Sassabonsam and Other Scary Stories for Sustainability
Stories are a vital part of all cultures. They teach, they entertain, they preserve, and they pass on through generations. This is especially true of the cautionary tales—the ones that strike fear and often curiosity within us.
We often see scary stories as restricting, setting clear boundaries that the reader should confine themselves to. But these tales can also be bolstering and provide guidance that we can set to our own lives that is freeing, not restricting.
Recentring and reclaiming our folklore is a powerful tool in strengthening and progressing the sustainability movement.
The Story of the Sassabonsam
The Akan people of West Africa long had a tradition: don’t go into the forest on Thursday. This day of the week was forbidden for any hunting or farming to be completed at all. Thursday was the sacred day of Asasseyaa (also known as Asase Yaa), the great Goddess Spirit of the land who ruled over life, fertility, and death, all deeply connected to the land. Her sacred day was a time of rest and renewal, for all beings and the land.
However, one day, a hunter decided to forsake this rule and venture into the forest. As soon as they stepped a foot into the forest, they realized it was completely unfamiliar. Though they and generations before them had long known the forest intimately, it was now transformed into a labyrinth that they could not navigate. And, behind each step, they felt someone following them.
A humanoid being appeared to them, with long spindly legs, pointed ears or horns, short arms connected to a skinny torso with bat wing-like membrane, and sharp teeth. The being lured them from its place up in the canopy, tree to tree, before vanishing as soon as they got close. It went on like this, a terrifying chase through an unfamiliar dark place until the hunter finally collapsed from exhaustion into a deep sleep. When they awoke and were finally able to make their way out of the forest, their village surrounded them and they realized they had been gone for days. But despite all the questions their village had, he was unable to answer them as he could no longer speak.
He was spared as a warning of what would happen to those who defied the rules of the land. A warning of the Sassabonsam.
This was the original story. And it worked. For centuries, the Akan observed Asasseyaa’s sacred day with no hunting or farming. More than just a spiritual observance, it was an ecological process deeply connected to the land. It taught and enforced necessary lessons about the vital role of rest and renewal. Without allowing this time of rest, forests would become depleted, soil would be overworked, and the balance of the land and her animals upended.
Sassabonsam was never a monster to the Akan—they were a guardian, the protector of Asasseyaa’s domain, of the land themself as a living being.
But as with many things, the story changed when the colonizers came. One of the foremost tools of colonization used by Europeans was religion—notably, forms of Christianity. A key feature of Christianity is the devil. However, this is not a key feature of many African traditional religions (ATRs) and spiritualities. While there are certainly fearful spirits and deities, most hold duality and are not regarded as evil.
As Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka said:
“When the Christians came, determined to spread the gospel, they looked around and they couldn’t find the devil. When they couldn’t find the equivalent of the devil, they took one of the deities. [Christianity] intruded for the sole purpose, very often, of preparing the way for the real stormtroopers of commerce, imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, disdain, [and] racial disdain.”
As Afro-Asian Vodu spiritual practitioner Sena Voncujovi summarizes:
“Satan is a concept imported into African societies through colonialism to stigmatize African spirituality.”
Rather than reinvent the devil, missionary colonizers instead took the closest one the Akan people had.
“Because the sasabonsam was already feared among the Akan people, Christian missionaries appropriated the creature as a tool of control,” writes Nicole Zakheim.
And so, the sassabonsam became a devil.
Nowadays, if you research Sassabonsam online, you’re liable to get cryptid archive entries that describe Sassabonsam as an African vampire, ogre, or devil that attacked unsuspecting passerby indiscriminately. While a lot of this modern description is shaped by colonial missionaries, some may also be shaped by the Akan peoples. The violence and ecologically destructive practices colonization brought to the land left no room for warnings, which some say led the Sasabonsam to shift into a ruthless protector that hooked their claws and fangs into Europeans and drained their blood.
Whichever way you frame it, colonization undoubtedly changed Sasabonsam.
Resurgence of Folklore for Resistance
The Akan are not the only people to have folklore that set the precedent for sustainable practices, nor are they the only people whose stories were the targets of attempts to twist and erase them through colonization. But these stories survive.
Sasabonsam and other folklore survived the Middle Passage with the African peoples who were enslaved and brought to the Caribbean, Brazil, the United States, Canada, and other places. Throughout the brutality of chattel slavery, Sasabonsam survived in the consciousness of African peoples, morphing with the mixing of different African peoples into a story able to survive the apocalypse.
Many of these folklores have survived apocalypse. And remembering them helps us to reclaim vital teachings and co-create the sustainable futures we fight for.
Sasabonsam helps us to remember the lessons they taught us about guardianship of the land and respecting processes of rest and renewal.
Anansi, a trickster spider of the Ashanti people, shows us the power that the marginalized “little guy” can access by being imaginative and clever.
The Lakota prophecy of the Black Snake reminds us how our modern fight against pipelines and colonization is ancestrally rooted and a continuation of centuries-long tradition.
Stories have always been a vital part of our cultures. Through remembering and recentring stories and folklore in our fights for justice, we can access these teachings and the power they imbue.
About the Author
Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.