Growing up in KZN stories about the evil little tokoloshe abounded, and even those men and women who would laugh at the silliness of the idea, still had their beds high up on bricks so that the little guy couldn’t reach them while they slept!
But I’d never really encountered much about tagati (umthakathi), or perhaps not paid as much attention as I had to the tokoloshe – the idea of a dwarf-like creature that punishes wicked children feels right at home in a child’s imagination! So when a friend of mine told me that her aunt had been killed by a tagati, it made me curious as to what exactly she meant. It turns out that her aunt was struck by lightning, and because of the unusual circumstances around her death, her family believed sinister forces to be at work.
An internet research on the subject of tagati doesn’t yield any definite results: it seems the word can refer to hexes – spells cast by ‘witches’ (because sangomas spend time counteracting these hexes, they are often referred to as ‘witch doctors’). But according to Wikipedia tagati isn’t a hex, but the spirit or being causing the hex: “A tagati is a wizard, witch or spiteful person who operates in secret to harm others or who uses poisons and familiar spirits to carry out harmful deeds. The term is first recorded in 1836; it derives from the Zulu word umthakathi, being someone who mixes medicine”. And this definition ties in with other references to tagati which talk about tokoloshes being the minions of tagatis, sent to cause chaos in the night.
It seems that the lines are a bit blurred, but it really is a fascinating subject! And one that people seem to be still very connected to, even as we move more and more into a Western way of life. At least now I know my tagatis from my tokoloshes!