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

Ascending the Ovenga River

A royal welcome.—Departure from Goumbi.—The story of Nchanga and Enomo.—Ascending the Ovenga River.—A hostile barrier removed.—The advice of Quengueza.

After a few days we reached the kingdom of Quengueza, and I received a royal welcome from the sturdy old chief, for he loved me more than any body else. That evening we remained together all alone, and talked about my long journey. He said to me, "Chally, every body is afraid; none of my free men want to follow you. They think they will never come back; but one of my slaves says he will go with you, and you can depend upon him.

"To make sure of your success," said the old king, "I want you to go where you like. I am an old man, but I am strong, and, though more than forty dry and forty rainy seasons have passed since I have been to the Ashira country, I will go there with you. I will put you myself in the hands of my friend Olenda, the Ashira king, and tell him to send you on."

Thirteen days after my arrival at Goumbi the beating of the kendo (the royal standard alarm) awoke me just before sunrise, and I heard the voice of the old chief invoking, in a loud tone, the spirits of his famous royal ancestors to protect us on our journey. The spirits he invoked were those of men who had been famous in war or as rulers, and their names had been handed down from generation to generation. Igoumbai, Wombi, Rebouka, Ngouva, Ricati, Olenga-Yombi—the skulls of all these great men were kept in the alumbi house of the king.

Quengueza was prouder than any chief I knew of the powers of his deceased ancestors, and well might he be, for several had been great warriors, and some had been wise rulers.

At 10 o'clock on the 28th of October we left Goumbi, followed by a large array of canoes. We had had some trouble before the start, for Quengueza's slaves were alarmed, and many had hid in the woods. They were afraid that their master would give them to me, and they did not desire to go off into the far country.

"Good-by" shouted the villagers on the shore; "good-by, Chally; come back to us. Take care of our king; we do not like him to go so far away with you, for he is old; but he loves you, and will accompany you part of the way" And just as we disappeared from sight a wild shout rang through the air. It was the last farewell to me of the Goumbi people.

That evening we reached the junction of the Niembai and Ovenga Rivers, and resolved to pass the night on the shore. The rivers were low, for the dry season had been unprecedented in its length—indeed, the longest that the people could remember. In that country the rainy season comes from inland, and gradually makes its way to the sea-shore, while the dry season begins at the sea-shore, and gradually makes its way inland.

That evening our camp was a merry one, for the men who went out caught a great many fish (mullets and condos). The number was prodigious, for at that season of the year these fish ascend the river as the shad do in spring in America. The smoke of many a camp-fire ascended among the trees, and jokes, and laughter, and story-telling were carried far into the night. A negro is never happier than when he has nothing to do and plenty to eat.

My couch, made of leaves, was by the side of Quengueza's, and my brave companions were all around us.

Some funny stories were told that night, and one of them I wrote down. The long dry season was the subject of conversation. A man belonging to Goumbi got up. Nchanga means the wet, Enomo the dry season. These two seasons are personified with the African. So the story went:

Nchanga and Enomo had a great dispute as to which was the oldest, that is to say, which was the first to begin, and finally an assembly of the people of the air met to decide the question. Nchanga said, "When I come to a place, rain comes." Enomo retorted, "When I make my appearance, the rain goes." "Verily, verily," said the people of the air, who had listened to. Enomo and Nchanga, "you must be of the same age."

These long dry seasons have a special name, and are called enomo onguéro;  they last about five months. The showers coming at the close are very light, and produce no impression on the rivers.

Next morning we ascended the Ovenga, which was very low, being about twenty feet below the high-water mark. The narrow stream was encumbered with fallen fees and sand-banks, and the journey was difficult and slow.

We were getting among the Bakalai villages which lined the river banks from place to place, when suddenly we came to a spot where the river had been fenced or obstructed right across on account of some petty trade quarrel which the people of the village opposite had had with some other village higher up.

As soon as King Quengueza saw this his countenance changed, and wore the fiercest expression, and for the first time I could see that the terrible accounts I had heard of his warlike disposition when younger were true. The face of the man fairly changed its color. He, the King of the Rembo, traveling with his ntangani (white man), saw that his river had been barred.

He got up and shouted, "Where are the axes and the cutlasses? where are the spears and the guns" and he took up a gun himself, and fired into the air.

The fence was demolished in a few seconds, and onward we went. Our canoe took the lead, and just as we turned a bend in the river I saw five elephants crossing it, and before I had time to get a shot at them the huge creatures reached the bank and plunged into the forest, demolishing all the young trees which stood in the way of their flight.

Finally we reached the junction of the Ovenga River and of the Ofoubou, and set up our camp there. Quengueza immediately dispatched messengers to the Ashira king, asking him to send us men. Our camp was close by the village of friend Obindji, with whom you are already acquainted, who came to see us every day.

You remember the description I gave you of Obindji, and the fierce witchcraft-palaver that took place at his cabin, Pende, his brother, having been accused of stealing dead men's bones, etc.

I had brought with me a nice present for Obindji, besides what I had sent him by Quengueza on my arrival. The good old Bakalai chief was delighted.

We remained for several days at our encampment here, till at last the Ashira people, sent by their King Olenda, arrived.

The water was now so low that from the northern bank of the Ovenga, on which our camp was placed, there stretched a long point of beautiful sand, upon which turtles would come during the night and lay their eggs.

We soon found that the large number of men Olenda had sent were not sufficient for repacking our baggage, and I remained behind with Quengueza.

Three nephews of Quengueza—Adouma, Ouendogo, and Quabi—went with the Ashira men, taking with them all that the men could carry. When I saw that I had really too much luggage, I gave to Quengueza nearly all the salt I had, a great many brass rings, an additional supply of powder, etc.

After a few days the Ashiras returned, and we concluded to take our departure the next morning. Quengueza, besides being an illustrious warrior, was man who had a great deal of common sense, and, after every thing was packed and ready, he ordered my men to come to him. The old chief's countenance wore a grave aspect, and, after looking in the fire for some time, smoking all the while as hard as he could, he said, "You are going into the bush; you will see there no one of your tribe; look up to Chally as your chief, and obey him. Now listen to what I say. You will visit many strange tribes. If you see on the road, or in the street of a village, a fine bunch of plantains, with ground-nuts lying by its side, do not touch them; leave the village at once; this is a tricky village, for the people are on the watch to see what you are going to do with them.

"If the people of a village tell you to go and catch fowls or goats, or cut plantains for yourselves, say to them, 'Strangers do not help themselves; it is the duty of a host to catch the goat or fowl, and cut the plantains, and bring the present to the house which has been given to the strangers.' When a house is given to you in any village, keep to that house, and go into no other; and if you see a seat, do not sit upon it, for you know there are seats upon which nobody but the owners are permitted to sit.

"But, above all, beware of women; do not get in love with any of them, for you will be strangers in a strange land. I tell you these things that you may journey in safety; I want you to have a smooth journey, and get into no trouble. I need not tell you to take care of Chally."

The speech of the old sage was listened to with great attention, and Igala said, "Rera  (father, king), we will follow your advice, for we know that when salt or food is left, on the road-side it is to catch people; we know that you must not go into other people's houses, for in some no one but the owner can go; and as for sitting on somebody else's seat, we know better. We don't want to be made slaves. Rera (father), we will remember what you have said to us."

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