Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/September 1896/The Banziris of the Congo Basin



THE territory of the Banziris extends along the northern shore of the upper Oubanghi between the rivers Ombela and Kouaugo, Africa. They have also a few villages on the southern shore that belong to the Congo Free State. The whole number of Banziris on the north shore may be about four thousand; we lack data for estimating the number of those on the south shore. The tribe is not, therefore, numerically very considerable, and their territorial extension is still less than might be supposed from the number of the population. In fact, they occupy only the edges of the shore. Their cultivated lands are of small extent, and the water is their real element. They deserve attention in the first place as navigators—carriers in a part of the river where steamers penetrate only with great difficulty or do not penetrate at all. They have transported one after another the various French expeditions to the country, they help keep up intercourse between the European advanced posts, and they are a chief resource of the commercial houses in the region. When they are not employed by Europeans they carry on commercial ventures on their own account on the upper Oubanghi and its affluents, or, rather, they undertake long fishing trips to secure a provision of smoked fish for their families. The fishery is furthermore an affair of so much importance to them as to determine real migrations. In the dry season, when the low water uncovers the sand bars of the river, three quarters of the population—men, women, and children—abandon their villages on the land and establish themselves in the middle of the river, where they can fish more conveniently. The provisional establishments set up here do not cost the Banziris much time or material. Their round huts are made of mats of plaited straw, held by a few stakes, and covered by a pointed, thatched roof. The houses in the shore villages, a little larger and more solid, are round like the others and indifferently kept. The real dwellings of the Banziris are their pirogues, and these are their refuges when their neighbors of the tribes to the north press down upon them too closely. These pirogues, hollowed from the trunk of a tree, are usually from thirty to sixty feet long, from two and a half to three feet wide, and fifteen or eighteen inches deep. Their sides, especially on the bottom, are left very thick for protection when they run aground or strike the rocks in passing the rapids. They are full aft and astern. The prow is surmounted by a small oval platform, cut out of the log, and carved more or less elaborately; on the poop is a small round seat, likewise shaped out of the log. The pilot sits here.

A quarter or third of the whole length, in front, is left free. The three or four polers who propel the boat work in this space. They go and come in file, generally with the gymnastic step, striking the platform, already mentioned, with their feet to give them spring. The passengers and baggage are amidships, and a half dozen paddlemen behind, seated on the sides of the boat, assist the polers in hard places. The crews change places every two or three hours. The management of the long and heavy poles, which, in time of high water, have to be from twenty-five to thirty feet long, is much more laborious than that of the short paddles.

There are generally one or two women on board to do the cooking and keep a fire constantly burning on an earthen hearth in the bottom of the boat. An encampment of Banziris offers a picturesque scene, with the pirogues beached on the shore, the crews grouped on the sand, each around their fire, and the long poles stuck in the ground near them, like so many gigantic lances. On the route in fine weather their songs, and the races between landings, with their lusty cries, and all trying to splash the rival boat, make the hours pass pleasantly. Their boisterous gayety is as wholesome and fresh as that of the young demigods of primitive Greece. They have a sculptural beauty, with their well-developed busts and vigorous limbs, the muscles of which have been well brought out by their rude sailor's life; and their nudity, and even the color of their skin—black, with a coppery tinge like bronze—complete the picture. They show their quality in the hard passages, when the pirogues pass the dangerous rapids, when they throw themselves into the whirling waters to hold the boat up or push it on, and they ward it off with their poles from the rocks at the precise moment when it seemed about to break against them. They are wonderful swimmers from infancy. As soon as he is four or five years old the little Banziri is given as his first plaything a pirogue and a paddle suitable to his size, which he sails alone in the creeks around the village. Their features are pleasant and rounded in graceful curves, with not excessively broad faces, full cheeks, round and shortish nose, not flat, the lips not too thick, revealing admirable teeth, and large black eyes, intelligent and merry. They seem very much like the ideal savages of the philosophers of the eighteenth century. They address strangers as their friends, and wear the amiable and pleasant smiles of children.

They eat dog-meat with great relish, drowning the animal and cooking it without skinning or dressing it. This meat is rigorously forbidden to the women, who have no part in preparing the dish. They believe, or affect to believe, that it would make women sick. So rigorously is the prohibition kept, that the Banziris wash themselves carefully after eating dog before touching a woman, if only with the tips of their fingers. Schweinfurth maintains that dog-eating is an indication of cannibalism, but the Banziris strenuously deny every charge of that kind. Besides the edible dog, their domestic animals are a few goats and hens. But the basis of their food supply is afforded by the fishery. They cultivate the banana and manioc, and, as accessories, tobacco, sesame, a little corn, and millet. This agriculture is carried on in a commercial way by family or village groups.

We could not learn whether the Banziris have any elements of religion. They wear no amulets and have no visible fetiches. We observed only one sign of superstition among them. Before starting a-fishing they planted some twigs in the ground, put in the midst of them a handful of cowries, and sprinkled them with fat. The ceremony was supposed to secure an abundance of fish to the one who performed it, but I never learned to whom the sacrifice was offered. The political organization of the people is not much more developed than their religious faith. He is chief who has the most wives, children, slaves, pirogues, and particularly who has boldness to carry on transactions with the whites in the best interest of the tribe. On the death of the father the eldest son inherits the pirogues; the other goods are divided, while the lands are the collective property of the village or the hamlet.

Men and women go nearly nude. A little breechcloth of native goods, made of the bark of a species of ficus described by Schweinfurth, composes all their dress. The men when they go sailing put off even this little bit of clothes, to avoid soiling it. Girls continue totally naked till they are married; three cowries, a few pearls, or a little bell hanging in front of their bodies and held by a belt of pearls or a narrow leather strap, emphasize their nudity. Beads, in necklaces, in armlets, or pins and beads in the hair, form an important element in the toilets of both sexes.

The young women are very charming. Their type is the same as that of the men, but their features are more delicate, with straight nose, small mouth, and slender but not too thin forms. They are sociable with the whites and make themselves innocently agreeable to them as they would to young men of their own tribe, but always with discretion; and they seemed to excel all the other negroes we met in strict virtue, in behalf of which they appear capable of resisting the strongest temptations.

Marriage is preceded by a long courtship, with gallantry much after the European style, and takes place usually when the young woman is from sixteen to twenty years old. The Banziri who marries a Banziri girl pays her father with a large number of guindjas, or the iron picks that are used exclusively for money. A great feast is then given, during which the women dance and the men drink much palm wine. The bride keeps the house for two months without going to the fields or taking part in any of the household work, while the men do the sweeping and till the garden plot. Polygamy is general, but except with rich and influential persons, the Banziris rarely have more than one free wife. The other wives are slaves. The rejoicings and ceremonies observed on the birth of a child are the same, whether it be a boy or a girl. The parents build a little altar of boughs, on which they sacrifice a hen. They then anoint the child's shoulders with the blood of the victim, pronouncing a formula which may be interpreted as a prayer that the child may be preserved from sickness and disaster. Circumcision is not practiced, and the people are disposed to ridicule the men of the surrounding tribes who use this rite.

On the death of a Banziri, all the men of the village attend the funeral banquet, for which many goats are slain, and which lasts two or three days. If the deceased was a chief, all the women shave their heads as a sign of mourning; two slaves are slain and buried with him, and generally also the one of his wives who is judged least deserving. The corpse is interred in a squatting position in a round pit. A blood penalty is exacted for murder. It can be paid in pearls or by the gift of two slaves. If the parties disagree concerning the price of commutation, a sort of vendetta arises between the families. A thief, if a slave, is punished with death; if a freeman, he is sold on the third conviction as a slave.

The arms of the Banziris are hand knives and throwing knives, assegaies, bows and arrows, and oval shields of osier—all similar to the arms of the neighboring tribes from whom they usually come; for the Banziris have but little enterprise in any arts but those which concern their pirogues and fishing tackle, and would rather buy than make.

The articles of trade most in demand and current before everything else are the little white glass beads called bayaka on the Congo. Blue and red ones are accepted, but in small quantities. Cowries, which were in great esteem before the Europeans came, have lost most of their value, though they still have a restricted currency. European picture books, copper armlets, knives, and mirrors might do for presents, but would not be regarded as currency. Cotton goods will pass in small quantities; and firearms and powder are beginning to be in sharp demand.

The headdresses of the Banziris might by themselves form the subject of a whole article. They are built up by women—the mothers, wives, sisters, or friends of the wearer, who weave plaits, tresses, or cords in the hair of the dandies, and adorn them with beads. There is nothing grotesque about the structure; and the model, chosen with the most accurate taste, is always appropriate to the physiognomy of the patient—a word we can well use here, for it takes about eight months to perfect the dressing.

The hair, parted over the back of the head, is brought over to the sides and made up into a number of small tresses which are crimped and rolled into a considerable truncated cone above and a little behind either ear. The top of the section is formed of a larger tress adorned with beads. A series of braids rolled upon one another in the circular contour gives this scaffolding a very curious aspect.

Particular pains is taken with the two bands forming the outline of a shaven triangle over the foreheads which is very common in Banziri toilets. They are formed of natural hair plaited with leaves of herbs. A square of hair and a square of bayaka beads, and then lozenges, form a very graceful design. Other headdresses are less complicated, but in all of them beads are associated with hair in a variety of braids; and this accounts for the time it takes the most skillful hairdressers to perfect their masterpieces. If the elaboration of the structure calls for it, hair is borrowed from slaves or from the dead. The false braid is rolled up on top of the head, or falls gracefully from it. Over the forehead is the shaven triangle bordered with bands of hair set with beads. Sometimes cowries are combined with beads; and the details of the contrivances vary infinitely. Men of war usually wear a tuft of cock or parrot feathers in their hair. After the death of a near relative, pearls, cowries, false braids all disappear, and men and women wear as a sign of mourning their hair as Nature gave it to them.

The Banziris differ in language, customs, and physical appearance from all the surrounding tribes, except their eastern neighbors, the Sangos, whom they much resemble. Opinions may vary as to their origin, but the fact about them that makes them an exception among all the non-Mussulman negroes I met from the Loangos of the coast to the Mandijas and Saras of the unexplored regions is that they are pleasant and their women are graceful.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

  1. Much of the information in this paper was obtained through Bonga, a ten-year-old son of chief Bembe, and very intelligent for his age. The father was one of the most influential men of his tribe, and the first who on the embassy of MM. Crampel and Ponet came to them and accepted the French protectorate. Bonga, after two years' residence with the French, learned to speak the language well, and did excellent and conscientious service as an interpreter.