Wild Life Under the Equator - Paul du Chaillu

An African Funeral


What a strange thing is an African funeral! In a town on the banks of the Rembo, called Conaco, where I had just arrived in my canoe, a man was very ill. These poor savages seemed to be very sorry for him, but did not know what to do. If I remember aright, the name of that man was Irende. He had been a great warrior and a great hunter, but disease had laid him prostrate, though he was still a young man.

The next day a great many people came into the village with their tam-tams, or drums, and different sorts of musical instruments. They were to try if they could not drive the devil away. With a great deal of trouble a few guns had been obtained, and also some powder, in order to make more noise.

In the evening the people entered the hut of Irende and began to sing. The drummers had already gone inside and were beating their drums most furiously; a few broken brass kettles added their noise to that of the drums; some beat sticks on pieces of wood. In fact, every body tried to make all the noise he could. At last those who had the guns came and fired them close to the ears of the poor fellow, and also near his stomach, where the abambo  (the devil) was supposed to be. I could not stay more than five minutes in the hut, for the din was too great for me. They wanted to drive the abambo out of the poor sick man so that he might get well. But all the drumming they did, all the mbuiti  (idol) had said concerning his recovery, all the care his wives, sisters and his mother bestowed upon him, were of no avail. The poor fellow died the second day after my arrival, right in the midst of the drumming, just a few minutes after the guns had been fired near his ears and stomach. It was midnight when he died. I was in my hut, which was not far off, when suddenly there burst from one end of the village to the other a wail that told me the sad story. Irende was dead!

What a wail it was! It went right to my heart, it was so piercing, so heart-rending; I could not help but feel sorry for these poor people. The wailing and the mourning-songs lasted all night; there was no sleep for me.

In the morning I was led once more to the house where the body was laid. The room was crowded: women from all the villages round had come, and they were all seated on the floor. There must have been about three hundred of them, and they were singing mournful songs to doleful and monotonous airs. The tears were running down their cheeks. The wives of the poor fellow, ten in number, had shaven their hair, had taken off their garments and were almost naked, and they had rubbed their bodies with ashes. Their anklets and bracelets had been removed, and round their necks they wore a piece of native cord indicating that they were widows and in mourning.

At length through the thick crowd I discovered the body of Irende. It was seated on a stool, the back leaning against the wall. It was dressed in an old coat, and by its side was a harp—for Irende had the reputation of being a great musician; there also lay his spear and his gun, which were to be buried with him.

African funeral


His wives were round him, talking, begging him to speak to them, and then silence followed. No answer came. Then there burst forth a heart-piercing wail. "He is dead! he is dead!" they shouted. "His lips will speak to us no more; he will not hunt for us any more; he will play no more on the wombi  for us!" Then all ended in a long plaintive song.

The mother came, and kneeling before him took hold of his feet, which is the most supplicating manner of address in Africa; she looked in his face and said in a very plaintive voice—"My son, you have not spoken to your wives, but I know you will speak to your mother. You will say to her that you are not dead."

The same silence ensued.

They all waited in vain for an answer for a few minutes; then the poor mother rolled herself on the ground at her son's feet, shrieked and cried, and said—"Irende, why do you not speak to your mother?" The poor mother's shrieks were so long, so piercing, and she uttered such a wail of grief, that the tears came into my eyes. The poor African mother had a heart!

As I left the hut, thinking how strangely the mind of man is constituted, the wailing continued, and was to be kept up until the burial of the corpse.

The day of the funeral came, and we went to the burial-ground. As the body left the village and was put into a canoe, the wailing was tremendous. The men that were to paddle were all painted, almost naked, and covered with fetiches. The drum beat as we descended the stream.

As we approached the burial-ground (for these Commi have a sort of cemetery) all became silent. Not a word was said; they prayed Ovengua  not to get hold of them, and the corpse was left on the sand, a certain amount of which was thrown over it. His wombi  was laid by his side, his gun and his spear were placed in his hand, and necklaces and ornaments were left with him. A cooked dish of plantain and a jar of water were placed beside him, so that he might drink and eat if he chose, then all was over and we came away.

What a strange burial-ground it was! It was situated on a prairie, with no trees in the neighborhood, and poles were the only signs that could show it to be a cemetery. Here and there a grim skeleton could be seen, and the remains of things that had accompanied the deceased men and women to the grave.