Balls and Beer-Houses
They all come to see me.—They say I have an evil eye.—Ashira villages.—Olenda gives a great ball in my honor.—Beer-houses.—Goats coming out of a mountain alive.
Several days have elapsed since my arrival at Olenda. From more than one hundred and fifty villages of the plain, the people streamed to Olenda's town to see "the spirit." They came in the night, slept on the ground outside the town, and in the morning crowded about me, wondering at my hair, at my clothes, at my shoes; declaring that my feet were like elephant's feet, for they did not see the toes; and they would try to get a glance at my eyes. The moment I looked at them they ran off screaming, and especially the women and children. The Africans had a great dread of my look. They believe in the evil eye, and often, when I would look steadily at them, my best friends, with a shudder, would beg me not to do it.
So I may say that since my arrival the time has been devoted to seeing and being seen. And I assure you it was no joke to hear that uproarious crowd and their wild shouts—to have always in my sight a crowd of people yelling at every movement I made.
I had a Yankee clock, which was an object of constant wonder to them. They thought that there was a kind of spirit inside that made the noise, and that watched over me. Its constant ticking, day and night, was noticed, and they had an idea that the noise could never stop. At night of course the sound is louder, and this frightened them, and not one dared to come close to my hut.
Every day Olenda beat his kendo; every day he came to get a look at me.
This Ashira prairie seemed to be shut in on all sides by mountains, which of course were covered with forest. Fancy the forest a sea of trees, and the Ashira Land an island. Pineapples grew in great abundance, and thousands and thousands of them were clustered close together, and formed otôbi (prairies) by themselves.
This plain is the finest and most delightful country I had thus far seen in the jungle. The undulations of the prairie, which is a kind of table-land surrounded on every side by high mountains, gave the landscape a charming variety. The surrounding mountains, the splendid peak of the Nkoomoo Nabouali on the north, said by the superstitious Ashiras to be inhabited by satyrs like men; the Andelè and Ofoubou-Orèrè to the south, and the Ococoo to the east, are all covered with dense masses of foliage. In those forests are living tribes of wild men and wilder beasts, roaming at pleasure.
I have arrived in a country where I could see grass, and see distinctly the moon, the stars, and the sun without first being obliged to cut the trees down. Oh, you have no idea how nice it is to see an open space after you have been shut up in the forest for years.
From Olenda's village I made excursions all over the Ashira country. The villages were so numerous I could not count them. There were from one hundred and fifty to two hundred of them. Some were quite small, others were quite large; and what beautiful villages they were, I had not seen such pretty ones before. The houses were small, but the neatest I had met in the jungle. They are built generally in one long street, houses on each side. The streets are kept clean; and this was the first tribe I met where the ground at the back of the houses was also cleared off. In most villages there was, in back of the houses, a street where great numbers of plantain-trees and some lime-trees, for they love lemons, were growing. The villages are surrounded by thousands of plantain-trees, and regular footpaths connected one village with another.
Ball after ball was given to me, and one evening Olenda gave me a very fine, big one. More than fifty drums beat, besides there were musicians armed with short sticks, with which they pounded with all their might on pieces of board. The singing was extraordinary, and the Ashira belles cut any amount of capers, one time raising their legs one way, then bending their bodies backward and forward, shaking their heads from one side to the other, kicking their heels together, the iron or brass bracelets or anklets adding to the harmony of the musical instruments I have described to you. The singing was as wild as can be imagined. Olenda's wives—for his majesty was blessed with several scores of them—danced with fury.
They danced all night, and the next morning there was a general stampede to the beer or cider-house. I must tell you that the Ashira are very fond of plantain wine.
I followed, for I wanted to see a beer-house and a general Ashira spree.
After walking for half an hour we came to a cluster of trees, in the centre of which we found a brewery. A few women had charge of the premises—the wives of some of the Ashira.
What a sight presented itself to my view! There hung all round hundreds of large bunches of plantain in different stages of ripening, from the dark green to the bright yellow, hanging from the limbs of trees. There were also some red-skin plantains.
It was a large building, under a single roof, supported by numerous wooden pillars, and on these hung a great many bunches of plantain. In the middle of the building there were scores of large jars, manufactured in the country, some of which would hold ten or fifteen gallons. From the necks of some of them a quantity of rich white froth was running out. The beer in others was just ripe, and ready for drinking. There were also many large mugs, looking more like dishes, however, for the plantain juice to be poured into.
Very soon the men seated themselves, either on the stools that belonged to them or on mats, and the drinking began. Mug after mug was swallowed by each man,. I think no German could drink the same amount of liquid. They became, after a while, jolly and boisterous; they began, in fact, to get tipsy.
Do not believe they were drinking at random. Each jug of wine belonged to several men, who had clubbed together; that is to say, each had given a certain amount of plantain to make the beer which the vessel contained.
The plantain with which the beer or wine is made is a kind of banana, much larger and coarser; and used, as you have seen, as food; but it must be cooked, the natives cooking it when it is green. When ripe, it is yellow like the banana.
The beer is made in the following manner: The plantain must be quite ripe; then it is cut in small pieces, which are put into the jar until it is half filled; then the jar is filled with water. After a few days it ferments; then the froth comes out, and the beer is ready for use.
The bunches of plantain, which were hanging by hundreds, had their owners, and had been brought from the plantations by their wives, and were ripening in the shade. As the plantations yield fruit all the year round, the beer is never lacking among the Ashiras.
After they were sufficiently excited, they began to talk of their wonderful warlike exploits, and I do believe it was who should lie the most. The greater the lie, the louder the applause.
I tasted the plantain beer, and found it somewhat sour; I did not like it at all.
I spent the day in the beer-house, and, when we returned to the village, the men insisted on having another dance, and they kept hard at work at it all night, and went all to sleep the next morning. I was glad when every thing was over, for my head began to ache.
I determined to visit the mountains from which the River Ofoubou takes its name. King Olenda was to take charge of my luggage, and I took only a few presents for the Ashira chiefs I was to see, and who had come to see and invite me to visit their towns in the mountains.
One of Olenda's sons was chief of our party, and Adouma, Quengueza's nephew, led with him. We did not start before old King Olenda had told all his people to take great care of the "spirit."
We left the village in the midst of the wildest shouts, and then wended our way through the beautiful green grass. Within a mile and a half south from Olenda we came to the foot of Mount Nchondo, one of the highest points of the prairie. There we all stopped; why, I could not guess.
When one of the Ashiras said to me, pointing to the mountain, "You see that mountain, Moguizi?" "Yes," said I. "From that part of the mountain," continued Oyagui, Olenda's great-grandson, in the most serious manner, "goats come out. That is a great mountain; a spirit lives there. Sometimes, when our people want a goat, they will go there, and a goat will come to them." I said, "That can not be." "Yes," insisted Oyagui, "I know plenty of people who get goats there."
Then we passed by numerous villages, skirting most of the hills at their base, and crowds of people every where cried out," The moguizi is coming! the moguizi is coming!"
All these villages were surrounded by groves of plantain and banana trees.
After a journey of about ten miles, we came, at the foot of the cloud-capped Mount Andelè, to the village of Mouendi, whose chief, Mandji, came forth with great joy to meet me, for he was a great friend of Adouma. He sang, as he came forward with his people, "It is good that the moguizi comes to see our town."
To the rear of the village, on the slope of the mountain, the forest had been cleared, and the space occupied by plantations, where tobacco, peanuts, plantains, yams, and sugar-cane were grown to an extent which makes this a land of plenty where no man starves. Bushes of wild cotton were seen now and then, but not in great numbers.
I was glad that I had reached a country where I should not readily starve—plantains and goats were plentiful. As I stood and cast my eyes over the scene, the yellow waving grass, with now and then a dark green patch in low land between the hills, where water stood, and the cane-fields contrasting with the dark green of the forest, reminded me of rural scenes at home; but I looked in vain for cattle; none were to be seen.
I had a great time at Monendi; Mandji, its chief, was very kind to me. I had more goats and plantains given to me than my men and myself could eat. The Goumbi people were in great glee; that was just the country for them, and, I may now say it, it was just the country for me also. I was in clover, I thought.