A Royal Reception
At court in Africa.—Costumes of the court.—An African household.—A false alarm.
In the midst of the great forest, far from the sea, stands a village of Mbondemo.
Before I entered it the gate had to be opened in order to let me in. The village was composed only of a single street, each end was barricaded with stout sticks or palisades, and, as there was war, the doors or gates of the village were finally closed, and persons approaching, if they could not explain their intentions, were remorselessly speared and killed.
On the ends of the sticks making the palisades were skulls of wild boars, of gorillas and of chimpanzees. At the gate I entered there was a large wooden idol, and close by the idol was a very large elephant's skull.
If I had come alone I should probably never have entered the village, but I had with me one of the King's numerous sons-in-law belonging to a far town, and he had sent word that I was coming with him and some of his people.
I had hardly entered when all sorts of wild shouts were heard from one end of the village to the other; the women ran away; the children hid in their huts; and the men kept at a distance, so the way to the palaver-house was free.
These men were all armed to the teeth and were ready for fight. They were continually in hot water with their neighbors, and never knew when they were to be attacked. They are a quarrelsome people.
The palaver-house was a large shed built in the middle of the street, and there we seated ourselves. A few men braver than the rest came to look at what they thought the strange being, "the Spirit," that had come among them.
His Majesty headed the party, followed by his head-man. He wore an old red English coat and no other garments. He was a short, thick-built negro, and wore an immense pair of iron earrings. He was followed by what I supposed to be the second head-man, or prime minister. This one had for his costume an old shirt which had only one sleeve and no sign of a button to be seen anywhere, a shirt that formerly must have been white but had never been washed since he got it, which was several years before. This prime minister had nothing else on. The third man, who of course formed part of his Majesty's suite, had on an old beaver hat and nothing else. Another that followed him had one of those old-fashioned black neck-ties (as tight as the neck itself; and attached with a buckle) which were worn some thirty years ago, and nothing else. How the deuce did that fellow get that cravat? I asked myself. I learned afterward that he had inherited it. Then came a fellow who by hook or by crook had possession of an old pair of shoes; how he had got them I was unable to find out. His father had perhaps left them to him. How steady, how grave they looked, as they passed one after another before me. These were the leading men of this Mbisho village. They thought themselves splendid, and their people thought the same. They came out in state.
I had seen before so much of the same kind of African court costumes that I tried to look sober, as they made their appearance in the midst of the shouts of their people, who praised their good looks.
They looked at me and I looked at them, and at last with one voice they asked me to notice how handsome they were, each at the same time in one way or another making the most of what he wore. I said they were very fine.
The houses of that village had no windows or doors, except on the side toward the street; and when the gates of the streets at each end were locked the village was indeed a fortress. As an additional protection trees had been cut down, and all the surrounding approaches had been thus blocked up. This village was situated on the top of a high hill.
Interiorly the houses were divided by a bark partition into two rooms; one the kitchen, where every body sits or lies down on the ground about the fire, smokes his pipe, and goes to sleep, while listening to the others. There also in the evening the harp is played.
The other is the sleeping apartment. This one is perfectly dark, and here are stored all their provisions, all their riches. To ascertain how large a family any house-holder has, you have only to count the little doors which open into the various sleeping apartments: "So many doors, so many wives." These houses, like all the houses I had seen in the interior, were made of the bark of trees.
There is nothing more disgusting than the toilet of one of these Mbondemo fellows, except it be the toilet of his wife. The women seem to lay on the oil and red earth thicker than their husbands.
The third night after I arrived in that strange village there was a new moon. As soon as the shades of evening came no one talked except in an under-tone. The people hardly came out of their huts; all was silent. In the evening the King came out of his house and danced along the street; his face and body were painted white, black, and red, and spotted all over with spots the size of a peach. In the dim moonlight he had a frightful appearance, which made me shudder at first, for I could not help thinking of the devil. I asked him why he painted thus, but he only answered by pointing to the moon without speaking a word.
The day of the new moon when the evening comes a strange kind of dread seems to seize these people. In all the tribes that day they mark their bodies with ochre, but I have never been able to find out the reason. To them the moon is the emblem of time. Hence, as the moon appears, many think that before it has disappeared again it will eat people; that is to say, that some one may die.
The fifth day I had been in that village, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by the war-drum beating, shouts of war, and a terrific uproar. Men and women were running to and fro, and all said the enemy was near. One man had been seen outside the palisade and when challenged had run away. "Let them come I" they shouted, "let them come! We have the Spirit among us!" (meaning me). "Dare to come, and we will kill you all!"
It was not a very pleasant situation to be in. I did not come to make war with one party or the other. The large Mbuiti was instantly brought out, and the people danced round it in the most strange and fantastic way; one by one the great Mbisho warriors came by her, and sung songs to her—the idol was a woman. One warrior danced tremendously before her; he kicked his legs up and down one after the other, then put himself in the most supplicating posture, his two hands forward, and simply asked that he might kill every man that came to attack him. At last he got so excited that I thought he would go mad. His eyes became wild, the foam came out of his mouth, the muscles on his face worked convulsively, he seized his spear with tremendous force, and his face looked like that of a demon. While he was in that state the other people caught the excitement, the drum beat more loudly, they sung more ferociously than before, the whole town became warlike in the extreme. Of course there was no more sleep for me.
The morning at last came, but no warriors had appeared to attack the village. I am sure a panic had seized my friends, and that which they took for a man was nothing but some wild animal passing by the village walls.
The rainy season had fairly set in in these regions at the time of my arrival, and thunder, lightning, and heavy showers were common both day and night.