We have already spoken of the district of true negroes. In the Sudan they are at their best and purest type. The skin is almost black; the head long and narrow; the face narrow; the hair kinky and woolly. The lower part of the face projects far beyond the upper part. The lips are thick. Negroes have an odor which is peculiar to them, and which most white persons dislike. Many of the negro tribes are composed of persons who are tall, strong, and well built.
Almost all negroes are agriculturists, living in settled villages. Their houses are usually round huts. The Bongo of the upper Nile build huts about twenty feet in diameter and the same in height, which are firm and well built, though made only of poles and thatch. The entrance is so low that one crawls into the hut on hands and knees. On the conical roof are built benches of straw, on which persons sit to overlook and guard the planted fields. The floor inside the hut is made of hard, well-beaten clay. Skins of animals serve as beds. The Wolofs of the Sudan make very similar huts, but do not construct the seats on the roof. Among both tribes they build little granaries near the huts; these are made of basketwork and are set up on posts to place them out of reach of animals.
The African negroes are fond of bright colors and tawdry ornaments. Objects of metal and glass beads are particularly prized. They use rings of iron, copper, and brass of all sizes for the arms, legs, and fingers. Sometimes so many rings will be put upon the arms that they completely cover them. The negroes in some tribes pierce ears, noses, and lips for inserting ornaments. The Bongo women, for example, pierce a series of holes along the rim of each ear, along the edges of the nose, and at the corners of the mouth, and through each hole they thrust a short bit of grass stalk. The men in negro tribes often bear a tribal mark; this is usually the scar or scars left by cutting lines or patterns on the face or chest. Thus the mark of one tribe might be three cuts across each cheek; that of another a pattern of criss-cross lines upon the forehead; another tribe in the central lake district had a line of wart-like swellings, at equal distances from each other, extending from the root of the nose to the top of the forehead. All these tribal marks were cut in childhood, and the cutting must have been painful. It is said that the Bornu baby boys have one hundred and three cuts made on their little bodies for their tribal sign.
African negroes often dress their hair into strange and curious forms, as do also the neighboring negroids. They build it up into great horns, train it out in little strings, the ends of which they fasten to a wooden ring, build it into thick mats or wigs, and insert all sorts of fibres, beads, and ornaments in it. Of course such carefully trained hair must not be spoiled by lying on it, so they have the same sort of wooden pillows as the Fiji Islanders, to keep the head off the ground.
These wooden pillows are often decorated with carvings of human and animal figures. Many negroes delight in wood-carving and sometimes make strange masses of many human and animal figures crowded together in the most curious way. These they paint in bright colors. Near the west coast of Africa several tribes are ivory carvers, and their artists will cover an elephant’s tusk with human figures, animal forms, and geometrical designs; no space will be lost; every spot will be filled.
Most of the negro tribes know how to weave, and some of their cloth made from grass or vegetable fibres is closely and well woven. The most remarkable art of the negroes, however, is their working of iron. They know how to get iron from its ore and to work it into desired forms. They build a little conical smelting furnace or oven of clay, into which they put their fuel and ore. They then blow air through the fire with their rude bellows. This consists of two earthen vessels, or boxes of some sort, over the top of which bladders or skin are tied; tubes lead from these vessels and the lower end of a stick is tied to the middle of each bladder covering. The smith takes the upper ends of the sticks in his hands and works them up and down, first one and then the other. He thus forces air first into one tube and then into the other: these two tubes end in a single clay tube which conducts the air into the furnace. After the blacksmith gets his iron from the ore he works it with heat and beating to the forms wanted. At Benin City, which was at the head of a dreadful negro kingdom, they had learned how to cast bronze and made wonderful objects in it. They made rings, bells, animal figures, plaques with human figures represented on them, and masks of the human head of life size.
Negroes love music and have many instruments, not only rattles, drums, whistles, flutes, and trumpets, but stringed instruments also. In some tribes there are wandering minstrels, who go from place to place playing on their three-stringed guitar and singing songs in praise of the chief or king whom they visit. They sing in his praise if he pays them well; if, however, he is stingy, their songs make bitter fun of him. These minstrels are either men or women: they are feared and disliked, but well treated, as no one wishes to gain their ill will.
Some of the most brutal and cruel acts in the world are done among negro kingdoms like Ashanti, Dahomey, and Benin. No human life is there safe. The king orders instant death to those who offend him. The executioner’s knife is kept busy. Cruel butcheries are connected with their religion, and sometimes the king will have dozens, scores, or even hundreds of men killed to carry messages to his dead father. It is also among negroes that we find cannibalism existing in revolting forms and frightful belief in witchcraft. Any old man or old woman may be accused, at any time, of being a witch: it takes little to prove their guilt, and they are speedily executed.
Negroes often believe that some men can change themselves into wild animals and then resume their own form. They are especially afraid of man-leopards: not unfrequently men who have been thought to be such have been executed. We cannot, however, blame the negroes much for such ideas. Not long ago white Europeans generally believed in werewolves (or manwolves), and there are still districts in Europe where such beliefs exist.
Many African negroes wear charms to protect themselves against harm. Such charms are called gri-gris. Almost anything may be a gri-gri: a part of some animal, a plant, a curious stone. Where the negroes have had much to do with Arabs or other Mohammedans a favorite gri-gri is a verse from the Koran, written on paper done up in a little leathern pouch and hung about the neck. Sometimes a man will be almost covered with gri-gris. He may have so many “as to weigh thirty pounds,” and they may hamper him so “that he must be helped in mounting a horse.”
We have already told you that the Arabs still hunt negro slaves. Many of the negro tribes themselves keep slaves—thus the Wolofs do so. They, however, treat their slaves more kindly than the Arabs do.