Author: Alzo David-West

Distant stars blinked over Buguma island in the lower southern delta of West Africa. Sea waves turned, crickets droned, and guinea fowl warbled. I was on a forest path, walking to my village, looking over my shoulder, for I could hear something lurking in the darkness. At first, I thought it was a stray dog, then a bush rat, but the stalking sounds were in the wrong order.

I stopped and turned around. A mosquito whispered in my ear. I strained my eyes. There was a bleak, low shape several meters away, slowly moving forward, and mutably, by some evil juju, it assumed the frame of a thick, squat, bald man. A fearful terror gripped me. I screamed and ran. I knew he was no normal man.

As I dashed, bewitched thoughts flashed in my mind of the juju man transforming into a giant insect, swooping down upon me with his gauzy wings, spindle legs, and needle bill, piercing my body, and sucking the blood dry from my veins. I ran faster and faster, screaming louder and louder for all my life was worth.

I came gasping and tumbling into my village, where amid the reddish-yellow glimmer of a kerosene lamp, comfortable loud men in singlets and wrappas were sitting on stools, laughing, chewing kola nuts, and drinking kai-kai and palm wine from tin cups and calabash gourds.

They saw me. I fell before them, shouting that a juju man on the forest path was chasing me for his beastly banquet. The happy men roused to their feet and became serious men. They murmured about witch doctors, magicians, and child snatchers, and they ran to their mud-and-thatch houses, where they grabbed more kerosene lamps, sharpened their matchets, and loaded their hunting muskets as their wives held and guarded small infants.

Hurriedly, I paced with the armed men to the path, and there in the shadows, we saw the form of the juju man prowling. I pointed, shivering. The village men demanded that the juju man stop. He did not yield. One of them fired his musket in the air, uttering a curse and a proverb. And the juju man retreated as swiftly as the horses of northern Kano land.

We pursued him under the moonless night. He ran into the bushes heedless of the venomous snakes, darted across the cassava and plantain farms, and passed the outlying river channel leading to the sea. He ran to the dark shore of the beach, and there was a splash.

Approaching the water, we heard a sound like the mighty engines of English merchant ships. And then, to our dismay, there was a fiery blaze rising like the broad-faced sun—and magnificent white rays that shone all around the earth and the waters before us—and a massive roar like a cannon blast—and a surging hot storm-wind—and afterward, all was dark again and still except for the disturbed water and the dead snappers and periwinkles that swept ashore.

We were awestruck. One of the men spoke: “Pikin, dis one na be pawaful juju, o.” That was eighty-five years ago. I was ten years old.

I now live on the seafront of Brittany with my retired son and his second wife. All the world has changed, and I have changed, yet some things remain the same in the tides of time, like the memories of childhood presentiments. So far away from Buguma island and in the late twilight of my life, I sometimes wonder when the stars blink in the night, “Was the juju man real, or was he something I dreamed, the fancy and the flight of childish fears?”