There is a certain beguiling artistry to having backwards feet. This rather anomalous attribute ―demarcating, droll, and devious ― is much-vaunted in the legendary creature realm and happens to be one of the curiously quirky qualities of fantastical beings the world over, from the never-the-less swift abarimon, the ‘antipode’ of ancient Greek and Roman mythology, to the shape-shifting Filipino aswang, the folkloric Dominican ciguapa, the Brazilian curupira, and the phantasmal bhoot of India. Each is cunningly untraceable, with footprints that utterly confound. And, unsurprisingly, West Africa adds its own colorful twist to the backwards-feet mythological crowd.
Having non-forward-facing feet, the tiny Wolof konderong, “little people”, of the Senegalese bush certainly avert the risk of tripping over their ground-dragging, wrap-around beards. Mischievous and sprightly, they can only be seen by either Fulani night herdsmen or those with supernatural vision, the ya bopa or “wide-heads”. Their antics include blinding humans that are within sight of their village but now, wandering aimlessly, are unable to see it. Firewood carriers may suddenly find it impossible to lift the bundles off of their heads, while hunters, with tiny, invisible konderong-tied warning bells on their ankles, are bewildered to find no game in sight. More dreaded is the konderong‘s capture of children, but their calabashes, if procured, grant all desires.1
Also conspiring to foil hunters is the backwards-footed, bristly-haired Dagbani kulukpariga, the fairy-like prankster of the Ghanaian and Togolese bush, that, incidentally, drives any idlers, especially those that happen to slumber near its nightly dancing grounds, mad. Like its doppelgängers, the kolkpaareg (Tallensi) or the kyinkyiriga (Gurensi), it may be ‘delivered’ into the world of humans, in the guise of twin births.8
No contrived entrance into the human world is needed for the reverse-footed madebele, or tugubele of the Senufo. These bush spirits are already rubbing shoulders with humans at every instant, occupying the springs, rocks, and soil of a shared natural world. Although their proximity makes them easily accessible as spiritual mediators, their invisibility leads to inadvertent imbroglios, as unwitting water-fetchers, wanderers, hunters, or tillers scrape by these highly impetuous beings.6
Meanwhile, the stone-polishing asamanukpai of the Ga-Dangme, are seemingly light on their feet despite rearward-dancing on their buffed-up Ghanaian outcrops. Throughout Ghana’s rocky regions, mysteriously holed and disc-shaped thunderstones, of unknown origin, can be found. They are said to have fallen from the skies and caught between the finger and thumb of an asamanukpa.5 And their miniature Akan and Bambara counterparts, the mmoetia (Kwa) and wokulo (Bamanankan) respectively, are even capable of passing directly through stone.3
While hanging onto a backwards-footed konderong‘s calabash is nearly impossible ― for three successive nights the konderong calls out the name of the taker and if he answers, or even so much as mumbles in his sleep, the wish-granting calabash disappears ― the rolled-up sleeping mat, the eni egbere, of the more straight-footed and always teary-eyed, Yoruba Egbere, may be up for the taking. That is, if the taker can withstand being perpetually followed around by a sobbing, and now mat-less, leprechaunesque bush spirit.4
Tears may occasionally fall onto the moonlit tombstone of a beloved human by Wolof yumboes, the otherwise effervescent, frolicsome, and hospitable silvery-white fairies of Senegal. Pagne-wearers, pirogue-paddlers, and palm-wine revelers, the yumboes seem to emulate humans with just a few, slight caveats: they sit down to underground feasts served by bodiless hands and feet (though forward-facing!) and tend to steal into the night, carting off village cornmeal in a kind of calabash brigade or snatching fistfuls of manmade fire.7
That man has any knowledge of fire at all, is attributed to yet another of these fantastical beings, the god-like Aziza of the Urhobo who, according to some, is not only one-handed, but one-footed (though forward-facing!) and is the benefactor and protector of all hunters.9
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Ghanaian rain forest, a sasabonsam is dangling his long legs from high branches to ensnare Ashanti hunters! It may be no surprise, by now, to learn that his feet point not just backwards, not just forwards, but in both directions.2
Sources and Further Reading
- 1.Ames DW. The Dual Function of the “Little People” of the Forest in the Lives of the Wolof. The Journal of American Folklore. 1958;71(279):23-26. doi:10.2307/537955.
- 2.Cotterell A. A Dictionary of World Mythology. London, UK: Oxford University Press; 1997.
- 3.Crowley DJ, Bannerman-Richter G. Mmoetia: The Mysterious Little People. African Arts. 1989;23(1):101. doi:10.2307/3336817.
- 4.Egbere. African Heritage TV. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1771029279709039&id=1271390483006257. Published January 22, 2019. Accessed July 29, 2019.
- 5.Field MJ. The Asamanukpai of the Gold Coast. Man. 1934;34:186-189. doi:10.2307/2790338.
- 6.Holsbeke M, ed. The Object as Mediator: On the Transcendental Meaning of Art in Traditional Cultures. Antwerp, Belgium: Ethnographic Museum; 1996.
- 7.Keightley T. The Fairy Mythology. London, UK: H. G. Bohn; 1870.
- 8.Manoukian M. Tribes of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast: Western Africa, Part 5. London, UK: Routledge; 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9781315296012.
- 9.Tonukari OJ. Aziza: King of the Urhobo Forest. Urhobo Historical Society. http://www.waado.org/urhoboculture/Religion/tonukari/Aziza.htm. Accessed July 29, 2019.