Country of the Dwarfs - Paul du Chaillu

Queer Specimens of Humanity


The day after I had done before the Ashangos the wonderful things I have described to you, as I was seated under the veranda of the king with Mokounga and a few Ashango elders, I began to talk of the country, and I said to them, "People say that there are Dwarfs living in the forest. Is it so, Ashangos? How far are they from Niembouai?" At no great distance from this spot," said the chief, "there is a village of them; but, Oguizi, if you want to see them you must not go to them with a large number of attendants. You must go in a small party. Take one of your Commi men, and I will give you my nephew, who knows the Dwarfs, to go with you. You must walk as cautiously as possible in the forest, for those Dwarfs are like antelopes and gazelles; they are shy and easily frightened. To see them you must take them by surprise. No entreaty of ours could induce them to stay in their settlements if they knew you were coming. If you are careful, to-morrow we shall see them, for as sure as I live there are dwarfs in the forest, and they are called Obongos."

Early the next morning the Ashango chief called one of his nephews and another Ashango, and ordered them to show me the way to the country of the Dwarfs. So we got ready to start, I taking three of my Commi men with me—Rebouka, Igalo, and Macondai. I had put on a pair of light India-rubber boots in order not to make any noise in the forest. Before leaving I gave a large bunch of beads to one of the Ashango men, and told him as soon as we made our appearance in the village to shout, "Obongos, do not run away. Look here at the beads which the Spirit brings to you. The Spirit is your friend; do not be afraid; he comes only to see you."

After leaving Niembouai we walked through the forest in the most cautious manner, and as we approached the settlement the Ashango man who was in the lead turned his head toward us, put a finger on his lips for us to be silent, and made a sign for us to walk very carefully, and we advanced with more circumspection than ever. After a while we came to the settlement of the Dwarfs. Over a small area the undergrowth had been partially cut away, and there stood twelve queer little houses, which were the habitations of these strange people, but not a Dwarf was to be seen. They had all gone. "Nobody here," shouted the Ashangos, and the echo of their voices alone disturbed the stillness of the forest. I looked around at this strange little settlement of living Dwarfs. There was no mistake about it. The fires were lighted, the smoke ascended from the interior of their little shelters; on a bed of charcoal embers there was a piece of snake roasting; before another were two rats cooking; on the ground there were several baskets of nuts, and fine of berries, with some large wild fruits that had been gathered by the Dwarfs in the woods; while near by stood several calabashes filled with water, and some bundles of dried fish.

There was, indeed, no mistake: the huts I had seen on my way to Niembouai were the same as these, and had been made surely by the same race of Dwarfs. The Ishogos had told me no idle stories. I wish you could have seen the faces of Rebouka, Igalo, and Macondai. "Oh! oh! oh!" they exclaimed. "Chally, what are we not going to see in the wild countries you bring us to? These people must be niamas  (beasts); for, look," said they, pointing to their huts, "the shelters of the nshiego-mbouvé are quite as good."

I lingered a long while in the hope that the Dwarfs would return, but they did not. We called for them, but our voices were lost; we followed some of their, tracks, but it was of no use. "You can not overtake them," said the Ashangos, "for they can run through the jungle as fast as the gazelle and as silently as a snake, and they are far off now. They are afraid of you." Before leaving their settlement I hung on the lower branches of trees surrounding their village strings of beads of bright colors which I carried with me in my hunting; bag, for I always had some ready to give away whenever I wanted to do so. I had red, white, and yellow beads with me that day, and the trees looked gay with these strings hanging from them. We had taken goat-meat for the Dwarfs, and I hung up three legs of goats also, and several plantains, and I put a little salt on a leaf near a hut, and we departed. So I hoped that the dwarfs, seeing what we had left behind us, would become emboldened, and see that we did not desire to do them harm, and that next time they would not be afraid of us.

I was pleased to perceive on our arrival in the evening at Niembouai that the Ashangos seemed glad to see us again, though the chief was quite disappointed that we had not seen the little Obongos.

That evening the Ashangos clustered around me, and wanted me to talk to them, not in their own language, but in the language of the oguizis (spirits). So I talked to them, and their wonder was great, and I read to them from a book, all of them listening the while with their mouths wide open. Then I took my journal, and read to them aloud in English, and after reading the part which related to what I had done in the Ishogo village of Mokenga, I translated it to them, to the great delight of the Ishogos. The part I read related to my arrival in Mokenga; how the people were afraid of me, and what warm friends we became, and how the villagers said I had moved the big boulder of granite. At this there was a tremendous shout. Then I said, "Ashangos, the oguizis do not forget any thing. What I write will always be remembered. Now I will read you something we have from an oguizi who wrote about Dwarfs. The name of that oguizi was Herodotus." "And yours," shouted the Ishogos, "is Chally!"

"That oguizi, Herodotus" I continued, "wrote about what he heard and, what he saw, just as I do. Long, long ago, before any tree of the forest round you had come out of the ground" (I could not count in their language, and say about 2300 years ago), "that oguizi, Herodotus, traveled just as I am traveling to-day"—"Oh! Oh!" shouted the Ashangos. "Mamo! mamo! shouted the Ishogos. "Listen! listen!" said my Commi men in English, for they all now could talk a little English—and he writes:

"'I did hear, indeed, what I will now relate, from certain natives of Cyrene. Once upon a time, when they were on a visit to the oracular shrine of Ammon, when it chanced in the course of conversation with Etearchus, the Ammonian king, the talk fell upon the Nile—how that its source was unknown to all men. Etearchus, upon this, mentioned that some Nasamonians had come to his court, and, when asked if they could give any information concerning the uninhabited parts of Libya, had told the following tale (the Nasamonians are a Libyan race who occupy the Syrtes and a tract of no great size toward the east). They said there had grown up among them some wild young men, the sons of certain chiefs, who, when they came to man's estate, indulged in all manners of extravagances, and, among other things, drew lots for five of their number to go and explore the desert parts of Libya, and try if they could not penetrate farther than any had done previously. (The coast of Libya, along the sea, which washes it to the north throughout its entire length from Egypt to Cape Soloeis, which is its farthest point, is inhabited by Libyans of many distinct tribes, who possess this whole tract except certain portions which belong to the Phœnicians and the Greeks.) Above the coast-line and the country inhabited by the maritime tribes, Libya is full of wild beasts, while beyond the wild-beast region there is a tract which is wholly sand and very scant of water, and utterly and entirely a desert. The young men, therefore, dispatched on this errand by their comrades, with a plentiful supply of water and provisions, traveled at first through the inhabited region, passing which they came to the wild-beast tract, whence they finally entered upon the desert, which they proceeded to cross in a direction from east to west. After journeying for many days over a wide extent of land, they came a last to a plain where they observed trees growing: approaching them and seeing fruit on them, they proceeded to gather it; while they were thus engaged there came upon them some dwarfish men under the middle height, who seized them and carried them off. The Nasamonians did not understand a word of their language, nor had they any acquaintance with the language of the Nasamonians. They were carried across extensive marshes, and finally came to a city in which all the men were of the height of their conductors, and dark complexioned. A great river flowed by the city, running from west to east and containing crocodiles. Etearchus conjectured this river to be the Nile, and reason favors this idea.'"

"Oh! oh!" shouted my Commi men. "It is no wonder that the white man forgets nothing. Chally, will what you write about the strange things we see be remembered in the same manner with what that man Herodotus wrote?"

"I do not know," said I. "If the white people think that what we saw is worthy of preservation, it will be remembered; if not, it will be forgotten. But never mind, I said; "let us see for ourselves, and what a tale we shall have to tell to our people on our return; for what we see no other men have ever seen before us."

After my story of Herodotus the shades of evening had come, and a great Ashango dance took place. How wild, how strange the dancing was in the temple or house of the, mbuiti (idol)! The idol was a huge representation of a woman, and it stood at the end of the temple, which was about fifty feet in length, and only ten feet broad. The extremity of the building, where the mbuiti was kept, was also dark, and looked weird by the light of the torches as I entered. It was painted in red, white, and black.

Along the walls on each side were Ashango men seated on the ground, each having a lighted torch before him. In the centre were two mbuiti-men (doctor, priest) dressed with fibres of trees round their waist; each had one side of his face painted white and the other side red. Down the middle of the breast they had a broad yellow stripe, and the hollow of the eye was painted yellow. They make these different colors from different woods, the coloring matter of which they mix with clay. All the Ashangos were also streaked and daubed with various colors, and by the light of their torches they looked like a troop of devils assembled on the earth to celebrate some diabolical rite. Round their legs were bound sharp-pointed white leaves from the heart of the palm-tree; some wore feathers, others had leaves behind their ears, and all had a bundle of palm-leaves in their hands. They did not stir when I came in. I told them not to stop; that I came only to look at them.

They began by making all kinds of contortions, and set up a deafening howl of wild songs. There was an orchestra of instrumental performers near the idol, consisting of three drummers beating as hard as they could with their sticks on two ngomas  (tam-tams), one harper, and another man strumming with all his might on a sounding-board. The two mbuiti-men danced in a most fantastic manner, jumping and twisting their bodies into all sorts of shapes and contortions. Every time the mbuiti-men opened their mouths to speak a dead silence ensued. Now and then the men would all come and dance round the mbuiti-men, and then they would all face the idol, dance before it, and sing songs of praise to it.

I could not stand this noise long, so I left my Ashangos to enjoy themselves, and, as usual before retiring, ordered my men to keep their watch in a proper manner.

"Don't be disheartened," said the chief of Niembouai to me after my unsuccessful attempt to see the Dwarfs. "I told you before that the little Obongos were as shy as the antelopes and gazelles of the woods. You have seen for yourself now that what I said was true. If you are careful when you go again to their settlement, you will probably surprise them, only don't wait long before going again, for they may move away."

Before sunrise the next morning we started again for the settlement of the little Dwarfs: We were still more cautious than before in going through the jungle. This time we took another direction to reach them, lest perhaps they might be watching the path by which we had come before.

After a while I thought I saw through the trunks of the trees ahead of us several little houses of the Dwarfs. I kept still, and immediately gave a sign to make my guides maintain silence. They obeyed me on the instant, and we lay motionless on the ground, hardly daring to breathe. There was no mistake about it; we could see, as we peeped through the trees, the houses of the Dwarfs, but there seemed to be no life there, no Obongos. We kept watching for more than half hour in breathless silence, when lo! Rebouka gave a tremendous sneeze. I looked at him. I wish you had seen his face. Another sneeze was coming, and he was trying hard to prevent it; and made all sorts of faces, but the look I gave him was enough, I suppose, and the second sneeze was suppressed. Then we got up and entered the little settlement of the Dwarfs. There was not one of them there. The village had been abandoned. The leaves over the little houses were dry, and, while we were looking all round, suddenly our bodies were covered with swarms of fleas, which drove us out faster than we came. It was awful, for they did bite savagely, as if they had not had any thing to feed upon for a whole month.

We continued to walk very carefully, and after a while we came near another settlement of the Dwarfs, which was situated, in the densest part of the forest. I see the huts; we cross the little stream from which the Dwarfs drew their water to drink. How careful we are as we walk toward their habitations, our bodies bent almost double, in order not to be easily discovered. I am excited—oh, I would give so much to see the Dwarfs, to speak to them! How craftily we advance! how cautious we are for fear of alarming the shy inmates! My Ashango guides hold bunches of beads. I see that the beads we had hung to the trees have been taken away.

All our caution was in vain. The Dwarfs saw us, and ran away in the woods. We rushed, but it was too late; they had gone. But as we came into the settlement I thought I saw three creatures lying flat on the ground, and crawling through their small doors into their houses. When we were in the very midst of the settlement I shouted, "Is there any body here?" No answer. The Ashangos shouted, "Is there any body here?" No answer. I said to the Ashangos, "I am certain that I have seen some of the Dwarfs go into their huts." Then they shouted again, "Is there any body here?" The same silence. Turning toward me, my guides said, "Oguizi, your eyes have deceived you; there is no one here; they have all fled. They are afraid of you." "I am not mistaken," I answered. I went with one Ashango toward one of the huts where I thought I had seen one of the Dwarfs go inside to hide, and as I came to the little door I shouted again, "Is there any body here?" No answer. The Ashango shouted, "Is there any body inside?" No answer. "I told you, Oguizi, that they have all run away." It did seem queer to me that I should have suffered an optical delusion. I was perfectly sure that I had seen three Dwarfs get inside of their huts. "Perhaps they have broken through the back part, and have escaped," said I; so I walked round their little houses, but every thing was right—nothing had gone outside through the walls.

In order to make sure, I came again to the door, and shouted, "Nobody here?" The same silence. I lay flat on the ground, put my head inside of the door, and again shouted, "Nobody here?" It was so dark inside that, coming from the light, I could not see, so I extended my arm in order to feel if there was any one within. Sweeping my arm from left to right, at first I touched an empty bed, composed of three sticks; then, feeling carefully, I moved my arm gradually toward the right, when—hallo! what do I feel? A leg! which I immediately grabbed above the ankle, and a piercing shriek startled me. It was the leg of a human being, and that human being a Dwarf! I had got hold of a Dwarf!

"Don't be afraid; the Spirit will do you no harm," said my Ashango guide.

"Don't be afraid," I said, in the Ashango language, and I immediately pulled the creature I had seized by the leg through the door, in the midst of great excitement among my Commi men.

"A Dwarf!" I shouted, as the little creature came out. "A woman!" I shouted again—"a pigmy!" The little creature shrieked, looking at me. "Nchendé! nchendé! Nchendé!" said she. "Oh! oh! oh! Yo! yo! yo!" and her piercing wail rent the air.

What a sight! I had never seen the like. "What!" said I "now I do see the Dwarfs of Equatorial Africa—the Dwarfs of Homer, Herodotus—the Dwarfs of the ancients."

How queer the little old woman looked! How frightened she was! she trembled all over. She was neither white nor, black; she was of a yellow, or mulatto color. "What a little head! what a little body! what a little hand! what a little foot!" I exclaimed. "Oh, what queer-looking hair!" said I, bewildered. The hair grew on the head in little tufts apart from each other, and the face was as wrinkled as a baked apple. I can not tell you how delighted I was at my discovery.

So, giving my little prize to one of the Ashangos, and ordering my Commi men to catch her if she tried to run away, I went to the other little dwelling where I thought I had seen another of the Dwarfs hide himself. The two little huts stood close together. I shouted, "Nobody here?" No answer. Then I did what I had done before, and, getting my head inside of the hut through the door, again shouted, "Nobody here?" No answer. I moved my right hand to see if I could feel any body, when, lo! I seized a leg, and immediately heard a shriek. I pulled another strange little Dwarf out of the door. It was also a woman, not quite so old as the first, but having exactly the same appearance.

The two Dwarf women looked at each other, and began to cry and sing mournful songs, as if they expected to be killed. I said to them, "Be not frightened!"

Then the Ashangos called to the last Dwarf who had hid to come out; that it was no use, I had seen them all. They had hardly spoken when I saw a little head peeping out of the door, and my Ashangos made the creature come out. It was a woman also, who began crying, and the trio shrieked and cried, and cried and shrieked, wringing their hands, till they got tired. They thought their last day had come.

"Don't be afraid," said the Ashangos; "the Oguizi is a good oguizi." "Don't be afraid," said my Commi men.

After a while they stopped crying, and began to look at me more quietly.

For the first time I was able to look carefully at these little Dwarfs. They had prominent cheek-bones, and were yellow, their faces being exactly of the same color as the chimpanzee; the palms of their hands were almost as white as those of white people; they seemed well-proportioned, but their eyes had an untamable wildness that struck me at once; they had thick lips and flat noses; like the negroes; their foreheads were low and narrow, and their cheekbones prominent; and their hair, which grew in little, short tufts, was black, with a reddish tinge.

After a while I thought I heard a rustling in one of the little houses, so I went there, and, looking inside, saw it filled with the tiniest children. They were exceedingly shy. When they saw me they hid their heads just as young dogs or kittens would do, and got into a huddle, and kept still. These were the little dwarfish children who had remained in the village under the care of the three women, while the Dwarfs had gone into the forest to collect their evening meal—that is to say, nuts, fruits, and berries—and to see if the traps they had set had caught any game.

I immediately put beads around the necks of the women, gave them a leg of wild boar and some plantains, and told them to tell their people to remain, and not to be afraid. I gave some meat to the little children, who, as soon as I showed it to them, seized it just in the same manner that Fighting Joe or ugly Tom would have done, only, instead of fighting, they ran away immediately.

Very queer specimens these little children seemed to be. They were, if any thing, lighter in color than the older people, and they were such little bits of things that they reminded me—I could not help it—of the chimpanzees and nshiego-mbouvés I had captured at different times; though their heads were much larger.

I waited in vain—the other inhabitants, did not come back; they were afraid of me. I told the women that the next day I should return and bring them meat (for they are said to be very fond of it), and plenty of beads.