by Levi Keidel
My Forefathers Were Cannibals
My father named me Maweja, "The all-powerful one"; it is part of a name our ancestors used to describe the Creator. Perhaps the heart of my father was sad because the ideas of people about our tribe prevented him from reaching the greatness he desired; so he hoped such greatness for his son. They had these ideas because of the way our tribe began.
Our forefathers were like vegetable leaves, picked from plants here and there, pounded in mortar, and cooked on fire until they are soft. The one who did these things to them was a black slave raider from a cannibal tribe which sat to the north of us. He came into our country to do his work during the days of my grandparents. His name was Ngongo Lutete.l
When Ngongo Lutete was a boy, Arabs from the far north raided his tribe and took him as their slave. He grew up serving them. He also became filled with their wisdom. It said that black people cannot be counted as human beings. They are worth less than four-footed animals. The only destiny suitable for them is death, mutilation or slavery that wears them down to the end of their breathing. As with livestock, to kill or to spare, either is good. When the Arabs saw that their teaching had made Ngongo Lutete bold and fierce, they gave him guns and put him to work catching people for them.
Ngongo Lutete was not heavy or tall. He had a small pointed beard; his lips were tight and narrow; his eyes red. He rode in a large chair decorated with skins. It was tied between two heavy bamboo poles which were supported by carrying sticks on the shoulders of men, four in front and four behind. Ngongo dressed himself in clothes befitting his authority. He wore a long skirt with many folds; he decorated himself with small bells tied to his ankles, his wrists, and to the chair poles. His carrying-chair also was decorated with trophies from his victims.
From among his tribesmen Ngongo chose a group of seasoned warriors. They had exceedingly sharpened their skills of using weapons, but above all, of using the new fighting iron called "the gun." He made one of his tribesmen named Lupaka their chief.
Lupaka and his men always went ahead of Ngongo. If they found a village chief to be friendly, they asked him to give them warriors for their army. If they found him too strong to defeat in battle, they did as clever hunters who disguise themselves to catch their prey; they built huts by his village and lived there for months until, by cunningness, they won his friendship. If they found a chief who resisted them, they burned the village, caught people, brought an offering of people's heads to Ngongo, and ate meat from their corpses.
Few chiefs denied him what he wanted. His army grew. When he finally arrived at the place where he wanted to make battle, warriors from many tribes milled around him as thick as ants. They were itching constantly to fight. Their weapons were guns, bows, arrows, spears, large hacking-knives, and small stripping knives with carefully decorated handles and blades sharp as razors.
And so Ngongo Lutete, more cruel than a beast, made his war. His nose never ceased lusting for the smell of human blood. The people he caught from war to war, he tied with vines. Their number became so great that tieing vines became scarce. Other people he mutilated: he cut off lips, noses, ears, and tore out eyes to keep as trophies. Other people he made to stand in a row; he cut off their heads one at a time, while standing, making one pile of heads and another of bodies. Then the warriors would prepare baskets full of meat stripped from the bodies, to sell at the slave market. Most of all, Ngongo cherished tender meat; the meat of babies not yet born, taken from their dead mothers' stomachs.
They would take their captives and baskets of meat to a market gathering place to trade with other slave hunters for more guns. Ten persons were traded for a gun; one strong man was traded for two gun-loadings of powder; five women were traded for a handful of iron gun pellets; and one child was traded for a tin drinking cup, an empty bottle, or a large tin can.
What made them do such things? Greed. Greed for nothing; like that which makes a jackal pounce upon a field mouse.
He made war in this manner until the captured people were as many as his army could guard. Then he would march them far north to his capital city. Its high-walled fence was large enough to enclose living places for 15,000 people. Every fence post was covered with a person's skull. In his palace, he walked on a floor of bone, the tops of buried skulls. The corner-posts of his palace veranda were always splotched with fresh blood. Behind him, the earth was swept clean of living people, as a new broom sweeps chaff, not leaving a grain.
I do not say these things to horrify you. Other things I will not relate, lest you turn away from my words. I am describing for you a burden that my race has carried. Can I trust your understanding? On this earth all of us stand one height, like blades of grass. We all share the same end. The common white-haired village man whose wisdom is only that of the forest and field says, "The wisest witch doctor, in spite of all his magic medicines, will someday lie down with me, and we will die together."
My forefathers did not know how to write; they could not count the passing years. The army of Ngongo Lutete spread into our land about the year of 1890. Grandfather did not like to talk about it; he wanted to forget. I loved my grandfather. At times which I felt were fitting, I would ask him questions. Thus during the years of my childhood, he and my clan elders told the story by little pieces. These I put together.
It was early one morning, he told me. Creatures were already stirring; it was already light. People were preparing to leave the village to tend their forest gardens. They had not yet learned about guns. The sky over their heads was clear. Suddenly something spoke, like a bolt of lightning. Terror caught them. They rushed out of the village climbing over the top of one another to escape. They fled toward the forest to hide, and threw themselves into the arms of Lupaka and his warriors. They were surrounded by the men of Ngongo Lutete.
The men of Ngongo did what their hearts desired that day. They butchered until they were weary, then they ate to the licking of bones. Grandfather was young and strong; he was spared. Those left living were bound. They were stripped of all clothing, to show that the whole of their bodies was healthy. A vine was wrapped around the neck of each person to make a tieing band. From these collars, vine cords about three steps long tied them together, two by two. Hands were tied behind their backs. Thus they passed the night.
When morning came they were made to stand, each two facing the same way. By means of the neck bands, poles were tied onto their shoulders. Upon these poles were tied food, gunpowder, iron pellets, and baskets of meat. Children still alive and old enough to walk, were tied by shorter vines to the waists of their mothers. Smaller children who bothered their mothers, were struck like a club against a tree, and discarded. They stood in the hot sun under their heavy loads until all were formed into a long line. Then they began their journey.
Ngongo Lutete continued making wars and catching people. After some days his slaves were great in number, from seven different clans. Then for one day, they rested. On the next day Ngongo and a large part of his warriors left. Those guarding the slaves said he went south to make the last war of this journey. After some days he would return, and they would all start following the footpath northward that led to his city.
The eyes of grandfather and his people saw these things; their bodies endured these things. How did all this make them feel inside? Grandfather never told me. But I know my people well; and from the years of my childhood, my heart and mind have drawn the picture for me.
I see several hundred of them sitting in the high grass beneath a grove of palm trees. It is late evening. The smoke of cooking fires still hangs low. They sit close together; they need the heat from each other to reduce the chill of night that is coming. They have already eaten, but their stomachs still gnaw with hunger. From carrying things, their bodies suffer knife-blades of pain. When they think about the tomorrows, their minds twist with fear. They cannot contain their suffering.
One weakly lifts his voice like a hurt animal, to chant his complaint. Another takes his turn. Then, as the unlocking of a hundred pent-up springs, they pour the bitter water of their hearts into one stream of agony, and lift their voices in a dirge song:
Ngongo, who defies the Almighty,
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