Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, by Richard F. Burton

Chapter 6.

Village Life in Pongo-land.

The next day was perforce a halt. Forteune and his wives did not appear till 9 A.M., when it was dead low water. I had lent Nimrod a double-barrelled gun during the march, and he was evidently anxious to found a claim upon the protracted usufruct. “Dashes” also had to be settled, and loads made up. The two women to whose unvarying kindness all my comfort had been owing, were made happy with satin-stripe, cassis, and the inevitable nicotiana. In an unguarded moment my soft heart was betrayed into giving a bottle of absinthe to the large old person who claimed to be Forteune’s mamma. Expecting nothing, had nothing been offered she would not have complained; the present acted upon her violently and deleteriously; she was like the cabman who makes mauvais sang because he has asked and received only twice his fare; briefly, next morning she was too surly to bid us adieu.

When giving Forteune his “dash,” I was curious to hear how he could explain the report about the dead gorilla shot the night before last: the truth of the old saying, “a black man is never fast for an excuse,” was at once illustrated; the beast had been badly wounded, but it had dragged itself off to die. And where was the blood? The rain had washed the blood away!

Nimrod seemed chagrined at the poor end of so much trouble, but there was something in his look and voice suggesting a suppressed thought — these people, like the English and the Somal, show their innermost secrets in their faces. At last, I asked him if he was now willing to try the Shekyani country. He answered flatly, “No!” And why?

Some bushmen had bewitched him; he knew the fellow, and would quickly make “bob come up his side:” already two whites had visited him with a view of shooting gorillas; both had failed; it was “shame palaver!”

This might have been true, but it certainly was not the whole truth. I can hardly accept M. du Chaillu’s explanation, that the Mpongwe, who attack the beasts with trade muskets and pebbles, will not venture into the anthropoid’s haunts unless certain of their white employer’s staunchness. What could that matter, when our Nimrod had an excellent weapon in his hand and a strong party to back him? Very likely Forteune was tired with walking, and five dollars per shot made the game not worth the candle. Again, perhaps the black diplomatist feared to overstock the market with Njinas, or to offend some regular customer for the sake of an “interloper.” In these African lands they waste over a monkey’s skin or a bottle of rum as much intrigue as is devoted to a contested election in England.

I then asked the guide if my staying longer would be of any use? He answered with a simple negative. Whilst the Utángáni remained the Mbunji (spell) would still work, but it would at once be broken by our departure, and he would prove it by sending down the first-fruits. This appeared to me to be mere Mpongwe “blague,” but, curious to say, the sequel completely justified both assertions. He threw out a hint, however, about certain enemies and my “medicine,” the arsenical soap; I need hardly say that it was refused.

When the palaver ended and the tide served, a fierce tornado broke upon us, and the sky looked grisly in the critical direction, north-east. Having no wish to recross the Gaboon River during a storm blowing a head wind, I resolved to delay my departure till the morrow, and amused myself with drawing from the nude a picture of the village and village-life in Pongo-land.

The Mpongwe settlements on the Gaboon River are neatly built, but without any attempt at fortification; for the most part each contains one family, or rather a chief and his dependants. In the larger plantation “towns,” the abodes form a single street, ranging from 100 to 1,000 yards in length; sometimes, but rarely, there are cross streets; the direction is made to front the sea-breeze, and, if possible, to present a corner to storm-bearing Eurus. An invariable feature, like the arcaded loggie of old Venetian towns, is the Námpolo, or palaver-house, which may be described as the club-room of the village. An open hangar, like the Ikongolo or “cask-house” of the trading places, it is known by a fire always kept burning. The houses are cubes, or oblong squares, varying from 10 to 100 feet in length, according to the wealth and dignity of the owner; all are one-storied, and a few are raised on switch foundations. Most of them have a verandah facing the street, and a “compound” or cleared space in the rear for cooking and other domestic purposes. The walls are built by planting double and parallel rows of posts, the material being either bamboo or the mid-rib of a wine-giving palm (Raphia vinifera); to these uprights horizontal slats of cane are neatly lashed by means of the never-failing “tie-tie,” bast-slips, runners, or llianas. For the more solid buildings thin “Mpávo,” or bark slabs, are fitted in between the double posts; when coolness is required, their place is taken by mats woven with the pinnated leaves of sundry palms. This is a favourite industry with the women, who make two kinds, one coarse, the other a neat and close article, of rattan-tint until it becomes smoke-stained: the material is so cheap and comfortable, that many of the missionaries prefer it for walls to brick or boarding. The windows are mere holes in the mats to admit light, and the doors are cut with a Mpáno (adze) from a single tree trunk, which would be wilful waste if timber were ever wanting. The floor is sometimes sandy, but generally of hard and level tamped clay, to which the European would prefer boarding, and, as a rule, it is clean — no fear of pythogenie from here! The pent-shaped roof of rafters and thatch is water-tight except when the host of rats disturb it by their nocturnal gambols.

Rich men affect five or six rooms, of which the principal occupies the centre. The very poor must be contented with one; the majority have two. The “but” combines the functions of hall, dining-room, saloon and bachelor’s sleeping quarters. The “ben” contains a broad bed for the married, a standing frame of split bamboo with mats for mattresses; it is usually mounted on props to defend it from the Nchu’u or white ants, and each has its mosquito bar, an oblong square, large enough to cover the whole couch and to reach the ground; the material is either fine grass-cloth, from the Ashira country, a light stuff called “Mbongo,” or calico and blue baft from which the stiffening has been washed out. It is far superior to the flimsy muslin affairs supplied in an Anglo–Indian outfit, or to the coarse matting used in Yoruba. Provided with this solid defence, which may be bought in any shop, one can indulge one’s self by sleeping in the verandah without risk of ague or rheumatism. The “ben” always displays a pile of chests and boxes, which, though possibly empty, testify to the “respectability” of the household. In Hotaloya’s I remarked a leather hat-case; he owned to me that he had already invested in a silk tile, the sign of chieftainship, but that being a “boy” he must grow older before he could wear it. The inner room can be closed with a strong door and a padlock; as even the window-hole is not admitted, the burglar would at once be detected. Except where goods are concerned, the Mpongwe have little respect for privacy; the women, in the presence of their husbands, never failed to preside at my simple toilette, and the girls of the villages would sit upon the bedside where lay an Utangání in almost the last stage of déshabillé.

The furniture of course varies; a rich man near the river will have tables and chairs, sofas, looking-glasses, and as many clocks, especially “Sam Slicks,” as love or money can procure. Even the poorest affect a standing bedstead in the “ben,” plank benches acting as couches in the “but,” a sufficiency of mats, and pots for water and cooking. A free man never condescends to sit upon the ground; the low stool, cut out of a single block, and fancifully carved, is exactly that of the old Egyptians preserved by the modern East Africans; it dates from ages immemorial. The look of comparative civilization about these domiciles, doubtless the effect of the Portuguese and the slave trade, distinguishes them from the barbarous circular huts of the Kru-men, the rude clay walls of the Gold Coast, and the tattered, comfortless sheds of the Fernandian “Bube.” They have not, however, that bandbox-like neatness which surprises the African traveller on the Camerones River.

The only domestic animals about these villages are dogs, poultry, and pigeons (fine blue rocks): I never saw in Pongo-land the goats mentioned by M. du Chaillu. The bush, however, supplies an abundance of “beef,” and, as most South Africans, they have a word, Isángú (amongst the Mpongwes), or Ingwámbá (of the Cape Lopez people), to express that inordinate longing and yearning for the stimulus of meat diet, caused by the damp and depressing equatorial climate, of which Dr. Livingstone so pathetically complains. The settlements are sometimes provided with little plots of vegetables; usually, however, the plantations are distant, to preserve them from the depredations of bipeds and quadrupeds. They are guarded by bushmen, who live on the spot and, shortly before the rains all the owners flock to their farms, where, for a fortnight or so, they and their women do something like work. New grounds are preferred, because it is easier to clear them than to remove the tangled after-growth of ferns and guinea grass; moreover, they yield, of course, better crops. The plough has not yet reached Pongo-land; the only tools are the erem (little axe for felling), the matchet (a rude cutlass for clearing), the hoe, and a succedaneum for the dibble. After the bush has been burned as manure, and the seed has been sown, no one will take the trouble of weeding, and half the surface is wild growth.

Maize (Zea mays) has become common, and the people enjoy “bútás,” or roasted ears. Barbot says that the soil is unfit for corn and Indian wheat; it is so for the former, certainly not for the latter. Rice has extended little beyond the model farms on the north bank of the river; as everywhere upon the West African Coast, it is coarser, more nutritious, and fuller flavoured than the Indian. The cereals, however, are supplanted by plantains and manioc (cassava). The plantains are cooked in various ways, roast and boiled, mashed and broiled, in paste and in balls; when unripe they are held medicinal against dysentery. The manioc is of the white variety (Fatropha Aypim seu utilissima), and, as at Lagos, the root may be called the country bread: I never saw the poisonous or black manioc (Fatropha manihot), either in East or in West Africa, and I heard of it only once in Unyamwezi, Central Africa. Yet it is mentioned by all old travellers, and the sweet harmless variety gives very poor “farinha,” Anglicè “wood meal.”

The vegetables are “Mbongwe” (yams), koko or Colocasia esculenta, Occras (Hibiscus esculentus), squashes (pumpkins), cucumbers, beans of several sorts, and the sweet potato, an esculent disliked by Englishmen, but far more nutritious than the miserable “Irish” tuber. The ground-nut or peanut (Arachis hypogaea), the “pindar” of the United States, a word derived from Loango, is eaten roasted, and, as a rule, the people have not learned to express its oil. Proyart (Pinkerton, xvi. 551) gives, probably by misprint, “Pinda, which we call Pistachio.” “Bird-peppers,” as the small red species is called, grow wild in every bush; they are wholesome, and the people use them extensively. Tomatoes flourish almost spontaneously, and there is a bulbless native onion whose tops make excellent seasoning. Sugar-cane will thrive in the swamps, coffee on the hill-slopes: I heard of, but never saw ginger.

The common fruits are limes and oranges, mangoes, papaws, and pineapples, the gift of the New World, now run wild, and appreciated chiefly by apes. The forest, however, supplies a multitude of wild growths, which seem to distinguish this section of the coast, and which are eaten with relish by the people. Amongst them are the Sángo and Nefu, with pleasant acid berries; the Ntábá, described as a red grape, which will presently make wine; the olive-like Azyigo (Ozigo?); the filbert-like Kula, the “koola-nut” of M. du Chaillu (“Second Expedition,” chap, viii.), a hard-shelled nux, not to be confounded with the soft-shelled kola (Sterculia); and the Aba, or wild mango (Mango Gabonensis), a pale yellow pome, small, and tasting painfully of turpentine. It is chiefly prized for its kernels. In February and March all repair to the bush for their mango-vendange, eat the fruit, and collect the stones: the insides, after being sun-dried, are roasted like coffee in a neptune, or in an earthern pot. When burnt chocolate colour, they are pounded to the consistency of thick honey, poured into a mould, a basket lined with banana leaves, and set for three days to dry in the sun: after this the cake, which in appearance resembles guava cheese, will keep through the year.

For use the loaf is scraped, and a sufficiency is added to the half-boiled or stewed flesh, the two being then cooked together: it is equally prized in meat broths, or with fish, dry and fresh; and it is the favoured kitchen for rice and the insipid banana. “Odika,” the “Ndika” of the Bákele tribes, is universally used, like our “Worcester,” and it may be called the one sauce of Gorilla-land, the local equivalent for curry, pepper-pot, or palm-oil chop; it can be eaten thick or thin, according to taste, but it must always be as hot as possible. The mould sells for half a dollar at the factories, and many are exported to adulterate chocolate and cocoa, which it resembles in smell and oily flavour. I regret to say that travellers have treated this national relish disrespectfully, as continentals do our “plomb-boudin:” Mr. W. Winwood Reade has chaffed it, and another Briton has compared it with “greaves.”

At “Cockerapeak,” or, to speak less unpoetically, when Alectryon sings his hymn to the dawn, the working bees of the little hive must be up and stirring, whilst the master and mistress enjoy the beauty-sleep. “Early to bed, and early to rise,” is held only fit to make a man surly, and give him red eyes, by all wild peoples, who have little work, and who justly hold labour an evil less only than death. Amongst the Bedawin it is a sign of Shaykh-dom not to retire before dawn, and I have often heard the Somal “palavering” after midnight. As a rule the barbarian enjoys his night chat and smoke round the fire all the more because he drinks or dozes through the better part of the day. There is a physical reason for the preference. The absence of light stimulus, and the changes which follow sunset seem to develope in him a kind of night-fever as in the nervous temperament of Europe. Hence so many students choose the lamp in preference to the sun, and children mostly clamour when told at 8 o’clock to go to bed.

Shortly after sunrise the young ones are bathed in the verandah. Here also the mistress smooths her locks, rumpled by the night, “tittivates” her macaw-crest with the bodkin, and anoints her hair and skin with a tantinet of grease and palm oil. Some, but by no means all, proceed for ablution to the stream-side, and the girls fetch water in heavy earthen jars, containing perhaps two gallons; they are strung, after the Kru fashion, behind the back by a band passing across the forehead. When we meet them they gently say “Mbolo!” (good morning), or “Oresa” (are you well)? At this hour, however, all are not so civil, the seniors are often uncommonly cross and surly, and the mollia tempora fandi may not set in till after the first meal — I have seen something of the kind in England. The sex, impolitely said to have one fibre more in the heart and one cell less in the brain, often engages in a violent wordy war; the tornado of wrath will presently pass over, and leave clear weather for the day. In the evening, when the electric fluid again gathers heavily, there will be another storm. Meanwhile, superintended by the mistress, all are occupied with the important duty of preparing the morning meal. It is surprising how skilful are these heaven-born cooks; the excellent dishes they make out of “half-nothing.” I preferred the cuisine of Forteune’s wives to that of the Plateau, and, after finding that money was current in the village, I never failed to secure their good offices.

The Mpongwe breakfast is eaten by the women in their respective verandahs, with their children and friends; the men also gather together, and prefer the open air. This feed would not only astonish those who talk about a “free breakfast-table,” with its silly slops and bread-stuffs; it would satisfy a sharp-set Highlander. In addition to yams and sweet potatoes, plantains, and perhaps rice, there will be cooked mangrove-oysters fresh from the tree, a fry, or an excellent bouillabaisse of fish; succulent palaver sauce, or palm-oil chop; poultry and meat. The domestic fowl is a favourite; but, curious to say, neither here nor in any part of tropical Africa known to me have the people tamed the only gallinaceous bird which the Black Continent has contributed to civilization. The Guinea fowl, like the African elephant, remains wild. We know it to be an old importation in Europe, although there are traditions about its appearing in the fourteenth century, when Moslems sold it to Christians as the “Jerusalem cock,” and Christians to Moslems as the “bird of Meccah.” It must be the Greek meleagris, so called, says Ælian, from the sisters who wept a brother untimely slain; hence the tears upon its plume, suggesting the German Perl-huhn, and its frequent cries, which the Brazilians, who are great in the language of birds, translate Sto fraca, sto fraca, sto fraca (I’m weak). The Hausa Moslems make the Guinea fowl cry, “Kilkal! kilkal!” (Grammar by the Rev. F. J. Schön, London, Salisbury Square, 1862). It is curious to compare the difference of ear with which nations hear the cries of animals, and form their onomatopoetic, or “bow-wow” imitations. For instance, the North Americans express by “whip-poor-will” what the Brazilians call “João-corta-páo.” The Guinea fowl may have been the “Afraa avis;“but that was a dear luxury amongst the Romans, though the Greek meleagris was cheap. The last crotchet about it is that of an African traveller, who holds it to be the peacock of Solomon’s navies, completely ignoring the absolute certainty which the South–Indian word “Tukkiim” carries with it.

The Mpongwe will not eat ape, on account of its likeness to themselves. But they greatly enjoy game; the porcupine, the ground-hog (an Echymys), the white flesh of the bush pig (Cricetomys), and the beef of the Nyáre (Bos brachyceros); this is the “buffalo” or “bush-cow” of the regions south of Sierra Leone, and the empacassa of the Congo–Portuguese, whose “empacasseirs” or native archers, rural police and auxiliaries “of the second line,” have as “guerra preta” (black militia) won many a victory. Their numbers in Angola have amounted to 30,000, and they aided in conquest like the Indian Sipahi (sepoy) and the Tupi of the older Brazil. Now they wear the Tánga or Pagne, a waist cloth falling to the knee, and they are armed with trade muskets and cartridge-boxes fastened to broad belts. Barbot calls the Nyare a buffalo, and tells us that it was commonly shot at Sandy Point, where in his day elephants also abounded. Captain Boteler (ii. 379) well describes a specimen, which was killed by Dr. Guland, R.N., as exactly resembling the common cow of England, excepting that its proportions are far more “elegant.”

This hearty breakfast is washed down with long drinks of palm wine, and followed by sundry pipes of tobacco; after which, happy souls! all enjoy a siesta, long and deep as that of Andine Mendoza; and they “kill time” as well as they can till evening. The men assemble in the club round the Námpolo-fire, where they chat and smoke, drink and doze; those who are Agriophagi or Xylobian Æthiopians, briefly called hunters, spend their days much like the race which Byron declared

“Merely born

To hunt and vote, and raise the price of corn.”

The Pongo venator is up with the sun, and, if not on horseback, at least he is on the traces of game; sometimes he returns home during the hours of heat, when he knows that the beasts seek the shady shelter of the deepest forests; and, after again enjoying the “pleasures of the chase,” he disposes of a heavy dinner and ends the day, sleep weighing down his eyelids and his brains singing with liquor. What he did yesterday that he does today, and what he does today that he shall do tomorrow; his intellectual life is varied only by a visit to town, where he sells his choice skins, drinks a great deal too much rum, and makes the purchases, ammunition and so forth, which are necessary for the full enjoyment of home and country life. At times also he joins a party of friends and seeks some happier hunting ground farther from his campagne.

Meanwhile the women dawdle through the day, superintending their domestic work, look after their children’s and their own toilette, tend the fire, attend to the cooking, and smoke consumedly. The idle sit with the men at the doors of their huts; those industriously disposed weave mats, and, whether lazy or not, they never allow their tongues and lungs a moment’s rest. The slaves, male and female, draw water, cut fuel, or go to the distant plantations for yams and bananas; whilst the youngsters romp, play and tease the village idiot — there is one in almost every settlement. Briefly, the day is spent in idleness, except, as has been said, for a short time preceding the rains.

When the sun nears the western horizon, the hunter and the slaves return home, and the housewife, who has been enjoying the “coolth” squatting on her dwarf stool at her hut-door, and puffing the preparatory pipe — girds her loins for the evening meal, and makes every one “look alive.” When the last rays are shedding their rich red glow over the tall black trees which hem in the village, all torpidity disappears from it. The fires are trimmed, and the singing and harping, which were languid during the hot hours, begin with renewed vigour. The following is a specimen of a boating-song:

(Solo.) “Come, my sweetheart!”

( Chorus.) “Haste, haste!”

(Solo) ‘How many things gives the white man?’

(Chorus chants all that it wants.)

(Solo) ‘What must be done for the white man?”

(Chorus improvises all his requirements)

(Solo) “How many dangers for the black girl?”

(Chorus) “Dangers from the black and the white man!”

The evening meal is eaten at 6 P.M. with the setting of the sun, whose regular hours contrast pleasantly with his vagaries in the northern temperates. And Hesperus brings wine as he did of old. Drinking sets in seriously after dark, and is known by the violent merriment of the men, and the no less violent quarrelling and “flyting” of the sex which delights in the “harmony of tongues.” All then retire to their huts, and with chat and song, and peals of uproarious laughter and abundant horseplay, such as throwing minor articles at one another’s heads, smoke and drink till 11 P.M. The scene is “Dovercourt, all speakers and no hearers.” The night is still as the grave. and the mewing of a cat, if there were one, would sound like a tiger’s scream.

The mornings and evenings in these plantation-villages would be delightful were it not for what the Brazilians call immundicies. Sandflies always swarm in places where underwood and tall grasses exclude the draughts, and the only remedy is clearing the land. Thus at St. Isabel or Clarence, Fernando Po, where the land-wind or the sea-breeze ever blows, the vicious little wretches are hardly known; on the forested background of mountain they are troublesome as at Nigerian Nufe. The bite burns severely, and presently the skin rises in bosses, lasting for days with a severe itching, which, if unduly resented, may end in inflammatory ulcerations — I can easily understand a man being laid up by their attacks. The animalcules act differently upon different constitutions. While mosquitoes hardly take effect, sand flies have often blinded me for hours by biting the circumorbital parts. The numbers and minuteness of this insect make it formidable. The people flap their naked shoulders with cloths or bushy twigs; Nigerian travellers have tried palm oil but with scant success, and spirits of wine applied to the skin somewhat alleviate the itching but has no prophylactic effect. Sandflies do not venture into the dark huts, and a “smudge” keeps them aloof, but the disease is more tolerable than the remedy of inflaming the eyes with acrid smoke and of sitting in a close box, by courtesy termed a room, when the fine pure air makes one pine to be beyond walls. After long endurance in hopes of becoming inoculated with the virus, I was compelled to defend myself with thick gloves, stockings and a muslin veil made fast to the hat and tucked in under the shirt. After sunset the sandflies retire, and the mosquito sounds her hideous trump; as has been said, however, Pongo-land knows how to receive her.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31