Article on Halloween and the Diaspora by author Nnedi Okorafor. It first appeared on the site Africana.com back in 2000. Though the site is now defunct, some of the better stories I managed to save.
Diaspora Denizens Haunt Halloween
By Nnedi Okorafor
Mami Wata, painted by Hamburg artist Scheleisinger in 1925
Halloween. The most frightening day of the year. Worldwide.
The October 31 festival holiday that Americans call Halloween began about 2,000 years ago with a group of northern European people called the Celts. The Celts lived in what is now England, Ireland and northern France. The celebration marked the beginning of the cold season in their land, with its long, dark days and dying vegetation. Over time the holiday evolved to become associated with human death and wandering spirits.
Jack-o lanterns, the carved out pumpkins that are spooky Halloween staples in the US, were originally turnips that were hollowed out with candles placed inside to protect them from the wind. These lanterns were placed on windowsills to guide the dead back to their kin. The black cat, familiar to many a storybook witch, was prized because they were known to sense the presence of the dead.
Eventually, departed spirits werent the only creatures associated with the holiday. Witches, ghouls, and just about anything that evoked fear were thrown into the mix as well. These days, the festivities have crept all around the world, growing and evolving within various cultures. The African Diaspora has its own cornucopia of troublemakers, monsters, deities and beings to add. Here are a few things to know in order to survive an Afrocentric Halloween.
In Africa, witchcraft has nothing to do with the earth-loving Wicca religion or green skinned hags wearing pointy hats. The continents witches are much more difficult to spot. In places like Zimbabwe, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, witches are believed to be able to change themselves into other forms, especially bats and birds. They prey on the souls and bodies of other people. Poisoning, striking people with lightning -- you name it, these witches are said to do it.
Many West Africans will also warn you (on any day) to be cautious of the water, which many believe to be inhabited by a powerful female spirit. Though ardently worshipped and loved by many, she is a mischievous deity, indeed. In West Africa, she is generally known as the Mermaid. In various parts of Nigeria, she is Mami Wata. Depending on her mood and the impression you make on her, she may or may not be good to you. If she likes you, shell shower you with good fortune and many children. Nevertheless, she may expect some favors in return. And if she doesnt like you, watch out. Mami Wata is said to cause headaches, venereal disease, barrenness and many other physical ailments.
Trinidad is teeming with mysterious beings who will probably be very busy causing trouble on Halloween. A beautiful woman may not be what she seems. La Diabless (also called La Jah-bless) wanders the streets searching for men to hoodwink. Shell wear a flowing white dress thatll hide her mismatched feet (one is normal, the other is a hoof) and a large white hat. Gullible men whove fallen for her mystique have been found the next morning, often naked in a graveyard or up some prickly tree, dead.
The Soucouyant (known as the Ol' Higue in Jamaica) is a Trini vampire who travels at night by shedding its human skin and turning into a ball of fire. It sucks the blood of its victims while they slumber. Typically, it appears to people as an old woman. To check if youve been bitten, look for two tiny bite marks anywhere on your body. In Puerto Rico and Mexico, legends describe a similar creature called the Chupacabra, which is usually said to attack only animals.
If you are looking for a good scare by traipsing through the forest on Halloween night, make sure you dont make the mistake of littering. The Trinidadian deity Grand Bois (who is also part of the Vodou pantheon) wont be very pleased with such behavior. As his name suggests, Grand Bois is the protector of the forest and its populace. Recent tales show him as a friendly being, but older tales present him as much more vengeful. Watch for a deer-like creature. Sometimes he also appears as a man. He is known to take forceful measures to evict troublemakers from the forest.
Even the actual trees around you can be suspect. Ugandan tales point to the umbrella tree, a dome shaped tree with drooping branches, as cursed. Many believe that when its roots touch a house it causes the death of the inhabitants. In other words, its not a tree you want to lean on while inspecting your bag of candy or costume make-up.
Whilst youre keeping an eye on the trees, keep an eye on whats in them, too. And if what you see is furry and cute, beware. A bush baby is a tiny primate with gorgeous large eyes and long fingers and toes. True to its name, it cries at night like a baby. Some Nigerians will give this warning: If you go out at night and hear a bush baby crying, run like hell. They are considered evil creatures.
That beautiful bird in the tree with the enormous rainbow-colored beak may not be as innocent as it
looks either. In Central and South America, the toucan is associated with evil spirits, and can be the incarnation of a demon. Where Couvade (a South American religion similar to Vodou) is practiced, the father of a newborn must not eat toucan flesh as it might bewitch the newborn child and cause it to fade away.
Be careful with the cloth you use to put together last-minute Halloween costumes. Have your nose on alert, especially if youre using old cloth. If it has a moldy smell to it, despite numerous washings, there might be a hank sewn into it. Amongst blacks in Mississippi, legends and superstitions about hanks, or ghosts, are quite popular.
Last of all, who could forget Legba (a.k.a. Eshu, Exu, and Elegba), the legendary Yoruba god whose reputation goes far beyond West Africa. Legba is the keeper and protector of the crossroads. The guardian of destiny who holds keys to the underworld. Without his permission, one cannot cross between the material and astral worlds. He is the deity whom blues artist Robert Johnson claimed to have made a pact with at the crossroads. He most definitely will be out on Halloween night.
Legba is a trickster, and making trouble is one of his favorite pastimes. He likes to wear a top hat and a tuxedo, smoke cigars and eat candy. Hes pretty easy to recognize, but typically, if you do, its already too late. So hope you dont see him.
Scared yet? Wait until Halloween when youre out in the night, exposed to all thats out there. At least you'll be well informed about what you might see. So watch your back and beware of all the clues. And most of all, have fun.
Happy merry, scary Halloween.