Travels in West Africa, by Mary H. Kingsley

Chapter XIII. Fetish — (continued).

In which the Voyager discourses on deaths and witchcraft, and, with no intentional slur on the medical profession, on medical methods and burial customs, concluding with sundry observations on twins.

It is exceedingly interesting to compare the ideas of the Negroes with those of the Bantu. The mental condition of the lower forms of both races seems very near the other great border-line that separates man from the anthropoid apes, and I believe that if we had the material, or rather if we could understand it, we should find little or no gap existing in mental evolution in this old, undisturbed continent of Africa.

Let, however, these things be as they may, one thing about Negro and Bantu races is very certain, and that is that their lives are dominated by a profound belief in witchcraft and its effects.

Among both alike the rule is that death is regarded as a direct consequence of the witchcraft of some malevolent human being, acting by means of spirits, over which he has, by some means or another, obtained control.

To all rules there are exceptions. Among the Calabar negroes, who are definite in their opinions, I found two classes of exceptions. The first arises from their belief in a bush-soul. They believe every man has four souls: a, the soul that survives death; b, the shadow on the path; c, the dream-soul; d, the bush-soul.

This bush-soul is always in the form of an animal in the forest — never of a plant. Sometimes when a man sickens it is because his bush-soul is angry at being neglected, and a witch-doctor is called in, who, having diagnosed this as being the cause of the complaint, advises the administration of some kind of offering to the offended one. When you wander about in the forests of the Calabar region, you will frequently see little dwarf huts with these offerings in them. You must not confuse these huts with those of similar construction you are continually seeing in plantations, or near roads, which refer to quite other affairs. These offerings, in the little huts in the forest, are placed where your bush-soul was last seen. Unfortunately, you are compelled to call in a doctor, which is an expense, but you cannot see your own bush-soul, unless you are an Ebumtup, a sort of second-sighter.

But to return to the bush-soul of an ordinary person. If the offering in the hut works well on the bush-soul, the patient recovers, but if it does not he dies. Diseases arising from derangements in the temper of the bush-soul however, even when treated by the most eminent practitioners, are very apt to be intractable, because it never realises that by injuring you it endangers its own existence. For when its human owner dies, the bush-soul can no longer find a good place, and goes mad, rushing to and fro — if it sees a fire it rushes into it; if it sees a lot of people it rushes among them, until it is killed, and when it is killed it is “finish” for it, as M. Pichault would say, for it is not an immortal soul.

The bush-souls of a family are usually the same for a man and for his sons, for a mother and for her daughters. Sometimes, however, I am told all the children take the mother’s, sometimes all take the father’s. They may be almost any kind of animal, sometimes they are leopards, sometimes fish, or tortoises, and so on.

There is another peculiarity about the bush-soul, and that is that it is on its account that old people are held in such esteem among the Calabar tribes. For, however bad these old people’s personal record may have been, the fact of their longevity demonstrates the possession of powerful and astute bush-souls. On the other hand, a man may be a quiet, respectable citizen, devoted to peace and a whole skin, and yet he may have a sadly flighty disreputable bush-soul which will get itself killed or damaged and cause him death or continual ill-health.

There is another way by which a man dies apart from the action of bush-souls or witchcraft; he may have had a bad illness from some cause in his previous life and, when reincarnated, part of this disease may get reincarnated with him and then he will ultimately die of it. There is no medicine of any avail against these reincarnated diseases.

The idea of reincarnation is very strong in the Niger Delta tribes. It exists, as far as I have been able to find out, throughout all Africa, but usually only in scattered cases, as it were; but in the Delta, most — I think I may say all — human souls of the “surviving soul” class are regarded as returning to the earth again, and undergoing a reincarnation shortly after the due burial of the soul.

These two exceptions from the rule of all deaths and sickness being caused by witchcraft are, however, of minor importance, for infinitely the larger proportion of death and sickness is held to arise from witchcraft itself, more particularly among the Bantu.

Witchcraft acts in two ways, namely, witching something out of a man, or witching something into him. The former method is used by both Negro and Bantu, but is decidedly more common among the Negroes, where the witches are continually setting traps to catch the soul that wanders from the body when a man is sleeping; and when they have caught this soul, they tie it up over the canoe fire and its owner sickens as the soul shrivels.

This is merely a regular line of business, and not an affair of individual hate or revenge. The witch does not care whose dream-soul gets into the trap, and will restore it on payment. Also witch-doctors, men of unblemished professional reputation, will keep asylums for lost souls, i.e. souls who have been out wandering and found on their return to their body that their place has been filled up by a Sisa, a low class soul I will speak of later. These doctors keep souls and administer them to patients who are short of the article.

But there are other witches, either wicked on their own account, or hired by people who are moved by some hatred to individuals, and then the trap is carefully set and baited for the soul of the particular man they wish to injure, and concealed in the bait at the bottom of the pot are knives and sharp hooks which tear and damage the soul, either killing it outright, or mauling it so that it causes its owner sickness on its return to him. I knew the case of a Kruman who for several nights had smelt in his dreams the savoury smell of smoked crawfish seasoned with red peppers. He became anxious, and the headman decided some witch had set a trap baited with this dainty for his dream-soul, with intent to do him grievous bodily harm, and great trouble was taken for the next few nights to prevent this soul of his from straying abroad.

The witching of things into a man is far the most frequent method among the Bantu, hence the prevalence among them of the post-mortem examination, — a practice I never found among the Negroes.

The belief in witchcraft is the cause of more African deaths than anything else. It has killed and still kills more men and women than the slave-trade. Its only rival is perhaps the smallpox, the Grand Kraw–Kraw, as the Krumen graphically call it.

At almost every death a suspicion of witchcraft arises. The witch-doctor is called in, and proceeds to find out the guilty person. Then woe to the unpopular men, the weak women, and the slaves; for on some of them will fall the accusation that means ordeal by poison, or fire, followed, if these point to guilt, as from their nature they usually do, by a terrible death: slow roasting alive — mutilation by degrees before the throat is mercifully cut — tying to stakes at low tide that the high tide may come and drown — and any other death human ingenuity and hate can devise.

The terror in which witchcraft is held is interesting in spite of all its horror. I have seen mild, gentle men and women turned by it, in a moment, to incarnate fiends, ready to rend and destroy those who a second before were nearest and dearest to them. Terrible is the fear that falls like a spell upon a village when a big man, or big woman is just known to be dead. The very men catch their breaths, and grow grey round the lips, and then every one, particularly those belonging to the household of the deceased, goes in for the most demonstrative exhibition of grief. Long, low howls creep up out of the first silence — those blood-curdling, infinitely melancholy, wailing howls — once heard, never to be forgotten.

The men tear off their clothes and wear only the most filthy rags; women, particularly the widows, take off ornaments and almost all dress; their faces are painted white with chalk, their heads are shaven, and they sit crouched on the earth in the house, in the attitude of abasement, the hands resting on the shoulders, palm downwards, not crossed across the breast, unless they are going into the street.

Meanwhile the witch-doctor has been sent for, if he is not already present, and he sets to work in different ways to find out who are the persons guilty of causing the death.

Whether the methods vary with the tribe, or with the individual witch-doctor, I cannot absolutely say, but I think largely with the latter.

Among the Benga I saw a witch-doctor going round a village ringing a small bell which was to stop ringing outside the hut of the guilty. Among the Cabindas (Fjort) I saw, at different times, two witch-doctors trying to find witches, one by means of taking on and off the lid of a small basket while he repeated the names of all the people in the village. When the lid refused to come off at the name of a person, that person was doomed. The other Cabinda doctor first tried throwing nuts upon the ground, also repeating names. That method apparently failed. Then he resorted to another, rubbing the flattened palms of his hands against each other. When the palms refused to meet at a name, and his hands flew about wildly, he had got his man.

The accused person, if he denies the guilt, and does not claim the ordeal, is tortured until he not only acknowledges his guilt but names his accomplices in the murder, for remember this witchcraft is murder in the African eyes.

If he claims the ordeal, as he usually does, he usually has to take a poison drink. Among all the Bantu tribes I know this is made from Sass wood (sass = bad; sass water = rough water; sass surf = bad surf, etc.), and is a decoction of the freshly pulled bark of a great hard wood forest tree, which has a tall unbranched stem, terminating in a crown of branches bearing small leaves. Among the Calabar tribes the ordeal drink is of two kinds: one made from the Calabar bean, the other, the great ju-ju drink Mbiam, which is used also in taking oaths.

In both the sass-wood and Calabar bean drink the only chance for the accused lies in squaring the witch-doctor, so that in the case of the sass-wood drink it is allowed to settle before administration, and in the bean that you get a very heavy dose, both arrangements tending to produce the immediate emetic effect indicative of innocence. If this effect does not come on quickly you die a miserable death from the effects of the poison interrupted by the means taken to kill you as soon as it is decided from the absence of violent sickness that you are guilty.

The Mbiam is not poisonous, nor is its use confined, as the use of the bean is, entirely to witch palaver; but it is the most respected and dreaded of all oaths, and from its decision there is but one appeal, the appeal open to all condemned persons, but rarely made — the appeal to Long ju-ju. This Long ju-ju means almost certain death, and before it a severe frightening that is worse to a negro mind than mere physical torture.

The Mbiam oath formula I was able to secure in the upper districts of the Calabar. One form of it runs thus, and it is recited before swallowing the drink made of filth and blood:—

“If I have been guilty of this crime, “If I have gone and sought the sick one’s hurt, “If I have sent another to seek the sick one’s hurt, “If I have employed any one to make charms or to cook bush, “Or to put anything in the road, “Or to touch his cloth, “Or to touch his yams, “Or to touch his goats, “Or to touch his fowl, “Or to touch his children, “If I have prayed for his hurt, “If I have thought to hurt him in my heart, “If I have any intention to hurt him, “If I ever, at any time, do any of these things (recite in full), “Or employ others to do these things (recite in full), “Then, Mbiam! THOU deal with me.”

This form I give was for use when a man was sick, and things were generally going badly with him, for it is not customary in cases of disease to wait until death occurs before making an accusation of witchcraft. In the case of Mbiam being administered after a death this long and complicated oath would be worded to meet the case most carefully, the future intention clauses being omitted. In all cases, whenever it is used, the greatest care is taken that the oath be recited in full, oath-takers being sadly prone to kiss their thumb, as it were, particularly ladies who are taking Mbiam for accusations of adultery, in conjunction with the boiling oil ordeal. Indeed, so unreliable is this class of offenders, or let us rather say this class of suspected persons, that some one usually says the oath for them.

From the penalty and inconveniences of these accusations of witchcraft there is but one escape, namely flight to a sanctuary. There are several sanctuaries in Congo Francais. The great one in the Calabar district is at Omon. Thither mothers of twins, widows, thieves, and slaves fly, and if they reach it are safe. But an attempt at flight is a confession of guilt; no one is quite certain the accusation will fall on him, or her, and hopes for the best until it is generally too late. Moreover, flying anywhere beyond a day’s march, is difficult work in West Africa. So the killing goes on and it is no uncommon thing for ten or more people to be destroyed for one man’s sickness or death; and thus over immense tracts of country the death-rate exceeds the birth-rate. Indeed some of the smaller tribes have thus been almost wiped out. In the Calabar district I have heard of an entire village taking the bean voluntarily because another village had accused it en bloc of witchcraft. Miss Slessor has frequently told me how, during a quarrel, one person has accused another of witchcraft, and the accused has bolted off in a towering rage and swallowed the bean.

The witch-doctor is not always the cause of people being subjected to the ordeal or torture. In Calabar and the Okyon districts all the widows of a dead man are subjected to ordeal.

They have to go the next night after the death, before an assemblage of chiefs and the general surrounding crowd, to a cleared space where there is a fire burning. A fowl is tied to the right hand of each widow, and should that fowl fail to cluck at the sight of the fire the woman is held guilty of having bewitched her dead husband and is dealt with accordingly.

Among the Bantu, although the killing among the wives from the accusation of witchcraft is high, some of them being almost certain to fall victims, yet there is not the wholesale slaughter of women and slaves sent down with the soul of the dead that there is among the Negroes.

In doubtful cases of death, i.e. in all cases not arising from actual violence, when blood shows in the killing, the Bantu of the S.W. Coast make post-mortem examinations. Notably common is this practice among the Cameroons and Batanga region tribes. The body is cut open to find in the entrails some sign of the path of the injected witch.

I am informed that it is the lung that is most usually eaten by the spirit. If the deceased is a witch-doctor it is thought, as I have mentioned before, that his familiar spirit has eaten him internally, and he is opened with a view of securing and destroying his witch. In 1893 I saw in a village in Kacongo five unpleasant-looking objects stuck on sticks. They were the livers and lungs, and in fact the plucks, of witch-doctors, and the inhabitants informed me they were the witches that had been found in them on post-mortems and then been secured.

Mrs. Grenfell, of the Upper Congo, told me in the same year, when I had the pleasure of travelling with her from Victoria to Matadi, that a similar practice was in vogue among several of the Upper Congo tribes.

Again in 1893 I came across another instance of the post-mortem practice. A woman had dropped down dead on a factory beach at Corisco Bay. The natives could not make it out at all. They were irritated about her conduct: “She no sick, she no complain, she no nothing, and then she go die one time.”

The post-mortem showed a burst aneurism. The native verdict was “She done witch herself,” i.e. she was a witch eaten by her own familiar.

The general opinion held by people living near a river is that the spirit of a witch can take the form of a crocodile to do its work in; those who live away from large rivers or in districts like Congo Francais, where crocodiles are not very savage, hold that the witch takes on the form of a leopard. Still the crocodile spirit form is believed in in Congo Francais, and to a greater extent in Kacongo, because here the crocodiles of the Congo are very ferocious and numerous, taking as heavy a toll in human life as they do in the delta of the Niger and the estuaries of the Sierra Leone and Sherboro’ Rivers.

One witch-doctor I know in Kacongo had a strange professional method. When, by means of his hand rubbings, etc., he had got hold of a witch or a bewitched one, he always gave the unfortunate an emetic and always found several lively young crocodiles in the consequence, and the stories of the natives in this region abound in accounts of people who have been carried off by witch crocodiles, and kept in places underground for years. I often wonder whether this idea may not have arisen from the well-known habit of the crocodile of burying its prey on the bank. Sometimes it will take off a limb of its victim at once, but frequently it buries the body whole for a few days before eating it. The body is always buried if it is left to the crocodile.

I have a most profound respect for the whole medical profession, but I am bound to confess that the African representatives of it are a little empirical in their methods of treatment. The African doctor is not always a witch-doctor in the bargain, but he is usually. Lady doctors abound. They are a bit dangerous in pharmacy, but they do not often venture on surgery, so on the whole they are safer, for African surgery is heroic. Dr. Nassau cited the worst case of it I know of. A man had been accidentally shot in the chest by another man with a gun on the Ogowe. The native doctor who was called in made a perpendicular incision into the man’s chest, extending down to the last rib; he then cut diagonally across, and actually lifted the wall of the chest, and groped about among the vitals for the bullet which he successfully extracted. Patient died. No anaesthetic was employed.

I came across a minor operation. A man had broken the ulna of the left arm. The native doctor got a piece — a very nice piece — of bamboo, drove it in through the muscles and integuments from the wrist to the elbow, then encased the limb in plantain leaves, and bound it round, tightly and neatly, needless to say with tie-tie. The arm and hand when I saw it, some six or seven months after the operation, was quite useless, and was withering away.

Many of their methods, however, are better. The Dualla medicos are truly great on poultices for extracting foreign substances, such as bits of iron cooking-pot — a very frequent form of foreign substance in a man out here, owing to their being generally used as bullets. Almost incredible stories are told by black and white of the efficacy of these poultices; one case I heard from a reliable source of a man who had been shot with fragments of iron pot in the thigh. The white doctor extracted several pieces and said he had got all out, but the man still went on suffering, and could not walk, so, at his request, a native doctor was called in, and he applied his poultice. In a few minutes he removed it, and on its face were two pieces of jagged iron pot. Probably they had been in the poultice when it was applied, anyhow the patient recovered rapidly.

Baths accompanied by massage are much esteemed. The baths are sometimes of hot water with a few herbs thrown in, sometimes they are made by digging a hole in the earth and putting into it a quantity of herbs, and bruised cardamoms, and peppers. Boiling water is then plentifully poured over these and the patient is placed in the bath and is covered over with the parboiled green stuff; a coating of clay is then placed over all, leaving just the head sticking out. The patient remains in this bath for a period of a few hours, up to a day and a half, and when taken out is well rubbed and kneaded. This form of bath I saw used by the M’pongwe and Igalwas, and it is undoubtedly good for many diseases, notably for that curse of the Coast, rheumatism, which afflicts black and white alike. Rubbing and kneading and hot baths are, I think, the best native remedies, and the plaster of grains-of-paradise pounded up, and mixed with clay, and applied to the forehead as a remedy for malarial headache, or brow ague, is often very useful, but apart from these, I have never seen, in any of these herbal remedies, any trace of a really valuable drug.

The Calabar natives are notably behindhand in their medical methods, depending more on ju-ju than the Bantus. In a case of rheumatism, for example, instead of ordering the hot bath, the local practitioner will “woka” his patient and extract from the painful part, even when it has not been wounded, pieces of iron pot, millipedes, etc., and, in cases of dysentery, bundles of shred-up palm-leaves. These things, he asserts, have been by witchcraft inserted into the patient. His conduct can hardly be regarded as professional; and moreover as he goes on to diagnose who has witched these things into the patient’s anatomy, it is highly dangerous to the patient’s friends, relations, and neighbours into the bargain.

With no intentional slur on the medical profession, after this discussion on their methods I will pass on to the question of dying.

Dying in West Africa particularly in the Niger Delta, is made very unpleasant for the native by his friends and relations.

When a person is insensible, violent means are taken to recall the spirit to the body. Pepper is forced up the nose and into the eyes. The mouth is propped open with a stick. The shredded fibres of the outside of the oil-nut are set alight and held under the nose and the whole crowd of friends and relations with whom the stifling hot hut is tightly packed yell the dying man’s name at the top of their voices, in a way that makes them hoarse for days, just as if they were calling to a person lost in the bush or to a person struggling and being torn or lured away from them. “Hi, hi, don’t you hear? come back, come back. See here. This is your place,” etc.

This custom holds good among both Negroes and Bantus; but the funeral ceremonies vary immensely, in fact with every tribe, and form a subject the details of which I will reserve for a separate work on Fetish.

Among the Okyon tribes especial care is taken in the case of a woman dying and leaving a child over six months old. The underlying idea is that the spirit of the mother is sure to come back and fetch the child, and in order to pacify her and prevent the child dying, it is brought in and held just in front of the dead body of the mother and then gradually carried away behind her where she cannot see it, and the person holding the child makes it cry out and says, “See, your child is here, you are going to have it with you all right.” Then the child is hastily smuggled out of the hut, while a bunch of plantains is put in with the body of the woman and bound up with the funeral binding clothes.

Very young children they do not attempt to keep, but throw them away in the bush alive, as all children are thrown who have not arrived in this world in the way considered orthodox, or who cut their teeth in an improper way. Twins are killed among all the Niger Delta tribes, and in districts out of English control the mother is killed too, except in Omon, where the sanctuary is.

There twin mothers and their children are exiled to an island in the Cross River. They have to remain on the island and if any man goes across and marries one of them he has to remain on the island too. This twin-killing is a widely diffused custom among the Negro tribes.

There is always a sense of there being something uncanny regarding twins in West Africa, and in those tribes where they are not killed they are regarded as requiring great care to prevent them from dying on their own account. I remember once among the Tschwi 29 trying to amuse a sickly child with an image which was near it and which I thought was its doll. The child regarded me with its great melancholy eyes pityingly, as much as to say, “A pretty fool YOU are making of yourself,” and so I was, for I found out that the image was not a doll at all but an image of the child’s dead twin which was being kept near it as a habitation for the deceased twin’s soul, so that it might not have to wander about, and, feeling lonely, call its companion after it.

The terror with which twins are regarded in the Niger Delta is exceedingly strange and real. When I had the honour of being with Miss Slessor at Okyon, the first twins in that district were saved with their mother from immolation owing entirely to Miss Slessor’s great influence with the natives and her own unbounded courage and energy. The mother in this case was a slave woman — an Eboe, the most expensive and valuable of slaves. She was the property of a big woman who had always treated her — as indeed most slaves are treated in Calabar — with great kindness and consideration, but when these two children arrived all was changed; immediately she was subjected to torrents of virulent abuse, her things were torn from her, her English china basins, possessions she valued most highly, were smashed, her clothes were torn, and she was driven out as an unclean thing. Had it not been for the fear of incurring Miss Slessor’s anger, she would, at this point, have been killed with her children, and the bodies thrown into the bush.

As it was, she was hounded out of the village. The rest of her possessions were jammed into an empty gin case and cast to her. No one would touch her, as they might not touch to kill. Miss Slessor had heard of the twins’ arrival and had started off, barefooted and bareheaded, at that pace she can go down a bush path. By the time she had gone four miles she met the procession, the woman coming to her and all the rest of the village yelling and howling behind her. On the top of her head was the gin-case, into which the children had been stuffed, on the top of them the woman’s big brass skillet, and on the top of that her two market calabashes. Needless to say, on arriving Miss Slessor took charge of affairs, relieving the unfortunate, weak, staggering woman from her load and carrying it herself, for no one else would touch it, or anything belonging to those awful twin things, and they started back together to Miss Slessor’s house in the forest-clearing, saved by that tact which, coupled with her courage, has given Miss Slessor an influence and a power among the negroes unmatched in its way by that of any other white.

She did not take the twins and their mother down the village path to her own house, for though had she done so the people of Okyon would not have prevented her, yet so polluted would the path have been, and so dangerous to pass down, that they would have been compelled to cut another, no light task in that bit of forest, I assure you. So Miss Slessor stood waiting in the broiling sun, in the hot season’s height, while a path was being cut to enable her just to get through to her own grounds. The natives worked away hard, knowing that it saved the polluting of a long stretch of market road, and when it was finished Miss Slessor went to her own house by it and attended with all kindness, promptness, and skill, to the woman and children. I arrived in the middle of this affair for my first meeting with Miss Slessor, and things at Okyon were rather crowded, one way and another, that afternoon. All the attention one of the children wanted — the boy, for there was a boy and a girl — was burying, for the people who had crammed them into the box had utterly smashed the child’s head. The other child was alive, and is still a member of that household of rescued children all of whom owe their lives to Miss Slessor. There are among them twins from other districts, and delicate children who must have died had they been left in their villages, and a very wonderful young lady, very plump and very pretty, aged about four. Her mother died a few days after her birth, so the child was taken and thrown into the bush, by the side of the road that led to the market. This was done one market-day some distance from the Okyon town. This particular market is held every ninth day, and on the succeeding market-day some women from the village by the side of Miss Slessor’s house happened to pass along the path and heard the child feebly crying: they came into Miss Slessor’s yard in the evening, and sat chatting over the day’s shopping, etc., and casually mentioned in the way of conversation that they had heard the child crying, and that it was rather remarkable it should be still alive. Needless to say, Miss Slessor was off, and had that waif home. It was truly in an awful state, but just alive. In a marvellous way it had been left by leopards and snakes, with which this bit of forest abounds, and, more marvellous still, the driver ants had not scented it. Other ants had considerably eaten into it one way and another; nose, eyes, etc., were swarming with them and flies; the cartilage of the nose and part of the upper lip had been absolutely eaten into, but in spite of this she is now one of the prettiest black children I have ever seen, which is saying a good deal, for negro children are very pretty with their round faces, their large mouths not yet coarsened by heavy lips, their beautifully shaped flat little ears, and their immense melancholy deer-like eyes, and above these charms they possess that of being fairly quiet. This child is not an object of terror, like the twin children; it was just thrown away because no one would be bothered to rear it, but when Miss Slessor had had all the trouble of it the natives had no objection to pet and play with it, calling it “the child of wonder,” because of its survival.

With the twin baby it was very different. They would not touch it and only approached it after some days, and then only when it was held by Miss Slessor or me. If either of us wanted to do or get something, and we handed over the bundle to one of the house children to hold, there was a stampede of men and women off the verandah, out of the yard, and over the fence, if need be, that was exceedingly comic, but most convincing as to the reality of the terror and horror in which they held the thing. Even its own mother could not be trusted with the child; she would have killed it. She never betrayed the slightest desire to have it with her, and after a few days’ nursing and feeding up she was anxious to go back to her mistress, who, being an enlightened woman, was willing to have her if she came without the child.

The main horror is undoubtedly of the child, the mother being killed more as a punishment for having been so intimately mixed up in bringing the curse, danger, and horror into the village than for anything else.

The woman went back by the road that had been cut for her coming, and would have to live for the rest of her life an outcast, and for a long time in a state of isolation, in a hut of her own into which no one would enter, neither would any one eat or drink with her, nor partake of the food or water she had cooked or fetched. She would lead the life of a leper, working in the plantation by day, and going into her lonely hut at night, shunned and cursed. I tried to find out whether there was any set period for this quarantine, and all I could arrive at was that if — and a very considerable if — a man were to marry her and she were subsequently to present to Society an acceptable infant, she would be to a certain extent socially rehabilitated, but she would always be a woman with a past — a thing the African, to his credit be it said, has no taste for.

The woman’s own lamentations were pathetic. She would sit for hours singing or rather mourning out a kind of dirge over herself: “Yesterday I was a woman, now I am a horror, a thing all people run from. Yesterday they would eat with me, now they spit on me. Yesterday they would talk to me with a sweet mouth, now they greet me only with curses and execrations. They have smashed my basin, they have torn my clothes,” and so on, and so on. There was no complaint against the people for doing these things, only a bitter sense of injury against some superhuman power that had sent this withering curse of twins down on her. She knew not why; she sang “I have not done this, I have not done that” — and highly interesting information regarding the moral standpoint a good deal of it was. I have tried to find out the reason of this widely diffused custom which is the cause of such a pitiful waste of life; for in addition to the mother and children being killed it often leads to other people, totally unconcerned in the affair, being killed by the relatives of the sufferer on the suspicion of having caused the calamity by witchcraft, and until one gets hold of the underlying idea, and can destroy that, the custom will be hard to stamp out in a district like the great Niger Delta. But I have never been able to hunt it down, though I am sure it is there, and a very quaint idea it undoubtedly is. The usual answer is, “It was the custom of our fathers,” but that always and only means, “We don’t intend to tell.”

Funeral customs vary considerably between the Negro and Bantu, and I never yet found among the Bantu those unpleasant death charms which are in vogue in the Niger Delta.

The Calabar people, when the Consular eye is off them, bury under the house. In the case of a great chief the head is cut off and buried with great secrecy somewhere else, for reasons I have already stated. The body is buried a few days after death, but the really important part of the funeral is the burying of the spirit, and this is the thing that causes all the West Africans, Negro and Bantu alike, great worry, trouble, and expense. For the spirit, no matter what its late owner may have been, is malevolent — all native-made spirits are. The family have to get together a considerable amount of wealth to carry out this burial of the spirit, so between the body-burying and the spirit-burying a considerable time usually elapses; maybe a year, maybe more. The custom of keeping the affair open until the big funeral can be made obtains also in Cabinda and Loango, but there, instead of burying the body in the meantime,30 it is placed upon a platform of wood, and slow fires kept going underneath to dry it, a mat roof being usually erected over it to keep off rain. When sufficiently dried, it is wrapped in clothes and put into a coffin, until the money to finish the affair is ready. The Duallas are more tied down; their death-dances must be celebrated, I am informed, on the third, seventh, and ninth day after death. On these days the spirit is supposed to be particularly present in its old home. In all the other cases, I should remark, the spirit does not leave the home until its devil is made and if this is delayed too long he naturally becomes fractious.

Among the Congo Francais tribes there are many different kinds of burial — as the cannibalistic of the Fan. I may remark, however, that they tell me themselves that it is considered decent to bury a relative, even if you subsequently dig him up and dispose of the body to the neighbours. Then there is the earth-burial of the Igalwas and M’pongwe, and the beating into unrecognisable pulp of the body which, I am told on good native authority, is the method of several Upper Ogowe tribes, including the Adoomas. I had no opportunity of making quiet researches on burial customs when I was above Njoli, because I was so busy trying to avoid qualifying for a burial myself; so I am not quite sure whether this method is the general one among these little-known tribes, as I am told by native traders, who have it among them that it is — or whether it is reserved for the bodies of people believed to have been possessed of dangerous souls.

Destroying the body by beating up, or by cutting up, is a widely diffused custom in West Africa in the case of dangerous souls, and is universally followed with those that have contained wanderer-souls, i.e. those souls which keep turning up in the successive infants of a family. A child dies, then another child comes to the same father or mother, and that dies, after giving the usual trouble and expense. A third arrives and if that dies, the worm — the father, I mean — turns, and if he is still desirous of more children, he just breaks one of the legs of the body before throwing it in the bush.

This he thinks will act as a warning to the wanderer-soul and give it to understand that if it will persist in coming into his family, it must settle down there and give up its flighty ways. If a fourth child arrives in the family, “it usually limps,” and if it dies, the justly irritated parent cuts its body up carefully into very small pieces, and scatters them, doing away with the soul altogether.

The Kama country people of the lower Ogowe are more superstitious and full of observances than the upper river tribes.

Particularly rich in Fetish are the Ncomi, a Fernan Vaz tribe. I once saw a funeral where they had been called in to do the honours, and M. Jacot told me of an almost precisely similar occurrence that he had met with in one of his many evangelising expeditions from Lembarene. I will give his version because of his very superior knowledge of the language.

He was staying in a Fan town where one of the chiefs had just died. The other chief (there are usually two in a Fan town) decided that his deceased confrere should have due honour paid him, and resolved to do the thing handsomely.

The Fans openly own to not understanding thoroughly about death and life and the immortality of the soul, and things of that sort, and so the chief called in the Ncomi, who are specialists in these subjects, to make the funeral customs.

M. Jacot said the chief made a speech to the effect that the Fans did not know about these things, but their neighbours, the Ncomi, were known to be well versed in them and the proper things to do, so he had called them in to pay honour to the dead chief. Then the Ncomi started and carried on their weird, complicated death-dance.

The Fans sat and stood round watching them in a ring for a long time, but to a rational, common-sense, shrewd, unimaginative set of people like the Fans, just standing hour after hour gazing on a dance you do not understand, and which consists of a wriggle and a stamp, a wriggle and a stamp, in a solemn walk, or prance, round and round, to the accompaniment of a monotonous phrase thumped on a tom-tom and a monotonous, melancholy chant, uttered in a minor key interspersed every few minutes with an emphatic howl, produces a feeling of boredom, therefore the Fans softly stole away and went to bed, which disgusted the Ncomi, and there was a row. In the dance I saw the same thing happened, only when the Ncomi saw the audience getting thin they complained and said that they were doing this dance in honour of the Fans’ chief, in a neighbourly way, and the very least the Fans could do, as they couldn’t dance themselves, was to sit still and admire people who could. The Fan chief in my village quite saw it, and went and had the Fans who had gone home early turned up and made them come and see the performance some more; this they did for a time, and then stole off again, or slept in their seats, and the Ncomi were highly disgusted at those brutes of Fans, whom they regarded, they said in their way, as Philistines of an utterly obtuse and degraded type.

The Ncomi themselves put the body into coffins. A barrel is the usual one, but gun-cases or two trade boxes, the ends knocked out and the cases fitted together, is another frequent form of coffin used by them. These coffins are not buried, but are put into special places in the forest.

Along the bank of the Ogowe you will notice here and there long stretches of uninhabited bush. These are not all mere stretches of swamp forest. If you land on some of these and go in a little way you will find the forest full of mounds — or rather heaps, because they have no mould over them — made of branches of trees and leaves; underneath each of these heaps there are the remains of a body. One very evil-looking place so used I found when I was on the Karkola river. Dr. Nassau tells me they are the usual burying grounds (Abe) of the Ajumbas.

29 Pronounced Tchwee.

30 Among the Fjort the body cannot be buried until all the deceased’s debts are paid.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56