Gateway to the Classics: The Country of the Dwarfs by Paul du Chaillu
The Country of the Dwarfs by  Paul du Chaillu

Making Friends with the Dwarfs

Making friends with the dwarfs.—A surprise visit.—A gorgeous feast.—Ridiculous show of babies.—The dwarf language.—A dwarf dance.—The old fable of the cranes and the pigmies.

After several visits to the settlement of the Dwarfs we became friends, but it took time. My great friend among them was Misounda, an old woman, the first one I had seen, and whom I pulled out of her own house; but I had some trouble before I could tame friend Misounda.

One day I thought I would surprise the Dwarfs, and come on them unawares, without having told my friend Misounda I was coming. When I made my appearance I just caught a glimpse of her feet as she was running into her house. That was all I saw of Misounda. At all the other huts little branches of trees had been stuck up in front to show that the inmates were out, and that their doors were shut, and that nobody could get in. These were, indeed, queer doors. I had never seen the like. They were of little use except for keeping out the dogs and wild beasts. When I went in Misounda's hut and got hold of her, she pretended to have been asleep. "So, after all, these little Dwarfs," said I, "know how to lie and how to deceive just as well as other people."

Upon one of my visits to the village I saw two other women, a man and two children; all the other Obongos had gone. So I made friends with them by giving them meat and beads. I saw that the women were not the mothers of the children. I looked at the doors of all the huts; they all had branches put at the entrance to signify that the owner was out. I do not know why, but I begun to suspect that the mother of the children was in the settlement, and close by where they stood. I had my eyes upon one of the little houses as the one where she was hiding; so I put aside the branches at the entrance, and, putting half of my body into the hut, I succeeded in discovering in the dark something which I recognized after a while as a human being.

"Don't be afraid," I said. "Don't be afraid," repeated my Ashango guides. The creature was a woman. She came out with a sad countenance, and began to weep. She had over her forehead a broad stripe of yellow ochre. She was a widow, and had buried her husband only a few days before.

"Where is the burial-ground of the Dwarfs?" I asked of my Ashango guides. "Ask her," said I to them.

"No, Spirit," said they, "for if you ask them such a question, these Dwarfs will fear you more than ever, and you will never see them any more. They will flee far away into the thickest part of the forest. We Ashango people do not know even where they bury their dead. They have no regular burial-ground. How could they?" added my guide, "for they roam in the forest like the gorilla, the nshiego-mbouvÚ, the kooloo-kamba, and the nshiego. I believe," said the Ashango, "that all these Dwarfs have come from the same father and the same mother long, long ago."

Another time I came to the village of the Obongos with two legs of goats, a leg of wild boar, ten house-rats which had been trapped, a large dead snake, and two land turtles, which I intended to give as a feast to the Obongos. Rebouka, Macondai, and Igalo were with me, and several Ashango women accompanied us. We had several bunches of plantain, for I had resolved to give them a regular banquet, and we had set out to have a good time in their settlement. I had brought beads, a looking-glass, some spoons, knives, forks, and one of my little Geneva musical boxes. Guns were also to be fired, for I was going to show the Dwarfs what the Oguizi could do. When they saw us with food they received us with great joy. "What a queer language," I thought, "these Dwarfs have!" There was a wild Dwarf hurra, "Ya! ye! Yo! Oua! oua!  KÚ! ki-ke-ki!" when they saw the good things that were to be eaten.

Nearly all the Dwarfs were here; very few of them were absent. Misounda, who was my friend, and who seemed to be less afraid of me than any body else, stood by me, and kept her eyes upon the meat. There were fifty-nine Dwarfs all told, including men, women, children, and babies. What little things the babies were! Smoke came out of every hut, fires were lighted all round, nuts were roasting, berries and fruits had been collected in great abundance, and snake-flesh was plentiful, for the Dwarfs had been the day before on a feeding excursion. Rats and mice had also been trapped.

"Obongos," said I, "we have come to have a good time. First I am going to give to every one of you beads." Then the Ashangos brought before them a basket containing the beads, and I asked who was the chief. I could not find him, and they would not tell me. Among them were several old people.

The Dwarfs were now eager for beads, and surrounded me, and, though I am a man of short stature, I seemed a giant in the midst of them; and as for Rebouka and Igalo, they appeared to be colossal. "Ya! ya! yo!; yo! ye! qui! quo! oh! ah! ri! ri! kÚ! ki! kÚ! ki!" seemed to be the only sounds they could make in their excitement. Their appearance was singular indeed, the larger number of them being of a dirty yellow color. A few of them were not more than four feet in height, others were from four feet two inches to four feet seven inches in height. But if they were short in size they were stoutly built; like chimpanzees, they had big, broad chests, and, though their legs were small, they were muscular and strong. Their arms were also strong in proportions to their size. There were gray-headed men, and gray-headed, wrinkled old women among them, and very hideous the old Dwarfs were. Their features resembled very, closely the features of a young chimpanzee. Some had gray, others hazel eyes, while the eyes of a few were black.

As I have said before, their hair was not like that of the negroes and Ashangos among whom the Dwarfs live, but grew in little short tufts apart from each other, and the hair, after attaining a certain length, could not grow longer. These little tufts looked like so many little balls of wool. Many of the men had their chest and legs covered with these little tufts of woolly hair. The women's hair was no longer than that of the men, and it grew exactly in the same manner.

I could not keep my eyes from the tiny babies. They were ridiculously small, and much lighter in color than the older people. Their mothers had a broad string of leather hanging from their shoulders to carry them in.

There was great excitement among them as I distributed the beads, and they would shout, "Look at his djivie (nose); look at his mouna (mouth); look at his diarou (head); look at his nchouiÚ (hair); look at his mishou (beard)!" and, in spite of my big mustache, they would shout, "Is he a bagala oguizi (man spirit), or an oguizi mokasho (woman spirit)?" Some declared that I was a mokasho, others that I was a bagala. I did not forget my friend Misounda.

After I had given them beads I took out a large looking-glass which I had hidden, and put it in front of them. Immediately they trembled with fright, and said, "Spirit, don't kill us!" and turned their heads from the looking-glass. Then the musical box was shown, and when I had set it playing the Dwarfs lay down on the ground, frightened by the brilliant, sparkling music of the mechanism, and by turns looked at me and at the box. Some of them ran away into their little huts. After their fears were allayed I showed them a string of six little bells, which I shook, whereat their little eyes brightened, their joy was unbounded when I gave them the bells. One, of course, was for friend Misounda, who hung it by a cord to her waist, and shook her body in order to make it ring.

After this I ordered Igalo to bring me the meat, a taking from my sheath my big, bright, sharp hunting knife, I cut it and distributed it among the Dwarfs. Then I gave them the plantains, and told them to eat. I wish you had seen the twisting of their mouths; it would have made you laugh. Immediately the little Dwarfs scattered round their fires, and roasted the food I had given them, and it was no sooner cooked than it was eaten, they seemed to be so fond of flesh.

When they had finished eating the Obongos seemed more sociable than I had ever seen them before. I seated myself on a dead limb of a tree, and they came round me and asked me to talk to them as the spirits talk. So I took my journal, and read to them in English what I had written the day before. After speaking to them in the language of the Oguizis, I said, "Now talk to me in the language of the Dwarfs;" and, pointing to my fingers, I gave them to understand that I wanted to know how they counted. So a Dwarf, taking hold of his hand, and then one finger after another, counted one, mo´; two, be´; three, metato; four, djimabongo; five, djio; six, samouna; seven, nchima; eight, misamouno; nine, nchouma; ten, mb˛-ta; and then raised his hands, intimating that he could not count beyond ten.

One, of them asked me if I lived in the soungui (moon), then another if I lived in a niechi (star), another if I had been long in the forest. Did I make the fine things I gave them during the night?

"Now, Obongos," I said to them, "I want you to sing and to dance the Dwarf dance for me." An old Dwarf went out, and took out of his hut a ngoma (tam-tam), and began to beat it; then the people struck up a chant, and what queer singing it was! what shrill voices they had! After a while they got excited, and began to dance, all the while gesticulating wildly, leaping up, and kicking backwards and forwards, and shaking their heads.

Then I fired two guns, the noise of which seemed to stun them and fill them with fear. I gave them to understand that when I saw an elephant, a leopard, a gorilla, or any living thing, by making that noise I could kill them, and to show them I could do it I brought down a bird perched on a high tree near their settlement. How astonished they seemed to be!

"After all," I said to myself, "though low in the scale of intelligence, like their more civilized fellow-men, these little creatures can dance and sing."

"Now, Obongos, that you have asked me about the Oguizis," I said to them, "tell me about yourselves. Why do you not build villages as other people do?"

"Oh," said they, "we do not build villages, for we never like to remain long in the same place, for if we did we should soon starve. When we have gathered all the fruits, nuts, and berries around the place where we have been living for a time, and trapped all the game there is in the region, and food is becoming scarce, we move off to some other part of the forest. We love to move; we hate to tarry long at the same spot. We love to be free, like the antelopes and gazelles."

"Why don't you plant for food, as other people do?" I asked them.

"Why should we work," said they, "when there are plenty of fruits, berries, and nuts around us? when there is game in the woods, and fish in the rivers, and snakes, rats, and mice are plentiful? We love the berries, the nuts, and the fruits which grow wild much better than the fruits the big people  raise on their plantations. And if we had villages," they said, "the strong and tall people who live in the country might come and make war upon us, kill us, and capture us."

"They do not desire to kill you," I said to them. "See how friendly they are with you! When you trap much game you exchange it for plantains with them. Why don't you wear clothing?"

"Why," said they, "the fire is our means of keeping warm, and then the big people  give us their grass-cloth when they have done wearing it."

"Why don't you work iron, and make spears and battle-axes, so that you might be able to defend yourselves, and be not afraid of war?"

"We do not know how to work iron; it takes too much time; it is too hard work. We can make bows, and we make arrows with hard wood, and can poison them. We know how to make traps to trap game, and we trap game in far greater number than we can kill it when we go hunting; and we love to go hunting."

"Why don't you make bigger cabins?"

"We do not want to make bigger cabins; it would be too much trouble, and we do not know how. These are good enough for us; they keep the rain from us, and we build them so rapidly."

"Don't the leopards sometimes come and eat some of you?"

"Yes, they do!" they exclaimed. "Then we move off far away, several days' journey from where the leopards have come to eat some of us; and often we make traps to catch them. We hate the leopards!" the Obongos shouted with one voice.

"How do you make your fires? tell me;" and I could not help thinking that, however wild a man was, even though he might be apparently little above the chimpanzee, he had always a fire, and knew how to make it.

They showed me flint-stones, and a species of oakum coming from the palm-tree, and said they knocked the stones against each other, and the sparks gave them fire.

Then, to astonish them, I took a match from my match box and lighted it. As soon as they saw the flame a wild, shout rang through the settlement.

"Obongos, tell me," said I, "how you get your wives, for your settlements are far apart, and you have no paths' leading through the forest from one to another. Yon never know how far the next settlement of the Dwarf may be from yours."

"It is true," said they, "that sometimes we do not know where the next encampment of the Obongos may be, and we do not wish to know, for sometimes we fight among ourselves, and if we lived near together we should become too numerous, and find it difficult to procure berries and game. Our people never leave one settlement for another. Generation after generation we have lived among ourselves, and married among ourselves. It is but seldom we permit a stranger from another Obongo settlement to come among us."

"How far," said I, pointing to the east, "do you meet Obongos?"

"Far, far away," they answered, "toward where the sun rises, Obongos are found scattered in the great forest. We love the woods, for there we live, and if we were to live any where else we should starve."

"As you wander through the forest," I asked," don't you sometimes come to prairies?"

"Yes," said they, and here an old Obongo addressed himself to my Ashango interpreter. "When I was a boy we had our settlement for a long time in the forest not far from a big prairie, and farther off there was a big river. Since then," said the old Obongo, "as we moved we have turned our backs upon where the sun rises, and marched in the direction where the sun sets" (which meant that they had been migrating from the east toward the west).

"Did you not see," said I, continuing my questions, "birds with long legs and long beaks in those prairies?"

"Yes," said all the Obongos; "sometimes we kill them, for we love their flesh."

I could not but remember the description Homer gave of the cranes and the Pigmies, and I here give it to you in the translation of a man of whom every American should be proud as one of the greatest poets of the age. Mr. William Cullen Bryant's translation reads as follows:

"As when the cry

Of cranes is in the air, that, flying south

From winter and its mighty breadth of rain,

Wing their way over ocean, and at dawn

Bring fearful battle to the Pigmy race,

Bloodshed and death."—Iliad, iii., 3-8.

Of course our friend Homer, the grand old bard that will never die, did not see the Dwarfs, and only related what he had heard of them, and, like every thing that is transmitted from mouth to mouth, and from country to country, the story has become very much exaggerated.

Beyond a doubt, at certain seasons of every year the cranes left the country of which Homer spoke, for cranes are migratory, and their migration was toward the Nile; thence they winged their flight toward the Upper Nile, and spread all over the interior of Africa; and, as they came to the country of the Dwarfs, the Dwarfs came out to kill them, instead of their coming to kill the Dwarfs. The dwarfs of Homer's time killed them for food, as they still kill them in Equatorial Africa in certain seasons of the year.

I am now going to tell you what I wrote about the big cranes before I had even heard of the Country of the Dwarfs, or that such people as the Obongos ever existed;

"This account of Homer has been thought fabulous for 'How,' it has been asked, 'could cranes attack a race of men? '

"Where were these pigmies to exist? I will try to show that Homer had some reason to say what he wrote. In the first book which I published (called Exploration in Equatorial Africa) I did not mention what Homer had written. I had heard of the Dwarfs, but I dismissed account given to me by the Apingi as fabulous. In chap. xiv., p. 260, I say:

"The dry season was now setting in in earnest, and I devoted the whole month of July to exploring the country along the sea-shore. It is curious that most of the birds which were so abundant during the rainy season had by this time taken their leave, and other birds in immense numbers flocked in to feed on the fish, which now leave the sea-shore and bars of the river mouth, and ascend the river to spawn.'

"In the four paragraphs in advance on the same page I said, 'Birds flocked in immense numbers on the prairies, whither they came to hatch their young.

"'The ugly marabouts, from whose tails our ladies get the splendid feathers for their bonnets, were there in thousands. Pelicans waded on the river's banks all day in prodigious swarms, gulping down the luckless fish which came in their way.'

"In the next paragraph, page 261, I continue:

"And on the sandy point one morning I found great flocks of the Ibis religiosa  (the sacred Ibis of the Egyptians), which had arrived overnight, whence I could not tell.

"'Ducks of various kinds built their nests in every creek and every new islet that appeared with the receding waters. I used to hunt those until I got tired of duck-meat, fine as it is. Cranes, too, and numerous other water-fowl, flocked in every day, of different species. All came, by some strange instinct, to feed upon the vast shoals of fish which literally filled the river.

"'On the sea-shore I sometimes caught a bird, the Sula capensis, which had been driven ashore by the treacherous waves to which it had trusted itself, and could not, for some mysterious reason, get away again.

"And, finally, every sand-bar is covered with gulls, whose shrill screams are heard from morning till night as they fly about greedily after their finny prey.'

"I terminated the description by saying, ' It is a splendid time now for sportsmen, and I thought of some of my New York friends who would have enjoyed the great plenty of game that was now here.'

"In chap. xiii. of the same book, p.199, I wrote:

"'From IgalÚ to AniambiÚ was two hours' walk, through grass-fields, in which we found numerous birds, some of them new to me. One in particular, the Mycteria Senegalensis, had such legs that it fairly outwalked me. I tried to catch it, but, though it would not take to the wing, it kept so far ahead that I could not even get a fair shot at it.

"'These Mycteria Senegalenses, are among the largest of cranes. They have a long neck, and a very powerful beak, from eight to ten inches in length, and I killed several of them, which I brought back. I had grand shooting with them, and many a time I gave up the chase; but when I killed one I took good care to see that the bird could not hurt me and was quite dead before I approached it.'

"Hence I conclude that the description of Homer is correct as regards the great number of cranes, and that he was right, for you see that they came in the dry season, and when the rains came they disappeared from the country.

"The dwarfish race of whom I speak are great hunters, and is it not probable that during the dry season, when the cranes came, there was rejoicing in the Pigmean race? for there would be food and meat for them; and they would fight also with the large crane, the Mycteria Senegalensis, which probably they could not kill at once, and hence it required on the part of the Dwarfs great dexterity to capture them. For myself, I was always careful in approaching the Mycteria Senegalensis, whose height is from four to five feet, as I have said, when quite clear. The natives, as I approached the first that I killed, shouted to me, 'Take care; he will send his beak into your eye'"

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