WHEN a heathen Negro is sick, the first thing done, just as in civilized lands, is to call the "doctor," who is to find out what is the particular kind of spirit that, by invading the patient's body, has caused the sickness.
This diagnosis is not made by an examination and comparison of the physical and mental symptoms, but by drum, dance, frenzied song, mirror, fumes of drugs, consultation of relies, and conversation with the spirit itself. Next, as also in civilized lands, must be decided the ceremony particular to that spirit, and the vegetable and mineral substances supposed to be either pleasing or offensive to it. If all those cannot be obtained, the patient must die; the assumption probably being that some unknown person is antagonizing the "doctor" with arts of sorcery.
Fearing this, all the family relatives and friends come, hav ing been informed by a messenger of the state of the case. They speak to and try to comfort the sick, as would be done in civilization. But to believers in fetich their coming means more than that. They have come from distant places as soon as the news had spread that their relative was seriously ill, without waiting for summons. Their coming is, indeed, a necessary mark of respect for the sick; but it may happen, too, in case of the sick man's dying, that it would be a proof for them of their innocence if a charge should come up of witchcraft as the cause of death. The neglect to make this prompt visit of condolence would be resented by the sick should he recover, or, in case of his death, in the days when witcheraft arts were more common, would have been held as a proof that the absentee had purposely absented himself, under a sense of guilt.
In the sick man's village there already has been a slight wailing the while that be is dying. Before life is extinct, and while yet the sick may still be conscious though speechless, a low wail of mourning is raised by the female relatives who have gathered in the room.
These visitors have sat quietly in the sick-room while the patient was still conscious. To a foreigner that quiet is very strange in its oppressive silence and in the stolidity of faces (at other times expressive), whose very reason for being present is supposed to be the expression of sympathy. Only a few assist in the making of food or medicine for the patient, even when the medicines are not fetich. All the others are spectators, smoking, lounging, dozing, or, if conversing, speaking in a low tone. At the first report that death has actually come, the women break into a louder wail.
But about a quarter of an hour is spent by some of the old members of the family, testing to see whether life is really extinct. When that fact is fully certified to the crowd in the street, the wailing breaks forth unrestrainedly from men, women, and children. The moment that death is declared, grief is demonstrated in screams, shrieks, yells, pitiful supplication, and extravagant praise by the entire village.
Shortly after this first frantic outburst quiet is ordered, and the arrangements for burial begin. The body is bathed and the limbs are straightened. The stomach is squeezed so as to make the contents emerge from the mouth in order that decomposition may be delayed and the body kept as long as possible. The time will vary according to the necessity of the case and the social position of the dead. Usually the corpse is retained only one day; but in case of a prominent person as many as five days, and in case of kings in some tribes, e.g., of Loango, the rotting corpse, rolled in many pieces of matting, is retained for weeks.
When the washing and vomiting have been done, the corpse is dressed in its finest clothing. The bed-frame is often enlarged so that many of the chief mourners may be able to sit on it.
The body is generally taken from the bed and laid on a piece of matting on the floor. The chief female mourner is given the post of honor, to sit nearest to the dead, holding the head in her lap.
During the time until the burial the women keep bending the joints of the corpse to prevent the body becoming stiff. The day before the burial (but if in haste, on the very day of the death) the coffin is made. During the making the mourning which had been resumed is again bidden to cease, in order that the spirit may be pleased with the wooden house that is being constructed for it. For the same reason the wailing is again intermitted while the grave is being dug. Those who are digging it must not be called off or interrupted in any way. When begun, the job must be continued to completion.
After the grave is completed, when they leave it and go to arrange the coffin, they must put into the excavation some article, e.g., a stick of wood, as a notice to any other wandering spirit not to occupy that grave.
When all these preparations are complete, the corpse is laid in the coffin, and some goods of the deceased, such as pieces of cloth and other clothing, are stuffed into it for his use in the other world. If the deceased was addicted to smoking, a pipe and tobacco are laid in the coffin, or if accustomed to spirituous drink, some liquor is often placed there, either native palm-wine or foreign rum.
Recently, while the Rev. F. S. Myongo, a native clergyman, was visiting on Corisco Island, be saw a mother put into a coffin a bundle of salt for her daughter to eat in the future world.
If the deceased was a rich man, the people of his mother's side do not allow him to be buried without their first being given a part of his property by the people of the father's side.
If there be a suspicion that he has been killed by witchcraft, and yet not enough proof to warrant a public charge and investigation, the relatives take amomum seeds (cardamom), chew them, and put them into the mouth of the dead, as a sign that the spirit shall itself execute vengeance on the murderer, and that the survivors will take no further steps. It is a nolle prosequi of a judicial case.
All being ready, the lid of the coffin is nailed down, except in the case of a first-born only child, as has been stated.
In former days, before coffins were used, the bamboo tatta of the bed-frame, the pandanus leaf mat, palm-fibre mosquito-net, and other bedding were all rolled about the corpse as it lay, and were buried with it.
While the corpse is being arranged in the coffin, the women have resumed their wailing. The coffin is lifted by strong men and hurriedly taken to the grave, the locality of which varies in different tribes,--sometimes in the adjacent forest, sometimes in the kitchen-garden of plantains immediately in the rear of the village houses, sometimes under the clay floor of the dwelling-house. With the men who are carrying the coffin may go some women as witnesses.
Formerly also slaves carried boxes of the dead man's goods, cloth, hardware, crockery, and so forth, to be laid by the body, which in those days was not interred, but was left on the top of the ground covered with branches and leaves.
In carrying the coffin to the grave it must not be taken through the village street but by the rear of the houses, lest the village be "defiled." As a result of such "defilement," all sorts of difficulties will arise, such as poor crops from the gardens and short supplies of fish.
The coffin is laid with the face of the dead looking eastward. During the interment people must not be moving about from place to place, but must remain at whatever spot they were when the coffin passed, until the burial is completed.
The digging of the grave, the carrying of the coffin, and the closing of the grave are all done only by men. When these have finished the work of burial, they are in great fear, and are to run rapidly to their village, or to the nearest body of water, river or lake or sea. If in their running one should trip and fall, it is a sign that he will soon die. They plunge into the water as a means of "purification" from possible defilement. The object of this purification is not simply to cleanse the body, but to remove the presence or contact of the spirit of the dead man or of any other spirit of possible evil influence, lest they should have ill-luck in their fishing, hunting, and other work.
During the time of these burial and other ceremonies the women have refrained from their mourning.
Women who have babes must not go along the route that was taken in the carrying of the coffin, lest their children shall become sick.
When all parties have returned from the grave, the wailing is resumed. They all mark their faces with ashes, and then begins the regular official kwedi (mourning). During the continuance of this, pregnant women and mothers with young children are not allowed to come near lest evil happen to them. To prevent any possibility of the just-departed spirit injuring any children of the village, leaves of a common weed, kâlâkâhi, are laid on their heads.
The day after the funeral a decoction is made of the bark of a well-known tree, bolondo. With it the doctor sprinkles the people, their houses, their utensils and weapons, and the two entrances to the village. During the ceremony the people are shouting an ejaculatory prayer, "Goods! Possessions! Wealth! Do not allow confusions to come to us!" this is distinctly a petition that the spirit should bring to them goods or help them to obtain wealth; "Let us have food!" and many other similar cries for good things. What remains in the vessel of the decoction of bolondo bark after the general sprinkling is carried to the ends of the village street, and emptied there, as a prevention against the entry of evil spirits.
Also there is made a mixture of scrapings of bolondo, powdered red-wood, and chalk. This is rubbed on the cheeks of the people to keep off the evil spirits. It is rubbed also, for that same purpose, on the walls of houses.
The cutlass (machete) and native hoe that was used in the digging of the grave are washed with the bolondo decoction after having been left exposed to rain over night.
Then one of the houses of the village is chosen as the ndabo ya kwedi (house of mourning). The mourners are to sit only in that house. If they should eat in any other house, the spirit of the dead would come and eat with them and would make them sick. During the days of kwedi the men go in the mornings to fish; while they are away at the work, the weeping is intermitted lest in some way it spoil the fishing.
The bedstead in the house of mourning must be constantly occupied, even during the daytime, by some persons sitting there, lest the spirit come to take any vacant space; and the house itself must not, by day or night, be without some occupant. The near relatives, when one has occasion to go out of that house, must not go unaccompanied, lest the spirit follow them and attempt to resume earthly companionship and thus injure them.
If it was a great man who has died, an occasional dance is held during the prescribed mourning time to please his spirit, which is supposed to be walking around and observing what is done.
The kwedi formerly lasted a month, or, for a prominent person, a month and a half.
People who while they were living were supposed to have witch power are believed to be able to rise in an altered form from their graves. To prevent one who is thus suspected from making trouble, survivors open the grave, cut off the head, and throw it into the sea,-or in the interior, where there is no great body of water, it is burned; then a decoction of the bolondo bark is put into the grave. (The bolondo is a poison; even a little of it may be fatal.)
When affairs are going wrong in the villages,and the people do not know the cause, offerings of food and drink are taken to the grave to cause the spirit to cease disturbing them, and pravers are made to it that it may the rather bless them.
If the deceased was (a very important person, the kwedi is interrupted on the fifth day, for the selection of his successor as chief or king. This ceremony is called "ampenda" (glories). The successor is placed on the vacant seat or "throne"; and songs are sung in his praise. But first, a herald is sent to the forest, or wherever the burial was made, to call the dead to come and dispute his right to the throne, if he be not really dead. The herald stands and calls on the dead by name", Such an one!" This he does slowly once, twice, thrice, until five times. He returns, and reports to the waiting assembly, "He is really dead. I called five times, and he did not answer." Then, this herald, standing in the street before all the people, praises the dead for all his good deeds, and blames for some of his bad ones. He turns to the chosen successor sitting on the throne, and asks pardon for the candor he is about to exercise: "To-morrow I will bow to you and take off my hat., but to-day I will tell the whole truth about you." Turning to the crowd, he says, "The man who is gone was good, and be has given us this new man. We hope that he too will be good. You all help me now to tell him his bad points." Then, addressing the new chief, he specifies, "You have a bad habit of so and so." And the crowd responds affirmatively, "Bad! cease it!" After this, when the herald has ended his own list of rebukes, any one else may call him aside and tell him of any other evil of which be knows, and ask him to direct the new king to reform it. This ceremony was particularly observed by the Mpongwe-speaking tribes of the Gabun country. In the presence of the domination by foreign governments, but little of it now exists there or in any other tribes to the north.
In the improvised songs and ejaculations of the kwedi period the goodness and greatness of the dead are recounted. The praise is fulsome, exaggerated, and often preposterously untrue. Some declare their hopelessness of ever again seeing any joy. Supplications are shrieked by others for the departed to come back and reanimate the dead body. By most the wailing is a song in moans. Men tear their garments; women dishevel their hair; all take off their ornaments, and disfigure their faces with ashes or clay. The female relatives reduce their clothing to a minimum of decency. In all tribes formerly, and in some interior tribes still, the wives are made naked, and compelled to remain so for months, especially if they were known not to have been as submissive as is expected in the slavery of savage African marriage.
During my early days in the Ogowe, about 1876, a native Akele chief, Kasa, who had been my patron at my first residence in the Ogowe, Belambila, died after I had removed to my second station, Kangwe. I made a ceremonious visit of respect and condolence about a month after his death, for Kasa, though a heathen and often cruel, to me had been true and helpful. His family appreciated the compliment of my visit. I looked around the room, and missed his wives. I did not know that they had been divested of all clothing. I asked for them. A man hastened to go out and call them. I wondered somewhat at the delay in their coming. I was afterward told that though they were accustomed to the disgrace of nakedness before native eyes, they did not wish to meet mine, for I had always treated them respectfully. A half-dozen of them sidled into the room, each carrying in their hands, as their only protection, a plate, and quickly huddled together in a corner of the room. I as quickly dismissed them, telling them I had not known of the rule under which they were living.
In the Batanga interior, among the Bulu-Fang tribe, where women at all times wear scarcely any clothing, most widows are still required to go perfectly naked, sometimes for a whole year.
All this wailing and mourning, while sincere on the part of some, is by most simply a yielding to the contagion of sympathy. By some it is a mere formality, and with many even a pretence.
In the older days, before Christianity had obtained any influence, or before foreign governments had exercised power to force away barbarous rites and compel civilized ones, when almost every death was regarded as due to the exercise of black art, and was always followed by a witchcraft investigation and by the putting to death of from one to ten socalled "witches" and "wizards" (in the case of kings, fifty to one hundred), no one, except the doctor and his secret councillors, knew on whom suspicion for the death might fall, and all were quick to be demonstrative in their grief, whether real or feigned, as a means of warding off the dreaded accusation against themselves.
Though those witchcraft executions have ceased wherever foreign power exists, the wailing is still as demonstrative, either as a sign of real grief or as a mere custom; and the mourning after burial continued for weeks (or even months) is an enormous evil. Wives and husbands abandoning their duties to their own villages; children either slighted at their own homes or idly helping to swell the confusion at the town of mourning; men neglecting their fishing, and women neglecting their gardens,--all these visitors are an expensive draft on the hospitality and resources of the town of kwedi, or on their other relatives who may happen to be living near. Inevitably there is not enough food for all, and they stanch their hunger by immoderate drinking of foreign alcoholic liquors.
After the first paroxysms of grief, in a few days the mourning is reduced to a perfunctory wail by the women for a short time each morning and evening. The remainder of the day is spent in idle talk, which always runs into quarrels; and the nights in dances, which generally end in dissolute revelry. A month of mourning lays up a list of assignations and intrigues that result in trials for adultery and broken marriage relations.
The feelings in the hearts of the mourners are very mixed. The outcry of affection, pleading with the dead to return to life, is sincere, the survivor desiring the return to life to be complete; but almost simultaneous with that cry comes a fear that the dead may indeed return, not as the accustomed embodied spirit, helpful and companionable, but as a disembodied spirit, invisible, estranged, perhaps inimical, and surrounded byan atmosphere of dread imparted bythe unknown and the unseen. The many then ask, not that the departed may return, but that, if it be hovering near, it will go away entirely.
Few were those who during the life of the departed had not on occasions had some quarrel with him, or had done him some injustice or other wrong, and their thought is, "His spirit will come back to avenge itself!" So guns are fired to frighten away the spirit, and to cause it to go off to the far world of spirits, and not take up a residence in or near the town to haunt and injure the living.
Nevertheless, the kwedi is kept up, if for nothing else than to satisfy the self-complacence of the dead. It is believed that the dead, sometimes dissatisfied with the extent or character of the mourning ceremony, have returned and inflicted some sickness on the village, for the removal of which other cerernonies have to be performed.
Thus far acts which are dictated by natural feelings, good and otherwise, have been dealt with; but there are a multitude of other ceremonies, varied in different tribes and never the same in any one tribe, which are performed under the direct influence of religious duty as well as superstitious fear. What has been thus far described is especially true of the Mpongwe, Benga, and Batanga tribes of western Equatorial Africa, typical for most Bantu tribes of the continent. The following quotations afford a comparison of the burial customs of savages in other regions with those I have observed:
Lumholtz, describing the burial customs of Australia, writes: "The natives in the neighborhood of Portland Bay, in the southwestern part of South Australia, cremate their dead by placing the corpse in a hollow tree and setting fire to it.... The natives of Australia have this peculiarity, in common with the savages of other countries, that they never utter the names of the dead, lest their spirits should hear the voices of the living and thus discover their whereabouts. There seems to be a widespread belief in the soul's existence
[1. Among Cannibals, pp. 278-279.]
independently of matter. On this point Fraser relates that the Kulie tribe (Victoria) believes that every man and animal has a muriep (ghost or spirit) which can pass into other bodies. A person's muriep may in his lifetime leave his body and visit other people in his dreams. After death the muriep is supposed to appear again, to visit the grave of its former possessor, to communicate with living persons in their dreams, to eat remnants of food lying near the camp, and to warm itself by the night fires. A similar belief has been observed among the blacks of Lower Guinea. On my travels I, too, found a widespread fear of the spirits of the dead, to which the imagination of the natives attributed all sorts of remarkable qualities. The greater the man was on earth, the more his departed spirit is feared.... An old warrior who has been a strong man and therefore much respected by his tribe, is, after his death, put on a platform made with forked sticks, cross-pieces, and a sheet or two of bark; he is hoisted up amidst a pandemonium of noise, howling, and wailing, besides much cutting with tomahawks, and banging of heads with nolla-nollas. He is laid on his back with his knees up, like the females, and the grass is cleared away from under and around. The place is now for a long time carefully avoided, till he is quite shrivelled, whereupon his bones are taken away and put in a tree.
"The common man is buried like a woman, only that logs are put over him, and his bones are not removed. Young children are put bodily into the trees.
"The fact that the natives bestow any care on the bodies of the dead is doubtless owing to the fear of the spirits of the departed. In some places I have seen the legs drawn and tied fast to the bodies, in order to hinder the spirits of the dead, as it were, from getting out to frighten the living. Women and children, whose spirits are not feared, receive less attention and care after death.
"In several tribes it is customary to bury the body where the person was born. I know of a case where a dying man was transported fifty miles in order to be buried in the place of his nativity. It has even happened that the natives have begun digging outside a white man's kitchen door, because they wanted to bury an old man born there. In Central Queensland I saw many burial-places on hills. Such are also said to be found in New South Wales and in Victoria. These burial grounds have been in use for centuries, and are considered sacred.
"In South Australia and in Victoria the bead is not buried with the body, for the skull is preserved and used as a drinking-cup. It is a common custom to place the dead between pieces of bark and grass on a scaffold, where they remain till they are decayed, and then the bones are buried in the ground.
"In the northern part of Queensland I have heard people say that the natives have a custom of placing themselves under these scaffolds to let the fat drop on them, and that they believe that this puts them in possession of the strength of the dead man.
"A kind of mummy dried by the aid of fire and smoke, is also found in Australia; male children are most frequently prepared in this manner. The corpse is then packed into a bundle, which is carried for some time by the mother. She has it with her constantly, and at night sleeps with it at her side. After about six months, when nothing but the bones remain, she buries it in the earth. Full-grown men are also sometimes carried in this manner, particularly the bodies of great warriors."
W. H. Brown, in "On the South African Frontier," describes a burial in Mashona-land: "When a member of the community dies, he or she, as the case may be, is usually buried under a shelf of rock in a reclining position, with arms folded and legs doubled up. In some districts, where heaps of rocks are scarce, I have seen graves made in large ant-heaps. As a rule, a small canopy or thatched roof is built over the grave, and under this it is common to see placed, as an offering, a pot of beer and a plate of sadza. The beer evaporates, and the ants eat the sadza; but, to the Mashona mind, the disappearance is due to supernatural causes. At the burial the near relatives of the deceased cry aloud. I was camping one night near a village where a child died. The obsequies took place next morning between dawn and sunrise. The mother cried loudly while the ceremony was proceeding, but her wailing ceased soon after the funeral, and there was no more noise made over it. I went into the village about two hours later, and saw some men, women, and children quietly sitting around the hut in which the death had taken place, and looking very solemn. The child was about two weeks old, and the cause of death was attributed by the Mashonas to the fact that the mother had not given beer to her grandfather when he wanted it at his death.
"If a woman's husband dies, and she afterwards procures another, the new man takes up his abode in the hut of the dead one, becomes owner of his assegais and battle-axes, and assumes his name. Whether or not the second husband is supposed to enter into possession of the spirit of the deceased, I could not discover. Some Mashonas have told me that they believe that the spirits of their departed relatives enter the bodies of animals, particularly those of lions.
"At the end of the lunar month during which a death has taken place, the surviving partner, man or woman, kills a goat, and its meat is cooked, as well as quantities of other food, and a large amount of Kaffir beer is brewed. The people gather from the neighboring kraals, and an all-night feast and dance ensue.
"Monthly 'dead-relative dances,' which are called 'machae' are very common; and if no one has been accommodating enough to die during the month, the feast and dance may be held in honor of some one who departed years before."
A similar dance is held in the Gabun region of West Africa, partly as a consolatory amusement for the living, near the close of whatever prescribed time of mourning. It is called "Ukukwe" (for the spirit), as if for the gratification of the hovering spirit of the dead; but in many places in that region this dance has lost all reference to or for the dead, or even any connection with a time of mourning, and has become simply a common amusement.
In the Bihe country of Southwest Africa, "death is surrounded by many strange and absurd superstitions. It is considered essential that a man should die in his own country, if not in his own town. On the way to Bailundu, shortly after leaving Bihe territory, I met sorne men running at great speed, carrying a sick man tied to a pole, in order that be might die in his own country. I tried to stop them; but they were running, as fast as their burden would allow them, down a steep rocky bill. By the sick man's convulsive movements I could see that be was in great pain, perhaps in his death throes; hence the great haste. If a Bailundu man dies in Bibe, the Bibe people have to pay the Bailundu heavily for the shameful conduct of the Bihe demons in killing a stranger; and vice versa.
"When a man dies at home, his body is placed on a rude table, and his friends meet for days round the corpse, drinking, eating, shouting, and singing, until the body begins actually to fall to pieces. Then the body is tied in a fagot of poles and carried on men's shoulders up and down some open space, followed by doctors and drummers. The doctors demand of the dead man the cause of his death, whether by poison or witchcraft; and if by the latter, who was the witch? Most of the deaths I have known of in Negro-land were from pulmonary diseases, but all were set down to witchcraft. The jerking of the bier to and fro, causing the men bearing it to stumble hither and thither, is taken as the dead man's answer; thus, as in the case of spirit-rapping at home, the reply is spelled out. The result of this enquiry is implicitly believed in; and, if the case demands it, the witch is drowned."
Among the Barotse of South Africa  "funerals take place at night, and generally immediately after death, while the
[1. Arnot, Garenganze, p. 116.
2. Deck, Three Years in Savage Africa, pp. 74-79.]
body is still warm. If the person, when alive, possessed the skin of an animal, they wrap the body in it, and also in a--plain mat, and then bury it near the hut. But death inspires them with a mortal terror, and thus the hut of the dead man is nearly always abandoned. Anything that has been used for the burial, such as the wood. on which the corpse was carried, is left near the grave. It is the fashion to display great external signs of grief, howls and cries of lamentation and the like. Formerly the graves of chiefs were distinguished by elephant tusks turned toward the east. All cattle belonging to the deceased are killed; and any animal of which he was particularly fond, such as the cow whose milk he drank, is killed first. They bury in the kraal itself those who died in the kraal; but whenever it is possible, the dying are taken out and laid in the fields or forest. There are two reasons for this: first, they think that away from other people is a better chance of the invalid making a recovery; and, secondly, wherever the person dies he must be buried; therefore, if possible, far from their habitations. When a man dies, visits of condolence are paid to the relatives, the visitors bringing a calf or a head of cattle as a mark of sympathy, which is killed and eaten as a kind of consolation. The night after the funeral is passed in tears and cries, A few days later, the doctor comes and makes an incision on the forehead of each of the survivors, and fills it with medicine, in order to ward off contagion and the effect of the sorcery which caused the death. They place on their tombs some souvenir of the profession or vocation of the defunct; for example,-if he had been a hunter, horns or skins; if a chairmaker, a chair; and so on. Over the grave a sacred tree is planted. The tree is a kind of laurel called 'morata.'... A man will kill himself on the tomb of his chief; he thinks, as he passes near by, that he hears the dead man call him and bid him bring him water. These natives believe in transmigration of the soul into animals; thus, the hippopotamus is believed to shelter the spirit of a chief. Nevertheless, they do not appear very clear that the soul can not be in two places at once; else, if a chief has become a hippopotamus in the Zambesi, why should one slay one's self to bring water to his tomb?"
Perhaps Declè was not aware of a widespread belief in a dual soul, consisting of a "spirit," that, as far as known, lives forever in the world of spirits, and a "shadow" that for an uncertain length of time hovers around the mortal remains. Some, as already mentioned in a previous chapter, also name a third entity, the "life,"-that which, being "eaten" by sorcerers, causes the living being to sicken, and which the sorcerer, if detected, can be compelled to return to its owner. Miss Kingsley thought also she had discovered a belief in a fourth entity, the "dream-soul." But this, though doubtless believed in as that which sometimes leaves the sleeping body and goes on distant wanderings, is the same as the "spirit," during whose temporary absence the body continues its breathing and other physical motions, in virtue of the presence of its second and third soul-entities.
The funeral practices of all the tribes, with very few exceptions, over all Africa, however much they may and do vary, contain all of them, as shown by the preceding quotations, a decided belief in, and fear of, the intelligent and probably inimical activity of the spirits of their dead. They include also the custom of the burial with the dead man of more or less of his property, together with the destruction of such things as cannot be conveniently placed in the grave,--clothing, crockery, utensils, wives, slaves, trees of fruitage, etc.
Even among the civilized and enlightened, while of course there would be no excessive destruction of property, nor murder of widow or slave, an extravagant amount of wearing apparel is stuffed into the coffin (which is sometimes made large for that purpose) as a sign of the importance of the dead, and of the sacrifice the love and grief of the living are willing to make.
The residence of the transmigrated spirit is probably not a permanent one. The Wa-nya-mwesi of East Africa "believe in transmigration both during life and after it. Thus, according to them, a sorcerer can transform himself into a wild animal to injure his enemies; but in such cases the change is not permanent, and the soul does not remain in its new habitation."
Leaving out of view the immense difference, caused by the absence of Christianity, in the moral life of native Africa, as compared with that of the United States, there is no one thing that more painfully strikes me, in the low civilization of the former, than their customs for the dead. It would occupy too much space to recount at length all the reasons the natives give for their sometimes apparently heartless ceremonies. The true explanation lies in their belief in witchcraft and their fear of spirits.
From the testimony of travellers, burial customs are much the same all over Africa. What I have written is my personal knowledge of what prevails on the West Coast, in the equatorial regions, and especially in the portion lying along the course of the Ogowe River,--a river that was first brought to public notice through the writings of Paul Du Chaillu, the journeys of a British trader, Mr. R.B.N. Walker, and subsequently by the thorough explorations of Count P. S. De Brazza.
There are in Africa social distinctions of rich and poor, higher and lower classes, just as there are, and always will be, all the world over, the claims of communism to the contrary notwithstanding. These distinctions follow their subjects to the grave,--just as, in our own civilization, one is laid in the sculptured cemetery and another in the Potter's Field.
The African burial-grounds are mostly in the forest, in the low-lying lands and tangled thickets along the sea-beach, or the banks of rivers. Hills and elevated building-sites are reserved for villages and plantations. If a traveller, in journeying along the main river of the country, observes long reaches of uncleared thickets, he will probably be
correct in suspecting that these are burial-grounds. His native crew will be slow to inform him of the fact or to converse on the subject, unless to object to an order to go ashore there.
Some of the interior tribes bury all their dead under the clay floors of their houses. The living are thus actually treading and cooking their food over the graves of their relatives.
This mode of burial is reserved as a distinction, in the case of some coast tribes, for a very few of their honored chiefs, or for a specially loved relative.
Over or near the graves of the rich are built little huts, where are laid the common articles used by them in their life,--pieces of crockery, knives, sometimes a table, mirrors, and other goods obtained in foreign trade. Once, in ascending the Ogowe, I observed, tied to the branches of a large tree extending over the stream from the top of the bank, a wooden trade-chest, five pitchers and mugs, and several fathoms of calico prints. I was informed that the grave of a lately deceased chief was near, that these articles were signs of his wealth, and were intended as offerings to spirits to induce them to draw to the villages of his people the trade of passing merchant vessels.
A noticeable fact about these gifts to the spirits is that, however great a thief a man may be, he will not steal from a grave. The coveted mirror will lie there and waste in the rain, and the valuable garment will flap itself to rags in the wind, but human hands will not touch them. Sometimes the temptation to steal is removed by the donor fracturing the article before it is laid on the grave.
Actual interment is generally given to all who in life were regarded as at all worthy of respect. Native implements for excavating being few and small, the making of a grave is quite a task; it is often, therefore, made no deeper than is actually sufficient for covering the corpse. This, according to the greatness of the dead or the wealth of the family, is variously encased, Sometimes it is placed in a coffin made of the ends of an old canoe; or, more shapely, of boards cut from the canoe's bottom and sides; or, even so expensively as to use two trade-boxes, making one long one by knocking out an end from each and telescoping them.
Sometimes the corpse is cast out on the surface of the ground, and perhaps a pile of stones or brushwood gathered over it. Sometimes it lies uncovered. Sometimes they are cast into the river.
Many years ago, I was ascending the Ogowe River in my boat, painfully toiling against the current. I had unwisely refused the wish of my crew to stop for our mid-day meal at a desirable ulako (camping-ground), as the hour was too early; and I determined to go on, and stop at some other place. But I regretted presently; for, instead of finding forest and high camping-ground, we came to a long stretch of papyrus swamp; and, after that, to low jungle. We pulled on for another mile, the sun growing hotter, along the unsheltered bank, and we growing faint with hunger as the hour verged to noon. Becoming desperate, I directed the crew to stop at the very first spot that was solid enough for foothold, intending to eat our dry rice without fire. Presently we came to a clump of oil-palms. Their existence showed solid ground, and I seized the rudder and ran the boat ashore. The crew objected, hungry though they were, that "it was not a good place "; but they did not mention why. I jumped ashore, however, and ordered them to follow, and gather sticks for fire. As they were rather slow in so doing, and I overheard murmuring that "firewood is not gotten from palm trees" (which is true), I set them an example by starting off on a search myself.
I had not gone far before I found a pile of brushwood, and, rejoicing at my success, I called out to the crew to come and carry it. While they were coming, I stooped down and laid hold of an eligible stick. But an odor startled me; and the other sticks that I had dislocated falling apart, there was revealed a human foot and shin, which, from the ornaments still remaining about the ankle, I suppose was a woman's.
My attendants fled; and I re-embarked in the boat, sufficiently unconscious of hunger to await it late meal that was not cooked until we reached a comfortable village a short distance beyond. My crew then explained their slowness to obey me at that clump of palm trees, by saying that they knew it looked like a burying-place.
A less respectful mode of burial (if, indeed, the term be not a misnomer) is applied to the poor, to the friendless aged who have wearied out the patience of relatives by a long sickness, and to those whose bodies are offensive by a leprous or otherwise ulcerous condition. Immediately that life seems extinct (and sometimes even before) the wasted frame is tied up in the rnat on which it is lying, and, slung from a pole on the shoulders of two men, is flung out on the surface of the ground in the forest, to become the prey of wild beasts and the scavenger "driver" (Termes bellicosa) ants.
Of one tribe in the upper course of the Ogowe, I was told, who, in their intense fear of ghosts, and their dread of the possible evil influence of the spirits of their own dead relatives, sometimes adopt a horrible plan for preventing their return. With a very material idea of a spirit, they seek to disable it by beating the corpse until every bone is broken. The mangled mass is bung in a bag at the foot of a tree in the forest. Thus mutilated, the spirit is supposed to be unable to return to the village, to entice into its fellowship of death any of the survivors.
Some dead bodies are burned, particularly those of criminals. Persons convicted on a charge of witchcraft are "criminals," and are almost invariably killed. Sometimes they are beheaded. I have often had in my possession the curved knives with which this operation is performed.
Sometimes torture is used: a common mode is to roast the condemned over a slow fire, which is made under a stout bed-frame built for the purpose. In such a case almost the entire body is reduced to ashes. When I was clearing a piece of ground at Belambila in the Ogowe in 1875, for the house which I afterward occupied, my workmen came on a pile of ashes, charcoal, and charred bones, where, they assured me, a criminal had been put to death.
A barely mentionable method of disposal of the bodies of the dead is to eat them. That is possible only in a cannibal country. That it was actual was known among the Gabun Fang flfty years ago, and among my Ogowe Fang twentyfive years ago. None ate of their own dead; adjacent towns exchanged corpses. Women were not allowed to partake. The practice was confined to the old men. One such was pointed out to me at Talaguga in 1882. He robbed graves for that purpose.
Among the coast tribes of the Gabun region of West Africa cremation is not known, nor are corpses thrown out on the ground. Under the influence of foreign example, the dead are coffined, more or less elaborately, according to the ability of the family; and the interment is made in graves of proper depth. In some of these tribes a locality of low, dark, tangled forest, not suitable as site for a village or for a plantation, is used as a public cemetery.
Among the tribes of Batanga in the German Kamerun territory, though the people are civilized, the old unsanitary custom of burying in the kitchen-gardens immediately in the rear of the village, and sometimes actually in the clay floor of the dwelling itself, is still kept up, even by the more enlightened natives. The Christians are not in numbers sufficiently large in any family to control all the burial ceremonies of its dead members. The strange spectacle is therefore presented of a mixture of Christian ritual and fetich custom. In my own experience at funerals of some children of church-members at Batanga, the singing of hymns of faith and hope by the Christian relatives alternated with the howling of half-naked heathen death-dancers in an adjoining house. And when I had read the burial service to the point of beginning the march of the procession to the grave, perhaps only a few rods distant, the heathen remained behind; and while I was reading the "dust to dust" at the grave-side, they would be building a quick fire of chips and dried leaves on the exact spot where the coffin had last stood in the village street. The ashes they would gather and incorporate into their family fetiches, to insure fertility to the mother and other near female relatives of the dead child.
Also, in the Gabun region, there is the remains of a custom, practised especially by the Orungu tribe of Cape Lopez, of a pretended quarrel between two parties of mourners on a question whether or not the burial shall actually be made, even though there is no doubt that it will be, and the coflin is ready to be carried. This contest concluded, a second quarrel is raised on a question as to which of two sets of relatives, the maternal or the paternal, shall have the right to carry it. Very recently this actually occurred at the town of Libreville, and on the premises of the American Presbyterian Mission, the fight being shamefully waged by young men who formerly had been professing Christians. They had been given permission to bury a young man in our Protestant cemetery. The missionary in charge of the station heard a great hubbub on the path entering the mission grounds, as if a fight was in progress. Going to investigate, he found an angry contest was being carried on, under the old heathen idea that the spirit of the dead must see and be pleased by a demonstration of a professed desire to keep him with the living, and not to allow him to be put away from them. The contest of words had almost come to blows, and the victors had set up a disgraceful shout as they seized the coflin to bring it to the grave.
Another custom remains in Gabun,--a pleasant one; it may once have had fetich significance, but it has lost it now, so that Christians may properly retain it. Just before the close of the kwedi, friends (other than relatives) of the mourners will bring some gift, even a small one, make a few remarks appropriate to it and to the circumstances of the receiver, and give it to his or her mourning friend. It is called the "ceremony of lifting up," i.e., out of the literal ashes, and from the supposed depths of grief. For instance, if the gift be a piece of soap, the speech of donation will be, "Sit no longer in the dust with begrimed face! Rise, and use the soap for your body!" Or if it be a piece of cloth, "Be no longer naked! Rise, and clothe yourself with your usual dress!" Or if it be food, "Fast no longer in your grief! Rise, and strengthen your body with food!"
As to the status of the departed in the spirit-world, though all those African tribes from old heathen days knew of the name of God, of His existence, and of some of His attributes, they did not know of the true way of escape from the evils of this present life, of any system of reward and punishment in the future life, nor of any of the conditions of that life. That they had a belief in a future world is evidenced by survivors taking to the graves of their dead, as has been described in the preceding pages, boxes of goods, native materials, foreign cloth, food, and (formerly) even wives and servants, for use in that other life to which they had gone. Whatever may have been supposed about the locality or occupations of that life, the dead were confidently believed to have carried with them all their bu man passions and feelings, and especially their resentments. Fear of those possible resentments dominated the living in all their attempts at spiritual communication with the dead.
As to the locality of the latter, it was not believed that all of them always remained in that unknown other world. They could wander invisibly and intangibly. More than that, they could return bodily and resume this earthly life in other forms; for belief in metempsychosis is a common one among all these tribes. The dead, some of them, return to be born again, either into their own family or into any other family, or even into a beast.
Who thus return, or why they return, is entirely uncertain. Certainly not all are thus born again. Those who in this present life had been great or good or prominent or rich remain in the spirit-world, and constitute the special class of spirits called "awiri" (singular, "ombwiri").
But these awiri are at liberty to revisit the earth: if they choose, taking a local habitation in some prominent natural object, or coming on call to aid in ceremonies for curing the sick. Other spirits, as explained in a previous chapter, are sinkinda, the souls of the common dead; and ilâga, unknown spirits of other nations, or beings who have become "angels," all of these living in "Njambi's Town."
As to Father Njambi Himself, the creator and overseer of all, both living and dead, every kind of spirit-ombwiri, nkinda, olaga, and all sorts of abambo-is under His control, but He does not often exercise it.