Lisa de Nikolits: Never give up

The Witchdoctor’s Bones, a psychological thriller set in Africa, is the fourth novel by Toronto’s Lisa de Nikolits. It is also what she considers her most ambitious work to date—a project that she nearly gave up on.

Lisa de Nikolits; photo by Karen Schmidt.

Lisa de Nikolits; photo by Karen Schmidt.

Lisa grew up in White apartheid South Africa, and even as a young child she knew that her beloved country had been stolen from those who should have had dominion over it. She knew that, one day, they would own it again.

But knowing that a terrible injustice had been done was not enough for her. She felt she should do something to help the cause of the native South Africans. “But what?” she asks. “March more? Protest more? I did what I could but I wanted to do more.

“And that is what this book is,” she adds. “It is my voice helping spotlight the injustice that White rule brought to Africa, primarily with regard to the Bushmen.”

While walking through the veld grass in the valley of the Underberg mountains, with the steep Sani Pass behind her and Lesotho to the north east, Lisa realized she needed to write about the people who had walked this land before her. Not the Zulus or the Xhosas but quieter heroes—the Bushmen.

She had just returned from a trip to Namibia where she had learned a lot about the Bushmen. “But I had no idea that the Bushmen had also lived in the very place that my father had a forty-hectare farm in the wild foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains. You can imagine my astonishment! It was one of those gifts from the writing gods. I knew I simply had to write this book, and that it would be my tribute to the Bushmen.”

Lisa researched African folklore, myths, legends and superstitions. She also integrated historical facts into the narrative such as a link between the Nazis and the plight of the Bushmen.

And she wanted to bring modern-day South Africa into the story. “I wanted to bring in the horrors of child abduction,” she says, “the muti murders in which people are killed so their body parts can be harvested for magic spells, and the barbaric modern-day witchcraft practices.”

“To say that I wanted to ‘document’ all this would be erroneous,” she adds, “because this is not a history book. It is a psychological thriller, and it is also a story of adventure, camaraderie, friendship and romance. I also wanted it to be a gripping read in the tradition of Agatha Christie, with murder and suspense, and characters vile and headstrong coming head-to-head with ones that are heroic and brave.”

It took Lisa six years to come to grips with such an ambitious project. “I put my heart and soul into it, and too many characters and endless descriptions,” she says. “Then I took out the wrong things and had to put them back in again. I had to walk away for a bit, and such was the immensity of getting this book right that I nearly gave up. But in the end, I simply couldn’t give up. I had too much faith in it, and too much hope for it. And with the excellent and patient guidance of my publisher, The Witchdoctor’s Bones has now been published.”

While Lisa is delighted with the final product, her original 220,000-word draft had to be cut in half and some of her research didn’t make it into print. She’d like to share one of these deleted passages with you—on  the tokoloshe, the water sprites that haunt certain rivers.

Witchdoctor's Bones cover“All the African women I worked with,” Helen said, sitting cross-legged and frowning, “put the legs of their beds up on three or more bricks, to elevate them high off the ground. When I asked why they did this, they said it was so the tokoloshe couldn’t reach them to rape them with his long penis. Even some of the men did this. The women told me the tokoloshe had a big hole burnt in his skull with a red hot metal rod and its eyes were gouged out. They said if you ever see a tokoloshe you must never tell anyone because then the tokoloshe will come back and punish you. They said the tokoloshe is a cross between a gremlin, a zombie and a poltergeist, and he has a thick, sharp, bony ridge on the top of his head and he can make himself invisible by swallowing a pebble.”

She stopped to think.

“Bravo,” Jono said, “anything else?”

“Yes. I did some research and there was the case in 1998 in which a woman from Queenstown had strange visits, her furniture was taken over by five tokoloshes who made themselves comfortable…”

“In Africa, it wasn’t Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it was Mrs. Whoever and the Five Tokoloshes?” Richard asked, which had Mia in hysterics again.

“…and they had come to demand equal housing rights,” Helen continued, although by now, even Jono was laughing, “and they insisted their grievance be passed on to President Mandela.”

“And what happened?” Kate asked.

“Well,” Helen said, “Ms. Bekebhu, whose house it was, was an educational specialist and a part-time sangoma, and she did contact Mr. Mandela’s office, but staff at the office wanted to speak to a tokoloshe spokesman before taking action and the tokoloshe refused to co-operate.”

“And this Ms. Bubehke…” said Richard.

“Bukebhu,” Helen corrected him.

“Sorry, Bukebhu, she was an education specialist you said? What a sad indictment of the level of the country’s educational future,” Richard said. “Okay Mia, sit up. Jasmine, give her a hand.”

“I can’t,” Jasmine said, “I’m laughing too hard myself.”

“I can tell you another true tokoloshe story,” Jono said, “and this one is true, cross my heart. Are you ready?”

“We need another round of drinks,” Mia said, “all this hilariousness has parched my throat.”

“Quite right, anyone else need another drink?” Richard passed Mia a beer. “Okay Jono, we are ready for another true story.”

“Very good.” Jono said. “Back in September of 1994, in Zimbabwe, which is my home land, three flying saucers were seen hovering over the Ariel School, which is a private primary school in Ruwa, about 20 km from Harare, the capital city. UFOs are so common in Zimbabwe that people have a word for them, ‘ruserwa’. Three silver balls flew over the school playing fields during the morning break. Then they disappeared in a flash of light and reappeared somewhere else.”

Jono’s gaze encompassed the circle; he spoke in hushed tones and the group was quiet, they leaned towards him and listened with rapt attention. The only sound was the occasional snap from the fire and a hiss from a sudden shower of sparks.

“This happened three times, at which point the three silver balls started to move towards the school with one of them landing, or hovering, over a section of rough ground made up of trees, thorn bushes and some grass with bamboo shoots.”

“Hmmm, the essential old bamboo shoots, necessary for all alien encounters,” Richard commented, and was soon hushed by the others.

“One of the spacecraft hovered,” Jono continued, “and a small creature with long black hair and very big eyes got out. The being had the appearance of a man, or a tokoloshe, he was about one metre in height and he walked towards the children until he saw them looking at him, then he vanished. Then he reappeared at the space craft and which quickly took off and disappeared. The children’s reports were all very similar, that little man was dressed in a shiny black suit, and he had a long, scrawny neck and huge eyes like rugby balls and a long pale face.”

“A shiny suit, hmm,” Richard said. “Perhaps it was Stepfan, out and about, committing another fashion faux pas?”

“But what about the rugby ball shaped eyes?” Helen was happy, her broken heart forgotten for the moment. “Really, Jono, they said that—eyes shaped like rugby balls?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, they did. And if you look at the drawings the children did afterwards, you will see they are shaped like downward-facing rugby balls. Sixty-two children saw the craft and there are some 40 drawings. All very similar and none of these children had TV exposure. They did the drawings the day after they saw the craft, so no one influenced them in any way.

“Some of the smaller children ran away though, when the man walked towards them, they said they were frightened the man was going to eat them and these reports did come from the black children who are familiar with tokoloshe. They were the ones who said the man was a tokoloshe. But every child said the same thing, that they had received a telepathic message from the being, that we must take care of the planet better or civilization will be doomed. One of the children said that she thought the creature wanted people to know that we’re actually ‘making harm on this world’ and we mustn’t, as she put it, get too ‘technologed’.”

“Ah, technologed.” Richard said, “Yes, indeed, we must not. Mia, love, please stop being so technologed, will you? You’re putting out planet in danger.”

“And the teachers were where exactly through all of this?” Helen wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.

“They were in a meeting,” Jono said. “They said the children always yelled and screamed during the break, so they didn’t think there was anything unusual going on. The spacecraft, by the way, was silver with red flashing lights.”

“Of course, it was.” Mia hiccupped.

“I am just telling you the facts,” Jono said. “Look at you, disbelievers of my historical tale. I am just telling you what happened.”

“Quite right you are,” Richard said. “So tokoloshe come from out of space but as this one didn’t have a penis slung over his shoulder, I’m not sure he is adequately qualified. Did anybody offer him a saucer of milk?”

“In a silver rugby ball-shaped saucer, with red flashing lights,” Helen added.

This set the troops off again. Mia howled.

“My friends,” Jono said once the mirth had died down enough for him to be heard, “back to tokoloshe. I want you to have the facts, so that you are well-informed. He lives in small crevices and holes among the stones near rivers and in small caves on mountain sides. He is very shy and scared of people and generally stays away from them. The only friend of the tokoloshe is the big water lizard, also known as a leguaan, who helps him clean his house and then they dance together. Tokoloshe are not bad until they are captured by a witch or wizard who turn them into their slaves. At last count, there were 658 tokoloshe.”

“They all stood around, for the counting?” Richard asked, “how obliging of them. Did the dancing lizards also show up for the count?”

“No, they did not,” Jono said, looking serious. “I would imagine they were still at home, cleaning the house of the tokoloshe. The tokoloshe is very scared of mousetraps, dogs and chameleons too, so if you can, be sure to have a mousetrap, a dog and a chameleon with you at all times. If you decided to become a dairy farmer and your cow has no milk then it is most probable that you have a tokoloshe who is drinking straight from the cow, which he loves to do. And then you will need call a sangoma.”

Lisa de Nikolits is the author of four published novels: The Hungry Mirror (winner of 2011 IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Women’s Issues Fiction and long-listed for a ReLit Award), West of Wawa (winner of the 2012 IPPY Silver Medal Winner for Popular Fiction and a Chatelaine’s Editor’s Pick), A Glittering Chaos, released in 2013 and tied to win the IIPY Silver Medal for Popular Fiction 2014. Her fourth novel, The Witchdoctor’s Bones was launched in the spring of 2014.

Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a bachelor of arts in English literature and philosophy, and has lived in the United States, Australia and Britain.

The Witchdoctor’s Bones is available on and




About rosemarymccracken

Rosemary McCracken is a Toronto-based journalist and fiction writer.
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