A Death Panic in Goumbi
Departure.—Arrival at Goumbi.—The people ask for the king.—A death panic in Goumbi.—A doctor sent for.—Death to the aniembas.—Three women accused.—They are tried and killed.
After receiving Quengueza's blessing I jumped in our canoe, and soon the merry sound of the paddles was heard, and once more I ascended the river. The breeze was fresh, the tide was coming in, and every thing was in our favor.
The sickness of Quengueza had delayed me so much that it was now October. We were in the middle of the rainy season, and it was not very comfortable weather for traveling.
My outfit was composed chiefly of powder, shot, bullets, beads, looking-glasses, bracelets of brass and copper, and a lot of trinkets for presents, and also some fine pieces of prints and silks, with a few shirts and coats, for the chiefs. I had also a clock and a musical box.
When we reached Goumbi, the head village of Quengueza's dominions, we were pretty well tired out, for on our way we had encountered two very heavy rain-storms, preceded each by a tornado. The people, not seeing him with me, asked after their king, Quengueza, crying out, "Our king went with you, why have you not brought him back? When he went with you he was well, why has he been sick?"
Then one of the king's nephews gave me Quengueza's house, and Mombon, his head slave, came to receive my orders. Old friend Etia came also, and I was delighted to see him.
Toward sunset I heard a good deal of drumming, and songs being sung to Abambou and Mbuiri. I knew at once by these songs that somebody was very sick. It proved to be Mpomo, one of the nephews of the king. Mpomo was a great friend of mine; his wives and his people had always given me plenty of food, and if you have not heard of him before, it is because he was neither a hunter, a man of the jungle, nor a warrior.
I was asked to go and see him. The people had spent the night before drumming by the side of the bed where he lay, to drive the Abambou and the aniemba away; that is to say, the devil and witchcraft. On entering the hut, I was shocked at the appearance of my old friend. I could see, by his dim eyes, that he was soon to die, and as I took hold of his wrist and touched his pulse, I found it so weak that I was afraid he could scarcely live through the approaching night. As he saw me, he extended his hands toward me (for I had taught these people to shake hands), and said, in such a pitiful and low voice, "Chally, save me, for I am dying!"
In his hut and outside of it were hundreds of people, most of them moved to tears, for they were afraid that their friend, one of the leading men of the tribe, and one of the nephews of their king, was going to die. His wives were by his bedside, and watched him intently.
I said to him, "Mpomo, I am not God; I am unable to make a tree turn into a fish or an animal. I am a man, and my life is in the hands of God, as yours is. You must ask God, and not your fetiches, to make you well." Unfortunately, they all thought I could make him well. His friends insisted that I should give him medicine. At last I gave him some. In that country I was afraid to give medicine to men who were very sick. This will seem strange to you, but you will not wonder at it when I tell you that these savages are very superstitious. If the sick person got well after I had given him the medicine, it was all right; but if he got worse, then I was blamed, for they said, "If he had not taken the medicine of the white man instead of our own, he would have got well."
I warned them that I thought Mpomo could not get well. I loved him as well as they did, and felt very sorry. But they all replied, with one voice, "Mpomo will not die unless somebody has bewitched him."
Early the next morning, just before daybreak, the wailings and mournful songs of the natives rent the air. The whole village was in lamentation. Poor Mpomo had just died; he had gone to his long rest. He had died a poor heathen, believing in idols, witchcraft, fetiches, and in evil and good spirits.
How mournful were their cries! "All is done with Mpomo! We shall never see him again! He will never speak to us any more! We shall not see him paddle his canoe any more! He will walk no more in the village!"
At the last moment, when a Commi man is dying, his head wife comes and throws herself beside him on his bed, and surrounds his body with her arms, telling him that she loves him, and begging him not to die. As if the poor man wanted to die!
I immediately went to Mpomo's hut. I saw his poor wives in tears sitting upon the ground, throwing moistened ashes and dust over their bodies, shaving their hair, and tearing the clothes they wore into rags. Now and then they took the lifeless body of poor Mpomo in their arms; at other times they would kneel at his motionless feet, and implore him to open his eyes and look at them.
As soon as the news of Mpomo's death spread in the village, there was great excitement from one end of it to the other. Fear was on every face; each man and woman thought death was soon to overtake them. Each one dreaded his neighbor; fathers dreaded their sons and their wives; the sons their fathers and mothers; brothers and sisters were in fear of each other. A panic of the wildest kind had spread among the people of Goumbi; neither men nor women were in their senses. They fancied themselves surrounded by the shadow of death, and they saw it ready to get hold of them and carry them away to that last sleep of which they were so afraid.
The people talked of nothing but witchcraft, of wizards, and witches. They were sure that Mpomo had been bewitched.
Two days elapsed before Mpomo was buried, and then a large canoe came, and Mpomo's relatives took the body down the river, where the cemetery of the Abouya clan was situated. This cemetery was some fifty miles down the river, beyond Quayombi.
As the body was placed in the canoe, the people of the whole village mourned. The shrieks of his wives were heart-rending, and it was, who should show the greatest sorrow among the people; for every one was afraid of being accused of aniemba (sorcery); for if they did not appear very sorry, they would be sure to be suspected of being aniembas (sorcerers).
Immediately after the departure of the funeral procession, every man came out armed to the teeth, their faces betokening angry fear, all shouting and screaming, "There are people among us who kill other people. Let us find them out. Let us kill them. How is it—Mpomo was well a few days ago, and now Mpomo is dead?" A canoe was then immediately dispatched among the Bakalai in order to get a celebrated doctor, who had the reputation of being able to discover wizards at once.
The excitement of the savages became extreme. They wanted blood. They wanted to find victims. They wanted to kill somebody. Old and young, men and women, were frantic with a desire for revenge on the sorcerers.
The doctor came. The people surrounded him, shouting, "We have wizards among us. We have sent for you to find them. Do find them out, for if you do not, our people will be dying all the time."
Then the mboundou was prepared. I have described it to you before, and how it is prepared. The doctor drank a big cup of it in one draught.
Oh how his body trembled; how his eyes afterward became bloodshot, his veins enlarged. How the people looked at him with bloodthirsty eyes, and with mouths wide open.
Every man and boy was armed, some with spears, soar with swords, some with guns loaded to the muzzle, some with axes and huge knives, and on every face I could see a determination to wreak a bloody revenge on those who should be pointed out as the criminals. The whole people were possessed with an indescribable fury and horrid thirst for human blood.
I shall never forget the sight. There I stood, alone in the midst of this infuriated populace, looking at those faces, so frightened, but, at the same time, so thirsty for blood. A cold shudder ran through me, for I knew not what would come next. I knew not but the whole village of Goumbi might be deluged in blood. I am sure you would have felt as I did.
For the first time my voice was without authority in Goumbi. No one wanted to hear me when I said that nobody must be killed; that there were no such things as sorcerers. "Chally, we are not the same people you are. Our country is full of witchcraft. Death to the wizards!" shouted they all, in tones which made the village shake. "Death to the aniembas.
They were all surrounding the doctor, as I have said before, when, at a motion from the stranger, the people became at once very still. Not a whisper could be heard. How oppressed I felt as I looked on. This sudden silence lasted about one minute, when the loud, harsh voice of the doctor was heard.
The people did not seem to be able to breathe, for no one knew if his name would be the one that should be called, and he be accused of the crime of witchcraft.
"There is a very black woman—a young woman—who lives in a house having one door only, with a large bunch of lilies growing by the door. Not far off is a tree to which the ogouloungou birds come every day."
Scarcely had he ended when the crowd, roaring and screaming like so many beasts, rushed frantically for the place indicated, when, to my horror, I saw them enter the hut of my good friend Okandaga, and seize the poor girl, who looked so frightened that I thought she had lost her reason. I shouted with all the power of my voice, "You are not going to kill the beautiful and good Okandaga—the pride and beauty of the village? No," said I, "you are not to kill her." But my voice was drowned. They dragged her from her hut, and waved their deadly weapons over her head. They tore her off, shouting and cursing, and as the poor, good African girl passed in the hands of her murderers, I thought the big tree behind which I was looking might hide me from her view. But lo! she saw me, and with a terrible shriek she cried, extending her arms toward me, "Chally, Chally, do not let me die. Do not let these people kill me. I am not a witch. I have not killed Mpomo. Chally, be a friend to me. You know how I have taken care of you—how I have given you food; how often I have given you water."
I trembled all over. I shook like a reed. It was a moment of terrible agony to me. The blood rushed toward my head. I seized my gun and one of my revolvers which was in my belt. I had a mind to fire into the crowd—shoot people right and left—send dismay among them—rescue dear and kind Okandaga, who was now poor and helpless—who had not a friend; put her in a canoe, and carry her down the river. But then, run away—where? I too would have murdered people. Perhaps some of the nephews of my friend Quengueza would be among those I should kill. Then what should I say to Quengueza? They were too frantic and crazed. The end would have been, I should have been murdered without saving the life of Okandaga. How I cried that same evening. I remember it so well. I cried like a child I would have given all I had to save Okaudaga's life.
"After all," said I to myself, "what am I?"
They took her toward the banks of the Rembo and bound her with cords.
Quengueza, as you know, was not in Goumbi. How much I wished he had been.
Presently silence fell again upon the crowd. Then the harsh and demon-like voice of the doctor once more rang over the town. It seemed to me like the hoarse croak of some death-foretelling raven.
"There is an old woman not far from the king's place. She lives in a long and narrow house, and just in front of the house are plantain-trees which come from the sprouts which were planted by Oganda, the king's eldest brother, who is now dead. There is also, back of her house, a lime-tree which is now covered with fruit. She has bewitched Mpomo."
Again the crowd rushed off. This time they seized a princess, a niece of King Quengueza, a noble-hearted and rather majestic old woman. As they crowded about her with flaming eyes and threats of death, she rose proudly from the ground, looked them in the face unflinchingly, and, motioning them to keep their hands off her, said, "I will drink the mboundou, for I am not a witch; and woe to my accusers if I do not die!"
The crowd shouted and vociferated. Then she too was escorted to the river, but was not bound. She submitted to all without a tear or a murmur for mercy; she was too proud. Belonging directly to the families of the chiefs of the Abouya tribes from times of which they had no record, she wanted to show that she was not afraid of death. Pride was in her features, and she looked haughtily at her accusers, who left a strong guard, and then went back to the doctor.
Again, a third time, the dreadful silence fell upon the town, and the doctor's voice was heard.
Oh how I hated that voice!
"There is a woman with six children—she lives on a plantation toward the rising sun—she too bewitched Mpomo."
Again there was a furious shout, and the whole town seemed to shake under the uproar of voices clamoring for vengeance. A large squad of people rushed toward a plantation not far from the village. They returned soon after, appearing frantic, as if they were all crazy, and went toward the bank of the river, dragging with them one of King Quengueza's slaves, a good woman who many and many a time had brought me baskets of ground-nuts, bunches of bananas, and plantains. Her they took to where the two others were.
Then the doctor descended the street of the village. How fierce he looked! He wore round his waist a belt made from the skin of a leopard; on his neck he wore the horn of an antelope, filled with charmed powder, and hanging from it was a little bell. Round his belt hung long feathers of the ogouloungou bird; on his wrists he wore bracelets made from the bones of snakes; while round his neck were several cords, to which were attached skins of wild animals, tails of monkeys, leopards' and monkeys' teeth, scales of pangolins, and curious-looking dry leaves mingled with land and river shells. His face was painted red, his eyebrows white, and all over his body were scattered white and yellow spots. His teeth were filed to a point, and altogether he looked horrid. I wish I could have shot that monster; but then they all think alike—they all believe in witchcraft. He approached the women, and the crowd surrounded them.
Silence again succeeded to that great uproar; the wind seemed to whisper through the boughs of the trees; the tranquil river glided down, whose waters were soon to be stained with blood.
In a loud voice the doctor recited the crime of which the three women were accused. Then, pointing to Okandaga, he said that she had, a few weeks before, asked Mpomo for some salt, he being her relative. "Salt was scarce," said he, looking toward the frantic multitude, "and Mpomo refused her; she said unpleasant words to him, for she was angry that he had refused her salt. Then she vowed to bewitch him, and had succeeded, and by sorcery had taken his life."
The people shouted, "Oh, Okandaga, that is the way you do—you kill people because they do not give you what you ask. You shall drink the mboundou! That sweet face of yours is that of a witch. Ah! ah! all! and we did not know it."
The crime of Quengueza's niece came next to be told. She had been jealous of Mpomo for a long time because he had children and she had none. She envied him; therefore jealousy and envy took possession of her, and she bewitched him.
The people screamed, "How could a woman he so wicked as to kill a man because he had children and she had none! We will give you mboundou to drink, and we will see if you are not a witch."
Quengueza's slave had asked Mpomo for a looking-glass. He had refused her, and therefore she had killed him with sorcery also.
As each accusation was recited the people broke out in curses. Each one rivaled his neighbor in cursing the victims, fearful lest lukewarmness in the ceremony should expose him to a like fate. So Okandaga's father, mother, brother, and sisters joined in the curses. The king's niece was cursed by her brothers and sons, and the poor slave by every body. It was a fearful scene to contemplate.
Then a passage was formed in the vast crowd, and the three women were led to the river, where a large canoe was in waiting. The executioners went in first, then the women, the doctor, and a number of people well armed with huge knives and axes.
By this time the sweat ran down my face. I must have been deadly pale as I followed each motion of these people.
Then the tam-tams beat, and the proper persons prepared the mboundou.
Quabi, Mpomo's eldest brother, who was to inherit all of Mpomo's property, held the poisoned cup. At sight of it poor Okandaga began again to cry, and Quengueza's niece turned pale in the face, for even the negro face at such times attains a pallor which is quite perceptible. Three other canoes, full of armed men, surrounded that in which the victims were.
A mug full of mboundou was then handed to the old slave woman, next to the royal niece, and last to the young and kind Okandaga. As they drank, the multitude shouted, "If they are witches, let the mboundou kill them; if they are innocent, let the mboundou go out!"
It was the most exciting scene in my life. My arrival in the cannibal country was as nothing compared with this. Though horror froze my blood, my eyes were riveted upon the spectacle. I could not help it. Suddenly the slave fell down. She had not touched the boat's bottom before her head was hacked off by a dozen rude swords, the people shouting "Kill her! kill her!" Next came Quengueza's niece. In an instant her head was off, and her blood was dyeing the waters of the river.
During all this time my eyes had been riveted on poor Okandaga. I hoped that she would not fall, but soon she too staggered, and struggled, and cried, vainly resisting the effects of the poison in her system. There was a dead silence—the executioners themselves were still—for Okandaga was the belle of the village, and had more lovers than any body else; but, alas! she finally fell, and in an instant her head was hewn off.
Then all was confusion. In an incredibly short space of time the bodies were cut in pieces and thrown in the river.
I became dizzy; my eyes wandered about; the perspiration fell down from my face in big drops; I could hardly breathe, and I thought I would fall insensible. One scene more like this, and I should have become mad. The image of poor Okandaga was before me, begging me to save her. I retired to my hut, but it felt so hot inside that I could not stay.
When all was over, the crowd dispersed without saying a word; the clamor ceased, and for the rest of the day the village was silent.
In the evening my friend Adouma, uncle of Okandaga, came secretly to my house to tell me how sorry he was that Okandaga had been killed. He said, "Chailly, I was compelled to take part in the dreadful scene. I was obliged to curse Okandaga, but what my mouth said my heart denied. If I had acted otherwise I should have been a dead man before now."
I then spoke to Adouma of the true God, and told him that nothing in the world lasted forever. Men, women, and children died, just as he saw young and old trees die. Often a young tree would die before an old one. Hence young men and young women would frequently die before older ones.