Africa is a vast continent with 3000 different ethnic groups, speaking more than 2000 different languages. Each of these groups has their own local myths and legends, some of which blend with those of nearby groups, and some of which are completely unique. To narrow this sea of myths and legends down to a top five list is a laughable feat.
I’m going to try, anyway, and at some point I would like to come back and explore these myths in more detail by region. If you’d like to see more or know of something I’ve missed, let me know in the comments!
If you enjoy African mythology I highly suggest reading some Nnedi Okorafor who writes fantasy which draws on some of these myths and is simply one of my favourite storytellers. I recommended Who Fears Death for adults and Akata Witch or Binti for Young Adult.
#5 Ninki Nanka
The Ninki Nanka is a reptilian creature with a crocodile-like body, a long giraffe-like neck, and a horse-shaped head with horns. Did you just picture a dragon? So did I! This one lives in the swamps and rivers of West Africa. The swamp dragon is huge and probably thinks nothing of chomping off your head for a snack. Naturally, parents use tales of the Ninki Naka to keep disobedient children from wandering off into the swamp without a grown up. I would have thought the crocodiles would be enough, but hey. Kids will be kids.
The Inkanyamba is a river monster of the Zulu people in South Africa. It is said to look like an enormous eel, sometimes with a snake head or with a horses head. It is believed that the Inkanyamba can control the weather. The creatures travels between its home at the base of Howick Falls and other bodies of water and is most often spotted in misty conditions. The Inkanyamba may be inspired by real life giant eels, and enlarged by myth. Or perhaps there is something else lurking in the primordial ooze. Either way, the Inkanyamba is blamed when livestock go missing and for the seasonal storms that ravage the area.
The Bouda are the most terrifying shape-shifters I came across while researching African myths, although they aren’t unique to Africa. They stories vary by region, but Bouda are half-man half-hyena, and are particularly blood-thirsty creatures.
Often, werehyenas are thought to be witches or wizards who have learned to transform themselves in order to hunt the countryside at night. In Ethiopia, for example, blacksmiths are thought to be witches with the power to become Bouda. Blacksmithing is a hereditary trade, and therefore the mysteries of the craft are kept secret from outsiders, which invites suspicion.
Werehyenas are cannibalistic creatures who particularly enjoy terrorizing lovers and children.
As these myths travelled into Arabia, they transformed again, so that all hyenas are vampiric creatures who stalk the night, mesmerizing their victims with their eyes before they attack.
# 2 Adze
Speaking of vampires, the Adze is one type of African vampire from the Ewe people of Togo and Ghana. Rather than a bat, this vampire transforms into a firefly before feeding on its sleeping victims. It will transform back into a human when caught, however they are still dangerous. Adze are thought to be the spirits of witches who can possess other humans when they are in their human form. Possession by an Adze was used to explain all sorts of human behaviour and experiences from jealousy to poverty. In their firefly form, the Adze transmit disease, and were blamed for sudden epidemics of malaria and other illnesses.
The Popobawa is a shape-shifting spirit which can take the form of an animal or a human. It’s name literally means “bat wing” because it often appears as a demon with bat wings. The Popobawa is a relatively new myth, perhaps better described as an urban legend. It caused mass hysteria in the 1990s when a rash of attacks by the creature were reported.
Sometimes the Popobawa is blamed for poltergeist-like activity in a home, or for physical assaults that happen at night. Men, women, and children have all been reported to be attacked by the Popobawa. But the most feared aspect of these creatures is their sexual attacks. The bat-winged demons sodomize their victims, and then threaten to come back and do it again if the victim doesn’t tell the rest of the community what happened. Popobawa are particularly fond of raping those who don’t believe in them. This might explain why the stories took off so quickly, and it makes you wonder… if there is no such thing as a Popobawa, who is creeping into peoples homes and assaulting them at night?
That’s the end of this round of mythological African beasts! I chose these particular creatures because I thought they were the creepiest coming up to Halloween. But Africa has so many I could easily do another two or three articles! There are enough dinosaur-like monsters to have a feature of their own…
If you enjoyed this feature, be sure to check out the rest of this series as we explore the legendary monsters of the world. So far we have been to Canada, Serbia, the British Isles, Korea, Persia, Scandanavia, and India.
Where will we stop off next? You decide! Let me know in the comments.