My Apingi Kingdom - Paul du Chaillu

Life in Senegal


Now that I have given you a description of the Senegal village, I must speak to you about the country.

The Senegal River is one of the most important rivers of Africa, and the colony of that name is the largest and most thrifty on the West Coast. The country belongs to France, and the forts along the banks of the river extend to a long distance into the interior. The river takes its rise in the region of the gong Mountains, and empties into the sea in about 16 north latitude. The head or chief trading settlement is St. Louis.

From Senegal comes a very large quantity of gum arabic, amounting to several millions of pounds every year. An immense trade in pea-nuts is also carried on. These are taken to Marseilles, where soap and oils are made from them. Gold is also brought from the interior; and hides, wax, and ivory form also important articles of trade.

The people inhabiting the great Senegal country are all warlike. Among the chief negro tribes are the Fehlahs, the Jaloffs, the Falahs, and the Mandingoes.

The Jaloffs are an active, powerful race. They are tall, very black, and their noses are not so flat, nor their lips so thick as those of the true negro; indeed, some have straight noses.

The Fulahs are much attached to a pastoral life, and their hair is soft and not very woolly. Their chief wealth consists in the possession of cattle, which have very long horns.

The Mandingoes are Mohammedan negroes, mild, and of pleasant disposition. They manufacture a good deal of cotton cloth with an ingenious loom of their own, and occupy a large tract of country.

In fact, these negroes of the Senegambia country are, I think, far superior to those found in other parts of Africa, not only in looks, but in intelligence.

But on the right bank of the River Senegal, and in the interior, live tribes of people far more powerful than the negroes, by whom they are dreaded. These are the Moors of the desert, a martial, treacherous, and vindictive race, always at war with their neighbors.

As I have said, a very great part of the gum arabic used in the world comes from the Senegal River, and the Moors possess all the country from which it comes.

These Moors have a very wild, staring look; their treachery is notorious, and they regard the negro villages that surround them the same as game, which they plunder at will, and the people of which they lead into captivity. These people are nomadic; when the heat of the desert becomes intense, and every thing there is burned up, they move southward toward the negro country, and stay there till the rains have commenced in the beginning of July, when they go northward again. It is at that time that they commit the most depredations. They despise the negroes, who are very much afraid of them. But the negroes themselves are often at war with each other. In fact, war seems to be the normal state of Africa wherever the traveler goes.

With the negroes and with the Moors, cattle are the wealth of the country. The Moors possess great herds of cattle, and a great many horses, camels, and donkeys. The armies of these tribes of the desert are composed entirely of cavalry, each tribe being able to raise from two to four thousand horsemen.

There are three forests in which the gum arabic is produced in great quantities; these are called, if I remember rightly, Sahel, Lebiar, and Alfatack. Besides these, there are other groves of gum arabic trees in different parts of the desert. The three first-mentioned forests are claimed by three different tribes of Moors. The language of these people is, of course, Arabic, and they are named Trazas, Aulad-el-Hagi, and Ebraguana. Each tribe has its own chief. They are nomadic, and are continually fighting with each other. Their features are dark brown, but fine; their hair is black and glossy.

The gum arabic tree has a very peculiar growth. I know you would like to have a description of it. It is an acacia not at all beautiful, from fifteen to twenty feet high when full grown; a few specimens attain a greater height, but in general it is more like a shrub than a tree. The wood is white and hard. It is very seldom that one sees a straight tree, and the trunk is covered, almost from the ground, with crooked branches of different sizes, which makes the tree not pretty to look at. The leaves are small, and under each leaf are three crooked blackish thorns. The flowers are white and small, and the seeds are contained in pods.

The month of March is the time when the harvest of the gum arabic takes place. You must not think that the gum arabic comes all in small pieces. A good deal of it comes out of the trunk of the tree in quite large lumps. I have seen pieces twice as large as an orange, and even larger, and, after breaking them open, the centre would be filled with liquid gum arabic, which was most delicious to the taste. While in the country I ate much of it, and it was often my chief food. It is very nutritious and satisfying to the appetite. It is only the red gum arabic which is often found in such large pieces. Of course, as it grows older, the liquid gradually dries up, though it does not become brittle like the white gum, some forests of which are also found near the Senegal River. The two gums are, however, entirely distinct.

There are a good many islands in the River Senegal, some of which are very fertile, and produce millet, Indian corn, yams, sweet potatoes, plantains, and bananas. At about ninety miles from the mouth of the Senegal River is a flourishing trading station, where a great quantity of gum is brought by the Moors.

The climate of the Senegal country is any thing but pleasant, being subject to sudden changes. At certain seasons of the year the hot winds from the desert make it almost unbearable. The rainy season is short, and the climate is dry the greater part of the year.

How much I suffered there from the hot weather! I remember one day a terrible hot wind from the desert begun to blow. The atmosphere was terribly heated, and the air, which seemed to come from an oven, was prostrating to the physical system. It blew from the northeast, over the scorching sands of the Sahara—sands which had been heated for months without a drop of rain to cool them. The powerful rays of the sun had been pouring upon the white sand day after day, week after week, month after month, till the whole atmosphere became heated, and the whole country of the desert, which was once a sea whose waters cooled the air of the countries round it, was apparently but a vast expanse where heat sprang from the very soil.

I took refuge at length in St. Louis, where the houses are made of stone, and, like other people, I shut myself up in the house, and kept the windows and the doors closed, so that no hot air could come in. In this way the houses are kept tolerably cool. For three days this terrible weather lasted, except that the nights were somewhat cooler. These hot winds from the desert often blow two or three days at a time, and sometimes last a whole week, bringing with them disease and death to the white man.

When, perchance, I would come out of the place where I had to shut myself up, I felt the hot wind blowing in my face, and breathed this heated atmosphere with a feeling that it was gradually killing me. What must it be then, I thought, in the desert, far from the sea and from rivers! There life must be sometimes almost unbearable. In certain seasons of the year these hot winds blow quite frequently, and sometimes only a few hours a day. Fortunately, the people living by the sea-shore do not suffer from them as much as the people of the interior.

If you had called on me during this hot weather, my dear young folks, you would have probably been astonished to see the way I would have received you, and the queer manner in which I held my reception, inviting my guests to do the same as I did; but, in order to give you an idea of this, I must explain how water is kept in that part of the world.

The dry season in Senegal lasts about eight months. The white people, during the rainy season, collect all the water they can, either in cisterns, or in immense earthen jars, some of which are so large that a man can go into them through the opening. These jars are manufactured in Marseilles, and some of them must hold fifty or sixty gallons, and even more. The water is kept in them deliciously cool. A very fat man could not get in one of these jars, as the opening is small compared with the body.

In one of my rooms I had several of these jars, in some of which I kept a little water, while in others I kept none. When the terrible hot weather came, it struck me that the coolest place I could find was inside of one of these jars, as they were very thick, and not liable to become heated through. So I made the trial, and found the experiment worked to a charm, and that I had discovered a cool retreat. As soon as the desert wind began blowing, I would quietly put myself in one of these jars, and stay there for a few hours. When my friends were too stout to follow my example, I would apologize to them, and give the excuse that I had the largest jars that were made. Then my fat friend would look curiously at me, and say, "I wish I was as slender as you are."

The first time I tried the jars I had a great deal of fun. Somebody came to see me, and was sent into my room; but, in the mean time, having heard him coming, I had drawn my head inside, and so remained perfectly concealed. Seeing nothing but jars, my visitor went into the next room, and, seeing nobody there, he shouted, "Where are you?" I answered back, still keeping my head below the opening, "Here I am!" He came back into my room and began to be bewildered. I could stand it no longer, and, bursting out with a loud laugh, showed my head above the jar-opening, and invited him to follow my example and "take a jar."

Keeping cool in barrels


During these hot spells the visitor would generally come in, feeling quite prostrated by the dry heat; and, after the usual salutation of "How do you do, sir?" the conversation would generally take the following turn:

"How is the weather outside!"

"Terribly hot, sir; suffocating; the scorching wind is almost unbearable. The thermometer yesterday and to-day stood between one hundred and fifteen and one hundred and twenty."

"This is terrible, sir."

"Yes, sir; this is terrible."

"Won't you take off your coat, sir, and get in? I think you are not too large to get into one of these big jars. They are quite cool and comfortable, as the pottery is quite thick, and is glazed. There is a stool; step on it; it will make it more easy for you. If you are afraid the jar will tumble down, I will call somebody to help you. Two jars have water in, sir. Two are without. Take either one you like best."

Then, if the visitor was happy enough not to be too stout, he would, immediately after being bottled up, or rather, I should say, jarred up, shout, "How nice it is! How cool and pleasant! It is perfectly delightful! What a glorious idea! It is a good thing for you to be so slender!"

If the visitor was too fat to enter the jars, his first recognition of me would be that of wonder. Then he would come and examine the aperture of the jar, look at his body, and then give a tremendous sigh, and exclaim, "How unfortunate it is for a man to be too stout!"