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Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort, by Richard Edward Dennett, [1898], at


ONE of my cook's many fathers having died (this time, his real father), he came to me with tears in his eyes to ask me for a little rum to take to town, where he said his family were waiting for him. Some days previously the cook had told me that his father was suffering from the sleeping sickness, and was nearing his end, so that when I heard the cry of "Chibai-i " floating across the valley from a little town close to that in which the cook lived, I guessed who the dead one was, and was prepared to lose the cook's services for a certain number of days.

The death of the father of a family is always a very sad event, but the death of the father of a Fjort family seems to me to be peculiarly pathetic. His little village at once assumes a deserted appearance; his wives and sisters, stripped of their gay cloths, wander aimlessly around and about the silent corpse, crying and wringing their hands, their tears coursing down their cheeks along little channels washed in the thick coating of oil and ashes with which they have besmeared their dusky faces. Naked children, bereft for the time being of their mother's care, cry piteously; and the men, with a blue band of cloth (ntanta mabundi) tied tightly round their heads, sit apart and in silence, already wondering what evil person or fetish has caused them this overwhelming loss.

The first sharp burst of grief being over, loving bands shave and wash the body, and, if the family be rich enough, palm-wine or rum is used instead of water. Then the heavy body is placed upon mats of rushes and covered with a cloth. After resting in this position for a day, the body is wrapped in long pieces of cloth and placed upon a kind of rack or framework bed, underneath which a hole has been dug to receive the water, etc, that comes from the corpse. A fire is lighted both at the head and foot of the rack, and the body is covered each day with the leaves of the Acaju, so that the smoke that hangs about it will keep off the flies. More cloth is from time to time wrapped around the body; but, unless there are many palavers which cannot be quickly settled, it is generally buried after two or three wrappings. The more important the person, the longer, of course, it takes to settle these palavers and their many complications; and as the body cannot be buried until they are settled, one can understand how the heirs of a great king sometimes come to give up the hope of burying their relation, and leave him unburied for years. On the other hand, the slave, however rich he may be, is quickly buried.

The family being all present, a day is appointed upon which the cause of the death shall be divined. Upon this day the family, and the family in which the deceased was brought up, collect what cloth they can and send it to some well-known Nganga, a long way off. The Nganga meets the messengers and describes to them exactly all the circumstances connected with the life, sickness and death of the deceased; and if they conclude that this information agrees with what they know to be the facts of the case, they place the cloth before him and beseech him to inform them the cause of their relation's death. This the Nganga sets himself to divine. After some delay he informs the relations (1) that the father has died because someone (perhaps now dead) knocked a certain nail into a certain fetish, with his death as the end in view, or (2) that so-and-so has bewitched him, or (3) that he died because his time had come.

The relations then go to the Nganga of the fetish or Nkissi mentioned, and ask him if he remembers so-and-so knocking a nail into it? and if so, will be kindly point out the nail to them? He may say Yes. Then they will pay him to draw it out, so that the rest of the family may not die. Or the relations give the person indicated by the Nganga as having bewitched the dead man, the so-called Ndotchi (witch), a powdered bark, which he must swallow and vomit if he be really innocent. The bark named Mbundu is given to the man who owns to being a witch, but denies having killed the person in question. That of Nkassa is given to those who deny the charge of being witches altogether. The witches or other persons who, having taken the bark, do not vomit are either killed or die from the effects of the poison, and their bodies used to be burnt. Since civilized government have occupied the country a slight improvement has taken place, in that the relations of the witch are allowed to bury the body. If events turns out as divined by the Nganga, he retains the cloth given to him by the relations or their messengers: otherwise he must return it to the family, who take it to another Nganga.

While all this is going on, a carpenter is called in to build the coffin; and he is paid one fowl, one mat of rushes, and one closely woven mat per day. Rum and a piece of blue cloth are given to him on the day he covers the case with red cloth. Palm-wine, rum, and cloth are given to him as payment on its completion. And now that all palavers are finished, and the coffin ready, the family are once more called together; and the prince of the land and strangers are invited to come and bear how all the palavers have been settled. A square in front of the shimbec containing the coffin is cleared of herbs and grass, and carefully swept; and here, during the whole night previous to the official meeting, women and children dance. Mats are placed immediately in front of the shimbec for the family and their fetishes (Poomba): the side opposite is prepared for the prince and his followers; and the other two sides are kept for those strangers and guests who care to come. At about three o'clock guns are fired off as a signal that all is ready. The family headed by their elder and spokesman then seat themselves ready to receive their guests. Then the guests glide into the village and make their way to the elder, present themselves, and then take their allotted seats.

When all are assembled, the elder addresses the two family fetishes held by two of the family. Pointing and shaking his hand at them, he tells them how the deceased died, and all the family has done to settle the matter; he tells them how they have allowed the father to be taken, and prays them to protect the rest of the family; and when he has finished his address, the two who hold the fetishes, or wooden figures, pick up a little earth and throw it on the beads of the fetishes, then, lifting them up, rub their heads in the earth in front of them.

Then the elder addresses the prince and his people, and the strangers who have come to bear how the deceased has died, and offers them each a drink. When they have finished drinking, he turns to the fetishes and tells them that they have allowed evil to overtake the deceased, but prays them to protect his guests from the same. Then the fetishes again have earth thrown at them, and their heads are once more rubbed in the earth.

And now the elder addresses the wives and tells them that their husband has been cruelly taken from them, and that they are now free to marry another; and then, turning to the fetishes, he trusts that they will guard the wives from the evil that killed their husband; and the fetishes are again dusted and rubbed in the earth.

On the occasion that I watched these proceedings, the elder got up and addressed me, telling me that my cook, who had served me so well and whom I had sent to town when he was sick, etc.,etc., had now lost his father; and once more turning to his fetishes, the poor creatures were again made to kiss old mother earth, this time for my benefit.

If a witch has to undergo the bark-test, rum is given to the prince, and he is told that if he hears that the Ndotchi has been killed he is to take no official notice of the fact.

Then the men dance all through the night; and the next day the body is placed in the coffin and buried. In KaCongo the coffin is much larger than that made in Loango; and it is placed upon a huge car on four or six solid wheels. This car remains over the grave, ornamented in different ways with stuffed animals and empty demijohns, animal-boxes, and other earthenware goods, in accordance with the wealth of the deceased. I can remember when slaves and wives were buried together with the prince; but this custom has now died out in Loango and KaCongo, and we only bear of its taking place far away inland.

The "fetish cbibinga"[1] sometimes will not allow the corpse to close its eyes. This is a sure sign that the deceased is annoyed about something, and does not wish to be buried. In such a case no coffin is made, the body is wrapped in mats and placed in the woods near to an Nlomba tree. Should he be buried in the ordinary way, all the family would fall sick and die. Should his chimyumba (KaCongo chimbindi) appear to one of his family, that person would surely die. But others not of the family may see it and not die.

The deceased will often not rest quiet until his nkulu (soul? spirit?) is placed in the head of one of his relations, so that he can communicate with the family. This is done by the Nganga picking up some of the earth from the grave of the deceased, and, after mixing it with other medicine, placing it in either the born of an antelope (lekorla) or else a little tin box (nkobbi). Then seating himself upon a mat within a circle drawn in chalk on the ground, he shakes a little rattle (nquanga) at the patient, and goes through some form of incantation, until the patient trembles and cries out with the voice of the deceased, when they all know that the nkulu has taken up its residence in his head. The medicine and earth together with the nkobbi is called nkulu mpemba, and shows that the deceased died of some ordinary disease; but when the medicine and earth are put into the lekorla it shows that the deceased died of some sickness of the bead, and this is called nkulu mabiali.

[1. Chibinga is the state of a corpse which remains with its eyes open, and is also the power, or nkissi, that is the cause of this affliction.]

The Fjort say the "shadow" ceases at the death of the person. I asked if that was because they kept the corpse in the shade; what if they put the corpse in the sun? The young man asked turned to his elderly aunt and re-asked her this question. "No," she said emphatically, "certainly not!"[1]

[1. Miss Kingsley writes as follows on this: "The final passage is an unconscious support to my statements regarding the four souls of man. The shadow dies utterly at bodily death; therefore it does not matter whether the corpse is in the sun, or no, because the shadow it might throw would not be the shadow of the man as he was when alive; it would only be the shadow of the dead stuff." (See Folk-Lore, vol. viii., p. 144.)]

Next: APPENDIX I: Nzambi.