Accepted Paper:

Enigmatic Bush Dwarfs of West Africa: The Case of the Siyawesi of Northwestern Benin  


Sharon Merz (SIL International)

Paper short abstract:

The West African bush is inhabited by many creatures including those labelled as mythical by some outside observers. The siyawesi bush dwarfs are far from mythical for the Bebelibe of northwestern Benin and continue to play an important role in Bebelibe cosmology despite modernisation.

Paper long abstract:

The West African bush, whether forest or savannah, is not only inhabited by plants and animals, but also by enigmatic beings that have been called 'mythical' by some outside observers. One such being is the bush dwarf.

For the Bebelibe of northwestern Benin, these small and mischievous beings are known as the siyawesi. They like to come out at night, sow in peoples' fields and take or replace grain from their granaries. Invisible to most humans, they only reveal themselves to those they choose to relate to. Despite their seemingly capricious character, the siyawesi play an important role in Bebelibe cosmology and are treated with deference.

In this paper I explore the relationship between the siyawesi and the Bebelibe, which is important for several reasons. According to mythology, many Bebelibe recognise the siyawesi as responsible for helping them become settled farmers. One clan in particular claims a special relationship with the bush dwarfs and clan members are called the siyawesi owners. The siyawesi also play an important role in divination as they mediate between the diviner and God. Diviners, in turn, are consulted regularly, especially when problems occur. For some who have converted to Christianity, the siyawesi have become the devil's children who deceive the diviners. Thus bush dwarfs do not disappear from Bebelibe cosmology as a result of modernising influences, but rather undergo a character transformation that reflects new ideas.

Panel P09
Cryptozoology: animals out of place or time