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Picha Mlaji

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Picha mlaji picture

A typical scene from a village in Italian East Africa that vanished in 1897

Among the cultures of East and West Africa lies the myth of the Picha Mlaji, or the Photo Eater. The legends first appeared in the late 1800s in the murky areas of European-dominated East Africa, but were seen as far as Cairo, the Belgian Congo and even a few sketchy reports from Western India. Despite many variations on the tale, a single emaciated boy on a bicycle is always the catalyst for cannibalism.

Photography was slow to filter out to the Dark Continent and was largely used only by the colonial administrations to have photo identification of their officials and occasionally to record their subjects.

Typically, the legend has the above child ride into a native (except for a few instances, the victims have always been Africans) village and asks someone if “they have seen the marvel of photography?” If the person replies “yes”, then the boy will ask if the person has any and if he can see it. If they say “no” then the boy will ride off to ask for another person.

If the person gives the boy a photograph, he will immediately seize it and bike away faster than anyone could hope to catch him.

The boy will simply ride off to another village if the person asked has no photos.

A few nights after the boy steals the photographs, any people who were in it, aside from the one who gave it to Picha Mlaji if they were in the photo, will die in two established ways:

  • The first and most common variety is that the victim disappears for two days and nights, returning only as a pile of damaged bones. The bones are always cracked open to allow the marrow to be consumed. The skull is the only bone not destroyed; instead, it rests on top of the pile of destroyed bone with the photograph wedged in its teeth. The missing person will be scratched or burnt out of the picture. This will continue until all the people in the photo are all eaten, with a new copy of the photo appearing in each pile.
  • The second way was only found in Sudanese incidents and is far more graphic: the missing people’s corpses return much quicker—only about a day, even a few hours sometimes—and are more intact. But they are covered in bite marks; chunks of flesh and muscle are ripped off with nail-and-hand to the bone in place and the eyes are removed. The bodies are always in an advanced state of decay even though they’re been gone for 30 hours at most. The original photograph itself will be clutched in the hand of the last victim taken with all the other victims scratched out as above.

More disturbing than the ways its victims are cannibalized is how Picha Mlaji continues to stalk the original picture-giver, threatening the same fate unless more photographs can be provided. Whole villages have disappeared in a matter of days if they had enough photographs or a village-wide one. The fate of the person who started it varies, sometimes he runs out of photos and is eaten, other times he is left alive to spread his tale, although those left alive typically die of exposure or from courts believing they were responsible for the massacre.

The incidents of Picha Mlaji gradually slowed down at the turn of the century, but it is believed the creature’s reappearance in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s Askari companies led to the undefeated German commander’s surrender to the English in 1918 due to lack of manpower. During the First Liberian Civil War, several dozen of Charles Taylor’s NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) child-soldiers were found mutilated in similar circumstances to the original Picha Mlaji slayings, with the last victim holding a damaged Polaroid photograph of the boy’s unit taken some 2 weeks before.

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