Wild Life Under the Equator - Paul du Chaillu

The Witch-Doctor's Poison


What a wild scene I beheld; one which had never been seen before by any white man!

Olanga-Condo, a mighty ouganga  (doctor), was to drink the mboundou. What an awful poison this mboundou  is! Nevertheless, Olanga-Condo could drink it; yes, he could drink it by bowlfuls, one of which was more than sufficient to kill any man or woman.

You will ask me, How is it that Olanga-Condo could drink this mboundou  and that other people could not? I suppose he accustomed his body to it by drinking it little by little from his childhood, but of course he would not tell any one how he could drink it without being hurt.

The strange scene took place at Goumbi.

King Quengueza had a dream, and in that dream he saw that there were people who were aniemba  (wizards), and who wished to take his life. So he rose in the morning possessed with the belief that such designs were entertained against him. His already stern countenance became harsher, and the good old chief began to dread those around him. It was useless for me to tell him that there were no such people as wizards, and that no living being had power to kill another by witchcraft.

He became suspicious of his dearest friends. His nearest relatives, he thought, were those who wanted to get rid of him in order to get his wives, slaves, ivory, and goods.

What a terrible superstition this belief in witchcraft is! The father dreads his children, the son his father and mother, the man his wife, and the wives their husbands. A man fancies himself sick; he imagines the sickness has been brought upon him by those who want him out of the way, and at last becomes sick through his fears. At night he fancies himself surrounded by the aniemba  who are prowling round his huts, and that evil spirits are ready to enter into him as he comes out; and if this should happen he believes that disease and death are surely near.

So Quengueza covered himself with fetiches, and every day invoked the spirits of his ancestors—Igoumbai, Ricati, Kombi, and Niavi (his mother)—to protect him from the aniemba. How strangely his voice sounded in the silence of the night! One could not but be awed by it.

Every morning he told the wonderful and frightful dreams he had—for these people believe in dreams—and he was so convinced that the village was full of wicked sorcerers, that at last the whole people became infected by his fears, each one thinking that his life was at stake. Hence the ouganga, Olanga-Condo, had been ordered by the King to drink the mboundou, and then tell the names of the sorcerers.

The leading people of Goumbi had met, and protested that no one wanted to bewitch their king; they all wanted him to live to the end of time.

Now they all sat in a circle on the ground; each man had a short stick in his hand; and Olanga-Condo was to take his position in the centre and drink the mboundou  in their presence.

In the mean time I had assisted in the operation of making the mboundou, an operation which the drinker does not witness. A few red roots of the plant called by them the mboundou  were brought in, and the bark was scraped off by several of the natives into a vessel; into this a pint of water was poured, and in about a minute fermentation took place, and the beverage effervesced almost like champagne. The water soon became quite red, and was the very color of the bark when the effervescing ceased. Two of Olanga-Condo's friends were present during this operation to see that all was fair.

witch doctor


When the mixture was ready Olanga-Condo came, went to the centre of the circle, and the bowl containing the poison was handed to him: without faltering for a single moment, but full of faith, he emptied the bowl at one draught.

In about five minutes the poison took effect. He began to stagger about; his eyes were injected; his limbs twitched convulsively; his voice grew thick; his veins showed themselves prominently, and his muscles contracted. His whole behavior was that of a drunken man. He began to babble wildly, and then it was supposed that the inspiration was upon him. The people beat regularly upon the ground with the short sticks they held, and sang in a sort of doleful voice—

"If he is a witch, let the mboundou  kill him,

If he is not, let the mboundou  go out."

Then at times Layibirie, Quengueza's heir, and his nephews, Quabi, Adouma, and Rapeiro, asked if there was any man that wanted to bewitch King Quengueza.

Olanga-Condo went on talking wildly, not answering the questions, which were repeated over and over again. At last he said—"Yes; some one is trying to bewitch the King."

Then came the query, "Who?"

By this time the poor fellow was fortunately hopelessly tipsy, and incapable of reasonable speech. He babbled some unintelligible jargon, and presently the inquest was declared at an end.

No persons had been accused, hence nobody was to be killed. But sometimes these doctors do mention names, and one of these days I may give you an account of murders committed in the name of witchcraft.

The mboundou  is a dreadful poison, one from which very few escape. Sometimes the veins of the victim will burst open, at other times blood will flow from his nose and eyes, and he drops dead a few minutes after drinking it. Hence the great power of the doctor. If a poor fellow is supposed to be a wizard, or to have bewitched the King or somebody else, he is forced to drink the mboundou  whether he likes it or not. If the man dies, he is declared a witch; if he survives, he is declared innocent, and those who have accused him pay him a fine.

The ordeal is much dreaded by the negroes, who often run away from home and stay away all their lives rather than submit to it, and will often rather enslave themselves to another tribe.

When the wizards are said to belong to another village, then wars frequently ensue. The man thought guilty is demanded to drink the mboundou, while his friends, who know that he will probably die, refuse to give him up.

This belief in witchcraft is the great curse of Africa. According to this doctrine, every man that dies has been bewitched by some one. Death came into the world by witchcraft. For almost every man that dies somebody is killed, and often several persons are killed.

The women being deemed of very little account in this part of the world, it is very seldom that at the death of one of them any body is killed. These poor heathen think no torture cruel enough to inflict upon a wizard. Sometimes the accused will be tied to a tree and burned by a slow fire; at other times they will bind him and put him in the track of an army of bashikouay ants.

I remember the horrid sight I met one day; it made my blood freeze all over. I shall never forget the scene as long as I live. I was hunting in the woods for birds, when I spied two green pigeons (treron nudirostris), which I wanted for my collection of birds. By dint of great exertions I penetrated the jungle to the foot of the tree, when lo! a ghastly sight met my eyes. It was the corpse of a woman, young evidently, and with features once mild and amiable. She had been tied up here, on some infernal accusation of witchcraft, and tortured with a cruelty which would have done honor to the Inquisition.

The torture consisted in the laceration of the flesh all over the body, and fresh Cayenne pepper had been rubbed in the gashes. A cold perspiration covered my body; my eyes became dim; "Was it a dream?" I asked myself. The devil himself could not have displayed more ingenuity in torture. I approached the corpse. It was cold. The poor girl was dead. What terrible sufferings she must have endured!

Will you think hard of me when I say to you that I felt I could go into that village of wild men and shoot every one of them?

Aniemba!  What a terrible meaning that word possesses in the mind of the poor African of Equatorial Africa! To be bewitched is almost certain death. What an awful superstition! It leads to the most inhuman and abominable acts of cruelty.

How many I have seen of these acts! what refinement of barbarism I have seen displayed! what numbers of poor innocent creatures I have seen slain! what numbers of families have in this way been made unhappy!