Conference On The Independent State Of Congo

excerptTo put it in a nutshell, there are three races living in Congo today:The "Pygmies," scattered all over the territory and on the verge of extinction;"Nuba," the invaders who live in the north – and, finallyThe "Bantu," the most numerous.Several distinct and independent tribes belong to these three races, each having their own language.The members of the tribe get together to consult each other on the tribe's interests and these meetings are called "Palabras." Palabra is said to be a neutral event. Any hostile action committed during the meeting is considered criminal and against the indigenous customs. The meetings are always held in the morning and, in order not to offend the participants, every member attends on an empty stomach and carries no weapon upon him, not even a rod. Because the Congolese tradition says "He who has a rod will certainly make use of it."The Palabra proceedings vary from one location to another. As a general rule, everybody has the right to speak. "Words cannot kill anyone," goes a local saying. However, the chief seldom takes the floor during a Palabra. When he has something to say, he waits until everybody else has finished his or her speeches. Sometimes, he may name an orator to speak on his behalf. Some tribes accept women's attendance at Palabras, and more often than not they have the last word. When the entire community shares the chief's opinion, they repeat the last word uttered by the chief and give a big hand of applause. Sometimes, Palabras are ended by the "Blood Exchange." Those who agreed on one matter cut the skin on their arms until blood bursts out and the shaman pours some mysterious dust on the wounds. The two rub the wounds against each other, to mix their blood, and peace is invoked. The chief is entitled to the life of those he judges. He has harsh punishments both for slaves and for free people that may lack any sense of goodwill. Those who kill, rape and steal, receive the death penalty. The tribes are organized hierarchically: the aristocrats or the wealthy, including the chief's family as well, the free people, and the slaves. Free people make commerce or go to war with other tribes. Women and slaves are in charge of agriculture, hunting, fishing and other trades of the place: pottery or making spears, knives and arrows. The slaves serve the masters that own them, that is why domestic slavery is considered the lowest African social condition in a tribe. In spite of all this, it is hard to tell a slave from a free person. Slaves eat along with their masters and attend all games and entertainment the master puts on. He is not oppressed by drudgery; he is seldom beaten, but is in very great danger of being served at his master's lunch or buried with him at the funeral.The burial unfolds as a strange ritual.In the southern part of Congo, when the chief dies, he is laid down on a bench, with a fire lit under it; when the body is heavily smoked, it is covered in long linen that can cover a wide area. The corpse is kept in this state in an arbour for months or even years, which proves how much the tribe loves him. Finally, when the burial day arrives, the tribe sees him to the grave with great respect. The ritual lasts for one day and one night in the drums' rhythm while they dance, cry, mourn, eat and drink all the belongings of the chief. All he is left with is a pot and a glass that he takes with him to the grave. The grave is covered with pots and plates that will help the dead to prepare his food on his long journey that he has just embarked on. In upper Congo, the chief's burial is accompanied by human sacrifice. These barbarian customs are practiced to ensure the dead chief an escort of women and slaves who will serve him, just as they did while he was alive.The Azande chief burials impress in a very special way. When the chief is ill, the tribe and especially the women are overwhelmed by grief. In terrible fright, they wait to hear about the chief's death.If the sultan falls sick, he goes deep into the woods, as the law says, followed only by few of his faithful servants and by some shamans who are empowered to banish "Lukudu," the Evil Spirit.Hardly has he sultan died, when the shamans spread the news that the sultan is cured. They do this to prevent the desertion of the servants, should they find out that the sultan died.The welcome ceremonies are started at once; every member of the tribe is happy at the news; women are in charge of the feast. But suddenly, the sultans' troops surround the village, and the terrible news is revealed. Nobody will manage to flee, so the leaders begin the funeral preparations: all women who did not bear children, as well as the mother of the latest legitimate child, are locked away in a shelter, especially built from wood and leaves. Many loyal servants are locked in the same place with the women. They set the shelter on fire while everybody inside screams and cries in the sultan's honour, knowing that they are going to burn eventually. This must be a terrible sight because the poor servants, half burnt and blinded by the smoke, try to escape their death, but the sentinels force them back into the flames, piercing them with the spears. Meanwhile, the slaves have dug a large ditch, in a hidden place, known only by them. They lay a small bench on the bottom, and arrange the sultan's body, which is now perishing accompanied by tears, cruelty and curses after he had terrified his tribe all his life. The hour of the burial has come: the sultan's body is secretly transported, together with two of his most beautiful women and several slaves, who will serve him in the afterlife as well.While the slaves are stabbed to death with knives, by the grave, the arm and leg bones of the other privileged women are broken with ivory mallets, and the women are laid on the bench, the sultan's head resting on their martyr arms. The murdered slaves lie at the sultan's feet, and the grave is partly covered by dirt, still letting the air to go inside.After two or three days, when the groans of the dying slaves finally faded, as they died in horrid pains, in the air infected by the putrefying corpses and by many animals attracted by this stench, the other slaves close the grave completely. They will die, too, over their master's grave, so that the place of burial should remain a secret. Branches and small bushes cover the miserable bodies of these last martyrs.No more human sacrifices; only a few days of mourning, followed by the joy of electing the new sultan, feasting and celebrating. Trying to determine these people to give up such cruel customs was not an easy thing to do. However, the authorities have succeeded in their attempt.Thus, women agreed on their kidnapping before the funeral, to save themselves from the barbarity of the traditions. They were later returned to the new sultan. Later, the sultan's sons took the women's example to save their fortune, as slaves were their only heritage. The authorities established a funeral ceremony for sultans, saving, thus, everybody from such savage cruelties. Soldiers made the honours, officers and other militaries attended the funeral in a civilized atmosphere.The state's future is well planned. Civilization is spread among the intelligent Congolese population, and younger generations love the white men, as they grew up together. Aware of the advantages of the civilized world, the natives obey and imitate the white people.The shaman, this evil genius of the wise and old, does no longer hold authority upon them, and the relative short life of the natives helps the new era to evolve better and safe. This is the work of His Majesty King Leopold II.Both chiefs and free men are polygamous in Congo. The first woman is always given by the father, and she is usually older than the son. She belongs to the same social class as the son. If the young couple is rich, they give money to the shaman to invoke the gods for their best union. Women slaves are not equal to free women. They are often changed with others, but free women are their own masters. However, neither of them allows to be dominated, preserving, thus, a degree of freedom. Husbands treat their wives with respect. There are no rumours about a woman or a child to have been abused in any way.It is the wife that takes care of the household. When she feeds the baby, she carries it with her all the time, tied with a sort of belt, so that the baby may face her, leaning on her hip. Goods are handed down by the father to the son; the boys' heritage must be more consistent than the girls'. The natives eat manioc, corn, bean, nuts, sweet potatoes, sorghum, rice and fruits. They also feed on the flesh of animals such as fish, chicken, goats, sheep, pigs and venison. Many of them enjoy eating monkeys, mice, bats, snakes, grasshoppers and flying ants. They eat either with their bare hands or with shells, wooden spoons, or carved in animals horns, or made from hippopotamus or elephant hide. The traditional drinks are "Malafu," a wine extracted from the palms' sap or "masanga," a beer fermented from sugar cane, corn or sorghum.Almost every tribe in upper Congo feed on human flesh (women are not cannibal, nor are they served as food for the others. This is why they are more numerous than men.).Natives buy the food and the things they need from special fairs, organized on certain days in special places. They lay great emphasis on a fair day, considering it a holiday. The fair is a neutral meeting, just as Palabra. Robbery or theft are severely punished. The fair is officially opened by the chief or by his substitute. However, the chief's absence is a rare thing.The people here don't have money, so they barter, because there is no currency in Central Africa.All European products brought here, as well as some locally manufactured products can be used for trading with the natives, but they are not considered "trading products."The natives are quite pretentious in their tastes, therefore there is no monetary unity from one tribe to another. One thing that is worthless for the people in a certain region is valuable elsewhere. But what really endangers the trade is the depreciation of the currency that will lead to the devaluation of goods, which might end by having no value at all in the counties that used to value them.This makes it harder for merchants, but even harder for the newcomers who, having no knowledge of the trade tradition in one region, may not be inspired to take the goods that will surely help them set up their trade house in a certain region.However, the state thought of a way to help the merchants. They created a trade museum, where all types of merchandise traded in every region of its vast territory are exhibited.Houses in southern Congo are rectangular, with palm branches roofs, covered by reed. There are no windows and you can take the door for a window, because it is that low. In contrast, houses are conical in upper Congo. In the large rain forest, leaves cover them.They make their beds by spreading some mats on the ground. But many tribes in upper Congo replace the mats by branch beds, long and narrow, propped on short tilted legs, fitting the size of the owner. They also use a small wooden chair for the trestle of the bed which more often than not displays a sculptured bust of a woman. By night, natives cover their faces with a mask to protect themselves from mosquitoes. They light the houses with wick soaked in vegetable or animal fat… I myself practiced this method by filling a can with sand and thrusting a stick wrapped in a cloth moistened in such a solution, and then I lit and placed it on the bottom of a wooden box.Their garments consist of a cloth wrapped around the hips and tied by a belt made of snakeskin, antelope or wild cat leather. Men carry this around their loins and women bring it up to the armpits. There is no difference between men's clothing and women's.Only natives that have met the whites' civilization dress like this. Most of them, however, go around naked. But women and men do not see each other naked inside the same tribe; if the custom requires for women to stay naked, men are dressed in a primitive outfit. And the other way round.Members of the same tribe wear the same tattoo, and this is how they differentiate one tribe from another. They usually tattoo their faces and chests by leaving deep marks in the skin, later to be injected with irritating essences, or by drawing diverse contours with a thorn.When a child is tattooed, parents and relatives gather around to celebrate the event. In other tribes, both men and women paint they bodies in red, white or other colours.For the first time I saw red-haired indigenes in the rain forest, which was striking for a native. It was only later that I found out that they dyed their hair with goat urine. Some of the natives wear solid rings around their arms or ankles. Faces are engraved on those rings, and when they go around the necks, the rings weigh 25 kg.Other wear bead necklaces, or adornments made of grains, fruits, elephant tail and mane, or animal fangs. But necklaces made of human teeth are most valued.Women sometimes pierce their ears, lips or even noses, and hang rings or white or red stones, or sticks with beads at both ends.People in Congo shave their heads completely or cut the hair in such a way that it forms models such as cock crest, eyes, boats etc. Others let their hair grow for different purposes: they plait it in many thin locks and adorn them with multicolored beads and ivory or copper pins; others gather it in tall loops that sometimes reach 25 cm. This hairstyle requires many weeks to be completed, and it is considered a masterpiece of imagination and patience.They amuse themselves by drinking, singing, dancing and chattering.The dance resembles a ballet or a dumb-show and lasts all night long. They stop to drink or fall asleep right in the place where they dance.They sing to the rhythm of tam-tams, drums and trumpets made from elephant tusks. It is a very calm beat, sounding like a "singsong" monotonous cries. They invoke the shaman or recount a recent event, or even what happened that very day, if it is of any importance. The dance has a ritual:At the moonrise, for the chief's funeral or for a free man's interment, when the second child is born (they never dance for the firstborn), when they win a battle and, of course, whenever the chief says so. It is he who offers the food and drink. Women attend all dances. Their religion is not very clear.Except for the Arabian territory inhabited by Moslems, natives do not believe in a supreme being. They rather put their trust in the power of two spirits: the Good and the Evil.Some of the tribes believe in the immortal soul. This is a common belief in upper Congo.The Government takes good care of the natives, trying to preserve and regenerate the population and their customs; that is why all agents are advised to show interest in this field, too.Missionaries should realize that these populations are at the dawn of modern civilization, have deep-rooted morals, and they should respect those traditions that do not bring any prejudice to human laws.Natives express themselves loudly and with many gestures, and the persons who see them for the first time might deem this behaviour as offensive.Every European agent must be reserved in his relationship with natives, and patience is one of the greatest qualities a colonizer should possess. Natives use much more words to express their ideas, a greater number than a white person would normally employ. Conversations take longer for that matter.They like being listened to, and this is how Europeans will get along on well with the natives. I discovered two forms of cannibalism in Congo:The real cannibals who feed only on human flesh, and the occasional cannibals who eat only those who fell on the battlefield, may they be their fellows or enemies, as well as war prisoners. They believe that by ingesting the flesh of those people, they will acquire their strength and skills. I witnessed such a happening myself:The entire Ababua tribe had rioted, and I was constrained to stop my journey on land and to sail with the natives on the UeleRiver, from Amadi to Djabir. The Ababua were preceded by their cruel reputation and by their cannibalistic behaviour. Bakongo are their neighbours who speak almost the same language. Both tribes belong to the same race, however the latter are not cannibals.Fortunately, Bakongo remained faithful to the Government; thus, the passing from Amadi and Djabir was safe for Europeans, who otherwise might have been slaughtered on the territory that connects the two towns.Every night I would hear the Ababuas' insults coming from the other bank of the river.However, they were not familiar with the river's waters, and due to the lack of boats, they did not dare to cross the deep and wide river.God forbid they crossed the river, as I don't know if we could defeat them with only 35 soldiers that guarded us.I left Bomokandi after two days, heading for Djabir.After four hours, a group of Ababuas appears on the left bank, suddenly pouring arrows over my boat. Still, I could not start a fight, for only a soldier armed with a rifle accompanied me.After 8 hours of sailing, gunfire and battle shouts hit my ears. I asked my boatmen to hurry up, as I was impatient to meet chief Iamboa, from the Bakango tribe, who was to put me up. His village lay on the left bank, too, and the Ababuas had set it on fire and driven the inhabitants out, making the chief take refuge on an island. While I was drawing near the place, the fight was fully under way. The Ababuas that I had met earlier that day had come to Iamboa and asked him to hand my men and myself over to him. Iamboa told them he had no white men coming from Bomokandi, but he would hand them the soldiers coming from Djabir.But when I arrived, the fight was already over as the warriors came back with trophies, such as maimed corpses and necklaces made of the fingers of those they had killed.I send for Iamboa and sermonize him for a while, trying to find out what he was going to do with the dead bodies. He answered me frankly that they would feast on them. There was no use trying to prevent him from doing such a horrifying thing, as he would no longer have been recognized as the tribe's chieftain. I demand him to bring me his trustworthy men. As they stay in front of me, I praise them for their bravery in the battle, and how they proved to be wiser and more courageous than their enemies. I ask them if they know Tepere's whereabouts, and advise them to join other tribes to catch Tepere, the Ababuas' chief. Only then can they feed on his flesh. I skillfully explain them that eating Tepere would really give them his strength and slyness. It is useless to eat those poor Ababuas, since they have already proven their supremacy over them, by defeating them in the battle. I recommend them to bury those bodies.They ponder for a few moments, look at one other for support and, in the end, Iamboa agrees to bury the corpses.I personally attended the burial, and until I returned to Europe, I was deeply convinced that the bodies remained that way. What really happened afterwards?At night, they disinterred the bodies and feasted on them, far from the place I dwelt in. 
 Conference on the Independent State of Congo, 1902, in Extraordinary Journeys, CD Press, 2001

by Sever Pleniceanu