Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/709

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EAST CENTRAL AFRICAN CUSTOMS.

EAST CENTRAL AFRICAN CUSTOMS.
By JAMES MACDONALD.
PART I.

THE following account of a few of the customs common among the tribes of east central Africa, in the region of Lake Nyassa, has been gathered from many sources; most of the statements have been revised and corrected by missionaries and others who have, during the past twelve years, been resident in the lake region.

As early as 1586, Don Santos, writing of the natives of eastern Africa, inclines to the belief that they once were acquainted with true religion, and that they had degenerated to such a degree that it, and all idea of a former civilization, had been entirely lost. This opinion he based upon the existence among them of trial by ordeal, which he regarded as having its origin in Scripture, and that from this source they must have first obtained it. The worthy Portuguese, had he lived in our day, would hardly have attributed customs, dating perhaps thousands of years before the Exodus, to the Mosaic legislation. One fact he does record which is of deep interest, if his account can be fully relied upon, and that is, that near Teté, on the Zambezi, men and women were confined in regular pens like cattle, and slaughtered for food as required. These were prisoners taken in war, and who could not, there being a large number, be "used up at once."

Of all central African customs trial by ordeal, which is universal, is that which is most revolting to a European brought for the first time into contact with savage life. When a man is accused of any crime, as theft, arson, murder, witchcraft, or the like, evidence is brought against him in the way common throughout the whole continent. This, however, is never final. The accuser's witnesses swear to anything required of them without the slightest compunction of conscience, and as the prosecutor must produce his evidence first, the defendant's witnesses are ready to swear, and do swear, the opposite of all that has been said. Trial is invariably in open court, and nothing said by the witnesses for the prosecution can be concealed from those that are to follow. There are no affidavits, thus making contradiction at once simple and safe. If rebutting evidence were allowed, the most paltry trial would be interminable. For a witness to be called a liar is, in such a case, a compliment. It proves that his evidence told, and that he, by inference, is a very clever fellow. If the same man were accused of bewitching he would regard it as a foul libel and demand the poison bowl without an hour's delay.

To remedy the defects of trial in court, that by ordeal is