The Turu Lion-Men
The mbojo lion-men of the Turu people of Tanzania are an interesting take on lycanthropes that have some cool baked-in plot hooks!
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Image credit: Geran de Klerk
The anthropologist Harold K. Schneider recounts an interesting belief he came across while doing fieldwork among the Turu people of Tanzania in 1959 and 1960. The Turu believe that being killed by an animal is an unclean way to die. They even bury those slain by beasts in a particular place that shows they are shunned. Considering that there are lions in the Turu homeland, this presents a problem: every so often, someone will get eaten by a lion, and that person’s family won’t want to admit that’s what happened. Enter a convenient scapegoat: the mbojo.
A mbojo is a man who is temporarily transformed into a lion. He may be able to do this himself, or he may have to be transformed by a witch. Mbojo are hired killers. If you’ve got someone you want to see dead, you hire yourself a lion-man. First, you go to the particular Turu clan from which mbojo are supposedly hired. Then you lead him docilely in lion form back to your homestead to hide in the windowless back room found in every Turu house. If it’s going to take some time to get your target out in the open, you might hide your lion-man in the home of an accomplice in the next village, so as not to arouse the suspicion of your neighbors.
But be careful! Once hired, a mbojo must kill. If you take too long trying to draw your target out into the open, your lion-man might kill someone else – or even you! Schneider claims one Turu village told him a story about a mbojo who couldn’t reach his target and was growing frustrated. A young woman of the village sacrificed herself to the lion-man to spare her neighbors.
The British colonial government in Tanzania didn’t usually believe Turu claims of witchcraft, but they did sometimes believe in mbojo. In 1948, the colonial authority hanged several people who confessed to hiring lion-men.
Image credit: Tobias Adam
If you’re going to have your PCs investigate a murder by a lycanthrope contract killer, first they have to falsify the null hypothesis. The victim’s family insists this was a mbojo attack, so their loved one didn’t die unclean. But how can the PCs be sure this wasn’t an ordinary (shameful) lion attack? Ruling this out may be tricky, but fortunately most settings with lycanthropes also have divination magic. Things get more complicated when the party wants to find who hired the mbojo. The victim might not have been the intended target, meaning the lion-man’s hirer may not have been an enemy of the victim.
For a fun twist, you can have the victim be the person who hired the mbojo and the logical suspect (the victim’s sworn enemy) be the intended target. Following up on the suspect’s alibi reveals not only that it is ironclad, but that she was away from the village for several days. Indeed, she left the day before the victim returned to the village from a few days’ trip. A little further digging reveals that the victim returned from the land of the lion-man’s clan only to find his intended target gone. While he waited for his target to return, the mbojo grew restless, and finally killed his hirer just before the intended target returned to the village.
Separately, I thought you might want to know that a book I was lead designer on is in its final week on Kickstarter. Tears in the Sea is one of three campaign dossiers coming out for the occult WWI RPG Never Going Home. I don’t get a cut of the sales (I’m just a freelancer on this project), so I don’t have a stake in this, but if you like the work I put out here on the blog, you’ll probably like Tears in the Sea. In it, you play as the crew of the German U-boat U-19. Some disaster fused the previous crew with the submarine. U-19’s machinery is now an amalgam of metal and pulsating flesh. The passageways, already cramped, are now barely passable because every surface is covered in living, heaving meat. Still, the flesh responds to commands and does the work the crew did in life, so the German admiralty sends the PCs aboard as a skeleton crew on a special mission: to recover all the information they can about a British plot code-named RIPTIDE.
The Wahi Wanyaturu: Economics in an African Society by Harold K. Schneider (1970)
Mbojo: Lion Attacks on People West of Tarangire N.P, Tanzania by Mike Skuja (2001)
(A note on verb tenses: Skuja reported belief in mbojo as still being active in 2000, so I’ve used the present tense to describe the phenomenon.)