Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

I Build a Village

dancing in celebration



I immediately begun building a substantial settlement, not an olako. I collected from a kind of palm-tree a great many leaves, with which to cover the roofs of the building I had to construct. I gathered also a great quantity of branches from the same palm-trees, and sticks, and poles, and all that was necessary to make a house; and finally I succeeded in building quite a village, which I called Washington. My own house had five rooms; it was forty-five feet long by twenty-five feet wide, and cost me about fifty dollars. My kitchen, which stood by itself, cost four dollars. I had a fowl-house, containing a hundred chickens (and such nice little tiny chickens they are in that country), and a dozen ducks. My goat-house contained eighteen goats, and fanny goats they were. You had to milk a dozen of them to get a pint of milk. I built a powder-house separate, for I do not like to sleep every day in a place where there is powder. I had a dozen huts for my men.

This was Washington in Africa, a very different place from Washington in America.

At the back of my village was a wide extent of prairie. In front was the river Npoulounai winding along; and I could see miles out on the way which I was soon to explore. The river banks were lined with the mangrove-trees; and, looking up stream, I could at almost any time see schools of hippopotami tossing and tumbling on the flats or mud banks.

I was now ready to explore the country, and go to Aniambia, where the big king of the country lived. I bought a splendid canoe, made of large trees, which I hoped would be serviceable to me in my up-river explorations. I was now anxious to be off.

Before starting I called Ranpano and all his people together, and said that I had perfect confidence in them; that I was their white man, and had come to them through much difficulty and many dangers. (Cheers.) That Sangala's people wanted me, but I was determined to live with the honest folks of Biagano (Rapano's village). (Tremendous applause.) That I was going away for a few days, and hoped to find my goods all safe when I came back.

At this there were great shoutings of "You can go! Do not fear! We love you! You are our white man! We will take care of you!" and so on; amid which my sixteen men seized their paddles and shoved off.

At nine in the evening the moon rose, and we pulled along through what seemed a charming scene. The placid stream was shaded by the immense trees which overhung its banks, and the silence was broken now and then by the screech of some night-prowling beast, or, more frequently, by the sudden plunge of a playful herd of hippopotami, some of which came very dangerously near us, and might have upset our canoe.

Toward midnight my men became very tired, and we went ashore at a little village which was nearly deserted. We could find only three old women, who were fast asleep, and were not particularly anxious to make us welcome. I was too sleepy to stand upon ceremonies, and stowed myself away under a rough shed without walls. I had scarcely lain down when there came up suddenly one of those fierce tornadoes which pass over these countries in the rainy season. Fortunately, it was a dry tornado. In my half-sleepy state I did not care to move. As the tornado had unroofed every other shed as well as mine, nothing would have been gained by moving, even if it had rained.

The next morning we paid for our lodging, not in hard cash, but with some leaves of tobacco, and up the river we paddled until we reached a village called Igala Mandé, which is situated on the banks of the river. In a two-hours' walk through grass-fields we found numerous birds. One, in particular, was new to me, the Mycteria senegalensis. It had such long legs that it fairly out-walked me. I tried to catch it; but, though it would not take to its wings, it kept so far ahead that I did not even get a fair shot at it. This Mycteria senegalensis  is a beautiful bird, and wanders here through the grass of the prairie.

There were also great flocks of a beautiful bird, whose dark golden body-plumage, and long, snow-white downy neck make a very fine and marked contrast with the green grass. Next to these, in point of number, was the snow-white egretta, which is found in vast flocks all along this coast.

At last we came to Aniambia. Olenga-Yombi, the king, came in from his plantation when he heard the joyful news that a white man had arrived. I paid him a state visit. He was a drunken old wretch, surrounded by a crowd of the chief men of the town. His majesty had on a thick overcoat, but no trowsers; and, early as it was, he had already taken a goodly quantity of palm wine, and was quite drunk. I was invited to sit at his right hand.

King Olenga-Yombi was one of the ugliest fellows I ever met with. He always carried with him a long stick, and when drunk he struck at his people right and left, and shouted, "I am a big king!" Happily, they manage to keep out of his way.

At nightfall I got a guide, and went out to see if I could get a shot at something larger than a bird. We had gone but a little way when my guide pointed out to me a couple of bright glowing spots visible through a piece of thick brush. The fellow trembled as he whispered "Leopard!" But I saw at once that it was only the light of a couple of fireflies which had got in proper position to make a tolerable resemblance to the glowing eyes of the dreaded leopard.

I did not think much of the bravery of my guide. What a difference between him and Aboko, Niamkala, or Fasiko! I wished that I had them with me.

At two o'clock in the morning we at last heard a grunting, which announced the approach of a herd of wild hogs. I lay in wait for them, and was fortunate enough to kill the big boar of the pack. The rest of the herd made off without showing a desire for fight.

The next day King Olenga-Yombi held a grand dance in my honor. All the king's wives, to the number of forty, and all the women in the town and neighborhood, were present.

Fortunately, the dance was held out in the street, and not in a room, as at Cape Lopez. The women were ranged on one side, the men opposite. At the end of the line sat the drummers, beating their huge tom-toms, which make an infernal din, enough to make one deaf; and, as if for this occasion the tom-toms were not entirely adequate, there was a series of old brass kettles, which also were furiously beaten. In addition, as if the noise was not yet enough, a number of boys sat near the drummers, and beat on hollow pieces of wood. What beauty they found in such music I can not tell. There was, of course, singing and shouting; and the more loudly and energetically the horrid drums were beaten, and the worse the noise on the brass kettles, the wilder were the jumps of the male Africans, and the more disgusting the contortions of the women.

As may be imagined, to beat the tom-tom is not a labor of love; the stoutest negro is worn out in an hour, and for such a night's entertainment as this a series of drummers was required.

The people enjoyed it vastly; their only regret was that they had not a barrel of rum in the midst of the street with which to refresh themselves in the pauses of the dance; but they managed to get just as drunk on palm wine, of which a great quantity was served out.

The excitement became the greatest when the king danced. His majesty was pretty drunk, and his jumps were very highly applauded. His wives bowed down to his feet while he capered about, and showed toward him the deepest veneration. The drums and kettles were belabored more furiously than over, and the singing, or rather the shouting, became stentorian.

Of course I did not think his majesty's party pleasant enough to detain me all night. I retired, but could not sleep.

Now I think I have given you a sufficient account of a ball at Aniambia, and of how his majesty Olenga-Yombi danced.

There are two very curious fetich-houses in Aniambia, which enjoy the protection of two spirits of great power—Abambou and Mbiuri. The former is an evil spirit, a kind of devil; the latter, as far as I have been able to ascertain, is beneficent.

The little houses where these spirits sometimes condescended to come and sleep for the night were about six feet square. In the house of Abambou I saw a fire which I was told was never permitted to go out. I saw no idol, but only a large chest, on the top of which were some white and red chalk and some red parrot feathers. The chalk was used to mark the bodies of the devout.

Abambou is the devil of the Commi people. He is a wicked and mischievous fellow, who often lives near graves and burial-grounds, and is most comfortably lodged among the skeletons of the dead. He takes occasional walks through the country, and, if he gets angry at any one, he has the power to cause sickness and death. The Commi people cook food for him, which is deposited in lonely places in the woods, and there they address him in a flattering manner, and ask him to be good to them, and, in consideration of their gifts, and of the great care they take of him, to let them alone. I was present once at a meeting where Abambou was being addressed in public. They cried continually, "Now we are well! Now we are satisfied! Now be our friend, Abambou, and do not hurt us!"

The offerings of plantain, bananas, sugar-cane, ground-nuts, etc., etc., are wrapped in leaves by the freemen, but the slaves lay them on the bare ground. Sometimes Abambou is entreated to kill the enemies of him who is making the offering. A bed is made in Abambou's house, and there he is believed to rest himself sometimes when he is tired going up and down the coast in the forest.

Mbiuri, whose house I next visited, is lodged and kept much in the same way as his rival. He is a good spirit, but his powers are like those of Abambou, as far as I could make out. Not being wicked, he is less zealously worshiped.

These Commi people are full of superstition. They believe in a third and much-dreaded spirit called Ovengua. This is the terrible catcher and eater  of men. He is not worshiped, and has no power over disease; but he wanders unceasingly through the forests, and catches and destroys luckless travelers who cross his path. By day he lives in dark caverns, but at night he roams freely, and even sometimes gets into the body of a man, and beats and kills all who come out in the dark. Sometimes, they relate, such a spirit is met and resisted by a body of men, who wound him with spears, and even kill him. In this case the body must be burned, and not even the smallest bone left, lest a new Ovengua should arise from it. There are many places where no object in the world would induce a Commi negro to go by night, for fear of this dreadful monster.

They have a singular belief that when a person dies who has been bewitched, the bones of his body leave the grave one by one, and form in a single line united to each other, which line of bones gradually becomes an Ovengua.

It is not an easy matter to get at the religious notions of these people. They themselves have no well-defined ideas of them, and on many points they are not very communicative.

I suppose they think that sometimes the Ovengua is in a man; hence they kill him, and burn his body.

Of course the Commi people, like all other negroes, are firm believers in witchcraft.

Not very far from Aniambia there is a place in the forest which is supposed to be haunted by the spirit of a crazy woman, who, some hundreds of years ago, left her home. They believe that she cultivates her plantation in some hidden recess of the forest, and that she often lies in wait for travelers, whom she beats and kills out of pure malice.

While at Aniambia I had a great adventure with a bos brachicheros, which might have ended in a terrible way. I started out early one day to try and get a shot at some buffaloes which were said to be in the prairie at the back of the town. I had been an hour on the plains with Ifouta, a hunter, when we came upon a bull feeding in the midst of a little prairie surrounded by woods, which made an approach easy. I remember well how beautiful the animal looked. Ifouta walked round through the jungle opposite to where I lay in wait; for, if the animal should take fright at him, it might fly toward me. When he reached the right position, Ifouta began to crawl, in the hunter's fashion, through the grass toward his prey. All went well till he came near enough for a shot. Just then, unluckily, the bull saw him. Ifouta immediately fired. It was a long shot, and he only wounded the beast, which, quite infuriated, immediately rushed upon him. It was now that poor Ifouta lost his presence of mind. In such cases, which are continually happening to those who hunt the bos brachicheros, the proper course for the hunter is to remain perfectly quiet till the beast is within a jump of him, then to step nimbly to one side, and let him rush past. But Ifouta got up and ran.

The bull run faster than he, and in a moment had him on his horns. He tossed him high into the air, once, twice, thrice, before I could come up; for, as soon as I saw what had happened, I ran as fast as I could to the rescue, and my shouts drew the bull's fury upon myself. He left Ifouta, and came rushing at me, thinking that he would serve me as he had just served Ifouta. Master Bull was sadly mistaken. I took a good aim, and down came the bull, to rise no more.

Ifouta proved to be considerably bruised; but, on the whole, he was more scared than hurt. It was fortunate for him that the horns of these buffaloes slant backward a good deal, and are curved.