55 Years of Nigerian Literature: Nigerian Ghost Stories

by - 08:30

Halloween is just around the corner, and while it may not be associated with Nigeria, there is one thing about the day - ghouls, ghosts, witches, and all things scary - that can definitely be found in Nigerian literature. If you don't know, now you know - we know how to tell a good ghost story! We also have our fair share of urban legends, like Madam Koi Koi - with her red heels (clicking away making sounds that go koi koi koi) going from boarding school to boarding school coming to capture kids late at night. Supposedly, if you lay still in bed and don't make a sound, you might be lucky and Madam Koi Koi won't notice you. So, with the end of this month marking All Hallows' Eve, I thought my next celebratory post could look at art associated with Nigerian ghost stories. 

When I think of ghost stories the first one that comes to mind is Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts about a young boy who accidentally enters the Bush of Ghosts and encounters a number of ghosts – from the sinister to the not-so-sinister. What I didn't expect when looking for illustrations was to come across these really amazing drawings from an artist, John W. Lane, who one day plans 'to illustrate a complete portfolio of this tale'. Please do! How awesome would that be?
To 7th Town
The Smelling King
Losing Brother
Kitchen Fight. All images via animatedlane

While My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is what first came to my mind, the first novel Amos Tutuola wrote - The Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts - is said to have been heavily influenced by D.O. Fagunwa's Forest of a Thousand Daemons translated from Yoruba by Wole Soyinka. Forest of a Thousand Daemons, said to be the first novel written in Yoruba, takes you to 'a world of warriors, sages and kings; magical trees and snake people; spirits, Ghommids, and big trolls.' While it was first published in 1939, here is the 2012 City Lights publishing edition with illustrations from Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Cover design by Linda Ronan

Images via City Lights
Another well-known ghost story is Ben Okri's Famished Road - that book definitely terrified me when I first read it at 13/14. I was so terrified I put it down and was too scared to pick it back up and continue reading it. Reading it late at night when there's no light (also known as electricity/power) by candle light was probably also not the best idea. Famished Road may follow Azaro, who is an abiku or spirit child, but according to Molara Wood, there was one artist who captured the essence of magical realism. Indeed, Wood described the late Nigerian visual artist Twins Seven Seven as a 'Magical Realist':
'In his fantabulous painted woodcuts, I see the world of D.O Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, Asiru Olatunde and Ben Okri. Okri may have written about Azaro, but Twins Seven-Seven - born Taiwo Olaniyi Osuntoki - was Azaro personified.'
Here are a couple of Twins Seven Seven's work on abiku's and ghosts.   
The long eared ghost
Healing of Abiku Children
More recent ghost stories come from Helen Oyeyemi - Icarus Girl, The Opposite House and White is for Witching. I particularly like the White is for Witching covers, and this animated trailer for White is for Witching, with art work from Jon Klassen. 

Finally, going back to urban legends and Madam Koi Koi, here are some illustrations of three famous Nigerian horror stories from Obk studios.

If you're interested in finding out more about Nigerian ghost stories, here's a podcast from BBC World Service on West African horror fiction featuring Nigerian writer Nuzo Onoh who writes 'to scare the adults'. Her book, The Reluctant Deadis a collection of six short ghost stories. There is also The Naked Convos, Lights Out: Nigerian Horror Story series. 

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