In which is given some account of the episode of the Hippopotame, and of the voyager’s attempts at controlling an Ogowe canoe; and also of the Igalwa tribe.
I say good-bye to Talagouga with much regret, and go on board the Eclaireur, when she returns from Njole, with all my bottles and belongings. On board I find no other passenger; the Captain’s English has widened out considerably; and he is as pleasant, cheery, and spoiling for a fight as ever; but he has a preoccupied manner, and a most peculiar set of new habits, which I find are shared by the Engineer. Both of them make rapid dashes to the rail, and nervously scan the river for a minute and then return to some occupation, only to dash from it to the rail again. During breakfast their conduct is nerve-shaking. Hastily taking a few mouthfuls, the Captain drops his knife and fork and simply hurls his seamanlike form through the nearest door out on to the deck. In another minute he is back again, and with just a shake of his head to the Engineer, continues his meal. The Engineer shortly afterwards flies from his seat, and being far thinner than the Captain, goes through his nearest door with even greater rapidity; returns, and shakes his head at the Captain, and continues his meal. Excitement of this kind is infectious, and I also wonder whether I ought not to show a sympathetic friendliness by flying from my seat and hurling myself on to the deck through my nearest door, too. But although there are plenty of doors, as four enter the saloon from the deck, I do not see my way to doing this performance aimlessly, and what in this world they are both after I cannot think. So I confine myself to woman’s true sphere, and assist in a humble way by catching the wine and Vichy water bottles, glasses, and plates of food, which at every performance are jeopardised by the members of the nobler sex starting off with a considerable quantity of the ample table cloth wrapped round their legs. At last I can stand it no longer, so ask the Captain point-blank what is the matter. “Nothing,” says he, bounding out of his chair and flying out of his doorway; but on his return he tells me he has got a bet on of two bottles of champagne with Woermann’s Agent for Njole, as to who shall reach Lembarene first, and the German agent has started off some time before the Eclaireur in his little steam launch.
During the afternoon we run smoothly along; the free pulsations of the engines telling what a very different thing coming down the Ogowe is to going up against its terrific current. Every now and again we stop to pick up cargo, or discharge over-carried cargo, and the Captain’s mind becomes lulled by getting no news of the Woermann’s launch having passed down. He communicates this to the Engineer; it is impossible she could have passed the Eclaireur since they started, therefore she must be some where behind at a subfactory, “N’est-ce pas?” “Oui, oui, certainement,” says the Engineer. The Engineer is, by these considerations, also lulled, and feels he may do something else but scan the river a la sister Ann. What that something is puzzles me; it evidently requires secrecy, and he shrinks from detection. First he looks down one side of the deck, no one there; then he looks down the other, no one there; good so far. I then see he has put his head through one of the saloon portholes; no one there; he hesitates a few seconds until I begin to wonder whether his head will suddenly appear through my port; but he regards this as an unnecessary precaution, and I hear him enter his cabin which abuts on mine and there is silence for some minutes. Writing home to his mother, think I, as I go on putting a new braid round the bottom of a worn skirt. Almost immediately after follows the sound of a little click from the next cabin, and then apparently one of the denizens of the infernal regions has got its tail smashed in a door and the heavy hot afternoon air is reft by an inchoate howl of agony. I drop my needlework and take to the deck; but it is after all only that shy retiring young man practising secretly on his clarionet.
The Captain is drowsily looking down the river. But repose is not long allowed to that active spirit; he sees something in the water — what? “Hippopotame,” he ejaculates. Now both he and the Engineer frequently do this thing, and then fly off to their guns — bang, bang, finish; but this time he does not dash for his gun, nor does the Engineer, who flies out of his cabin at the sound of the war shout “Hippopotame.” In vain I look across the broad river with its stretches of yellow sandbanks, where the “hippopotame” should be, but I can see nothing but four black stumps sticking up in the water away to the right. Meanwhile the Captain and the Engineer are flying about getting off a crew of blacks into the canoe we are towing alongside. This being done the Captain explains to me that on the voyage up “the Engineer had fired at, and hit a hippopotamus, and without doubt this was its body floating.” We are now close enough even for me to recognise the four stumps as the deceased’s legs, and soon the canoe is alongside them and makes fast to one, and then starts to paddle back, hippo and all, to the Eclaireur. But no such thing; let them paddle and shout as hard as they like, the hippo’s weight simply anchors them. The Eclaireur by now has dropped down the river past them, and has to sweep round and run back. Recognising promptly what the trouble is, the energetic Captain grabs up a broom, ties a light cord belonging to the leadline to it, and holding the broom by the end of its handle, swings it round his head and hurls it at the canoe. The arm of a merciful Providence being interposed, the broom-tomahawk does not hit the canoe, wherein, if it had, it must infallibly have killed some one, but falls short, and goes tearing off with the current, well out of reach of the canoe. The Captain seeing this gross dereliction of duty by a Chargeur Reunis broom, hauls it in hand over hand and talks to it. Then he ties the other end of its line to the mooring rope, and by a better aimed shot sends the broom into the water, about ten yards above the canoe, and it drifts towards it. Breathless excitement! surely they will get it now. Alas, no! Just when it is within reach of the canoe, a fearful shudder runs through the broom. It throws up its head and sinks beneath the tide. A sensation of stun comes over all of us. The crew of the canoe, ready and eager to grasp the approaching aid, gaze blankly at the circling ripples round where it sank. In a second the Captain knows what has happened. That heavy hawser which has been paid out after it has dragged it down, so he hauls it on board again.
The Eclaireur goes now close enough to the hippo-anchored canoe for a rope to be flung to the man in her bows; he catches it and freezes on gallantly. Saved! No! Oh horror! The lower deck hums with fear that after all it will not taste that toothsome hippo chop, for the man who has caught the rope is as nearly as possible jerked flying out of the canoe when the strain of the Eclaireur contending with the hippo’s inertia flies along it, but his companion behind him grips him by the legs and is in his turn grabbed, and the crew holding on to each other with their hands, and on to their craft with their feet, save the man holding on to the rope and the whole situation; and slowly bobbing towards us comes the hippopotamus, who is shortly hauled on board by the winners in triumph.
My esteemed friends, the Captain and the Engineer, who of course have been below during this hauling, now rush on to the upper deck, each coatless, and carrying an enormous butcher’s knife. They dash into the saloon, where a terrific sharpening of these instruments takes place on the steel belonging to the saloon carving-knife, and down stairs again. By looking down the ladder, I can see the pink, pig-like hippo, whose colour has been soaked out by the water, lying on the lower deck and the Captain and Engineer slitting down the skin intent on gralloching operations. Providentially, my prophetic soul induces me to leave the top of the ladder and go forward — “run to win’ard,” as Captain Murray would say — for within two minutes the Captain and Engineer are up the ladder as if they had been blown up by the boilers bursting, and go as one man for the brandy bottle; and they wanted it if ever man did; for remember that hippo had been dead and in the warm river-water for more than a week.
The Captain had had enough of it, he said, but the Engineer stuck to the job with a courage I profoundly admire, and he saw it through and then retired to his cabin; sand-and-canvassed himself first, and then soaked and saturated himself in Florida water. The flesh gladdened the hearts of the crew and lower-deck passengers and also of the inhabitants of Lembarene, who got dashes of it on our arrival there. Hippo flesh is not to be despised by black man or white; I have enjoyed it far more than the stringy beef or vapid goat’s flesh one gets down here.
I stayed on board the Eclaireur all night; for it was dark when we reached Lembarene, too dark to go round to Kangwe; and next morning, after taking a farewell of her — I hope not a final one, for she is a most luxurious little vessel for the Coast, and the feeding on board is excellent and the society varied and charming — I went round to Kangwe.
I remained some time in the Lembarene district and saw and learnt many things; I owe most of what I learnt to M. and Mme. Jacot, who knew a great deal about both the natives and the district, and I owe much of what I saw to having acquired the art of managing by myself a native canoe. This “recklessness” of mine I am sure did not merit the severe criticism it has been subjected to, for my performances gave immense amusement to others (I can hear Lembarene’s shrieks of laughter now) and to myself they gave great pleasure.
My first attempt was made at Talagouga one very hot afternoon. M. and Mme. Forget were, I thought, safe having their siestas, Oranie was with Mme. Gacon. I knew where Mme. Gacon was for certain; she was with M. Gacon; and I knew he was up in the sawmill shed, out of sight of the river, because of the soft thump, thump, thump of the big water-wheel. There was therefore no one to keep me out of mischief, and I was too frightened to go into the forest that afternoon, because on the previous afternoon I had been stalked as a wild beast by a cannibal savage, and I am nervous. Besides, and above all, it is quite impossible to see other people, even if they are only black, naked savages, gliding about in canoes, without wishing to go and glide about yourself. So I went down to where the canoes were tied by their noses to the steep bank, and finding a paddle, a broken one, I unloosed the smallest canoe. Unfortunately this was fifteen feet or so long, but I did not know the disadvantage of having, as it were, a long-tailed canoe then — I did shortly afterwards.
The promontories running out into the river on each side of the mission beach give a little stretch of slack water between the bank and the mill-race-like current of the Ogowe, and I wisely decided to keep in the slack water, until I had found out how to steer — most important thing steering. I got into the bow of the canoe, and shoved off from the bank all right; then I knelt down — learn how to paddle standing up by and by — good so far. I rapidly learnt how to steer from the bow, but I could not get up any pace. Intent on acquiring pace, I got to the edge of the slack water; and then displaying more wisdom, I turned round to avoid it, proud as a peacock, you understand, at having found out how to turn round. At this moment, the current of “the greatest equatorial river in the world,” grabbed my canoe by its tail. We spun round and round for a few seconds, like a teetotum, I steering the whole time for all I was worth, and then the current dragged the canoe ignominiously down river, tail foremost.
Fortunately a big tree was at that time temporarily hanging against the rock in the river, just below the sawmill beach. Into that tree the canoe shot with a crash, and I hung on, and shipping my paddle, pulled the canoe into the slack water again, by the aid of the branches of the tree, which I was in mortal terror would come off the rock, and insist on accompanying me and the canoe, via Kama country, to the Atlantic Ocean; but it held, and when I had got safe against the side of the pinnacle-rock I wiped a perspiring brow, and searched in my mind for a piece of information regarding Navigation that would be applicable to the management of long-tailed Adooma canoes. I could not think of one for some minutes. Captain Murray has imparted to me at one time and another an enormous mass of hints as to the management of vessels, but those vessels were all pre-supposed to have steam power. But he having been the first man to take an ocean-going steamer up to Matadi on the Congo, through the terrific currents that whirl and fly in Hell’s Cauldron, knew about currents, and I remembered he had said regarding taking vessels through them, “Keep all the headway you can on her.” Good! that hint inverted will fit this situation like a glove, and I’ll keep all the tailway I can off her. Feeling now as safe as only a human being can feel who is backed up by a sound principle, I was cautiously crawling to the tail-end of the canoe, intent on kneeling in it to look after it, when I heard a dreadful outcry on the bank. Looking there I saw Mme. Forget, Mme. Gacon, M. Gacon, and their attributive crowd of mission children all in a state of frenzy. They said lots of things in chorus. “What?” said I. They said some more and added gesticulations. Seeing I was wasting their time as I could not hear, I drove the canoe from the rock and made my way, mostly by steering, to the bank close by; and then tying the canoe firmly up I walked over the mill stream and divers other things towards my anxious friends. “You’ll be drowned,” they said. “Gracious goodness!” said I, “I thought that half an hour ago, but it’s all right now; I can steer.” After much conversation I lulled their fears regarding me, and having received strict orders to keep in the stern of the canoe, because that is the proper place when you are managing a canoe single-handed, I returned to my studies. I had not however lulled my friends’ interest regarding me, and they stayed on the bank watching.
I found first, that my education in steering from the bow was of no avail; second, that it was all right if you reversed it. For instance, when you are in the bow, and make an inward stroke with the paddle on the right-hand side, the bow goes to the right; whereas, if you make an inward stroke on the right-hand side, when you are sitting in the stern, the bow then goes to the left. Understand? Having grasped this law, I crept along up river; and, by Allah! before I had gone twenty yards, if that wretch, the current of the greatest, etc., did not grab hold of the nose of my canoe, and we teetotummed round again as merrily as ever. My audience screamed. I knew what they were saying, “You’ll be drowned! Come back! Come back!” but I heard them and I heeded not. If you attend to advice in a crisis you’re lost; besides, I couldn’t “Come back” just then. However, I got into the slack water again, by some very showy, high-class steering. Still steering, fine as it is, is not all you require and hanker after. You want pace as well, and pace, except when in the clutches of the current, I had not so far attained. Perchance, thought I, the pace region in a canoe may be in its centre; so I got along on my knees into the centre to experiment. Bitter failure; the canoe took to sidling down river broadside on, like Mr. Winkle’s horse. Shouts of laughter from the bank. Both bow and stern education utterly inapplicable to centre; and so, seeing I was utterly thrown away there, I crept into the bows, and in a few more minutes I steered my canoe, perfectly, in among its fellows by the bank and secured it there. Mme. Forget ran down to meet me and assured me she had not laughed so much since she had been in Africa, although she was frightened at the time lest I should get capsized and drowned. I believe it, for she is a sweet and gracious lady; and I quite see, as she demonstrated, that the sight of me, teetotumming about, steering in an elaborate and showy way all the time, was irresistibly comic. And she gave a most amusing account of how, when she started looking for me to give me tea, a charming habit of hers, she could not see me in among my bottles, and so asked the little black boy where I was. “There,” said he, pointing to the tree hanging against the rock out in the river; and she, seeing me hitched with a canoe against the rock, and knowing the danger and depth of the river, got alarmed.
Well, when I got down to Lembarene I naturally went on with my canoeing studies, in pursuit of the attainment of pace. Success crowned my efforts, and I can honestly and truly say that there are only two things I am proud of — one is that Doctor Gunther has approved of my fishes, and the other is that I can paddle an Ogowe canoe. Pace, style, steering and all, “All same for one” as if I were an Ogowe African. A strange, incongruous pair of things: but I often wonder what are the things other people are really most proud of; it would be a quaint and repaying subject for investigation.
Mme. Jacot gave me every help in canoeing, for she is a remarkably clear-headed woman, and recognised that, as I was always getting soaked, anyhow, I ran no extra danger in getting soaked in a canoe; and then, it being the dry season, there was an immense stretch of water opposite Andande beach, which was quite shallow. So she saw no need of my getting drowned.
The sandbanks were showing their yellow heads in all directions when I came down from Talagouga, and just opposite Andande there was sticking up out of the water a great, graceful, palm frond. It had been stuck into the head of the pet sandbank, and every day was visited by the boys and girls in canoes to see how much longer they would have to wait for the sandbank’s appearance. A few days after my return it showed, and in two days more there it was, acres and acres of it, looking like a great, golden carpet spread on the surface of the centre of the clear water — clear here, down this side of Lembarene Island, because the river runs fairly quietly, and has time to deposit its mud. Dark brown the Ogowe flies past the other side of the island, the main current being deflected that way by a bend, just below the entrance of the Nguni.
There was great rejoicing. Canoe-load after canoe-load of boys and girls went to the sandbank, some doing a little fishing round its rim, others bringing the washing there, all skylarking and singing. Few prettier sights have I ever seen than those on that sandbank — the merry brown forms dancing or lying stretched on it: the gaudy-coloured patchwork quilts and chintz mosquito-bars that have been washed, spread out drying, looking from Kangwe on the hill above, like beds of bright flowers. By night when it was moonlight there would be bands of dancers on it with bush-light torches, gyrating, intermingling and separating till you could think you were looking at a dance of stars.
They commenced affairs very early on that sandbank, and they kept them up very late; and all the time there came from it a soft murmur of laughter and song. Ah me! if the aim of life were happiness and pleasure, Africa should send us missionaries instead of our sending them to her — but, fortunately for the work of the world, happiness is not. One thing I remember which struck me very much regarding the sandbank, and this was that Mme. Jacot found such pleasure in taking her work on to the verandah, where she could see it. I knew she did not care for the songs and the dancing. One day she said to me, “It is such a relief.” “A relief?” I said. “Yes, do you not see that until it shows there is nothing but forest, forest, forest, and that still stretch of river? That bank is the only piece of clear ground I see in the year, and that only lasts a few weeks until the wet season comes, and then it goes, and there is nothing but forest, forest, forest, for another year. It is two years now since I came to this place; it may be I know not how many more before we go home again.” I grieve to say, for my poor friend’s sake, that her life at Kangwe was nearly at its end. Soon after my return to England I heard of the death of her husband from malignant fever. M. Jacot was a fine, powerful, energetic man, in the prime of life. He was a teetotaler and a vegetarian; and although constantly travelling to and fro in his district on his evangelising work, he had no foolish recklessness in him. No one would have thought that he would have been the first to go of us who used to sit round his hospitable table. His delicate wife, his two young children or I would have seemed far more likely. His loss will be a lasting one to the people he risked his life to (what he regarded) save. The natives held him in the greatest affection and respect, and his influence over them was considerable, far more profound than that of any other missionary I have ever seen. His loss is also great to those students of Africa who are working on the culture or on the languages; his knowledge of both was extensive, particularly of the little known languages of the Ogowe district. He was, when I left, busily employed in compiling a dictionary of the Fan tongue, and had many other works on language in contemplation. His work in this sphere would have had a high value, for he was a man with a University education and well grounded in Latin and Greek, and thoroughly acquainted with both English and French literature, for although born a Frenchman, he had been brought up in America. He was also a cultivated musician, and he and Mme. Jacot in the evenings would sing old French songs, Swiss songs, English songs, in their rich full voices; and then if you stole softly out on to the verandah, you would often find it crowded with a silent, black audience, listening intently.
The amount of work M. and Mme. Jacot used to get through was, to me, amazing, and I think the Ogowe Protestant mission sadly short-handed — its missionaries not being content to follow the usual Protestant plan out in West Africa, namely, quietly sitting down and keeping house, with just a few native children indoors to do the housework, and close by a school and a little church where a service is held on Sundays. The representatives of the Mission Evangelique go to and fro throughout the district round each station on evangelising work, among some of the most dangerous and uncivilised tribes in Africa, frequently spending a fortnight at a time away from their homes, on the waterways of a wild and dangerous country. In addition to going themselves, they send trained natives as evangelists and Bible-readers, and keep a keen eye on the trained native, which means a considerable amount of worry and strain too. The work on the stations is heavy in Ogowe districts, because when you have got a clearing made and all the buildings up, you have by no means finished with the affair, for you have to fight the Ogowe forest back, as a Dutchman fights the sea. But the main cause of work is the store, which in this exhausting climate is more than enough work for one man alone.
Payments on the Ogowe are made in goods; the natives do not use any coinage-equivalent, save in the strange case of the Fans, which does not touch general trade and which I will speak of later. They have not even the brass bars and cheetems that are in us in Calabar, or cowries as in Lagos. In order to expedite and simplify this goods traffic, a written or printed piece of paper is employed — practically a cheque, which is called a “bon” or “book,” and these “bons” are cashed — i.e. gooded, at the store. They are for three amounts. Five fura = a dollar. One fura = a franc. Desu = fifty centimes = half a fura. The value given for these “bons” is the same from Government, Trade, and Mission. Although the Mission Evangelique does not trade — i.e. buy produce and sell it at a profit, its representatives have a great deal of business to attend to through the store, which is practically a bank. All the native evangelists, black teachers, Bible-readers and labourers on the stations are paid off in these bons; and when any representative of the mission is away on a journey, food bought for themselves and their canoe crews is paid for in bons, which are brought in by the natives at their convenience, and changed for goods at the store. Therefore for several hours every weekday the missionary has to devote himself to store work, and store work out here is by no means playing at shop. It is very hard, tiring, exasperating work when you have to deal with it in full, as a trader, when it is necessary for you to purchase produce at a price that will give you a reasonable margin of profit over storing, customs’ duties, shipping expenses, etc., etc. But it is quite enough to try the patience of any Saint when you are only keeping store to pay on bons, a la missionary; for each class of article used in trade — and there are some hundreds of them — has a definite and acknowledged value, but where the trouble comes in is that different articles have the same value; for example, six fish hooks and one pocket-handkerchief have the same value, or you can make up that value in lucifer matches, pomatum, a mirror, a hair comb, tobacco, or scent in bottles.
Now, if you are a trader, certain of these articles cost you more than others, although they have an identical value to the native, and so it is to your advantage to pay what we should call, in Cameroons, “a Kru, cheap copper,” and you have a lot of worry to effect this. To the missionary this does not so much matter. It makes absolutely no difference to the native, mind you; so he is by no means done by the trader. Take powder for an example. There is no profit on powder for the trader in Congo Francais, but the native always wants it because he can get a tremendous profit on it from his black brethren in the bush; hence it pays the trader to give him his bon out in Boma check, etc., better than in gunpowder. This is a fruitful spring of argument and persuasion. However, whether the native is passing in a bundle of rubber or a tooth of ivory, or merely cashing a bon for a week’s bush catering, he is in Congo Francais incapable of deciding what he will have when it comes to the point. He comes into the shop with a bon in his hand, and we will say, for example, the idea in his head that he wants fish-hooks — “jupes,” he calls them — but, confronted with the visible temptation of pomatum, he hesitates, and scratches his head violently. Surrounding him there are ten or twenty other natives with their minds in a similar wavering state, but yet anxious to be served forthwith. In consequence of the stimulating scratch, he remembers that one of his wives said he was to bring some Lucifer matches, another wanted cloth for herself, and another knew of some rubber she could buy very cheap, in tobacco, of a Fan woman who had stolen it. This rubber he knows he can take to the trader’s store and sell for pocket-handkerchiefs of a superior pattern, or gunpowder, or rum, which he cannot get at the mission store. He finally gets something and takes it home, and likely enough brings it back, in a day or so, somewhat damaged, desirous of changing it for some other article or articles. Remember also that these Bantu, like the Negroes, think externally, in a loud voice; like Mr. Kipling’s ‘oont, “‘e smells most awful vile,” and, if he be a Fan, he accompanies his observations with violent dramatic gestures, and let the customer’s tribe or sex be what it may, the customer is sadly, sadly liable to pick up any portable object within reach, under the shadow of his companions’ uproar, and stow it away in his armpits, between his legs, or, if his cloth be large enough, in that. Picture to yourself the perplexities of a Christian minister, engaged in such an occupation as storekeeping under these circumstances, with, likely enough, a touch of fever on him and jiggers in his feet; and when the store is closed the goods in it requiring constant vigilance to keep them free from mildew and white ants.
Then in addition to the store work, a fruitful source of work and worry are the schools, for both boys and girls. It is regarded as futile to attempt to get any real hold over the children unless they are removed from the influence of the country fashions that surround them in their village homes; therefore the schools are boarding; hence the entire care of the children, including feeding and clothing, falls on the missionary.
The instruction given in the Mission Evangelique Schools does not include teaching the boys trades. The girls fare somewhat better, as they get instruction in sewing and washing and ironing, but I think in this district the young ladies would be all the better for being taught cooking.
It is strange that all the cooks employed by the Europeans should be men, yet all the cooking among the natives themselves is done by women, and done abominably badly in all the Bantu tribes I have ever come across; and the Bantu are in this particular, and indeed in most particulars, far inferior to the true Negro; though I must say this is not the orthodox view. The Negroes cook uniformly very well, and at moments are inspired in the direction of palm-oil chop and fish cooking. Not so the Bantu, whose methods cry aloud for improvement, they having just the very easiest and laziest way possible of dealing with food. The food supply consists of plantain, yam, koko, sweet potatoes, maize, pumpkin, pineapple, and ochres, fish both wet and smoked, and flesh of many kinds — including human in certain districts — snails, snakes, and crayfish, and big maggot-like pupae of the rhinoceros beetle and the Rhyncophorus palmatorum. For sweetmeats the sugar-cane abounds, but it is only used chewed au naturel. For seasoning there is that bark that tastes like an onion, an onion distinctly passe, but powerful and permanent, particularly if it has been used in one of the native-made, rough earthen pots. These pots have a very cave-man look about them; they are unglazed, unlidded bowls. They stand the fire wonderfully well, and you have got to stand, as well as you can, the taste of the aforesaid bark that clings to them, and that of the smoke which gets into them during cooking operations over an open wood fire, as well as the soot-like colour they impart to even your own white rice. Out of all this varied material the natives of the Congo Francais forests produce, dirtily, carelessly and wastefully, a dull, indigestible diet. Yam, sweet potatoes, ochres, and maize are not so much cultivated or used as among the Negroes, and the daily food is practically plantain — picked while green and the rind pulled off, and the tasteless woolly interior baked or boiled and the widely distributed manioc treated in the usual way. The sweet or non-poisonous manioc I have rarely seen cultivated, because it gives a much smaller yield, and is much longer coming to perfection. The poisonous kind is that in general use; its great dahlia-like roots are soaked in water to remove the poisonous principle, and then dried and grated up, or more commonly beaten up into a kind of dough in a wooden trough that looks like a model canoe, with wooden clubs, which I have seen the curiosity hunter happily taking home as war clubs to alarm his family with. The thump, thump, thump of this manioc beating is one of the most familiar sounds in a bush village. The meal, when beaten up, is used for thickening broths, and rolled up into bolsters about a foot long and two inches in diameter, and then wrapped in plantain leaves, and tied round with tie-tie and boiled, or more properly speaking steamed, for a lot of the rolls are arranged in a brass skillet. A small quantity of water is poured over the rolls of plantain, a plantain leaf is tucked in over the top tightly, so as to prevent the steam from escaping, and the whole affair is poised on the three cooking-stones over a wood fire, and left there until the contents are done, or more properly speaking, until the lady in charge of it has delusions on the point, and the bottom rolls are a trifle burnt or the whole insufficiently cooked.
This manioc meal is the staple food, the bread equivalent, all along the coast. As you pass along you are perpetually meeting with a new named food, fou-fou on the Leeward, kank on the Windward, m’vada in Corisco, ogooma in the Ogowe; but acquaintance with it demonstrates that it is all the same — manioc.
It is a good food when it is properly prepared; but when a village has soaked its soil-laden manioc tubers in one and the same pool of water for years, the water in that pool becomes a trifle strong, and both it and the manioc get a smell which once smelt is never to be forgotten; it is something like that resulting from bad paste with a dash of vinegar, but fit to pass all these things, and has qualities of its own that have no civilised equivalent.
I believe that this way of preparing the staple article of diet is largely responsible for that dire and frequent disease “cut him belly,” and several other quaint disorders, possibly even for the sleep disease. The natives themselves say that a diet too exclusively maniocan produces dimness of vision, ending in blindness if the food is not varied; the poisonous principle cannot be anything like soaked out in the surcharged water, and the meal when it is made up and cooked has just the same sour, acrid taste you would expect it to have from the smell.
The fish is boiled, or wrapped in leaves and baked. The dried fish, very properly known as stink-fish, is much preferred; this is either eaten as it is, or put into stews as seasoning, as also are the snails. The meat is eaten either fresh or smoked, boiled or baked. By baked I always mean just buried in the ground and a fire lighted on top, or wrapped in leaves and buried in hot embers.
The smoked meat is badly prepared, just hung up in the smoke of the fires, which hardens it, blackening the outside quickly; but when the lumps are taken out of the smoke, in a short time cracks occur in them, and the interior part proceeds to go bad, and needless to say maggoty. If it is kept in the smoke, as it often is to keep it out of the way of dogs and driver ants, it acquires the toothsome taste and texture of a piece of old tarpaulin.
Now I will ask the surviving reader who has waded through this dissertation on cookery if something should not be done to improve the degraded condition of the Bantu cooking culture? Not for his physical delectation only, but because his present methods are bad for his morals, and drive the man to drink, let alone assisting in riveting him in the practice of polygamy, which the missionary party say is an exceedingly bad practice for him to follow. The inter-relationship of these two subjects may not seem on the face of it very clear, but inter-relationships of customs very rarely are; I well remember M. Jacot coming home one day at Kangwe from an evangelising visit to some adjacent Fan towns, and saying he had had given to him that afternoon a new reason for polygamy, which was that it enabled a man to get enough to eat. This sounds sinister from a notoriously cannibal tribe; but the explanation is that the Fans are an exceedingly hungry tribe, and require a great deal of providing for. It is their custom to eat about ten times a day when in village, and the men spend most of their time in the palaver-houses at each end of the street, the women bringing them bowls of food of one kind or another all day long. When the men are away in the forest rubber or elephant-hunting, and have to cook their own food, they cannot get quite so much; but when I have come across them on these expeditions, they halted pretty regularly every two hours and had a substantial snack, and the gorge they all go in for after a successful elephant hunt is a thing to see — once.
There are other reasons which lead to the prevalence of this custom, beside the cooking. One is that it is totally impossible for one woman to do the whole work of a house — look after the children, prepare and cook the food, prepare the rubber, carry the same to the markets, fetch the daily supply of water from the stream, cultivate the plantation, etc., etc. Perhaps I should say it is impossible for the dilatory African woman, for I once had an Irish charwoman, who drank, who would have done the whole week’s work of an African village in an afternoon, and then been quite fresh enough to knock some of the nonsense out of her husband’s head with that of the broom, and throw a kettle of boiling water or a paraffin lamp at him, if she suspected him of flirting with other ladies. That woman, who deserves fame in the annals of her country, was named Harragan. She has attained immortality some years since, by falling down stairs one Saturday night from excitement arising from “the Image’s” (Mr. Harragan) conduct; but we have no Mrs. Harragan in Africa. The African lady does not care a travelling whitesmith’s execration if her husband does flirt, so long as he does not go and give to other women the cloth, etc., that she should have. The more wives the less work, says the African lady; and I have known men who would rather have had one wife and spent the rest of the money on themselves, in a civilised way, driven into polygamy by the women; and of course this state of affairs is most common in nonslave-holding tribes like the Fan.
Mission work was first opened upon the Ogowe by Dr. Nassau, the great pioneer and explorer of these regions. He was acting for the American Presbyterian Society; but when the French Government demanded education in French in the schools, the stations on the Ogowe, Lembarene (Kangwe), and Talagouga were handed over to the Mission Evangelique of Paris, and have been carried on by its representatives with great devotion and energy. I am unsympathetic, in some particulars, for reasons of my own, with Christian missions, so my admiration for this one does not arise from the usual ground of admiration for missions, namely, that however they may be carried on, they are engaged in a great and holy work; but I regard the Mission Evangelique, judging from the results I have seen, as the perfection of what one may call a purely spiritual mission.
Lembarene is strictly speaking a district which includes Adanlinan langa and the Island, but the name is locally used to denote the great island in the Ogowe, whose native name is Nenge Ezangy; but for the sake of the general reader I will keep to the everyday term of Lembarene Island.
Lembarene Island is the largest of the islands on the Ogowe. It is some fifteen miles long, east and west, and a mile to a mile and a half wide. It is hilly and rocky, uniformly clad with forest, and several little permanent streams run from it on both sides into the Ogowe. It is situated 130 miles from the sea, at the point, just below the entrance of the N’guni, where the Ogowe commences to divide up into that network of channels by which, like all great West African rivers save the Congo, it chooses to enter the Ocean. The island, as we mainlanders at Kangwe used to call it, was a great haunt of mine, particularly after I came down from Talagouga and saw fit to regard myself as competent to control a canoe.
From Andande, the beach of Kangwe, the breadth of the arm of the Ogowe to the nearest village on the island, was about that of the Thames at Blackwall. One half of the way was slack water, the other half was broadside on to a stiff current. Now my pet canoe at Andande was about six feet long, pointed at both ends, flat bottomed, so that it floated on the top of the water; its freeboard was, when nothing was in it, some three inches, and the poor thing had seen trouble in its time, for it had a hole you could put your hand in at one end; so in order to navigate it successfully, you had to squat in the other, which immersed that to the water level but safely elevated the damaged end in the air. Of course you had to stop in your end firmly, because if you went forward the hole went down into the water, and the water went into the hole, and forthwith you foundered with all hands — i.e., you and the paddle and the calabash baler. This craft also had a strong weather helm, owing to a warp in the tree of which it had been made. I learnt all these things one afternoon, paddling round the sandbank; and the next afternoon, feeling confident in the merits of my vessel, I started for the island, and I actually got there, and associated with the natives, but feeling my arms were permanently worn out by paddling against the current, I availed myself of the offer of a gentleman to paddle me back in his canoe. He introduced himself as Samuel, and volunteered the statement that he was “a very good man.” We duly settled ourselves in the canoe, he occupying the bow, I sitting in the middle, and a Mrs. Samuel sitting in the stern. Mrs. Samuel was a powerful, pretty lady, and a conscientious and continuous paddler. Mr. S. was none of these things, but an ex-Bible reader, with an amazing knowledge of English, which he spoke in a quaint, falsetto, far-away sort of voice, and that man’s besetting sin was curiosity. “You be Christian, ma?” said he. I asked him if he had ever met a white man who was not. “Yes, ma,” says Samuel. I said “You must have been associating with people whom you ought not to know.” Samuel fortunately not having a repartee for this, paddled on with his long paddle for a few seconds. “Where be your husband, ma?” was the next conversational bomb he hurled at me. “I no got one,” I answer. “No got,” says Samuel, paralysed with astonishment; and as Mrs. S., who did not know English, gave one of her vigorous drives with her paddle at this moment, Samuel as near as possible got jerked head first into the Ogowe, and we took on board about two bucketfuls of water. He recovered himself, however and returned to his charge. “No got one, ma?” “No,” say I furiously. “Do you get much rubber round here?” “I no be trade man,” says Samuel, refusing to fall into my trap for changing conversation. “Why you no got one?” The remainder of the conversation is unreportable, but he landed me at Andande all right, and got his dollar.
The next voyage I made, which was on the next day, I decided to go by myself to the factory, which is on the other side of the island, and did so. I got some goods to buy fish with, and heard from Mr. Cockshut that the poor boy-agent at Osoamokita, had committed suicide. It was a grievous thing. He was, as I have said, a bright, intelligent young Frenchman; but living in the isolation, surrounded by savage, tiresome tribes, the strain of his responsibility had been too much for him. He had had a good deal of fever, and the very kindly head agent for Woermann’s had sent Dr. Pelessier to see if he had not better be invalided home; but he told the Doctor he was much better, and as he had no one at home to go to he begged him not to send him, and the Doctor, to his subsequent regret, gave in. No one knows, who has not been to West Africa, how terrible is the life of a white man in one of these out-of-the-way factories, with no white society, and with nothing to look at, day out and day in, but the one set of objects — the forest, the river, and the beach, which in a place like Osoamokita you cannot leave for months at a time, and of which you soon know every plank and stone. I felt utterly wretched as I started home again to come up to the end of the island, and go round it and down to Andande; and paddled on for some little time, before I noticed that I was making absolutely no progress. I redoubled my exertions, and crept slowly up to some rocks projecting above the water; but pass them I could not, as the main current of the Ogowe flew in hollow swirls round them against my canoe. Several passing canoefuls of natives gave me good advice in Igalwa; but facts were facts, and the Ogowe was too strong for me. After about twenty minutes an old Fan gentleman came down river in a canoe and gave me good advice in Fan, and I got him to take me in tow — that is to say, he got into my canoe and I held on to his and we went back down river. I then saw his intention was to take me across to that disreputable village, half Fan, half Bakele, which is situated on the main bank of the river opposite the island; this I disapproved of, because I had heard that some Senegal soldiers who had gone over there, had been stripped of every rag they had on, and maltreated; besides, it was growing very late, and I wanted to get home to dinner. I communicated my feelings to my pilot, who did not seem to understand at first, so I feared I should have to knock them into him with the paddle; but at last he understood I wanted to be landed on the island and duly landed me, when he seemed much surprised at the reward I gave him in pocket-handkerchiefs. Then I got a powerful young Igalwa dandy to paddle me home.
I did not go to the island next day, but down below Fula, watching the fish playing in the clear water, and the lizards and birds on the rocky high banks; but on my next journey round to the factories I got into another and a worse disaster. I went off there early one morning; and thinking the only trouble lay in getting back up the Ogowe, and having developed a theory that this might be minimised by keeping very close to the island bank, I never gave a thought to dangers attributive to going down river; so, having by now acquired pace, my canoe shot out beyond the end rocks of the island into the main stream. It took me a second to realise what had happened, and another to find out I could not get the canoe out of the current without upsetting it, and that I could not force her back up the current, so there was nothing for it but to keep her head straight now she had bolted. A group of native ladies, who had followed my proceedings with much interest, shouted observations which I believe to have been “Come back, come back; you’ll be drowned.” “Good-bye, Susannah, don’t you weep for me,” I courteously retorted; and flew past them and the factory beaches and things in general, keenly watching for my chance to run my canoe up a siding, as it were, off the current main line. I got it at last — a projecting spit of land from the island with rocks projecting out of the water in front of it bothered the current, and after a wild turn round or so, and a near call from my terrified canoe trying to climb up a rock, I got into slack water and took a pause in life’s pleasures for a few minutes. Knowing I must be near the end of the island, I went on pretty close to the bank, finally got round into the Kangwe branch of the Ogowe by a connecting creek, and after an hour’s steady paddling I fell in with three big canoes going up river; they took me home as far as Fula, whence a short paddle landed me at Andande only slightly late for supper, convinced that it was almost as safe and far more amusing to be born lucky than wise.
Now I have described my circumnavigation of the island, I will proceed to describe its inhabitants. The up-river end of Lembarene Island is the most inhabited. A path round the upper part of the island passes through a succession of Igalwa villages and by the Roman Catholic missionary station. The slave villages belonging to these Igalwas are away down the north face of the island, opposite the Fan town of Fula, which I have mentioned. It strikes me as remarkable that the Igalwa, like the Dualla of Cameroons, have their slaves in separate villages; but this is the case, though I do not know the reason of it. These Igalwa slaves cultivate the plantations, and bring up the vegetables and fruit to their owners’ villages and do the housework daily.
The interior of the island is composed of high, rocky, heavily forested hills, with here and there a stream, and here and there a swamp; the higher land is towards the up-river end; down river there is a lower strip of land with hillocks. This is, I fancy, formed by deposits of sand, etc., catching in among the rocks, and connecting what were at one time several isolated islands. There are no big game or gorillas on the island, but it has a peculiar and awful house ant, much smaller than the driver ant, but with a venomous, bad bite; its only good point is that its chief food is the white ants, which are therefore kept in abeyance on Lembarene Island, although flourishing destructively on the mainland banks of the river in this locality. I was never tired of going and watching those Igalwa villagers, nor were, I think, the Igalwa villagers ever tired of observing me. Although the physical conditions of life were practically identical with those of the mainland, the way in which the Igalwas dealt with them, i.e. the culture, was distinct from the culture of the mainland Fans.
The Igalwas are a tribe very nearly akin, if not ethnically identical with, the M’pongwe, and the culture of these two tribes is on a level with the highest native African culture. African culture, I may remark, varies just the same as European in this, that there is as much difference in the manners of life between, say, an Igalwa and a Bubi of Fernando Po, as there is between a Londoner and a Laplander.
The Igalwa builds his house like that of the M’pongwe, of bamboo, and he surrounds himself with European-made articles. The neat houses, fitted with windows, with wooden shutters to close at night, and with a deal door — a carpenter-made door — are in sharp contrast with the ragged ant-hill looking performances of the Akkas, or the bark huts of the Fan, with no windows, and just an extra broad bit of bark to slip across the hole that serves as a door. On going into an Igalwa house you will see a four-legged table, often covered with a bright-coloured tablecloth, on which stands a water bottle, with two clean glasses, and round about you will see chairs — Windsor chairs. These houses have usually three, sometimes more rooms, and a separate closed-in little kitchen, built apart, wherein you may observe European-made saucepans, in addition to the ubiquitous skillet. Outside, all along the clean sandy streets, the inhabitants are seated. The Igalwa is truly great at sitting, the men pursuing a policy of masterly inactivity, broken occasionally by leisurely netting a fishing net, the end of the netting hitched up on to the roof thatch, and not held by a stirrup. The ladies are employed in the manufacture of articles pertaining to a higher culture — I allude, as Mr. Micawber would say, to bed-quilts and pillow-cases — the most gorgeous bed-quilts and pillow-cases — made of patchwork, and now and again you will see a mosquito-bar in course of construction, of course not made of net or muslin because of the awesome strength and ferocity of the Lembarene strain of mosquitoes, but of stout, fair-flowered and besprigged chintzes; and you will observe these things are often being sewn with a sewing machine.
The women who may not be busy sewing are busy doing each other’s hair. Hair-dressing is quite an art among the Igalwa and M’pongwe women, and their hair is very beautiful; very crinkly, but fine. It is plaited up, close to the head, partings between the plaits making elaborate parterres. Into the beds of plaited hair are stuck long pins of river ivory (hippo), decorated with black tracery and openwork, and made by their good men. A lady will stick as many of these into her hair as she can get, but the prevailing mode is to have one stuck in behind each ear, showing their broad, long heads above like two horns; they are exceedingly becoming to these black but comely ladies, verily, I think, the comeliest ladies I have ever seen on the Coast. Very black they are, blacker than many of their neighbours, always blacker than the Fans, and although their skin lacks that velvety pile of the true negro, it is not too shiny, but it is fine and usually unblemished, and their figures are charmingly rounded, their hands and feet small, almost as small as a high-class Calabar woman’s, and their eyes large, lustrous, soft and brown, and their teeth as white as the sea surf and undisfigured by filing.
The native dress for men and women alike is the cloth or paun. The men wear it by rolling the upper line round the waist, and in addition they frequently wear a singlet or a flannel shirt worn MORE AFRICANO, flowing free. Rich men will mount a European coat and hat, and men connected with the mission or trading stations occasionally wear trousers. The personal appearance of the men does not amount to much when all’s done, so we will return to the ladies. They wrap the upper hem of these cloths round under the armpits, a graceful form of drapery, but one which requires continual readjustment. The cloth is about four yards long and two deep, and there is always round the hem a border, or false hem, of turkey red twill, or some other coloured cotton cloth to the main body of the paun. In addition to the cloth there is worn, when possible, a European shawl, either one of those thick cotton cloth ones printed with Chinese-looking patterns in dull red on a dark ground, this sort is wrapped round the upper part of the body: or what is more highly esteemed is a bright, light-coloured, fancy wool shawl, pink or pale blue preferred, which being carefully folded into a roll is placed over one shoulder, and is entirely for dandy. I am thankful to say they do not go in for hats; when they wear anything on their heads it is a handkerchief folded shawl-wise; the base of the triangle is bound round the forehead just above the eyebrows, the ends carried round over the ears and tied behind over the apex of the triangle of the handkerchief, the three ends being then arranged fan-wise at the back. Add to this costume a sober-coloured silk parasol, not one of your green or red young tent-like, brutally masculine, knobby-sticked umbrellas, but a fair, lady-like parasol, which, being carefully rolled up, is carried handle foremost right in the middle of the head, also for dandy. Then a few strings of turquoise-blue beads, or imitation gold ones, worn round the shapely throat; and I will back my Igalwa or M’pongwe belle against any of those South Sea Island young ladies we nowadays hear so much about, thanks to Mr. Stevenson, yea, even though these may be wreathed with fragrant flowers, and the African lady very rarely goes in for flowers. The only time I have seen the African ladies wearing them for ornament has been among these Igalwas, who now and again stud their night-black hair with pretty little round vividly red blossoms in a most fetching way. I wonder the Africans do not wear flowers more frequently, for they are devoted to scent, both men and women.
The Igalwas are a proud race, one of the noble tribes, like the M’pongwe and the Ajumba. The women do not intermarry with lower-class tribes, and in their own tribe they are much restricted, owing to all relations on the mother’s side being forbidden to intermarry. This well-known form of accounting relationships only through the mother (Mutterrecht) is in a more perfected and elaborated form among the Igalwa than among any other tribe I am personally acquainted with; brothers and cousins on the mother’s side being in one class of relationship.
The father’s responsibility, as regards authority over his own children, is very slight. The really responsible male relative is the mother’s elder brother. From him must leave to marry be obtained for either girl, or boy; to him and the mother must the present be taken which is exacted on the marriage of a girl; and should the mother die, on him and not on the father, lies the responsibility of rearing the children; they go to his house, and he treats and regards them as nearer and dearer to himself than his own children, and at his death, after his own brothers by the same mother, they become his heirs.
Marriage among the Igalwa and M’pongwe is not direct marriage by purchase, but a certain fixed price present is made to the mother and uncle of the girl. Other propitiatory presents (Kueliki) are made, but do not count legally, and have not necessarily to be returned in case of post-nuptial differences arising leading to a divorce — a very frequent catastrophe in the social circle; for the Igalwa ladies are spirited, and devoted to personal adornment, and they are naggers at their husbands. Many times when walking on Lembarene Island, have I seen a lady stand in the street and let her husband, who had taken shelter inside the house, know what she thought of him, in a way that reminded me of some London slum scenes. When the husband loses his temper, as he surely does sooner or later, being a man, he whacks his wife — or wives, if they have been at him in a body. He may whack with impunity so long as he does not draw blood; if he does, be it never so little, his wife is off to her relations, the present he has given for her is returned, the marriage is annulled, and she can re-marry as soon as she is able.
Her relations are only too glad to get her, because, although the present has to be returned, yet the propitiatory offerings remain theirs, and they know more propitiatory offerings as well as another present will accrue with the next set of suitors. This of course is only the case with the younger women; the older women for one thing do not nag so much, and moreover they have usually children willing and able to support them. If they have not, their state is, like that of all old childless women in Africa, a very desolate one.
Infant marriage is now in vogue among the Igalwa, and to my surprise I find it is of quite recent introduction and adoption. Their own account of this retrograde movement in culture is that in the last generation — some of the old people indeed claim to have known him — there was an exceedingly ugly and deformed man who could not get a wife, the women being then, as the men are now, great admirers of physical beauty. So this man, being very cunning, hit on the idea of becoming betrothed to one before she could exercise her own choice in the matter; and knowing a family in which an interesting event was likely to occur, he made heavy presents in the proper quarters and bespoke the coming infant if it should be a girl. A girl it was, and thus, say the Igalwa, arose the custom; and nowadays, although they do not engage their wives so early as did the founder of the custom, they adopt infant marriage as an institution.
I inquired carefully, in the interests of ethnology, as to what methods of courting were in vogue previously. They said people married each other because they loved each other. I hope other ethnologists will follow this inquiry up, for we may here find a real golden age, which in other races of humanity lies away in the mists of the ages behind the kitchen middens and the Cambrian rocks. My own opinion in this matter is that the earlier courting methods of the Igalwa involved a certain amount of effort on the man’s part, a thing abhorrent to an Igalwa. It necessitated his dressing himself up, and likely enough fighting that impudent scoundrel who was engaged in courting her too; and above all serenading her at night on the native harp, with its strings made from the tendrils of a certain orchid, or on the marimba, amongst crowds of mosquitoes. Any institution that involved being out at night amongst crowds of those Lembarene mosquitoes would have to disappear, let that institution be what it might.
The Igalwa are one of the dying-out coast tribes. As well as on Lembarene Island, their villages are scattered along the banks of the Lower Ogowe, and on the shores and islands of Eliva Z’Onlange. On the island they are, so far, undisturbed by the Fan invasion, and laze their lives away like lotus-eaters. Their slaves work their large plantations, and bring up to them magnificent yams, ready prepared ogooma, sweet-potatoes, papaw, etc., not forgetting that delicacy Odeaka cheese; this is not an exclusive inspiration of theirs, for the M’pongwe and the Benga use it as well. It is made from the kernel of the wild mango, a singularly beautiful tree of great size and stately spread of foliage. I can compare it only in appearance and habit of growth to our Irish, or evergreen, oak, but it is an idealisation of that fine tree. Its leaves are a softer, brighter, deeper green, and in due season (August) it is covered — not ostentatiously like the real mango, with great spikes of bloom, looking each like a gigantic head of mignonette — but with small yellow-green flowers tucked away under the leaves, filling the air with a soft sweet perfume, and then falling on to the bare shaded ground beneath to make a deep-piled carpet. I do not know whether it is a mango tree at all, for I am no botanist: but anyhow the fruit is rather like that of the mango in external appearance, and in internal still more so, for it has a disproportionately large stone. These stones are cracked, and the kernel taken out. The kernels are spread a short time in the shade to dry; then they are beaten up into a pulp with a wooden pestle, and the pulp put into a basket lined carefully with plantain leaves and placed in the sun, which melts it up into a stiff mass. The basket is then removed from the sun and stood aside to cool. When cool, the cheese can be turned out in shape, and can be kept a long time if it is wrapped round with leaves and a cloth, and hung up inside the house. Its appearance is that of almond rock, and it is cut easily with a knife; but at any period of its existence, if it is left in the sun it melts again rapidly into an oily mass.
The natives use it as a seasoning in their cookery, stuffing fish and plantains with it and so on, using it also in the preparation of a sort of sea-pie they make with meat and fish. To make this, a thing well worth doing, particularly with hippo or other coarse meat, reduce the wood fire to embers, and make plantain leaves into a sort of bag, or cup; small pieces of the meat should then be packed in layers with red pepper and odeaka in between. The tops of the leaves are then tied together with fine tie-tie, and the bundle, without any saucepan of any kind, stood on the glowing embers, the cook taking care there is no flame. The meat is done, and a superb gravy formed, before the containing plantain leaves are burnt through — plantain leaves will stand an amazing lot in the way of fire. This dish is really excellent, even when made with python, hippo, or crocodile. It makes the former most palatable; but of course it does not remove the musky taste from crocodile; nothing I know of will.
The great and important difference between the M’pongwe, 15 Igalwa, and Ajumba fetish, and the Fetish of those tribes round them, consists in their conception of a certain spirit called O Mbuiri. They have, as is constant among the Bantu races of South-West Africa, a great god — the creator, a god who has made all things, and who now no longer takes any interest in the things he has created. Their name for this god is Anyambie, which when pronounced sounds to my ears like anlynlae — the l’s being very weak, — the derivation of this name, however, is from Anyima a spirit, and Mbia, good. This god, unlike other forms of the creating god in Fetish, has a viceroy or minister who is a god he has created, and to whom he leaves the government of affairs. This god is O Mbuiri or O Mbwiri, and this O Mbwiri is of very high interest to the student of comparative fetish. He has never been, nor can he ever become, a man, i.e. be born as a man, but he can transfuse with his own personality that of human beings, and also the souls of all those things we white men regard as inanimate, such as rocks, trees, etc., in a similar manner.
The M’pongwe know that his residence is in the sea, and some of them have seen him as an old white man, not flesh-colour white, but chalk white. There is another important point here, but it wants a volume to itself, so I must pass it. O Mbuiri’s appearance in a corporeal form denotes ill luck, not death to the seer, but misfortune of a severe and diffused character. The ruin of a trading enterprise, the destruction of a village or a family, are put down to O Mbuiri’s action. Yet he is not regarded as a malevolent god, a devil, but as an avenger, or punisher of sin; and the M’pongwe look on him as the Being to whom they primarily owe the good things and fortunes of this life, and as the Being who alone has power to govern the host of truly malevolent spirits that exist in nature.
The different instruments with which he works in the shaping of human destiny bear his name when in his employ. When acting by means of water, he is O Mbuiri Aningo; when in the weather, O Mbuiri Ngali; when in the forests, O Mbuiri Ibaka; when in the form of a dwarf, O Mbuiri Akoa, and so on.
The great difference between O Mbuiri and the lesser spirits is this:— the lesser spirits cannot incarnate themselves except through extraneous things; O Mbuiri can, he can become visible without anything beyond his own will to do so. The other spirits must be in something to become visible. This is an extremely delicate piece of Fetish which it took me weeks to work out. I think I may say another thing about O Mbuiri, though I say it carefully, and that is, that among the M’pongwe and the tribe who are the parent tribe of the M’pongwe — the now rapidly dying out Ajumba, and their allied tribe the Igalwa — O Mbuiri is a distinct entity, while among the neighbouring tribes he is a class, i.e. there are hundreds of O Mbuiri or Ibwiri, one for every remarkable place or thing, such as rock, tree, or forest thicket, and for every dangerous place in a river. Had I not observed a similar state of affairs regarding Sasabonsum, a totally different kind of spirit on the Windward coast, I should have had even greater trouble than I had, in finding a key to what seemed at first a mass of conflicting details regarding this important spirit O Mbuiri.
There is one other very important point in M’pongwe Fetish; and that is that the souls of men exist before birth as well as after death. This is indeed, as far as I have been able to find out, a doctrine universally held by the West African tribes, but among the M’pongwe there is this modification in it, which agrees strangely well with the idea I found regarding reincarnated diseases, existent among the Okyon tribes (pure negroes). The malevolent minor spirits are capable of being born with, what we will call, a man’s soul, as well as going in with the man’s soul during sleep. For example, an Olaga may be born with a man and that man will thereby be born mad; he may at any period of his life, given certain conditions, become possessed by an evil spirit, Onlogho Abambo, Injembe, Nkandada, and become mad, or ill; but if he is born mad, or sickly, one of the evil spirits such as an Olaga or an Obambo, the soul of a man that has not been buried properly, has been born with him.
The rest of the M’pongwe Fetish is on broad lines common to other tribes, so I relegate it to the general collection of notes on Fetish. M’pongwe jurisprudence is founded on the same ideas as those on which West African jurisprudence at large is founded, but it is so elaborated that it would be desecration to sketch it. It requires a massive monograph.
15 The M’pongwe speaking tribes are the M’pongwe, Orungu, Nkami, Ajumba, Inlenga and the Igalwa.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10