outside my stone cottage enjoying I was enjoying an ice cold beer. Yes ice cold. Johann had taught me and trick on our final ride.
“Let the sun cool them.”He said.
With my O-level physics I quickly understood, and wished he’d made the suggestion four days ago. We took three beers, and rolled a T-shirt tightly around them, placed them in a plastic bag, then immersed the whole lot in a running mountain stream. We repeated the operation with another three. Tied the two bags together and placed them across my pony’s saddle. Throughout the day we kept the T-shirts wet and let the sun evaporate the moisture. What a wonderful experiment to demonstrate Boyle’s & Charles’s Law of thermo-dymanics.
I was on my second when Johann joined me. He’d been in conference with his father and discussed all the tribal issues and his own future. It had been decided that he should go to university and his younger brother by Mojaje’s second wife would take over all the tribal roles. Johann had also explained to his father that tonight, him and I were going to demonstrate the trick of finger-nail-clicking, but he was not to tell Morwa, his second wife.
So the scene was set.
We had a splendid meal of roasted chicken done over an open fire. It was beautifully crisp and Morwa had spent many hours slowly turning it on the rotisserie, made from and fashioned out of metal coat hangers and carefully positioned stones around the fire. We had mealie cobs that were steamed in sawn off beer cans that had been placed in the hot coals.
After the meal when everything was cleared away Chief Mojaje introduced the game.
“Johann, he tell me he is now a physic. He can read peoples minds.”
“Eeish, no, no. Impossible. They teach him funny things in Egoli.”
“It is true,” I said interrupting, “I noticed it on the trek, we can show you, if you like.”
I emptied my pockets and scattered the contents on the floor, packet of cigarettes, a lighter, a bunch of keys, an assortment of coins. They covered an area of about a square metre.
“Now we tell Johann to go outside and we blindfold him.”
With the Morwa’s headscarf wrapped around his head Johann couldn’t see anything. I guided him out the door.
“Now Morwa I want you to pick any item. Any item on the floor, when you’ve chosen it I don’t want you to tell me what it is. All you have to do is gently touch it with one of your fingers.
She finally touched one of the keys on my key ring. Luckily it was the largest one.
“That’s it, now we call Johann back in.”
Johann entered and I guided to a seated position front of the objects. He hummed gently. A wonderful touch all of his own.
“I need to touch Morwa’s forehead,” he said.
I moved him to face her, lifted his arm and placed his hand on her head. He delicately moved his fingers across her face.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
He leant forward, increased the volume of his humming and slowly swept his hand over the scattered objects. I clicked my finger nails as soon as his open palm moved over the bunch of keys. He ignored it and moved his hand away over other items thus increasing the tension. Back his hand came over the keys. I clicked again. He paused holding his palm about ten centimeters over the keys.
Morwa’s eyes were popping out of her head. His hand moved down and covered the key ring.
“How! Eeeish! No! impossible!” said Morwa.
“Yes well done Johann, but which one?” I said. “Morwa take the keys and take them off the ring, lay them down in a line.”
This she did.
“Now try again Johann, I’ll move your hand to the start off the line and I’ll tell you when you’ve reached the end. OK?”
I didn't say a word and an eerie silence descended. Johann kept the tension building for about another three minutes until he responded to my “clickin ka monoana lipekere” clicking fingernails.
He picked up Morwa’s chosen key and removed his blind fold.
Morwa jumped up and screamed.
“Aih E-Tokoloshe ke ho eena!" and ran out of the room.
Chief Mojaje laughed uncontrollably and then suggested that Johann go and find Morwa and let her into the secret.
Johann left leaving the two old codgers alone. I offered Mojaje a sip from Toddie and we sank into a deep conversation about Tokoloshes, Leprechauns, the supernatural, and believe it or not solar power, inverters and how he was going to get his Hi-Fi unit in my cottage up and running.
In the early hours of the morning I explained the whole finger clicking scam to him and told him what a magnificent child he had.
Smiling he told me that Johann had told him about the game but he didn’t tell him what the secret signal was.
“So I knew it had to be a trick! His late mother said he was going to be a bright one! He was up to all the tricks in his childhood. Changing the bad eggs for the good ones. He always said, he enjoyed the smell. chemistry is one of is best subjects.”
I was touched that he’d pulled the prank on me that morning.
We continued to sip the Polish vodka and the conversation turned to his favorite topic. Religion, he had been brought up a Catholic but like myself, his belief had waned. However he was a great reader of the bible and he explained it was full of contradictions and riddles. Genesis he said was full of them.
As the sun lifted its glorious head, we moved outside to watch it rise. In the cascading light, which seemed to light up the whole beautiful panoramic view of Lesotho’s mountain ranges, he asked me to solve the following riddle. He didn’t want answer before we left but asked that I send him a postcard when I’d solved it.
“Give me the name of the man who lived before his farther, died before his father and was buried in his grandmother’s chest?” he asked. “The answer is in Genisis.”
Ten years later whist I was travelling in India I sent the postcard.
A Buddhist monk in the Nilgri Hills of India had helped me.