In South Africa, there was Kimberley’s own monster: Jeremiah Malik. He came from the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town and was said to be of the Islamic faith. But people around town said even Allah didn’t want him and gave him back to the demons that roamed the streets. He was reclusive during the day, but wandered around at night, seemingly up to no good. Only bad things happened at night, which encouraged talk that festered amongst the townspeople.
Churchgoers hated Jeremiah because every Sunday he stood outside the churches and mosque and stared at all those coming and going. Sometimes he’d mouth off, but most of the time, he was quiet and just gave a mean stare. There were few of the Islam faith in Kimberley back then, and they disliked Jeremiah almost as much as they disliked Christians. To agitate them, he mingled around during their evening prayers, and he never seemed to miss the Isha, the Muslim nightly prayer.
“Why do you pray so much?” he asked the followers as they took their spaces and laid out prayer rugs. “No need to pray five times a day. Allah didn’t hear you this morning, and Allah won’t hear you tonight.”
Jeremiah’s shack was a horrid sight. It had two windows in the front that were never opened, and the ragged curtains inside always were closed. The front door was just as unwelcoming. Rickety and barely hanging onto its hinges, it looked thick and hard—so as to keep something very bad in, or something very bad out. A front porch is usually a welcoming place for guests—brightly colored plants in brightly colored plant boxes, several chairs to give rest and offer a place for gathering, and a clean walkway and steps. But Jeremiah’s porch couldn’t have been more opposite. Weeds and other constructible objects covered the pathway and steps. There were no flowers in the yard or porch, and no chairs. And a picket fence on both sides of the house dissuaded newcomers. If the battered and barely-standing fence was not enough, the words hand-painted in red: “Danger…Do Not Enter,” caused people to rush past the house as quickly as possible.
Other things scared people away from Jeremiah Malik. Old Afrikaner legends associate the hamerkop bird with storms and lightning, turbulent times. They said if a white person disturbed the hamerkop’s nest, a terrible storm would come, and a lightning strike would do terrible damage—or even cause someone to die. Some folks talked about how a Dutch Reformist Church pastor once knocked a hamerkop’s nest out of a tree—he loved to test fate and the unknown—and sure enough, lightning struck his church and burned it to the ground. What I’m saying is, in the old days, blacks and whites, mystical and non-mystical, took tales of these birds—lightning birds, they called them—very seriously.
Tribal people, especially the Xhosa clan, called these birds “impundulu,” and their legends of the birds’ dark powers are even more serious. When the impundulu strikes the earth, it lays evil eggs in the ground, and bad luck comes to everyone around. When the impundulu strikes wood, no one will touch or use the wood. It’s left to sit and rot so the evil will go away safely. Burning the wood was thought to release forceful black energy into the air, making it impossible to end the darkness.
On Jeremiah’s porch were two hideous-looking bird feeders, and they attracted hamerkops from all around. The feeders were black and covered with sharp barbed points. There were clawed feet in each of the four corners. Birds had to fly in and out of the feeders to get to the food, and there were always birds flying around. But people said nothing could be seen inside, just black empty space.
People claimed some children once asked Jeremiah what he fed in his bird feeder. He said, “Babies’ blood…from little black and white babies.” This, of course, was a legend, but Jeremiah was scary and his birds, six hamerkops, were too. They flew freely around his front porch and never left. You’d see them feed regularly, and when they were not eating, the birds sat on the porch rail, all lined up, showing their long necks and flat pointed bills. There were only six of them, but it seemed like more.
Storms rarely came through Kimberley, except periodic sandstorms from the northwestern Kalahari and torrential rains during the winter rainy season. However, neither of these weather events brought lightning. In fact, thunder and lightning were highly uncommon. But people on our side of Kimberley always knew when thunder and lightning were coming our way—those six beastly hamerkops would go crazy there on Jeremiah’s front porch. They flew around in circles, soared up and down through the air, and made an odd god-awful shrill sound similar to scratching metal on metal—like their claws were making such a disturbance—but it came through their wide-open beaks. During those times, the birds opened their wings widely and highlighted the inner sides of their wings. Their plumage had the usual bright purple iridescence, but all else was black; even their eyes were a mass of haunting black.
During powerful storms, Jeremiah was on his porch twirling around and around like he was dancing with his wild birds. At times, he’d been seen wearing large bird claws around his neck, but I never saw them and neither did Gracie or Mary Margaret.
People claimed Jeremiah kept two wolves in his backyard. And even though we never saw them either, we knew it was true. Black tribal folklore always included tales of half-men, even though they didn’t exist in the South Africa bush. Today, we know that the English-type werewolf people talked about in those days was actually a hyena. No one ever knew if Jeremiah kept hyenas in captivity, but gossip around town certainly tried to make it true.
Jeremiah was best known for his carving, and he kept these small wooden dolls made of rotting onyima wood lined up inside his tiny shack. Some said that if Jeremiah couldn’t find the onyima wood to make them, then he’d dig up wood from old caskets left unattended in the deserted Christian cemetery down the road. On any given night, after the dop shacks and whorehouses closed, drunk men claimed to see a half-man roaming the streets, foraging for whatever he could find…some believed rotting onyima wood. Now, no witnesses ever come forward stating that they’d seen such, but the mystery surrounding the old black man was real and mainly due to his carvings’ close resemblance to traditional dolls the Xhosa called “little ancient ones.”
In folklore, half-men were known as “mpunia,” or what the elders call body robbers. It was believed that all half-men or body robbers were cruel, but some were even more grotesque than their half-men cousins. And they came much smaller. These smaller body robbers were known to have the hyena’s upper body and the lower body of a horrible, one-legged troll. Some tribes called these creatures “little ancient ones” because they were very short, and had ancient evil accents, which helped keep the folklore alive. They had small pointed teeth, pointed claws, and wiggled from place to place, upright on their lizard-like bottoms…and they feasted only on small children, whose screams could be heard all over the village.
Most know that these little ancient ones were freaks of nature and very likely never existed, other than in heads, used to scare naughty children into being good. But still, in some parts of southern Africa—no matter how far into the bush you go—storytellers are eager to share their own versions of these small scary things. All are different in size, color, and some are even made of tar composition, similar to the old tar babies spoken about so many years ago. But all were the same in terms of scare tactics. Legends told of the monsters coming from deep within the dense forest, but instead of leaving the forest, they sat idly on the lower limbs of trees at the forest edge. They sat and dangled their feet, attracting those who passed by. When an innocent, careless person caught the little one’s eyes, it would jump from the tree and run back into the forest. It is also told, albeit more infrequently, that the smaller little ones would shoo innocent children away, to keep them safe. But if the child’s behavior was bad, the monster did the opposite.
The small black children who lived nearby called Jeremiah’s dolls “dark babies,” their own simplistic version of the older “little ancient ones” legends. And the children often described his dolls with the most horrid details, although none had ever ventured inside Jeremiah’s shack. All the dolls are made of stinking, soggy wood, and each doll displayed large black lips showing ugly wicked grins. At times, the grins opened to show their pointed teeth, but the bloodshot eyes were wide open at all times. Long, stringy hair sparsely covered their heads. Some dolls’ feet pointed in both directions. Others’ feet pointed backwards. Most of them were dwarf-sized, but a very small few, considered leaders of the pack, could grow tall and skinny. Regardless of size, they all tapped their long dirty fingernails—tap, tap, tap—on whatever dead wood was around, as if their resolve to attack had taken a child’s innards. That’s what the children said.
No wonder the hamerkops on Jeremiah’s front porch had such a difficult time sleeping at night and his hyenas hid behind the dark corners. Not a living soul would go near his shack.
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