Wild Life Under the Equator - Paul du Chaillu

The Feast of Njambai


The village of Njali-Coudiť became full of strangers, so full indeed that many could not find shelter there, hence little olakos were surrounding the village everywhere.

When I inquired the cause why so many strangers were in the village, I was told that the Njambai feast was coming.

The first night I could not sleep, as no African feast is complete without shouting, drumming, singing, dancing, and a good deal of drinking, when the latter can be got. The noise was terrific; more than one hundred tam-tams must have been beating.

At last I got up and went into the street. It was crowded with men, women, and children. Fires and torches lighted it up, and gave a strange appearance to the savages, who were painted in different colors.

Seeing a great crowd, I went there, and I saw in the middle of the street a large wooden idol. It was a female figure, nearly of life size, and with cloven feet like those of a stag. Her eyes were of copper; one cheek was painted red, and the other yellow. About her neck hung a necklace of leopard's teeth. This idol is said to have great power, and the people believe that on certain occasions she nods her head. She is said to talk quite frequently—as might, indeed, be expected. She is very highly venerated by the people. Before her stood plantains, sugar-cane, and a piece of antelope. The people were dancing around her, singing most furiously and drumming with tremendous force. They were so much excited and so much in earnest that their bodies were bright and shiny; for the oil their skin naturally possesses comes out so abundantly that one might have thought they had dipped themselves in it. The perfume was not particularly pleasant, but I had become accustomed to it.

How wild the scene, how wild the men as they danced round! They looked almost like demons. Sometimes a single man would come forth and dance before the idol, making the most horrid contortions possible, and, speaking to her, would vanish again. This idol belonged to the clan of which Mbango was the chief, and had been in their possession as far back as they had any remembrance. The clan of Mbango includes half a dozen large villages within a circuit of thirty miles; hence the idol of the clan remains with him. But that night there was no nodding and no talking of the idol. The people began to be frightened, and their ignorant doctors were at their wits' end, and did not know what to do.

On the night of the two following days there was a dead silence and a great darkness: no fire was allowed in the village, no torch could be lighted. The only light was mine, and that was closely shut up in my hut.

What a strange scene! Not a voice could be heard; for he who should have dared to talk would have probably paid with his life for his rashness.

Two or three times a strange feeling of awe took hold of me, for I stood alone in the midst of this wild people, and what could be wilder than these superstitious scenes? It is not wonderful that these poor weak creatures, in sight of such idols as they have, are frightened even at themselves.

The Mbuiti was set out in the middle of the street, and the people stood round her in the pitchy darkness. She is said to have bowed, walked about, and spoken to some one, expressing her pleasure at two gazelles that had been offered to her. She ate some of the meat—so I was assured—and left the rest for the people.

Yes! they all believed the reports which I have just related to you. I felt very sorry that the mind of man could be so debased. What they asked of the idol I have never been able to find out; they were unwilling to tell me. At any rate, they were pleased, for they thought the idol had spoken, had nodded, and had eaten.

Now let us come to Njambai. Njambai is a spirit, a very good spirit, who protects the women. All the tribes I have visited believe in him or her, though with all the name is not the same. All the women venerate Njambai. This worship of the women is a kind of mystery, no men being admitted to the ceremonies, which are carried on in a house very carefully closed. This house was covered with dry palm and banana leaves, and had not even a door open to the street. To make all close, so as to prevent the eyes of man from penetrating into it, it was set against two other houses, and the entrance was through one of these, so that complete darkness reigned in the house of Njambai. Mbango and friend Quengueza warned me not to go to the place, for the King said—"Ntanga, I myself can not go and have a look."

The feast of Njambai takes place once a year.

The women had come from all the villages round; they had come for the Njambai feast. They had all painted their faces and bodies, were beating drums, and marching about the town. Now and then they would all go into the forest, whence I could hear their wild songs. From time to time they entered the Njambai house, where they danced inside and outside; and one night they made a most outrageous noise, far greater than even the men had made when I came to the village.

I thought it pretty hard not to be able to sleep. After a few days I began to feel the need of it, but I did not wish to go and make my camp in the woods, for I wanted to see the feast of Njambai. The men were hunting all the time, and all the game they killed or caught they brought to the women, who offered them all to Njambai.

On the second day they nearly all went off into the woods, and their songs were something wonderful. Now and then I could hear the name of Njambai. I noticed that in the morning a few had entered the Njambai-house, where they remained, keeping a mysterious silence. Now my curiosity, which had been greatly excited to know what took place in that secret worship, finally overcame me. I resolved to see the inside of this house if I could. I fancy many of you would have done the same.

I walked several times up and down the street to avoid suspicion. Looking round and seeing nobody, I went quietly by the house, and at last suddenly pushed aside some of the leaves that formed the walls and stuck my head through it. For a moment I could distinguish nothing in the darkness. Then I beheld three perfectly naked old hags sitting on the clay floor, with an immense bundle of greegrees or fetiches before them, which they seemed to be contemplating in silent adoration.

Njambai house


I was put aback, for I expected to see no one. As soon as their fear and wonder had somewhat subsided, they set up a hideous howl of rage, and rushed out to call their companions in the bush. In a few minutes these came rushing toward me with gesture of anger, and threatening me for my offense. I quickly reached my house, and, seizing my gun in one hand and my revolver in the other, told them I would shoot the first one that came inside my door. I never saw such an infuriated set. My house was surrounded by above three hundred angry women, every one shouting out curses at me; and still they kept coming in, their number every moment growing greater and greater.

King Mbango came to the rescue. I was glad of it, for I had never been in such a predicament before. I had never faced in my life an angry mob of women before; and here there were hundreds of them before me, who seemed ready to tear my eyes out of my head, or commit such other gentle little deeds as I certainly thought no female could attempt.

Presently they went back to the Njambai-house, and I felt quite relieved. I had become almost deaf, and had wondered how I should get out of the scrape.

At last a deputation of the women came to King Mbango and to Quengueza, who told the women I was their guest. The women did not wish to yield, but at last King Mbango and his male subjects came one by one and put their offerings before the women. These consisted of grass-cloth, knives, plates, bracelets, anklets, etc., etc. With these the angry women were appeased, and there the quarrel ended. Of course I could not make any further investigations into their mysteries. I was watched very closely, and Mbango came and implored me not to go again, saying—"The wrath of Njambai may come upon us!"

The Njambai feast lasted about two weeks. I could learn very little about the spirit which they call by this name. It protects the women against their male enemies, avenges their wrongs, and serves them in various ways.

What I have told you is all I know about it, but I thought it might interest you as it did me. I only hope that, whenever you travel, it will never happen to you to have several hundreds of infuriated women after you, for I can assure you that I would have rather encountered a gorilla of the worst kind than to face them.