Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

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coming out of mourning



News came that Oshoria, the chief of Guabuirri, a village situated at the junction of the Ogobai and Anengue Rivers, intended to stop me on my way back to Washington. It was reported that he had assembled all his fighting men, and was bent upon war.

Poor Damagondai was much troubled. He wanted no war. He sent his brother down with a plate, a mug, and a brass pan, to propitiate Oshoria. These were great presents. A plate, a mug, and a pan are thought to be very valuable in the regions of the Anengue.

I was very angry. I had done no harm to the people of Guabuirri. I had passed their village in peace. Oshoria wanted to exact tribute for my passage; but he was not the king of the country, and I determined to put down Mr. Oshoria.

We cleaned our guns, and I prepared my revolvers, and the next morning we set out, without waiting for the return of the king's brother, greatly to the dismay of Damagondai and of his peaceful people. But nothing must stop us. We must return to Washington. My men swore that they would fight to the death.

When we came in sight of Guabuirri, I saw that some of my fellows, who a short time before were going to be so brave, began to show the white feather. I therefore pointed to my revolver, and told them that I would blow out the brains of the first man who failed to fight to the last. They had a great respect for this wonderful revolver, and they immediately answered, "We are men."

So we pulled down the stream and soon came almost opposite Oshoria's people. I gave orders to make for the town. On the shore stood about one hundred and fifty fellows armed with spears and axes, and led by ten men who had guns. All of them were making a great noise.

My men were all well armed, and, if I remember well, there were only sixteen of us. I had my revolver in one hand, and a double-barreled gun in the other. The men all had guns, which were placed beside them in such a way that the natives on shore could see them. At this piece of bravado Oshoria's men became very civil. They retreated as we approached the landing; and instead of continuing their war shouts and firing at us, they received us peaceably, and shouted to us not to fire.

Damagondai's brother hurried down to meet me, and announced that there was no palaver: I must not kill any body. I was then led to where the quarrelsome Oshoria stood. Looking at him with a stern look, I reproached him for his conduct, telling him that if any body had been killed, the palaver would have been on his own head. He said he had been vexed that I did not stop to see him on my way up; and, after making farther excuses, added, "Aoue olomé," "thou art a man;" an expression used in several ways, either to designate a smart man or a rascal, or, in the best sense, a very brave man. I was content to accept it as an intended compliment.

I was presented with fruits and fowls, and we were presently the best of friends. To show them what I could do in the way of shooting, I brought down a little bird which sat on a very high tree. They all declared that I must have a very big shooting fetich; and they reverenced me greatly.

The next morning I left Oshoria, and once more I glided down the placid waters of the Ogobai. I reached Washington in safety.

It was in the month of August, and the malaria of the Anengue marshes began to tell on me. I fell sick with dysentery, and symptoms of malignant fever. In three days I took one hundred and eighty grains of quinine, and thus happily succeeded in breaking the force of the fever, which was the most dangerous of the two diseases. I was ill from the 18th to the 31st of August, and I did not regain my strength till the 9th of September. The Commi waited patiently for my recovery before they would go through some of their ceremonies.

Them was to be a mbola ivoga  at Biagano, that is, an end of the mourning time, to be celebrated with ceremonies and a terrible noise.

When any one of importance dies, the clan, or town, or the relatives, cease to wear their best clothes, and make it a point to go unusually dirty. No ornaments whatever, such as earrings, or bracelets, or beads, are worn. This is the way they "mourn." Mourning lasts generally from a year to two years. The ceremonies at the breaking up of this mourning are what I am now about to describe.

The man who had died left seven wives, a house, a plantation, several slaves, and other property. All this the elder brother inherited; and on him, as the heir, it devolved to give the grand feast. For this feast every canoe that came brought jars of mimbo, or palm wine. Sholomba and Jombouai, the heir, with his people, had been out for two weeks fishing, and now returned with several canoe-loads of dry fish. From his plantation a large supply of palm wine was brought in. The women and slaves had prepared a great quantity of food. Every thing needful was provided in great abundance.

In the village the people all got ready their best clothes and furbished up their ornaments. Drums and kettles were collected for music, powder was brought out for the salutes; and at last all was ready for the mbola ivoga.

The seven wives of the deceased seemed quite jolly, for to-morrow they were to lay aside their widows' robes, and to join in the jollification as brides. The heir could have married them all; but he had generously given up two to a younger brother, and one to a cousin. He had already sixteen wives, and might well be content with only four more. Twenty wives is a pretty good number.

No wonder the widows were glad to see the time of mourning over. For two whole years they had been almost imprisoned in their husband's house, hardly ever going out.

At seven o'clock three guns were fired off to announce that the widows had done eating a certain mess, mixed of various ingredients, supposed to have magical virtues, and by which they are released from their widowhood. This was the first part of the ceremony. They then put on bracelets and anklets, and the finest calico they had. Some of the Commi women wear brass anklets on each leg almost as high as the knee, as you see represented in the picture. The weight must be between twenty and thirty pounds on each leg. Besides these anklets, they wear a few bracelets of the same material. On their necks they wear beads.

From early morning the guests had been coming, all bringing provisions and mimbo (palm wine) with them, and dressed in their best clothes. There were several hundreds in all. The guests that lived far away had come the day before. About nine o'clock all the guests sat down on mats, spread about outside of the house of the deceased, and along the main street They were divided into little groups, and before each was set an immense jar of mimbo, and food was spread before them. All began to talk pleasantly, till suddenly the Biagano people fired off a volley of about one hundred guns. This was the signal for the drinking and eating to begin. Men, women, and children set to, and ate as much as they could, and from this time till the next morning the orgies were continued without interruption. They drank, they sang, they shouted, they fired guns, and loaded them so heavily when they got tipsy that I wonder the old trade-guns did not burst. They drummed on every thing that could possibly give out a noise. The women danced—such dances as are not seen elsewhere. You may imagine what they were when every woman was so furiously tipsy.

This mbola ivoga would have lasted probably for several days, but the victuals and palm wine finally gave out.

Next day, about sunrise, Jombouai came and asked me to assist at the concluding ceremony, for I had told him that I wanted to see every scene of the mbola ivoga. His brother's house, according to the custom, was to be torn down and burned—yes, burned to the ground, so that not a vestige of it would remain to remind the people that once there stood a house whose possessor was dead.

The people came around the house and fired guns; then, in a moment, as if they were an infuriated mob, they hacked the old house to pieces with axes and cutlasses; then they set fire to it. When the ruins were burnt, the feast was done.

This is the way they go out of mourning among the Commi. The widows were all married again, and, until another death should occur, every thing would go smoothly again.

Hardly were the rejoicings over when Ishungui, the man who had faithfully taken care of my house in my absence, lay at death's door. He had gone out on Jombouai's fishing excursion in order to catch fish for the mbola ivoga which I have just described. He caught cold, and had now a lung fever. The people called for me. I knew as soon as I saw him that he must die, and I tried to prepare his mind for the change. But his friends and relatives by no means gave him up. They sent for a distinguished fetich doctor, and under his auspices they began the infernal din with which they seek to cure a dying man. I am afraid the cure is worse than the disease.

One of the Commi people's theories of disease is that Obambou (the devil) has got into the sick man, and as long as the devil remains in the body there is no hope of curing the man. Now this devil is only to be driven out by noise, and, accordingly, a great crowd surround the sick man, and beat drums and kettles close to his head, fire off guns close to his ears, and in every part of the house they sing, shout, dance, and make all the noise they can. This lasts till the poor fellow either dies or is better; but I must say that he generally dies, unless the operators get tired out first.

Ishungui died. He left no property, and his brother buried him in the sand, without a coffin, in a grave so shallow (as is the custom) that, when I came upon it some days after, I saw that the wild beasts had been there and eaten the corpse.

The mourning was short in this case; it lasted only six days. There were no wives or property; there was no feast. The relatives of the deceased slept one night in his house as a mark of respect.

Among the Commi, it is the custom, when a man has died, to keep the nchougou. The nchougou is a feast that takes place generally, if not always, after the man has been dead six days. There is drinking, eating, and dancing; but the rejoicing is not so uproarious as the ceremony of the mbola ivoga. Then the mourning begins. I think you will agree with me that the nchougou is a most extraordinary custom.

After Ishungui had died, it became necessary to discover the persons who had bewitched the dead man; for the Commi said, "How is it that a young man, generally healthy, should die so suddenly?" This they did not believe to be natural; hence they attributed his death to sorcerers, and were afraid that the sorcerers would kill other people.

A canoe had been dispatched up to Lake Anengue to bring down a great doctor. They brought down one of Damagondai's sons, a great rascal. He had been foremost in selling me the idol, or mbuiti, of the slaves, of which I spoke to you, and he was an evident cheat.

When all was ready for the trial, I went down to look at the doctor, who looked really diabolical. I never saw a more ugly-looking object.

He had on a high head-dress of black feathers. His eyelids were painted red, and a red stripe, from the nose upward, divided his forehead into two parts; another stripe passed around his head. The face was painted white, and on each side of the mouth were two round red spots. About his neck hung a necklace of grass, and also a cord, which held a box against his breast. This little box is sacred, and contains spirits. A number of strips of leopard's skin, and of skin of other animals, crossed his breast, and were exposed about his person; and all these were charmed, and had charms attached to them. From each shoulder down to his hands was a white stripe, and one hand was painted quite white. To complete this horrible array, he wore around his body a string of little bells.

He sat on a box. Before him stood another box containing charms. On this stood a looking-glass, before which lay a buffalo horn. In this horn there was some black powder, and it was said to be the refuge of many spirits. The doctor had also a little basket of snake-bones, which he shook frequently during his incantations, and several skins, to which little bells were attached. Near by stood a fellow beating a board with two sticks.

All the people of the village gathered about this couple. The doctor had, no doubt, impressed the people with his great power. His incantations were continued for a long time, and at last came to the climax. Jombouai was told to call over the names of persons in the village, in order that the doctor might ascertain if any of those named were sorcerers. As each name was called, the old cheat looked in the looking-glass to see the result.

During the whole operation I stood near him, which seemed to trouble him greatly. At last, after all the names were called, the doctor declared that he could not find any "witch-man," but that an evil spirit dwelt in the village, and many of the people would die if it continued there. I have a suspicion that this final judgment with which the incantations broke up was a piece of revenge upon me. I had no idea until the next day how seriously the word of one of these ougangas  (doctors) is taken.

The next morning all was excitement. The people were scared. They said their mbuiti was not willing to have them live longer here; that he would kill them, etc. Then began the removal of all kinds of property, and the tearing down of houses, and by nightfall I was actually left alone in my house with a Mpongwe boy and my little Ogobai boy Macondai, both of whom were anxious to be off.

Old Ranpano came to beg me not to be offended; he said that he dared not stay; that the mbuiti was now in town. He advised me, as a friend, to move also; but nobody wished me ill, only he must go, and would build his house not far off.

I did not like to abandon my house and settlement at Washington, which it had cost me a good deal of trouble to build. I called a meeting of the people, and it was with the greatest difficulty that I could get some of my own canoe-boys and a few men to come and stay at my place. These began immediately to build themselves houses, and a little village was built, of which I was now, to my great surprise, offered the sovereignty. I remembered how the new king was made in the Gaboon, and I did not know but that the Commi had the same custom. The thought of the ceremony which precedes the assumption of royalty deterred me. Finally, the men determined to have me as their chief, next to Ranpano; and with this my ambition was satisfied.