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

Chapter 12.

Preparations for the March.

Gidi Mavunga, finding me in his power, began, like a thoroughbred African, to raise obstacles. We must pass through the lands of two kings, the Mfumo ma Vivi (Bibbie of Tuckey) and the Mfumu Nkulu or Nkuru (Cooloo). The distance was short, but it would occupy five days, meaning a week. Before positively promising an escort he said it would be necessary to inspect my outfit; I at once placed it in the old man’s hands, the better to say, “This is not mine, ask Gidi Mavunga for it.”

My patience had been severely tried on first arrival at Banza Nokki. From ruler to slave every one begged for cloth and rum, till I learned to hate the names of these necessaries. Besides the five recognized kings of the district, who wore black cloth coats, all the petty chiefs of the neighbourhood flocked in, importunate to share the spoils. A tariff, about one-third higher than at Boma, was set upon every article and, if the most outrageous price was refused, the seller, assuming an insipid expression of countenance, declared that great white men travelled with barrels, not with bottles of aguardente, and that without liberality it would be impossible to leave the village. Nsundi, the settlement above the Falls, was a journey of two moons, and none of the ten “kings” on the way would take less than Nessudikira’s “dash.” Congo Grande, as the people call São Salvador, was only four marches to the E.S.E.; the road, however, was dangerous, and an escort of at least fifty men would be necessary.

But when I was “upon the head of Gidi Mavunga” matters changed for the better. Shortly after he took charge, one Tetu Mayella, “King” of Neprat, accompanied by some twenty followers, entered the village with a view to the stranger’s rum: by referring them to the new owner they perforce contented themselves after three hours’ “parliamenting,” with a single bottle. The ruler of Nokki wanted, besides gin and cloth, a pair of shoes for his poor feet, which looked clad in alligator’s skin; I referred him to his father, and he got little by that motion.

On the evening of September 10, Gidi Mavunga, who had been visiting his “small country,” returned, and declared himself ready to set out. He placed before me ten heaps, each of as many ground-nuts, and made me understand that, for visiting Nsundi and S. Salvador, he would take fifty short “pieces” (of cloth) for himself and the same number for his slaves; one moiety to be advanced before the first trip to the Cataracts and the rest to follow. For half my store of beads he undertook to ration his men; a work which would have given us endless trouble. As I agreed to all his conditions he promised to move on the next day — without the least intention of carrying out any one of his conditions.

These people are rich, and not easily tempted to hard work. During the French émigration, the district of Banza Nokki drove slaves to the value of 60,000 dollars per annum, and the dollar is to the African the pound sterling of Europe. It is one of the hundred out-stations which supplied the main dépôts, Boma and Porto da Lenha. Small parties went out at certain seasons provided with rum, gunpowder, and a little cloth; and either bought the “chattels” or paid earnest money, promising to settle the whole debt at their villages. Gidi Mavunga, like most of the elders, was perfectly acquainted with the routes to Nsundi, S. Salvador, and other frontier places, where the bush people brought down their criminals and captives for barter. Beyond those points his information was all from hearsay.

Besides the large stores in their “small countries,” the middle-men have a multitude of retainers, who may at any moment be converted into capital. Yet “slave” is a term hardly applicable to such “chattels,” who, as a rule, are free as their lords. They hold at their disposal all that the master possesses, except his wives; they sleep when they choose, they work when they like; they attend to their private affairs, and, if blamed or punished, they either run away, as at Zanzibar, to their own country, or they take sanctuary with some neighbouring Mfumo, who, despite the inevitable feud, is bound by custom to protect them. Cold and hunger, the torments of the poor in Europe, are absolutely unknown to them, and their condition contrasts most favourably with the “vassus” and the “servus” of our feudal times. Their wives and children are their own: the master cannot claim the tyrannous marriage-rights of the baron; no “wedding-dish” is carried up to the castle; nor is the eldest born “accounted the son of the serf’s lord, for he perchance it was who begat him.” The brutality of slavery, I must repeat, is mainly the effect of civilization. “I shall never forget,” says Captain Boteler, “the impatient tosses of the head and angry looks displayed by a — lady — when the subject was canvassed. ‘A negro, a paltry negro, ever understand or conform to the social tie of wedlock! No, never! never!’ Yet this lady was an English-woman.” And when James Barbot’s supercargo begins to examine his negroes like cattle he is begged, for decency’s sake, to do it in a private place, “which shows these blacks are very modest.” It rather proved the whites to be the reverse.

At 7.20 A.M. on September 11, the “moleques” seized our luggage, and we suddenly found ourselves on the path. Gidi Mavunga, wearing pagne and fetish-bag, and handling a thin stick in which two bulges had been cut, led us out of Banza Nokki, and took a S.S.W. direction. The uneven ground was covered with a bitter tomato (nenga) and with the shrub which, according to Herodotus, bears wool instead of fruit. I sent home specimens of this gossypium arboreum, which everywhere grows wild and which is chiefly used for wicks. There is scant hope of cotton-culture amongst a people whose industry barely suffices for ground-nuts. The stiff clay soil everywhere showed traces of iron, and the guide pointed out a palm-tree which had been split by the electric fluid, and a broad, deep furrow, several feet long, ending in a hole. The Nzazhi (lightning) is as dangerous and as much dreaded on these hills as in Uganda: the south-west trade meets the land wind from the north-east; strata of clouds in different states of electricity combine, says the popular theory, to produce the thunder and lightning which accompany rain like the storms upon the mountains of Yemen. After 30’ (— 1.50 miles) we reached our destination, Banza Chinguvu, the head-quarters of Gidi Mavunga. As we entered it he pointed to a pot full of greasy stuff under a dwarf shed, saying, “Isso è meu Deus:” it was in fact his Baka chya Mazinga. Beyond it stood the temple of Nbambi; two suspended pieces of wood, cut in the shape of horns, bore monkey skins on both sides of a dead armadillo, an animal supposed to attract lightning when alive, and to repel it after death.

The Banza was beautifully situated on a dwarf platform, catching the full force of the sea-breeze, and commanding to the north-west a picturesque glimpse of the

“waters rippling, flowing,

Flashing along the valley to the sea;”

a mountain tarn representing the mighty stream. On the right lay fields, dotted with papaw-trees, and plantations of maize and manioc, thur (Cajanus), and sweet potatoes, a vegetable now common, but not noticed by Tuckey; on the left, a deep ravine, densely forested with noble growth, and supplying the best of water, divides it from Tadi ja Mfimo, a pile of rock on the opposite hill-side; here lay the Itombo village, belonging to Gidi Mavunga’s eldest son. Beyond it, the tree-clad heights, rolling away into the distance, faded from blue-brown to the faintest azure, hardly to be distinguished from the empyrean above. The climate of these breezy uplands is superior even to that of Banza Nokki, which lies some 170 feet lower; and the nights are sensibly cooler.

A few fathoms of altitude here make a surprising difference. The little valleys with their chalet-like huts reminded me of the Maroro and Kisanga basins, in the sister formation, the East African Ghats, but now we have a hill-climate without ague and fever. Our parallel is that of Yorukan Abokuta, where the people are anti-oeci, both being about 6° distant from the Line — those north, these south. There the bush is fetid, and the clammy air gives a sense of deadly depression; here the atmosphere is pure, the land is open, and there is enjoyment in the mere sense of life. The effete matter in the blood and the fatty degeneration of the muscles, the results of inactivity, imperfect respiration, and F. Po, were soon consumed by the pure oxygen of the highland air. I can attribute this superiority of the Congo region only to the labours of an old civilization now obsolete; none but a thick and energetic population could have cleared off the forest, which at one time must have covered their mountains.

The Banza consists of about fifty cottages, which are being new-thatched before the rains, and the population may number 300. Our host assigned to us one of his own huts; it fronted west, and was a facsimile of that which we had just left. The old fox, determined not to be “taken alive,” has provided his earth with three holes, opening to the north, to the east, and to the west. We often detected him in the “ben,” the matrimonial sanctum, listening to private conversations which he could not understand. Gidi Mavunga is decidedly a “serious person.” The three walls round the standing bedstead are hung with charms and amulets, like the sacred pictures in country parts of Europe; and at the head is his “Mavunga,” of which Tuckey says (p. 180), “Each village has a grand kissey (nkisi), or presiding divinity, named Mevonga:” it is an anthropoid log, about three feet high, red, white, and black, the former colour predominating. Two bits of looking-glass represent the eyes, the nose is patulous, as though offended by evil savour; the upper lip is drawn up in disdain, the under overlaps the chin; and a little mirror is inserted into the umbilical region. Mavunga’s dress is represented by an English billy-cock hat; while all kinds of “medicines,” calabashes, and a coarse knife depend from his neck to his shoulders. The figures at the door are generally called “Ngolowándá.”

It is said, I believe, of the Englishwoman-“If she will, she will, you may depend on’t;

If she won’t, she won’t, and there’s an end on’t.”

I may safely predicate the same of the negro, who owns, like the goose, a “singularly inflexible organization.” Whenever he can, he will, and he must, have his head. Gidi Mavunga would not even break his fast before touching the cloth and beads, which are to pay for guidance and carriage. The hut-door was closed, and in half an hour all was settled to every one’s satisfaction. Yet the veteran did not disdain a little rascality. Awaiting his opportunity, he tossed into a dark corner a little bundle of two fancy cloths which I had given the “linguistero” and, when detected, he shamelessly declared that such people have no right to trade.

Finally, our departure was settled for the next morning, and the women at once began their preparations. Although they have sperm-candles, torches are preferred for the road; odoriferous gums are made up, as in the Gaboon, with rags or splints of bark; hence the old writers say, “instead of putting wicks into the torches, they put torches into the wicks.” The travelling foods are mostly boiled batatas (sweet potatoes), Kwanga, a hard and innutritious pudding-like preparation of cassava which the “Expedition” (p. 197) calls “Coongo, a bitter root, that requires four days’ boiling to deprive it of its pernicious quality;” this is probably the black or poisonous manioc. The national dish, “chindungwa,” would test the mouth of any curry-eater in the world: it is composed of boiled ground-nuts and red peppers in equal proportions, pounded separately in wooden mortars, mixed and squeezed to drain off the oil; the hard mass, flavoured with salt or honey, will keep for weeks. The bees are not hived in Congo-land, but smoked out of hollow trees: as in F. Po and Camarones Peaks, they rarely sting, like the harmless Angelito of the Caraccas, “silla,” or saddleback; which Humboldt (“Personal Narrative,” chap. xiii.) describes as a “little hairy bee, a little smaller than the honey-bee of the north of Europe.” Captain Hall found the same near Tampico; and a hive-full was sent to the blind but ingenious Francis Huber of Geneva, who died in 1831. This seems to be the case with the busy hymenopter generally in the highlands of Africa; the lowland swarms have been the terror of travellers from Mungo Park’s day to that of the first East African Expedition.

About noon we were visited by the confidential slaves of a neighbouring chief, who prospectively welcomed us to his territory. These men were gaudily attired in cast-off clothes, and in the crimson night-caps formerly affected by the English labourer: on the mountains, where the helmet is confined to royalty, it is the head-dress used for state occasions. They sat in the hut, chatting, laughing, and discussing palm wine by the gallon, till they had their wicked will in the shape of a bottle of gin; after this, they departed with many low congés.

It was a study to see Gidi Mavunga amidst the vassals and serfs of his own village. He had no moated castle, no “Quinquengrogne;” but his habitation was grander far — that glorious hill-side, with all its prospects of mountain and river, field and forest, valley and village. As he sat upon the mat under his little piazza, all the dependants gathered in an outer semicircle, the children, dogs, and cats forming an inner chord. A crowd of “moleques” placed before him three black pots, one containing a savoury stew, the others beans and vegetables, which he transferred to a deep platter, and proved himself no mean trencherman. The earthenware is of native make, by no means ornamental, but useful because it retains the heat; it resembles the produce of the Gold Coast, and the “pepper-pot” platter of the West Indies. His cup was filled as fast as he drained the palm wine, and, at times, he passed a huge mouthful to a small son or daughter, smiling at the serious and awkward attempts at deglutition. The washing of hands and mouth before and after feeding shows progress after Tuckey’s day (p. 360). We were not asked to join him: an African, when upon a journey, will beg for everything he sees you eat or drink, but there is no return in kind. I have read of negro hospitality, but it has never been my fate to witness an approach to that virtue. The chief will, it is true, quarrel with you if his house be passed without a visit; but his object in taking you in is to make all he can of you. If a purse be pulled out, he waxes wroth, because he wishes to secure at once the reputation of generosity and the profits of a present doubling the worth of a regular “addition.” When Gidi Mavunga rose from his meal, the elder dependants took his place; the junior bipeds followed, and the remnants were thrown to the quadrupeds. It was a fair copy in black of a baronial and mediæval life.

The dogs were not neglected during the meal; but over-eagerness was repressed by a stout truncheon lying handily near the old negro Jarl. The animals are small and stunted, long-nosed and crooked-limbed, with curly tails often cut, sharp ears which show that they have not lost the use of the erecting muscles, and so far wild that they cannot bark. The colour is either black and white or yellow and white, as in Stambul and India. Overrun with ticks and foul with mange, they are too broken-spirited to rob, except by secretly sneaking into the huts, and, however often beaten off, they return to the charge like sitting hens. The people prize these wretched tikes, because they are ever ready to worry a stranger, and are useful in driving game from the bush. Yet they barbarously ill-treat them. The hungry cats are as poor a breed as the pure English, and, though no one feeds them, these domesticated tigerkins swarm. The only happy pets are the parrots. Every village swarms with hogs, the filthy wealth of the old Saxon proprietor, and their habits are disgusting as their forms are obscene. Every Anglo–Indian will understand what I mean.

My memory of “Congo chop” is all in its favour: I can recommend it even to “Fin Bee.” The people of S’a Leone declare that your life is safe when you can enjoy native food. Perhaps this means that, during the time required to train the palate, strangers will have escaped their “seasoning” fevers and chills. But foreigners will certainly fare better and, cæteris paribus, outlive their brother whites, when they can substitute African stews for the roast and boiled goat and cow, likest to donkey-meat, for the waxy and insipid potato and for heavy pudding and tart, with which their jaded stomach is laden, as if it had the digestion of north latitude 50°. It is popularly believed that the Germans, who come from the land of greatest extremes, live longer at the White Man’s Grave than the English, whereas the Spaniards are the most short-lived, one consul per annum being the normal rate. Perhaps the greater “adaptability” of the Teuton explains the cause.

The evening began with a game of ball in the large open space amongst the houses forming the village square. The implement was a roll of palm-coir tightly bound with the central fibre of the plantain-leaf. The players, two parties of some twenty slaves, of all ages and sizes, mingled, each side striving to catch the ball, and with many feints and antics to pass it on to a friend. When it fell out of bounds, the juniors ran to pick it up with frantic screams. It was interesting, as showing the difference between the highlander and the lowlander; one might pass years on the Congo plains without seeing so much voluntary exertion: yet a similar game of ball is described by the Rev. Mr. Waddell (“Twenty-nine years in the West Indies and Central Africa,” chap. xvii. London, Nelsons, 1863). The evening ended, as it often does before a march, when rest is required, with extra hard work, a drinking bout deep as the Rhineland baron’s in the good old time, and a dance in which both sexes joined. As there were neither torches nor moon, I did not attend; the singing, the shouting, and the drumming, which lasted till midnight, spoke well for the agility and endurance of the fair montagnardes.

What lightens Gidi Mavunga’s steps is the immediate prospect of the Munlola or preliminary showers, which, beginning in mid-September, last, with a certain persistence of fall, till October. During the Munlola, the sea-breeze is silent, and the sky is clad with a very thin mist, which, however, supplies abundant downfalls. The year in the Lower Congo corresponds with that of the Gaboon in practice, if not in theory, and the storms are furious as those of Yoruba, where the seasons are, of course, inverted, the great rains extending from May to August. The climate is capricious, as everywhere about the equator, and the nearer the river the heavier are the showers. The people double their lives by reckoning the rains as one year, and the dries as another: when the old missionaries wished to explain that the Saviour offered Himself for the sins of man at the age of thirty-three, they said that he was sixty-six seasons old.

After the light rains of the autumnal equinox, come the Mvula za Chintomba, the “Chuvas grandes” of the Portuguese, lasting to the end of November. They are heavy, accompanied by violent tornadoes and storms, greatly feared by the people. The moisture of the atmosphere, not being gradually condensed by forests, must be precipitated in violent downfalls, and this is perhaps the principal evil of clearing the country. December begins the “little dries,” which extend to February and March; then set in the rains of the vernal equinox, with furious discharges of electricity; June is the wettest month on the highlands, but not on the lower river. In mid-July commence the “middle-dries,” here called Ngondi Asivu (Tuckey’s “Gondy Assivoo”); upon the upper river this Cacimbo lasts between April and September; when it passes over the bush is burned, and the women hoe the ground to receive its seed. Carli well describes this season when he says:- -“The winter of the kingdom of Congo is the mild spring or autumn of Italy; it is not subject to rains, but every morning there falls a dew which fertilizes the earth.” This meteor was not observed on the highlands of Banza Nokki and Nkulu; it is probably confined to the low country, where I found it falling heavily.

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