Even if we have forgotten the stories over the years, many of us grew up with “fairy” tales and old “superstitions” surrounding the mysterious beings we know as fairies, dwarves, goblins, pixies, djinn, ogres, gnomes, trolls, and other hidden spirits of the natural world. Of course, West Africa is no exception to this form of storytelling, and while these stories are often for entertainment and to scare children into behaving, they also hold ancient truths within them.
From the shores of the southern coast to the northern sands of the Sudan and Sahel – the Fairies, Hidden People or Little Folk are known to exist and to have taught humanity much of what we understand about the Earth today. Being that they are such an intrinsic part of the history and wellbeing of the lands and waters, many believe the Little Folk to be ancestral spirits, healers, tricksters, and deities who are to be respected and in most cases, feared! Below we’ll learn about a few groups of Hidden Folk known to the Wolof, Fulani, Dahomey, and Yoruba peoples of grandmother West Africa.
The Wolof people of Senegal know one group of fairies, or Little Folk as Yumboes. Similar to the elemental beings of southeast Turtle Island, Yumboes are known to be only two feet high, but they carry silver hair, moon white skin, and are believed to be the spirits of ancestors. They love to eat corn and catch fish, dance, and drum under moonlight. Often, they will attach themselves to specific families or family members, and they will steal bits of their food and fires in their calabashes whenever they get the opportunity. It is believed that Yumboes live in elaborate underground dwellings that are filled with lavish dining tables and feasts to satisfy their enormous appetites. As mischievous as they are, they are also generous towards humans and sometimes will invite them to share in a feast. Ask anyone in the area about Yumboes and they will likely have a story or experience to share about these beings.
The oldest recorded mention of a Yumboe fairy that we are aware of comes from an 1828 book written by Thomas Keatley titled, “Fairy Mythology,” though, it is important to note that he was of Irish descent, the book largely focuses on Europe with only a brief section on Africa, and the information he was given was third-hand. Nevertheless, he states:
“…Acting on the same principle as the Greeks, who called their Furies Eumenides, and the Scots and Irish, who style the Fairies Good Neighbors, or Good People, Africans call the Yumboes, Bakhna Rakhna, or Good People. The dress of the Yumboes exactly corresponds with that of the natives, and they imitate their actions in every particular. They attach themselves to particular families; and whenever any of their members die, the Yumboes are heard to lament them, and to dance upon their graves. The Moors believe the Yumboes to be the souls of their deceased friends.”The Fairy Mythology, Thomas Keightley (1828)
Konderong (Wolof, Fulani)
Another group of Little Folk known to both the Wolof and Fulani people are the Konderong. These dwarf-like beings of the bush are no taller than two feet, and look like old men and have long beards that drag to the ground. Most notably, they are born with their feet turned backwards! Locals say that they carry unique calabashes that have magical properties, and if you are lucky enough to find one you will either become very wealthy or be granted whatever you desire. If someone desired money, for example, they only would need to say it and the calabash would immediately be filled with money! Alternatively, the possessor could be bestowed with cows, additional partners, or food.
“Naturally, these calabashes are very rarely found and even when one is discovered there are obstacles to keeping possession of it. After a person finds one, the Konderong owner comes to his house on three successive nights trying to retrieve it. Each time he comes he calls the name of the person who has his calabash and if the latter answers, or even grunts in his sleep, the calabash will disappear. It is quite likely that this will happen since the Konderong are wily fellows, insuring a response to their calls by imitating the voice of a close friend or relative.”The Dual Function of the ‘Little People’ of the Forest in the Lives of the Wolof, David Ames
The evening is when the Konderong are most active and gather in the bush. People have heard them call out each other with sounds that go, “bubu, bubu, bubu.” Normally, the only ones who can see them are the Fulani night herdsmen with the gift of supernatural sight, called ya bopa, or the “wide-heads,” while those who can only hear them are called “empty heads.” Like Yumboes, the Konderong tend to behave like rascals and steal food, in particular cornmeal from nearby families. They have also been known to steal children, drunk people, to temporarily blind those who get too close to their villages, and to drive game away from hunters by blinding them and/or tying an invisible warning bell to their ankles (a bell only the animals can hear). It is said that they will either change captive children into one of their own, or kill them altogether. These types of stories may have evolved during the forced middle passage, thus encouraging children to stay close to their families and villages.
As for hunters, it is understood that in order to be a great hunter one must also be a student of divination and magic to outsmart the hidden ones. The Konderong have just as complex of a social organization as humans do, and one must understand how to work with them in order to be successful. If a hunter is successful, they will leave small offerings and gifts, usually some of the meat from the killed game, gunpowder, and entrails hung on their favorite sam trees.
“In order to explain this system, it is necessary, first of all, to outline briefly the political organization of the Konderong. The king of all the Konderong is Xamet and his special animal charges are the antelope and deer. The queen is Fatma Fofana and she is in charge of milking the animals. Of course she does not like to have any of her “flock” killed.
Xamet has many shepherds under his leadership, but hunters are concerned first of all with Kemali, Mafori, and Tumang. Kemali is an old Konderong who lives in the village and is in charge of the goats, sheep, chicken and game birds – guinea and bush fowl. He listens to the villagers’ conversations and when he hears of any of them going hunting he relays the information to Mafori – master of the cows – who resides in the fields around the village. Mafori passes the information onto Tumang – a shepherd of the cows – who is on guard at the edge of the high bush and who in turn notifies the king or queen and the shepherds of the game animals in the bush. Thus the game is kept out of the path of the hunter…persons wishing to become hunting specialists apprentice themselves – sometimes for several years – to a master of hunting lore and magic.”The Dual Function of the ‘Little People’ of the Forest in the Lives of the Wolof, David Ames
To the south of Wolof and Fulani homelands (and west of the Yoruba) are the Dahomey people of Benin, who know their Good Neighbors as the Aziza. The Aziza are friendly and extremely tiny and hairy forest dwelling people who are said to live inside of anthills and silk trees. Some of them are known to have butterfly wings that glow like fireflies. With a history of friendly disposition towards villagers and their extensive skills in herbal medicine and magic, they are famously known for sharing their knowledge of fire and survival to humankind. Like many other benevolent hidden peoples, it is said they will often help wanderers or travelers who are lost or in need of assistance.
Eni Egbere (Yoruba)
To the west of the Dahomey people are Yoruba homelands in Nigeria, where the people know one local spirit as the crying Eni Egbere. Eni Egbere carries a woven mat with them everywhere, and if one is fortunate enough to find it in the forest and hold onto it, that person will have all of their wishes and desires granted – similar to finding the Konderong’s calabash, a djinn’s lamp, or a leprechaun’s pot of gold! The Yoruba people believe that if one manages to steal the mat, the little forest spirit will follow this person around whining and sobbing for a number of days – begging for their mat to be returned. If the person, usually a hunter who would have found the mat in a remote forest area, can withstand all of the wailing for those days they will become wealthy beyond imagination.
Sources & Further Reading
- Ames, David W. “The Dual Function of the ‘Little People’ of the Forest in the Lives of the Wolof.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 71, no. 279, University of Illinois Press, 1958, pp. 23–26, https://doi.org/10.2307/537955.
- Crowley, Daniel J. African Arts, vol. 23, no. 1, UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center, 1989, pp. 101–101, https://doi.org/10.2307/3336817.
- Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley. N.p., H. G. Bohn, 1860. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Fairy_Mythology_by_Thomas_Keightley/BLcneocu3kAC?q=thomas+keightley+%22yumboes%22&gbpv=0#f=false
- Rowland, Alexandra. Finding Faeries: Discovering Sprites, Pixies, Redcaps, and Other Fantastical Creatures in an Urban Environment. United States, Tiller Press, 2020. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Finding_Faeries/-H_-DwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
- Daybo. “Those with Feet-in-Reverse and Other Fantastical Beings.” July 29, 2019. Cultures of West Africa. https://www.culturesofwestafrica.com/feet-in-reverse-fantastical-beings/
- “The Aziza Faerie of Dahomey, West Africa.” May 18, 2019. ://www.reciprocitree.com/uncategorized/the-aziza-faerie-of-dahomey-west-africa/
- “Diminutive Gnome (Egbere) As Commonly Called in the African Yoruba Mythology.” 2018. Steemit.com https://steemit.com/africa/@idegbe007/diminitive-gnome-egbere-as-commonly-called-in-the-african-yoruba-mythology
- Teater, Emily. “African Mythological Creatures – Mythology Study Guide.” https://study.com/academy/lesson/african-mythological-creatures.html
- Map of West Africa at 1453CE, Time Maps https://www.timemaps.com/history/west-africa-1453ad/
- List of Little Folk: https://writinginmargins.weebly.com/the-little-folk.html
- “4000 Years of New Afrikan History, West Afrika to New Afrika Complete Chronology.” New Afrikan 77. ://newafrikan77.wordpress.com/2018/09/13/4000-years-of-new-afrikan-history-west-afrika-to-new-afrika-complete-chronology-our-story/