Bedtime stories told over a bonfire

We listened to bedtime stories while seated around a bonfire

Bedtime stories in my culture and I would largely say in African culture is totally different from what I have read about or watched in movies and reality shows from the western world where the child is safely tucked in a comfortable bed and the parent or favourite person reads a story to them.It was common practice during my days growing up that your parents would send / take you to the village to spend the holidays with your grand parents and other close relatives.

It is the cultural practice of the Lango people (Jo Lango) to sit around a bonfire in the courtyard in the evening , probably around 7 pm. We’d have our dinner / supper while seated around this fire and then after it would be time for some chit chat, story telling (icina) and riddles (koc), before going to bed.

Such bonfire gatherings were more common during the long holidays (December and January) and in Northern Uganda, this is the dry season characterized by hot windy days and cool nights with clear skies on the backdrop of the moon giving light. During this time there isn’t much farming activity going on except for the harvest  and storage of Sesame seeds (Simsim) and  other cereals, as such it is a period of bonding, teaching and catching up with the extended family members such as those visiting on holiday from the city/ town.  Once the rainy season returns, everybody will be busy with farm work and the holiday makers will also be back to the city for school or work.

Now these stories were far from those fairytale happily ever after wishy washy stories that I read. These stories were either meant to teach especially if being told by an elder or to scare if being told by a peer living in the village.

These bed time stories fell in two categories;

  1. Folk tales, myths and legends designed to teach as well as pass on customs and traditions from one generation to the next. Such are usually told by an elder in the family such as a grandparent or uncle/aunt.
  2. Scary horror stories mostly told by peers who are trying to scare us the visitors / holiday makers visiting from the city. Quite obviously the horror stories are more memorable because they are so wild, far-fetched and full of mystery. These stories are centered on the occult / supernatural happenings and mysterious people such as witches, witch doctors, night dancers (wizards) and zombies (Anati in Leb Lango). Interestingly none of the expert story tellers were characters or witnesses to the stories that they tell, but by the time one is ready for bed, you’re so scared that you go to bed very alert and any slight movement or sound will cause screams and scampering for dear life.

For both these categories , there is no “happily ever after” unlike in the fairy tale stories I read about beauty and the beast or cinderella or Rupunzel in my childhood. For African stories you either learn something or are left scared and worried, no feel good stories – the stories always left me with the impression that the villian always won.If you listened to these stories, you’d conclude that the practice of occult is evil but that the rest of us are helpless against the practitioners.

In sharp contrast, the Western movie and television industry such as Hollywood depict witches and the associated persons (vampires, wizards, werewolves, super heroes and so on) as either good or evil and often these personalities are depicted as something not to be afraid of and  are glorified. Given my Christian background and upbringing,  I find it a total contradiction to say “good witch”, witches are evil…… period. The stereotype though, is that witches are usually old (sometimes ugly) mysterious evil women whereas wizards are men, or if in Uganda we call wizards Night dancers…. I hear they dance all night under some supernatural influence … what end?  I don’t really know.

Growing up, witches were people to avoid and not to provoke, they had powers to do bad things to you such as putting foreign things on your body, remotely drying up your blood, causing mysterious illnesses that modern medicine couldn’t diagnose let alone treat, stealing your spirit/soul, causing your gardens to be infertile and causing drought….and so on.

Recently, the Ugandan news media reported that the body of a very important Ugandan Mr. George William Kakoma, the man who composed our national anthem may have gone missing from its grave after it was found vandalised. This reminded of the anati (zombie) stories that I used to hear.  The anati story is that, a freshly buried body/corpse is sort of “resurrected”, that the corpses are revived to be used as laborers in the farm or as scare crows or are merely being punished by whoever held a grudge against them while still alive. Culturally the Langi keep vigil with a bon fire at the grave site for 3 to 4 days and part of the reason I am told is to ensure that the body is not exhumed or stolen.

As a whole, I would say that occult themed stories are a staple in most African cultures and folklore, hence film Industries such as Nigeria’s Nollywood exploited the opportunity in their early days and were churning out movies wholly themed on witchcraft, the occult and supernatural happenings. Its good to note that the Industry has since diversified and caught up with changing times and now we have various movie genres to select from.

In all, I believe these are merely stories that are far from reality and that the version you hear depends on the story teller and how creative he/she is while at it. As a child these stories would to scare me but now as an adult they do not make sense and are quite boring.

So, from your part of the world, what bedtime stories were you told or what stories are you telling your children?

Thanks for visiting and for reading





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