Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Paul du Chaillu

Courtship and Marriage in Africa

Njali-coudiť.—An African town.—The chief.—Courtship and marriage in Africa.—Buying a wife.—Quarrel over the spoils.

Now, after many wanderings, I find myself in the very large village of Bakalai called Njali-Coudiť. Often I wonder that I have not been murdered by these Bakalai, for they are very treacherous, and life seems to them to be of no value.

The village of Njali-Coudiť is situated in the very hilly country between the Ofoubou and Ovenga Rivers. It was one of the largest Bakalai villages I had ever seen. The people were wild; their houses were small, very small indeed, and built with the bark of trees. It was surrounded by large plantain groves, and clusters of sugar-cane.

The name of the chief of that strange village was Mbango, and a fine savage he was. His hair and his beard were white. Round his waist was a piece of grass-cloth; by his side hung a tremendous war-knife; and on each of his ankles he wore two tremendous iron rings. Round his neck he wore some monda  fetich, which he thought could protect him from evil spirits and from being bewitched. Round him hung some charmed powder, preserved in the skin of a wild animal. Around his chest he wore a strip of leopard's skin, which his people believed could never be pierced by spears or arrows. So we might say that King Mbango thought himself invulnerable.

The people of the village were a hard set of quarrelsome-looking fellows. The women were not beautiful, indeed they were very ugly; and even King Mbango's head-wife was far from being a belle. She was a tall woman; her teeth were filed to a point; her hair was anointed profusely with palm-oil; her face was all tattooed; and on each side of her cheek, a little below the eye, there were two round spots of flesh of the size of a quarter of a dollar. They had succeeded in raising the flesh, and it must have required a good deal of skill. On her chest any amount of fantastical tattooing could be seen; even her back was not free from this ornamentation. Such is the faithful picture of Mbango's head-wife, whose name I have forgotten. She wore several brass anklets, and also several bracelets. King Mbango had a score of wives besides her, but she was the first woman he had married; hence she was the Queen—the foremost of them all. When Mbango married a new wife, she gave her advice and told her how she must love Mbango, how she must obey him, how laboriously she must cultivate the soil in order to bring food to her husband, and how she must often fish in order to feed her lord well. If she does all this, the king will say, "This wife really loves me." But if she does not, beware! If she is lazy, the lash of whips made from the hide of the hippopotamus, or of the manatee, will remind her of her duties, and of the love she owes to her husband.

Do not think for a moment that women in that far-off country of which I speak to you choose their husbands. Nothing of the sort! When a girl is born among the Bakalai, while she is still a child she is often betrothed, and now and then she goes to the village where her future husband lives. Her mother or her father will take her there, and after a while she comes back to her home, and this continues until she is finally given away. As she grows older she visits her intended husband less frequently, while he, on the other hand, comes oftener to the village of her parents.

You will ask me how they get betrothed or engaged. No ring is given. The man who comes to ask the girl comes first to talk the matter over. He brings a few presents, say a goat or a few fowls, and a few jars of palm wine, and places them at the feet of the girl's father. Then he begins a long rigmarole, and if he could he would go as far back as Adam. At first he speaks at random, talking to somebody else all the time, for they never speak directly to the person they address. Thus he goes on for a couple of hours before he comes to the point. In the mean time the presents are still lying before the father. The whole people of the village are there listening, and approving or disapproving by grunts. The man gets tremendously excited, and begins to halloo until he is covered with perspiration. After he has finished there is a pause. Somebody else gets up, and pleads sometimes for the suitor, and sometimes in behalf of the villagers or relatives to whom the girl belongs.

At last the father gets up, and he tries to play a shrewd game. He never means what he says; he talks not to the suitor but to one that has come with him, for it is the fashion here, as I have said, never to speak directly to the person whom you wish to address. He seems astonished that a man is bold enough to ask his beautiful daughter in marriage. He sings her praises, generally pockets the presents, and says he will think about it.

After this palaver the relations on the mother's and the father's side are presented with the amount for which the girl is sold; and when the final agreement has been made, the spoils are divided among the two families.

This is the way girls are given in marriage in this part of the world.

Mbango had a beautiful girl, whom he seemed to love dearly, and she was not betrothed. One day a fellow came from a neighboring village. He had with him a slave to give to Mbango, several jars of palm wine, a goat, some native tobacco coming from a country of the interior, called Ashira, and he put all these things at the feet of Mbango, who was seated on a stool and ready to hear him. After having talked a long time, he presented his slave, his goat, and all the presents he had brought with him to the King, and asked his daughter in marriage.

Old Mbango got up and pretended to be in a furious rage, but it was all sham; he kicked and broke the jars of palm wine. How could a man come and presume to offer him only one slave for his daughter, she who was sought after by so many suitors? He could not believe his ears; and Mbango went roaming about, brandishing his cane. In the mean time the poor fellow had fled in dismay, leaving his slave, his goat, and all his presents behind.

Mbango's pretended anger was a humbug. He wanted more presents, and appeared highly indignant. So the next day the suitor came back, and brought with him another slave he had kept in reserve, guessing that King Mbango would not be satisfied with one. He knew well that it required more than one in order to marry the daughter of a chief, and he wanted to get his bride as cheap as he could. Mbango looked very stern. How had he dared to come with one slave only? Did he think his daughter was good for nothing?

Mbango was far more gentle. He took the other slave, and then said that one more would settle the bargain—then he could take his bride with him.

The next day another slave came; the man swore that his uncle gave the man to him, though I learned afterward that he had that third slave ready, but that he thought that two slaves would do. The share of Mbango for his daughter was two slaves, and that of the relatives of the mother of the girl was one slave; and Mbango, wishing to appear generous, gave them the goat. The relatives on the mother's side of the girl tried to get two slaves out of the three; it was a hard palaver, and lasted several days, but Mbango was inexorable—he must have two slaves for his share.

There was no ceremony. The man took his bride with him, and after a few days she was to return to her father.