My Apingi Kingdom - Paul du Chaillu

Village on the Senegal River


We passed through the much-dreaded region without any serious mishap. Our vessel arrived before the great Senegal River, and anchored outside of the bar. I must confess that I was very glad, for I did not relish the idea of a wreck on the inhospitable shores I have just described to you.

A few days after the arrival of the Roland, I was quietly settled in a quaint old negro town on the sea-shore opposite the island of St. Louis, the chief French settlement on the Senegal River. What a queer village it was! It had stood on the same spot for several generations, on the narrow tongue of land which separated the river from the sea, a few miles from its mouth. This land might properly be called the beginning of the Great Sahara. On the left or south of the village, as far as the mouth of the river, the eye met only a continuous stretch of white sand; on the right or north, the same aspect of country presented itself to view; but as the eye followed the shore northward, the extent of country became broader, and toward the river side stunted trees and scraggy bushes or shrubs were visible on approaching its banks; otherwise a vast sandy tract of country was all that could be seen. The country presented an appearance of utter desolation, entirely unlike the great equatorial regions where I have led you in this and the three preceding volumes. How unlike the villages of the forest was this village of the lower Senegal country. It was built on the downs or sandy hills which had been formed by the sands which were constantly accumulating there by being shifted from the Great Desert by the winds blowing from it. Some of these sand-hills were quite high.

African village


The houses were round, the walls built of clay collected from the river, and generally from four to six feet in height. There were no windows to these huts, and only one door led to the interior. The sharp-pointed, some what sugar-loaf shaped roofs were high, and thatched with straw. Inside of these huts the people cooked and slept. There were no regular streets, the houses being scattered all about, without any order or symmetry. Inside, a bullock-hide, or a mat upon sticks about two feet from the ground, formed the bed. "One or two water-jars, some cooking-pots, a few wooden vases, several immense calabashes used as dishes or for washing, and one or two low stools, constituted all the furniture to be met with in these huts. A group of huts belonging to one family were surrounded by fences as a kind of wall. This town had, I should think, several thousand inhabitants. From a distance it had a very, picturesque appearance, as you may judge by the picture before you, but, after entering it, the charm disappeared.

The situation of the village was certainly very picturesque. In front there was the sea, back of it the River Senegal, and then the white sand of the desert on every other side. The people were neatly dressed, in queer-shaped garments made of cotton goods.

A few little horses, some donkeys and camels which belonged to a caravan just arrived, might often be seen wandering about. But judge of my astonishment when, sauntering through this labyrinth of houses, I came to a hut in front of which were three live lions lying flat on the ground—three young tame lions. As I approached they looked at me, as if to say, "Who is this stranger?" but there was no anger in their gaze; they were young, though quite formidable to look at. They were for sale. I wondered why they were not chained, and found, on looking more closely, that they were tied with a cord by the neck.

The people of the village were of the negro race, but of a far superior type than the Congo negro. They belonged to a tribe, if I remember well, called Jaloff, and were certainly very fine negroes. They were not heathen, but very strict Mohammedans, for in the days of old the followers of Mohammed had converted them. They were generally tall, and very black, and among them some could be seen with straight noses, thin lips, and fine features. Most of them could speak the French language as well as their own, learned through constant intercourse with the French, under whose sway they lived.

The people of the village were great fishermen, their chief business being to catch fish. They were very experienced canoemen, for the whole of that coast is defended by formidable breakers, which dash against the sandy shores of the Great Desert with irresistible force. Many and many days during the year these natives find it impossible to cross over the breakers to go a fishing, and often, after making vain efforts to go through them, have to give up the attempt, after upsetting time after time.

So I need not tell you that they are splendid swimmers and canoemen. Nevertheless, accidents take place; men are drowned now and then, either from sheer exhaustion from swimming when they upset in the breakers farthest from the shore, but more generally from the canoe striking them with great force as it turns over, or by being thrown against them by the next angry wave.

They are, like most Mohammedans, fatalists, and believe that Allah (God) has ordered beforehand every thing that is ever to happen to them. The efforts of the missionaries to convert them have been of very little avail, as far as I could see.

Of course nothing could grow in that arid region, and their food had to be raised on the islands higher up the river, or near the lagoons, swamps, and marshes on the right bank, where patches of fertile land are found. The chief food used by this people is made of a kind of millet, which they pound, and call kouskous. Cattle are very abundant in Senegal, and form the chief wealth of the people of the country.

I really enjoyed the sights in this village, especially in the morning, when the people were coming to market. St. Louis, being a large settlement, with a population of twelve or fifteen thousand people, required a good deal of food, and the people would come from villages and farms situated higher up the river, where, as I have said, vegetation could be found, and where many things would grow; but a good deal of the produce came also from the left bank of the river.

It was amusing to see them come with milk in large leather bags, or bottles made of goat or sheep skins sewed carefully together, so there was no leakage; they were made just like those mentioned in the Bible, these people having made no improvement in these utensils for thousands of years. These bottles could hold sometimes as much as five gallons and more. The women carried them on their heads.

The butter was soft, and was also brought to market in the same manner—in skins. It is frequently used by he natives to rub their bodies with.