Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/October 1887/Fetich-Faith in Western Africa



WHILE I was living, in 1884, on the shore of the Kuilu-Niadi River, a fetich-tree was shown me during a walk on the left bank of the stream. It was a Hyphæne-palm, the trunk of which was bent down from a height of about sixteen feet till it touched the ground. It had also grown in a circle around another tree of the same species that stood straight in such a way as to form a crown around it at a height of about ten feet. Within the circle inclosed by the tree-stem lay an old, weathered elephant-tusk. I thought at first that I would send a report of this curious phenomenon to Europe, but afterward concluded to make a more thorough study of fetiches and the belief in them, and obtain a little clearer light on the subject. I was greatly assisted in my efforts by Hübbe-Schleiden's excellent work on "Ethiopia," which I made my guide in my researches. I propose to communicate in this paper what I have learned concerning the fetiches of West Africa.

The word fetich is derived from the Portuguese, in which feitigo means a witch. The use of the word is confined to the coast, and its meaning is unknown to the negroes of the interior. Various expressions are in use on the lower Congo—for example, M'kissi for fetich; N'gille-N'gille for the means by which magic power is given to the fetich; M'lungo is a doctor; and N'doshi are beings of a character similar to that of the were-wolves of European popular mythology. It is much harder to explain the nature of the fetich, for the negro himself is not clear on that subject. I therefore fall back on my authorities, Hübbe-Schleiden and Max Müller. The former says that fetichism is not a proper designation for a religion, for Judaism and Christianity have their fetiches as well as the Nature-religions; the word should be used as analogous with a word-symbol or emblem, as Max Müller has shown. If we should say that the cross is the fetich of Christianity, some persons would think we were guilty of blasphemy, but they would be only those who have no real conception of what a fetich is. The phrase is really as far from blasphemy as science is from idle chattering. The confusion of the emblem with the thought represented, of the material with the spiritual, of the visible with the invisible, is not religion, but superstition, whether it be the worship of fetiches or of relics, idolatry or the adoration of saints. Max Müller says: "We may fancy ourselves secure against the fetich-worship of the poor negro, but there are few if any among us who have not their fetich or idol, either in their church or their heart. The negro's religion is not belief in the power of the fetich, but belief in the power of the spirit through which the fetich is of effect."

One important thought in particular is not peculiar to fetich-faith, but is mixed with the religions of most people; but the negro suffers more than any other man from the fear of ghosts. "In the foaming water, in the dazzling lightning, in the murmuring wind, he sees the working of self-existing spiritual beings. And why should we deprive an anxious human heart of the comforting faith that a piece of hide or a dried snake-head carefully wrapped up and worn about the body can protect him?"

Every Congo negro carries a M'kissi upon himself; and there may be thousands of kinds of them that escape the eyes of the white man. The N'ganga, or medicine-man, is usually the fabricant of the fetich, and whatever he finds good to impose upon his simple-minded, credulous brethren for a high price, sewed up in cloth or leather or inclosed in a goat's horn, is doubly valuable in the eyes of its new possessor, because he believes that his M'kissi stands in a personal relation to himself; and he can not be induced to give it up to a white man for any price. Among these amulets are dried snakes and lizards' heads, little pieces of skin, feathers of certain birds, and parts of known poison-plants. The eye-teeth of leopards are an exceedingly valuable fetich on the Kroo coast, and it is easy to buy with them articles of vastly more real value, like ivory rings, etc. The Kabinda negroes wear a little brown shell, very much like our Linnæus, on their necks. The shells are sealed with wax, and are made, perhaps, vessels containing magic medicines. The larg-e snail-shells found in the Cassava or Manioc fields on the Kuilu Niadi are also M'kissi, and are set in the fields by the women who till them to protect their plantations. One of the chiefs in the upper Kuilu Niadi, in N'kuangila, has a M'kissi against the tornado: it is an antelope-horn. On the approach of a storm the king calls his people together; the horn is stuck in the ground, and a dance is begun around it, which is kept up, in spite of wind and rain, till the tornado is over. Every house in the village has its M'kissi; they are frequently put over the door or brought inside, and then they protect the house from fire and robbery. These penates of the negroes are sometimes figures very artistically cut in wood or ivory, and show a certain degree of native skill and taste in the people. But it is not the guardians of his house only that the negro thus represents in material figures; he also gives corporeal form to diseases, like small-pox, syphilis, and fever. Every town has its war-fetich; and the principle of creation is represented in male and female M'kissi. The Hyphæne palm-tree on the Kuilu shows how the negro sees a spirit at work in the wonders of Nature which he can not explain. That tree was M'kissi to the whole village. Good medicines with which the negroes are acquainted, or of which they experience the salutary effects, are also called M'kissi. A negro called a dose of castor-oil which I gave him, M'kissi mbote, or good medicine.

The white man—mondela or mundele—is regarded by tribes which have seen only a few of the white race, as a fetich, and is feared by them, especially by their women and children, as if he were a ghost. On a journey between Isangile and Manzanger I saw a negro who had covered his whole body with white colors. He was a senator of that secret society of which the N'ganga is chief. These people speak their own secret language, and exercise to a certain extent over the other negroes the office of policemen. Every negro has to turn away from them, because it is believed that the women and children, at least, who look upon one will die. In Wunde I saw in the fetich-house the life-size photograph of a white woman sewed upon a red cloth. It was, as I afterward learned, a part of the effects of a servant of the association who had died on the Congo. I especially remarked, while I was living on the Congo, that photographs are among the things which the negroes most readily steal, and that they take them whenever they can get their hands upon them.

A few words, now, on the fetich-doctor or medicine-man, the N'ganga of the negro, who is also his priest, physician, and chief-justice. If any one in the village dies, the negroes, who can not comprehend that any one should die a natural death, believe that he must have been killed by enchantment or by the evil influence of some other person; in short, that another person was the cause of his death. It is the N'ganga's business to find out who this person is. He consults with the spirits by moonlight, and communicates the result of his interview to the people. The accused person is then subjected to the trial by cassa. Cassa is the bark of a large tree, the Erythrophtæum Guineense (Leguminosæ Cæsalpinceæ), and contains a very strong poison. The delinquent is forced to drink a solution of this bark, which has been prepared by the N'ganga. If he vomits the draught up immediately, he is innocent; but, if it remains in his stomach, he must die. In this case the negroes never wait for the operation of the poison, but fall upon him with sticks and stones, or drive the life out of him in some still more savage way. The issue of the trial by cassa of course lies with the N'ganga, and, if the delinquent can pay enough, that functionary will probably save his life. At one time, the king of a village on the upper Kuilu was very sick. The N'ganga quietly ordered a grand dance, with immense noise, to drive away the evil spirits of the royal sickness. The whites, who had a station in the vicinity, could not sleep at night for the din, and therefore, calling up the N'ganga, offered him several pieces of cloth if he would stop the dance. The N'ganga took the cloth, and there was no more dancing. Such is the N'ganga, the great medicine-man of the negroes. If any one asks whether the missions, of which there are now several on the Congo, can not exert an influence on the fetich-faith of the negroes, I would answer that an influence is possible, but only, I believe, by substituting for the present fetiches other Christian objects such as I saw in the French mission at Laudana, where the converted youth wore little figures of saints on their necks. It will be very hard to take the fetich-faith entirely away from the negroes. It is too deeply lodged in their natures.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.