Stories of shapeshifting are very common in Africa. One recorded instance was presented to the South African law courts in 1987. It came about when a young man, Naletzane Netshiavha, was roused during the night by a strange scratching noise at his front door.

He went to the door and called out, “Who’s there?”

When there was no response he became frightened. To protect himself, Naletzane picked up an ax and then opened the door. To his horror, he saw what looked to be a large bat hanging from the rafters of his roof. He struck the beast with the ax, making it fall to the ground, and then fled in a blind panic.

When he mustered the courage to return with reinforcements, witnesses saw the creature dragging its tattered body towards a fence in the yard. Naletzane struck it again and again until it lay still. A large group of people who had been watching from afar finally felt confident enough to approach for a better view.

Every one of the witnesses later described seeing a completely different creature when they spoke in court.

To some it was a small donkey. To others it was a winged animal. But all agreed that, as it lay dying, the creature’s form changed. The testimonies also concurred that it took on the body of a child with the head of an adult, before slowly developing a complete adult body.

The body was later identified as that of Jim Nephalama, an elderly man, who was reputedly a wizard. Rumor had it that Jim often boasted that he had the power to “do what he wished” with people.

When the matter eventually went before the Supreme Court, the white judge concluded that Naletzane should have recognized that the creature was a man. He was found guilty of behaving in an irresponsible and violent manner and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for culpable homicide.

The sad thing with this case was cultural differences and beliefs were not taken into account. The court judged Naletzane on its own terms – on its own belief system. It made no attempt to enter or understand Naletzane’s reality tunnel which, arguably, could have been just as real for him as science is to much of Western culture.

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