Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/Life at the Cameroons
|LIFE AT THE CAMEROONS.|
By ROBERT MÜLLER, M. D.
THE Cameroons youth has the inclination to independence from the day of his birth, and it is taken advantage of by his mother. Before he can walk, she sets him out near the house, where he looks about him all the day at will. As soon as he is large enough she gives him the day's catch of fish of his father or elder brother, to spread and turn for drying and putting away. As soon as he can use his legs, he is taken by his brothers or a friendly youth in the canoe, and is gradually taught the management of the vessel. When he has become stronger, he is allowed to go alone and disport himself in the water to his heart's content. At the same time he begins to fish, using four lines at once—two attached to his big toes as his feet hang over the side of the boat, and two held in his hands. It is a curious spectacle indeed to see him pulling in first one foot and then the other, as a fish has been caught upon it, and at the same time gesticulating with his arms to keep the boat in position and manage the lines in his hand. As he fishes the boat is allowed to drift down the stream; but the pulling back absorbs his entire attention. Crab-fishing comes in about every two years, when the crustaceans occupy the water so thickly that they can be caught as fast as they can be taken out with the hands.
For the chief dish at his breakfast or dinner he receives a hash of various vegetables, baked or packed sausage-fashion in leaves. Rice, bought from the factories, and pilot-bread from the ships, are becoming common, and are regarded as delicacies. A favorite dish is made of chicken and yams, cooked, with pepper-pods, in palm oil. The youth eats his meal in company with his mother and brothers and sisters, and is allowed only in exceptional cases to share his father's usually solitary repast. By "brothers and sisters" are understood only children of the same mother; the others are the sons and daughters of his father. I learned this when I asked my little companion Akuelle, a son of King Bell, who was the other youth with us. "He is a son of King Bell," was the reply. "Then he is your brother?" "No, doctor, he has another mother." When the child is nine years old he is shorn and counted among the men. If his father is rich, a wife is bought for him, but the couple are not expected to live together for some years yet. During his earlier years the negro of this part of Guinea is conspicuously intelligent and a most pleasing companion. But his good qualities disappear with the passing away of his youth, and he becomes the false, idle, quarrelsome African of the factories.
The breech-clout constitutes the usual clothing of the men. A small apron is also worn, so that if the former piece becomes oppressive it can be taken off without the man being wholly naked. Articles of European clothing are often worn, but only on the upper part of the body; trousers have not yet been admitted to the Cameroons wardrobe. King Bell wears also a stove-pipe hat, which he manages to keep always looking new.
The birth of a girl is received with great joy, as a costless acquisition of wealth, for she is sure when she becomes marriageable to bring a goodly sum. The purchaser may come from the same village or from another, but is more welcome in the latter case, for then he will have to pay more. The child grows up under the eyes of her mother, and is taught by her to cook, work in the field, take care of the other children, and smoke. All this must be done early for it will not be many years before a purchaser will come for her; and at ten or twelve years of age she will probably be called upon to follow a stranger. Notwithstanding the early marriages, the number of children seldom exceeds three, and the woman is a matron at twenty. When she has passed her bloom she is relegated to the capacity of a servant, and her husband gets another, younger wife. Thus men of means often take one or two new women every year. The women and their children live in separate houses, which are not shared by the husband. He lives, too, in a house of his own, in the midst of the women's houses, which are sometimes quite numerous. King Bell has a hundred and twenty wives. The intercourse between mother and child is very different from what it is with us, and the Cameroons mother is more sparing in her caresses than her white sisters. Kissing has no place among them, but they have their own peculiar ways of fondling and petting, which perhaps represent as much affection as the more demonstrative proceedings of Europeans.
So long as they are young and handsome the Cameroons women pay great attention to their toilet. The petticoat, which reaches down from the hips to the ankles, must be thoroughly smooth and clean, and the apron, which is worn under it, is as spotless as the under-clothing of a European lady. Their hair is woven by professional hair-dressers into braids of various shapes, without grease and usually without ornaments, although a woman is occasionally found who wears a string of beads around her head. The dressing usually lasts for a week, and is bound up at night in a cloth for protection. It is also a part of the hair-dresser's business, which is carried on in the street, to pull out the lady's eyelashes. A string of pearls or some other ornament of European origin is worn around the neck. The shoulders, breast, and belly are covered with ornamental tattooing in red and blue, apparently centering at the navel. Elaborate ruffles of ivory or metallic rings are worn upon the wrists and ankles.
The principal musical instrument is the drum, or climbi, which is made from a hollowed log. It has a slot along the direction of its length, which is unevenly divided by a bridge left across it, on which the drumstick is beat to produce different tones. The music is at first monotonous enough to the ear, and it is hard to realize that the instrument is available as a telegraph. Yet this is its principal use. The Cameroons man drums out every event that appears worth communicating. The next man takes it up and drums it on, and in this way news is spread speedily from one village to another. A regular drum-language has been worked out, which the Cameroons man can imitate with his mouth or beat silently on his breast, and thus converse at his convenience with his countrymen, even in the presence of white men who understand the spoken language. The drum-telegraph does not cease during the whole night, for the Cameroons man is communicative and has much time. The drum is also available as an instrument to dance by. The dances are quite different from those of the civilized world. The sexes being separated, there are no waltzes or contra-dances; there are no pauses for conversation; but the dancing lasts all day, and, when any one gets tired of it, he simply goes away and rests. The performance presents a curious scene, with two fellows beating on their drums as if wild, yet in regular measure, and a company of male or female dancers in action in front of them. These have disposed themselves in a circle, and beginning with short, shuffling steps to the right and left, gradually wax more lively in their motions till the muscles of the legs, arms, and shoulders are all engaged, and the whole body at last gets into a condition of shaking and twisting that no European can imitate. There is, however, no jumping, but a kind of singing, in which a favorite theme is taken up by one of the musicians and joined in by the chorus, which from time to time rises into a regular bellowing. This goes on to the climax, then subsides into a calmer tempo, while the performers are gathering strength for a new outburst. The Cameroons music would be tame without the drum. It is therefore taken into the boat, where the song is performed in the same fashion as at the dance. The subjects of the songs are various: sometimes they celebrate the beauty of the canoe; sometimes the good trade which the singers have made; sometimes scorn of their enemies or praise of their friends; and sometimes they are of love. The other musical instruments are of inferior importance as compared with the drum, and include stringed instruments of various construction, in which the resonance is sometimes strengthened by using a hollow gourd shell; and, in King Bell's royal canoe, a bell and an ivory horn.
The Cameroons man is a most passionate trader. Circumstances compel the recognition of a credit system between Europeans and the Duallas. The black comes to the white man and asks for an advance upon the products which he engages to bring. When he brings them he wants another advance, and, keeping this up for several years, he is liable to get considerably behind in the white man's books. The Europeans accordingly find it convenient to "stop the trade" from time to time, and compel the natives to "wash out their accounts" before they will permit any further advances. This they do by agreement among themselves, whereby the native is debarred the opportunity of skipping from one dealer to another. Trade is almost wholly by barter, in which the blacks receive rice, tobacco, spirits, cloth, guns, ammunition, salt, and knickknacks in exchange for their palm-oil, nuts, and ivory. The Europeans, of course, do not fail to make the bargains profitable to themselves. The unit of values is the "kru," and represents the quantity of goods which the man will receive for a definite quantity of his products. It is a very indefinite standard; for a kru of salt is not worth as much as a kru of cloth, and thus it varies according to the kind of goods in question. It may be rated at about twenty marks German. There are also the "kek," or the quarter-kru, and the "bar," or twentieth of a kru; whence apparently the kru may in the beginning have represented the English pound.
The exchange of his products keeps the Cameroons man very busy. He usually spends the day at the factory in bargaining. For the goods which he has actually brought for the satisfaction of his immediate wants, he usually receives a ticket or "book"; and this little paper is the one thing in the world for which he has a real respect, and by which he will swear. He can not read it, but he has learned that on presenting it he will receive what has been promised him. The mystery of this process seems to him a real enchantment, and he regards it accordingly; and the awe with which it inspires him is extended to all writing.
The objects offered in the factories are not produced by the Cameroons man. He is too idle for that, and prefers to be a middle-man. He buys the goods in "the bush," on such terms as to give him a tremendous profit in the whole transaction. In fact, he cheats the bushman, and because of it conceives a great contempt for him, which he expresses by calling every one whom he regards as dull a bushman.
From time to time the Cameroons man leaves his home, provisions his canoe, and, taking some of his wives with him, is rowed by his slaves into the bush, where he has his appointed trading posts and purveyors. When his boat or boats are filled, he returns to the Cameroons in grand style, and celebrates the end of his expedition with a feast.
The Cameroons man is also a sportsman on the water. The canoe is an exceedingly unstable craft when an inexperienced man is trying to manage it, but the blacks handle it with great skill, and, whether it be a large boat carrying many persons (some of them have capacity for sixty), or built for himself alone, he propels it swiftly, safely, and accurately. A canoe skimming over the water in the panoply of war offers an attractive sight. The boats are handsomely painted in gay colors, and have artistic figure-heads, chiefly representing birds or men, or creatures of fancy. The crew sit on the sides and propel it by dexterous manipulations of the paddles, which they hold with one hand at the end of the handle, and the other close down by the blade; and they pride themselves on the figures and tricks they can execute with it. The boatmen in these war-vessels delight in arraying themselves with warlike emblems—helmets of goat-skin, guns of all kinds except good ones, swords, and bush-knives. While the war vessels are highly adorned, the trading vessels and those in common use are plain.
On account of their lack of industry, the Cameroons people make very few articles beyond what are necessary for their own use; and it is therefore hard to obtain a satisfactory collection of their products. If they could be taught to apply themselves to anything, they would make most excellent wood-carvers. The figure-heads and models of their canoes, and their chairs, are very fine. They make handsome mats and bags of bast. Their fishing nets and lines do them credit. Carved canes of ebony and calabashes are harder to procure. An ivory-cutter drives a good business in making walking-sticks for persons of means. The gardens, in which banana-trees and yams are the most important plants, are taken care of by the women, who also look after the eggs, committing the sale of them to the young people. The youthful salesmen drive their trade at the factories and the ships. The buyer very carefully tests all the eggs, selecting the good ones, which are usually not in very large proportion to the whole number, and the seller takes his pay and goes with the rejected eggs to the next customer. He takes the best he can find out of the lot, and the seller goes on till he generally manages to dispose of most of his stock. Sometimes a chicken pecks through the egg-shell while the bargain is going on. This vexes the European, but is very enjoyable to the native; for are we not fond of teasing those we love? The egg-merchant uses his mouth for a porte-monnaie, and puts coin after coin into it; when he has to make change, he spits his fund into his hand, and picks out the needed six-and three-penny pieces.
The people also keep goats, which they eat and Europeans do not; swine, whose flesh Europeans reject; in the interior, very small cows, which furnish good meat; dogs; and in the way of pets, parrots, monkeys, chameleons, and crabs.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.