The Witchdoctor’s Bones
by Lisa de Nikolits
on Tour July
Genre: Murder Mystery/Thriller
Published by: Inanna Poetry and Fiction Series
Publication Date: May 21st 2014
Number of Pages: 460
ISBN: 1771331267 (ISBN13: 9781771331265)
In The Witchdoctor’s Bones a group of tourists gather. Some have come to holiday, others to murder. Canadian Kate ditches her two-timing boyfriend and heads to Africa on a whim, hoping for adventure, encountering the unexpected and proving an intrepid adversary to mayhem.
The tour is led by Jono, a Zimbabwean historian and philosopher, and the travelers follow him from Cape Town into the Namib desert, learning ancient secrets of the Bushmen, the power of witchcraft and superstition, and even the origins of Nazi evil.
A ragged bunch ranging from teenagers to retired couples, each member of the group faces their own challenges as third world Africa pits against first world greed, murderous intent and thwarted desire. The battle between goaded vanity and frustrated appetite culminates in a surprising conclusion with shocking twists.
With the bones of consequence easily buried in the shifting sands, a holiday becomes a test of moral character.
Unpredictable, flawed, fun-loving, courageous, bizarre, weak, kind-hearted and loathsome; the individuals in this novel exist beyond the page and into real life.
Seamlessly weaving history and folklore into a plot of loss, passion and intrigue, the reader is kept informed and entertained as this psychological thriller unfolds.
Writing and Reading:
Do you draw from personal experiences and/or current events?
Yes, I definitely draw from both, but the personal experience is really only the catalyst, the match to the flame. The story ends up being entirely different from my own personal experience.
For example, the idea for The Witchdoctor’s Bones came from a trip I took to Namibia, a safari.
I have always wanted to write a book about Africa but until I took that trip, I had no idea what that story would be. I finished the trip and I realized that the journey, fashioned in the style of an Agatha Christie novel, would lend itself to a book.
And then yes, I drew on current African practices as well as history. But the characters in my book bear no resemblance to the people who were on the trip with me and while I used the route we travelled, none of the experiences in the book happened in real life.
And, although I use personal experiences to ‘spark’ ideas, I believe that my stories exist ‘out there’ and I welcome them to come in and visit with me and use me to find their way into the world. It’s as if I’m the owner of a Bed & Breakfast for stories — come on in, we’ll sit around a campfire and tell tales! So, yes, I do draw from personal experiences; although sometimes only in the smallest of ways; a bus trip and a poisonous bush in real life ended up being a huge, long novel that was all fiction.
Do you start with the conclusion and plot in reverse or start from the beginning and see where the story line brings you?
I start with the tiniest of ideas and then bounce things around and see where they go. For example, I wrote a short story a while back and it had an open ending. A few people really liked the story and wanted to know what happened and now I think this could be a novel. All I’ve got is a short story that for all intents and purposes has done nothing more than introduce me to a couple of characters who have potential to be interesting and I’m putting feelers out there to see what transpires. I have a feeling they might want to go to Tasmania but I’ve got no idea what they’ll do there. I went to Tasmania some years back and it resonated with me. Not every place I go does that; I went to Peru and there was nothing, not even the tiniest ‘ping’ of ‘write about me’… To this point in my writing, I’ve never known an ending in advance, and the endings have also been known to change even in final edits. I am never married to my endings.
Your routine when writing? Any idiosyncrasies?
No routines, I just write whenever I can. I like to wear a hat, it helps me concentrate. I also need my study to be just so, even if I’m not writing in there. I need things to be in order on my desk and everything needs to be nice and shiny. Oh, and I do love a fragrance! Sometimes it’s Vanilla or White Musk from The Body Shop, sometimes it’s Downtown by Calvin Klein, sometimes, if I am feeling extravagant, it’s Issey Miyake. Fragrances, like hats, help me think better!
Is writing your full time job? If not, may I ask what you do by day?
I’m a magazine art director. I’ve had the honor of working on magazines such as marie Claire, Vogue, Vogue Living. I currently art direct Cosmetics which is a lot of fun. I’m not sure I could be a full time writer, I think I’d find it too stressful! I really enjoy designing, it’s much more fun than writing which can be quite traumatic; you constantly wonder if the story is going anywhere or if you are doing the best you can with it.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Lionel Shriver, Annie Proulx, John Irving, Harry Crews, John Steinbeck, Betty Smith, D.J. McIntosh, Michael Ondaatje, Miriam Toews
What are you reading now?
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver, Manuscript Found In Accra by Paul Coelho, Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – I can’t seem to bear to finish it, I read a page a day.
Are you working on your next novel? Can you tell us a little about it?
I’ve got two novels ‘in the bag’; Between The Cracks She Fell (about a girl who loses her job, her boyfriend and her house and she moves into an abandoned old school), and The Nearly Girl (about a girl with an interesting psychosis in that she nearly gets things right but she gets everything just wrong; she gets dates/buses/tasks/recipes slightly right but wrong enough to make her life in the normal world untenable).
The fledling novel I am currently working on is the one based on the short story I mentioned here and it’s in the very earliest of stages; I’ve got a few characters I like, a diamond ring and beyond that, nothing! I keep throwing suggestions out into the ether, to see what will ‘stick’!
Your novel will be a movie. Who would you cast?
Rydell: Kevin Spacey
Kate: Jennifer Garner
Helen: Claire Danes
Richard: Damian Lewis
André: Chris Hemsworth
Manuscript/Notes: handwritten or keyboard?
Both! I also have three computers, one at work, two at home. I write bits on post-it notes, in journals, on the backs of hydro bills. I also make sure have a notebook when the ideas are initially coming. I write mostly on my computer once I have my idea outlined but when I am letting the idea for the novel take shape, I write longhand.
Favorite leisure activity/hobby?
Playing my guitar. I am learning the classical guitar. I like being at home, puttering around. I like talking to my cat. Isabella Creamy Diva, I like taking photographs, going on roadtrips and watching a good movie. I love travelling to some place I’ve never been. I like doing yoga and going for walks down at the lake. I have lots of leisure activities!
Vanilla cake with lemon icing and canned whipped cream! I guess that’s not really a meal but if I died and went to heaven, that would be my daily breakfast!
Beautiful, sexy, exciting, mysterious, dangerous and twisted. Those words can be used to describe not only the alluring locations depicted in Lisa de Nikolits’ thrilling novel The Witchdoctor’s Bones, but also some of the eclectic characters fatefully traveling together on a tour bus through South Africa and Namibia. A suspenseful page-turner that will bewitch you until the end.
Warning: You may get hungry reading this book. Some of the exotic dishes described in this novel sound so enticing you may want to risk being on a bus-load of crazy people to sample them.
- Alexander Galant, author of ‘Depth of Deception (A Titanic Murder Mystery)’
“Imagine you’ve signed up for a low-budget safari in South Africa and find yourself cheek-to-cheek on a battered van with the most bizarre travellers you’ve ever met – except in some ways they do remind you of characters you’ve encountered in a late-night screening of Moulin Rouge.
By planting her characters in the untamed landscape of the South African wilderness, de Nikolits has stripped away the niceties and rigours of polite society. You’re drawn in. Illicit love, rejected love, misfired love, machinations of all sorts, and all involving characters of dubious integrity and (in some cases) of questionable sanity. Such are the players in Lisa de Nikolits’s The Witchdoctor’s Bones, who’ve embarked on a journey that soon seethes with peril (physical and psychological), and not solely because of the wild creatures roaming the bush veld.
Sweet-talking Kate, the Canadian, is the closest thing you get to a heroine in The Witchdoctor’s Bones, proof that the best woman will be left standing.”
– Doug O’Neill, Canadian Living
Fascinating South African lore comes to life in The Witchdoctor’s Bones. De Nikolits gives us more than an intriguing mystery – a look at the dark side of the human soul and the healing power of love.
– D.J. McIntosh, national bestselling author of The Witch of Babylon and The Book of Stolen Tales (Quill + Quire’s top thriller for 2013).
Take sixteen travellers from around the world, gather them on a tour bus bumping its way along the rough roads of South Africa and Namibia, add jealousy, sexual obsession, secrets, violence, magic, poison, mental breakdown and the breathtaking arrogance of tourists treating Africa (and Africans) as their playthings, and you have Lisa de Nikolits’ psychological thriller, The Withdoctor’s Bones. As the travellers and their guides slowly reveal their true (and sometimes twisted) natures, the tension ratchets higher and higher in a narrative that draws deeply on African lore and history, with echoes of Christie’s classic Ten Little Indians, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
- Terri Favro, author of The Proxy Bride
Put together an international group of travelers, each with their own secrets, in a bus touring Africa and you have the makings of a very suspenseful tale! Lisa de Nikolits does a masterful job of drawing the reader in and not letting go until the last delicious word! Set against an exotic backdrop of Africa and Namibia, this story is a great read!
- Joan O’Callaghan, editor and contributing author of Thirteen
“A cast of intriguing characters is thrust together for an African adventure. What results is far more perilous than anyone could have imagined. Against the beautiful backdrop of South Africa and Namibia, danger and death lurk around every bend in the road, as the trip of a lifetime becomes the holiday from hell. Within the pages of The Witchdoctor’s Bones multiple mysteries emerge, as Lisa de Nikolits takes the reader on a suspense-filled journey that won’t soon be forgotten.”
—Liz Bugg, author of the Calli Barnow Series
Lisa de Nikolits has done it again. This time she shines her characteristically unflinching but loving and humour-filled gaze on the land of her birth, deftly weaving Africa’s ancient witchcraft practices, superstitions, breathtaking beauty and disturbing struggles into the journey of a group of modern-day tourists — whose motives for coming on the “trip of a lifetime” are in some cases highly suspect. The myriad conflicts between the characters are handled so subtly and the physical terrain of southern Africa painted so vividly, you won’t be able to tear yourself away from your own seat on the bus, even as the body count begins to rise.
- Brenda Missen, author of Tell Anna She’s Safe
What I really enjoy about Lisa de Nikolits is her refusal to be pinned down to a particular genre. Besides the fact that The Witchdoctor’s Bones is so different from all her other novels, it’s also incredibly difficult to classify it in its own right. Part travelogue, part psychological thriller, part sociological and anthropological study, The Witchdoctor’s Bones entertains, educates and fascinates all at the same time. It’s a gripping read that draws you into the heart of darkness, both in the literal and figurative sense; the action takes place in untamed Africa, but it’s the darkness in the human heart that de Nikolits portrays with such chilling precision. It’s a page-turner that will keep you biting your nails right up to the bitter end.
- Bianca Marais, http://biancamarais.com/ Musings of a Wannabe Writer
Read an excerpt:
Kate and Marika made coffee and rejoined the others who were huddled around the fire pit while Stepfan and Charisse moved off to one side and were deep in a private conversation.
“So what’s the big discussion about?” Kate asked, sitting down.
“I’m trying to explain the difference between sangomas versus witchdoctors,” Helen said, sitting back on her heels. “I thought I knew but then once I started explaining it, I realised I’m confused. Jono, maybe you can help us out?”
“I can,” Jono said, accepting a beer from Richard. “Thank you. First, some facts. Eighty-four percent of all South Africans consult a sangoma more than three times a year and there are more than 200,000 sangomas in South Africa alone. A witch and a sangoma are not the same thing whereas a witchdoctor,” he emphasized the last word, “is the same thing as a sangoma but the term witchdoctor is considered to be a perjorative one that came from the European settlers. Sangomas are practitioners of complimentary medicine and they serve a long apprenticeship learning to become intermediaries between the world of spirits and the world of the living. Witches are a whole other thing, they are evil and dangerous and if they cannot be cured, they are stoned to death or buried alive.”
“Yes, they certainly gave Kleine Skok the heebie jeebies,” Richard stretched his feet towards the fire. “Poor fellow, he had this godawful lump of dried up rabbit’s blood and I asked him if that was something a witchdoctor would use and he nearly shot right off the mountain. I felt quite dreadful for asking.”
Jono laughed and took a drink of his beer. “Yes, I can imagine that frightened him in a big way. More than six hundred people have been killed in the last ten years in Gauteng alone, because they were accused of being witches, so even the mention of such a thing is frightening for many people.”
“Can you cure someone of being a witch?” Eva asked.
“Yes, but it’s not easy,” Jono said. “You have to call an isanusi, a professional who can smell out witches and get rid of them.
“There are many kinds of witches,” he continued, “one of which is the night-witch who is invisible during the daytime but then at night, changes into an animal; a crocodile, a hyena, a lion, a wolf maybe. Night-witches devour human bodies, dead or alive during the night and they can been seen flying at night, with fire coming out of their bottoms.”
“They fart fire?” Mia found this hysterically funny and the rest of the group joined in, laughing. “Oh lord, fire-farting witches, knock my bleedin’ socks off.”
“Isn’t it true,” Helen queried when the laughter died down, “that Western doctors found a high correlation between schizophrenia and epilepsy in individuals who have been accused of being witches?”
Jono nodded. “Which would explain the hallucinations they have,” he said. “And some of them have also been found to be manic-depressives and schizophrenics. But if you ask me, this does not mean that Western medicine has any kind of increased knowledge in this area, it’s just that you call your witches by a lot of medical-sounding names and find different ways to treat them.”
“Touché.” Richard exclaimed while Helen nodded enthusiastically.
“So,” Jono said, “we have the isanusi or shaman, or the witch-finder, who sniffs them out, and then you have the witch-doctor, an igqira, who can smell by moral, not physical means, the corrupt presence of the witch or sorcerer. The isanusi is the diviner, and he is called upon to explain the source of your misfortune and to see if you have a witch. The sangoma, which is a Zulu word by the way, is the one who will be invited to cleanse an entire village of witchcraft by giving them emetics, or sneezing powder or making incisions into which medicine is rubbed, or by many other methods.”
“How does the isanusi know what to do?” Kate asked.
“The diviners, or isanusi, receives his knowledge from the spirits and there are more than sixty documented methods to ask the spirits; reading the stars, throwing sticks, studying lines in the sand, observing the blood trickling from a victim, even by looking at how birds are flying or how they are sitting on a tree. A lot of people think that diviners are not good because they are trying to know God’s secrets before God wants us to know them, and we should not be attempting to steal divine secrets.”
“I’m divining that it’s high time for schnapps.” Mia got to her feet, and brushed embedded grass from her legs. “I’m getting the Archers. Go on, you lot.” She waved and walked across the grass. “Don’t wait for me.”
“Yes, carry on Jono,” Richard said, “Mia won’t mind, she’s not into this sort of thing.”
“I find it incredibly amazing,” Helen spoke up quickly, “I wish I’d had time to learn more. Well, better late than never.” She smiled at Richard who cracked open another beer and missed her meaningful glance.
“So the sangoma tries to cure the witch…” Kate reminded Jono where he had left off.
“Yes,” Jono said, “but curing witches is a very small part of what the sangoma does as his life’s work. The main function of the sangoma is to heal and protect people in the community.
“Are sangomas only men?” Eva asked.
“No, both men and women can be sangomas, and they are generally very respected members of the community. Even Nelson Mandela was circumcised by a sangoma when he was sixteen by a famous ingcibi, a circumcision expert. Sangomas conjure up potions, known as muti to make you better and muti is made from all sorts of herbs and things. Then the sangoma dances herself, or himself, into a trance, usually with his drum which also has a spirit, and this is how they contact the spirit. Then they will alter their voice and begin to talk, using two voices, relying on their powers of ventriloquism.”
“I was told you can recognize a sangoma by their dress which is covered in beads, and is very ornamental, in red which is bomvu, black which is mnyama and white, mhlophe,” Helen said, hoping to impress Richard with her knowledge.
Jono nodded. “The medicine the sangoma mixes can be based on colours also. The sangoma mixes opposite colours together, uniting them symbolically and then real life harmony follows. Light colours represent life and masculinity, dark colours are death and femininity.”
“I knew it.” Richard poked Mia who had returned with the bottle of schnapps and a sleeping bag, “you women are the death of men.”
Mia tittered, slapped him on the shoulder and wrapped herself in the sleeping bag. She opened the bottle, took a long swig and passed it to Jasmine.
“Is it true,” Marika asked, “that sangomas study for as long as doctors?”
“Yes. It takes seven years for the sangoma to study, and he, or she, studies a lot of things; techniques of divination, treatment of psychological, mental, physical conditions, animal and plant medicine use, the anatomy of the soul, ritual mastery, prayer and invocation, throwing the bones, trans-body, chant and song, channeling souls, soul ascension, case study, tradition and culture, and finally, techniques of investigation. Sangomas are also very good detectives and great historians and guardians of local culture and learning.”
“Impressive,” Kate said. “But the witches sound horrible.”
“They are. Witches operate on fear, superstition and rumour,” Jono said. “The evils of gossip. Nowadays even some of the churches use witchcraft to bring new worshippers, convincing them their problems are due to supernatural witch curses that only the church can cure. Some churches even preach that diseases like AIDS and leprosy, blindness, deafness, impotence and infertility are muti curses by witches.”
“Before we left,” Richard said, “I read an article about how Tanzanian witchdoctors have been killing albinos and harvesting their body parts because they think it will bring them good luck. What’s with that? Why albinos, why body parts for good luck?”
“What have you been reading, my friend, to hear that?” Jono asked and Richard’s expression became guarded.
“Oh, general research and whatnot. One’s interested in studying up before a trip, and what with the Internet, it’s astounding what one comes across. Some scary stuff actually. But why albinos, Jono?”
“Because they are considered to be very sacred. They are treated with deep respect because they are believed to be spirits born as human beings. And the whole muti body parts thing, well, that’s a whole other area, my friend, that is a dark thing for sure.”
“I’d be super keen to hear the whole bangshoot,” Richard said.
“Maybe you are, my friend but it’s not a discussion for the faint-hearted,” Jono warned. “And yes, Richard, I know the events of which you speak. At this time, nineteen albinos have been murdered in less than a year. But one last word on witches; they are also accused of inciting adultery, alcohol abuse and theft. Witches also have immense power to turn innocent people into witches and therefore it’s possible to become a witch without even being aware of it, simply by eating contaminated food or picking up an ‘impure’ object.”
“Oh, do not, for the love of God, tell Harrison any of this,” Richard said, “we’re all sworn to secrecy. Can you image what he’d be like if he heard these sorts of things? He’ll be rubbing everything, including us, in antiseptic.”
“All for one and one for all, we say nothing,” Helen assured him. “Jono, what about tokoloshes? I’ve tried to find out about them but no one would really tell me anything.”
“Ah,” Jono said, “the infamous tokoloshe. Helen, here is the secret to creating one – you remove the eyes and tongue from a full size corpse, then you blow a secret powder into its mouth and it is comes to life and will obey your every wish. But there is a high price for creating a tokoloshe, including the death of a relative within a year, because the spirits do not give life freely. If you are prepared to create an unnatural life, then you must be prepared to destroy a natural one.”
“An unnatural life,” Kate echoed and even the fire seemed to flicker and dim. Mia offered her the bottle of schnapps but she shook her head. Mia shrugged and passed the bottle to Jasmine.
“The tokoloshe,” Jono continued, “is a spirit in the households of witches and warlocks and they speak with a lisp…”
“Sofie’s a tokoloshi.” Mia sat up, giggling “I suspected it all along.”
“She’s not small and brown,” Richard objected.
“Nor does she have a penis so long it has to be slung over her shoulder,” Jono said. “Sorry Mia, but she falls short of many of the physical characteristics needed.”
Mia found this so hilarious she nearly fell into the fire.
“Easy there, cupcake,” Richard said, kicking a burning log further away from her.
“I’m fine.” Mia protested, “perfectly composed. It’s the thought of Sofie with a giant penis slung over her shoulder, lisping…” She and Jasmine hung onto each other, hooting with laughter.
“The tokoloshe,” Jono said, “is very unusual in that he has a single buttock. Apparently Satan was unable to replicate this uniquely human feature, of our lovely, well rounded bottoms. So if you wish to scare away the devil, you must bare your buttocks at him and he will be frightened by that which he cannot have.”
“Ah that’s why mooning is such a handy tool,” Mia yelled. “Never mind crosses for vampires, just pull down your pants to the devil. Go on Richard luv, show us your moon.”
“Yes,” Helen chimed in, “show us.”
“I respectfully decline the invitation,” Richard said, “go on Jono.”
“I am too worried to continue,” Jono said. “I am afraid this discussion is being a health hazard to Mia.”
“No, I’m fine,” Mia gasped, “but my stomach hurts from laughing. Oh bleedin’ hell, this is hilarious. Go on Jono.”
“Part of the tokoloshi’s duties,” Jono said, “is to make love to its witch mistress, which is why he was created so well-endowed. As a reward for fulfilling these sexual duties, the tokoloshi is rewarded with milk and food.”
“Milk?” Kate was perplexed. “Why milk?”
“Milk is considered a sacred drink in many parts of Africa,” Jono explained, “it has many healing powers.”
“Likes to suck on a bit of tit, does he?” Richard was thoughtful. “Sign of a good man if you ask me.”
Jono ignored this comment and continued. “If you do see a tokoloshe, do not annoy it by talking to it and most certainly do not point at it because it will vanish immediately.”
“How on earth can I not look,” Mia shook with laughter, “when its hung like a bleedin’ donkey?”
Despite having downed half the bottle of schnapps, Mia was surprisingly coherent, unlike Jasmine, who had abruptly fallen fast asleep and was snoring slightly.
Jono finished the last of his beer and looked regretful. “Well, everyone, I must go to sleep or I will be a bad driver in the morning. Thank you very much for listening.”
He looked at Kate who grinned at him.
“No, thank you,” Richard said. “You’re incredibly knowledgeable, Jono, and I look forward to more stories about muti and witchdoctor’s and the like. Anyone else like one for the ditch? Last call, people, last call.”
“I’m going to bed,” Eva said. “Thanks Jono, thanks everyone.”
“Yeah, we’re calling it a night too,” Kate and Marika said, getting up.
“Me too,” Helen said. “That was fascinating, thanks Jono.”
“I’ll have one more,” Mia said, “lay it on baby.”
Jasmine was still fast asleep and Mia patted her head.
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 U.S.A., Australia and Britain.
Her first novel, The Hungry Mirror, won the 2011 IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Women’s Issues Fiction and was long-listed for a ReLit Award.
Her second novel, West of Wawa won the 2012 IPPY Silver Medal Winner for Popular Fiction and was one of Chatelaine’s four Editor’s Picks.
Her third novel, A Glittering Chaos, launched in Spring 2013 to much acclaim and is about murder, madness, illicit love and poetry. It received the IPPY 2014 Silver Medal for Popular Fiction!
All books published by Inanna Publications.
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