Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/July 1883/African Psychology
By MAX BUCHNER.
ALL of those parts of South Africa which are under the dominion of the Bantu race are ethnographically so homogeneous that the essential facts that may be stated of one tribe apply almost exactly to all, and the differences in dress, stature, color of the skin, utensils and weapons, ornaments, customs, and ideas, which are produced by external and different temporary, not local, changes only, are limited in every case by the same lines. Many of the photographs brought by my friend and colleague Buchta from the Egyptian Soodan might as well have come from the territory I explored, diagonally opposite to it. The language of King Mtesa's Waganda has the same grammatical structure as that of the Angolese, and the vocabularies of both people have numerous similar words.
The negro in his native condition is not apparently of a lower grade of natural intelligence than the European of the common class. He probably excels the European in a kind of selfish cunning, while the restraint of moral scruples and of the finer feelings operates less strongly upon him. Yet he is not destitute of a sort of moral instinct, of a kind of taboo-conscience, that causes him to hesitate to do wrong. If he can not resist the temptation, he resorts to sophistics to give himself an apparent justification. This is a remarkably well-developed trait in his character. For this reason the negro is never an open thief, but will always seek or make an excuse, under the operation of which his robbery may be caused to appear in the light of a reparation made to him. Of such character are the numerous milongas which play so great a part in the life of the traveling trader, the name of which, a much-used word of unpleasant sound, combines in itself various equivocal ideas of criminal process, liability to penalties, oppression, and a great clamor. As an example of the milonga, we may notice a favorite trick among several of the tribes of sending their women into the camps of passing traders to tempt their members by coquettish behavior. On the slightest occasion, the men, who have been watching, rush in in a threatening way, and demand a quantity of goods as a recompense for the affront that has been offered them. The trader has to satisfy them, for he has not force enough to resist them. Another trick is to leave manioc-roots or baskets of grain in the road, where the hungry travelers may be prompted to take them up, when a similar scene of surprise and extortion will be enacted.
The negro is above everything positivist, practical, and materialist, and is inaccessible to intangible considerations. He is not, it is true, destitute of a sense of beauty, and has a word for the idea. But although, other conditions being the same, he will prefer a handsome woman to an ugly one, he is always moved by practical views in his choice. With this practicality is associated the persistent propensity toward falsehood that makes the traveler's way so hard. Hunger and thirst, heat and cold, fever and privation have, I confess, often proved less wearing upon me than the impossibility of ascertaining a fact by means of direct questioning; and I have frequently, in my vain struggles after clear information, been tempted to anathematize language as a tool of error. In indifferent matters the negro will say the first thing that occurs to him, because that is the easiest; in matters that touch his interest, such as the value of anything he may have for sale, no reply will suit him better than a false one. To these two incentives to lying—indifference and cunning—is added a third, the sense of the comic which much questioning arouses within him. Some traders are able to enjoy the stories the blacks tell under such circumstances; and they are perhaps harmless, unless the traveler puts them into his notebook and prints them for truth. The negro's moods are cheerful and wanton, superficial and changeable. Passion and hysterical anger are not uncommon, but they pass away as suddenly as they come on. Lasting friendships are not known. Relations apparently the closest are suddenly broken up or changed into enmity by the most insignificant causes.
Melancholy tones can hardly be attributed to the negro spirit, and I would have averred that suicide was inconceivable among them, had I not learned from trustworthy sources that instances of it had occurred. These were, however, only among more nearly civilized individuals. The ruling passions of the race concern the gratification of pleasure and greed for property. The most serious troubles originate in these spheres. The theft of a goat will afford a chief a more ready provocation for war than a box on the ear. The ideas of honor and manliness are almost wholly wanting, at least among the common men. Blows are unpleasant to them only in so far as they cause pain. They will bear the cuffs of their lord with resignation and as matters of course, as a part of the contract, while they will most likely toward strangers put themselves timidly and passively in an attitude of defense.
The question, "Has the negro a religion?" can not be answered at once either affirmatively or negatively. It must first be made clear what is to be understood by religion. If it be defined as a system of conceptions, aspirations, hopes, and apprehensions, and the moral precepts suggested by their operation, then the negro has no religion. If we call a confused mixture of vague wants and superstitious impulses a religion, then he has one. We might, perhaps, say more correctly that the common human weaknesses which are among ordinary motives of religion—feelings of anxiety, longings, illusions, fancies, and the corresponding efforts to get light—are not wanting in the negro, but he lacks the deep reflective power to build up a symmetrical structure out of his theological raw material. As the negro is in the habit of dreaming of his dead relatives, and is very apt to imagine that this or that dead person allows him no rest in the night, and must be silenced by propitiatory offerings, he is not very far from believing in the immortality of the soul. I have frequently inquired of the most intelligent blacks under my command, of those who had been baptized and considered themselves Christians, what they thought of their future after death, and have never received any other answer than that "then life will be at an end, and we shall be buried in the ground and eaten by worms."
They have a word, nsambi, which might be translated by "God." The following are examples of the way it is used: Diulee dia nsambi, God's sky; Kalunga ka nsambi, God's sea; dikembi dia nsambi, God's sun; dikua dia nsambi, God's axe—the name of a grass that cuts very badly; the name nsambi is also applied to the mantis, r praying insect. Personally and practically however, this nsambi, as my Augustus once told me, is of no interest to the negroes. He does them neither good nor harm, and troubles himself only about the whites, who owe their skill and wealth to him.
The woods and fields, however, are supposed to be inhabited by numerous sprites which go out to trouble and vex the blacks, never doing them any good, but are at their best when they are satisfied to be harmless. The dead are regarded as in the same position as toward the living. A third, still more dangerous class of hostile powers, consists of the wicked enchanters among the black's own neighbors, with whom he is in daily intercourse. The magicians are also capable of doing harm to the whites, while the genii and spirits of the dead are not. All sickness, all loss in business, every misfortune, even strokes of lightning, are referred to one or another of these evil influences. The religious aspirations and ritual of the Bantu relate chiefly to provisions against these three negative principles. Among the defenses against evil are oracles, medicine-men, and prayer. The technic of the oracle, the duties relating to which are generally performed by some person who has gained a repute for skill in the art, is extremely childish and ridiculous, and depends upon the crudest and most palpable deception. A favorite method of managing it is to take a piece of board with a smooth groove cut upon it. The oracle-priest rubs a stick back and forth in the groove, all the time asking, if, for instance, the object is to discover who has been guilty of some trespass or witchery: "Was it the Shamuhongo?" "Was it Joao?" and so on. All at once the stick will stop and refuse to slide any more in the groove. The person whose name has just been pronounced when this happens is the guilty individual. None of the by-standers will have any doubt on the subject; for, it is fair to remark, the priest has generally previously taken care to inform himself of the state of public opinion in the matter. Men's lives are frequently risked by these experiments; for the person who is accused in them has afterward to undergo the ordeal of poison. Another method is for the oracle-priest and the person consulting the oracle to take a position in the open air and both grasp with their right hands the handle of an axe which has been placed upright on the ground, the questioner's hand uppermost. The questioner tries with all his might to hold the axe fast to the ground, the oracle-man exerts his strength to lift it up. The answer is given when the axe sticks so fast to the ground that it can not be moved at all. The fear which prevails and is generally quite strong, of beings accused by some of the oracles, has a beneficial effect in restraining malicious mischief and promoting peaceableness.
Of the two chief motives of European prayer—the fervor of devotion and the strength of desire—the negro is acquainted only with the latter, or selfish one. He has a kind of instinctive, unconscious idea that he may attain his wish by giving it constant utterance, and every other higher blossoming of religious wants is strange to him. Prayer is made with a sort of litany, in which the praying-master, swinging a kind of a rattle, utters some appropriate sentence, while the petitioner repeats it in unison with him. Particularly well-trained praying-masters deliver themselves of the prayer in a high falsetto, which appears to them to have a more insinuating, and therefore more effective, sound. There is no real priest class. There are negroes accustomed to daily religious exercises, like devotees among us; but of earnestness and devotion, in the sense in which we understand those terms, not a trace can be observed. The cheerfulness of the negro temperament is never suppressed. If a person happens to come upon any of their religious exercises, and betrays an expression of amusement, the whole company of worshipers will break out into laughter, and be glad that their demeanor has been found so pleasing. Aside from the fear of wicked fetiches, which is a great source of trouble, and from the pleasure of trading, which occasionally carries him hither and thither, the life of the negro passes with a uniform freedom from care. He is born, brought up, takes a wife, begets offspring, grows old, and dies, without having undergone any training, gone to school, had to choose a calling, or been subject to any other kind of anxiety. He has no regularly recurring festivals; but the revelries on the occasion of a death in the connection or in the circle of neighbors and friends are often protracted through many days or even weeks. How many years old he is he neither knows nor cares.
A system for computing time can hardly be predicated of such a people; but they have a kind of superficial calendar of the months, which they make to help regulate their agricultural operations. The Angola negroes count the moons during the period of cultivation, and indicate them by numbers from one to ten. During the dry season, when agriculture is dormant, the calendar also is asleep. In August, when the distant lightning announces the approach of the rainy season, the women start out to clear the fields for the crops; and, as soon as the ground has been wet by the first rains, they plant their ground-nuts. The moon in which this is done is the first. The divisions of the day are measured off according to the place of the sun in the sky.
The often asked and variously answered question of the capacity of the negro for civilization applies in an equal degree to him and to all other savage people. It arises more frequently with respect to the negro, only because the attention of philanthropic men has been more prominently directed to him. It must be answered in his favor. The negro undoubtedly possesses all the capacity for education and civilization to at least as great an extent as our primitive ancestors had it. But, just as our ancestors could not at once and immediately emerge from barbarism into our present conditions of many-sided development and refinement, so we have no reason to expect that the African savages can, in one or two generations, reach the standard of modern Europeans. The fact that the psychical and intellectual, as well as the physical, differences between particular races of men are really insignificant, is destined to be made more plain the more the subject is impartially studied, and the efforts of certain men, learned in distinctions of types, to set up fixed marks of separation between them, will not succeed.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from "Das Ausland."