13 AUGUST 1948, Page 11



HAVING left the immediate neighbourhood of the Congo, having lost touch with the main branch of their family, now under Belgian protection, the Tonj Bongos live side by side with the British-administered Dinkas of the Gogriar district of Equatoria in the Southern Sudan. The Dinkas may call them "eaters of boiled millet "; they are able to take refuge in the reputation they have acquired as keepers of the Bongo stones.

I had expected a row of dolmens, but the Bongo stones are no bigger than onions, and go easily into the earthen cooking-pot in which all nine are kept at a decrepit wayside shrine a mile or so from Tonj. It is their influence which is great. The Bongos consult them on weather matters ; they regard them also as touchstones of a suspected conscience. "Tell him to come to the stones tomorrow when the sun is over the trees," Chief Bongo orders. And the suspected one comes to the shrine, there to invoke misfortune upon himself if he is guilty. His crops, his herds, his relations, his own person are exposed to disease and death as he takes each stone in turn, his case as yet unproven. The picture of his hut on fire, his land under locusts and his children snatched up by leopards is drawn in his own words. It is too terrifying.

A Bongo who has wronged another seldom gets to the ninth stone before he tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A Bongo knows that the fate in store for him on owning up is nothing to the vengeance wrought by the stones on perjurers. A Bongo must be cynical, he must, at some time of his life, have left not only the Congo but the continent of his birth, to treat with contempt this curious shrine. Wearing the red sash of his office and supported by a tribal policeman with a whip of rhinoceros hide, Chief Bongo spoke to his rainmaker.

The rainmaker, who was squatting inside a circle of branches, began, as a child might, to arrange and rearrange the pattern of his old stone axe-heads, meteor fragments and fossils. I thought I might—for such are normally to be seen only in glass cases—but there were unseen forces present to withhold my hand. Chief Bongo was looking—and he was looking anxious, as if untold misfortune awaited him should the petrified secrets of these stones pass beyond his tribe. I knew but one answer to the dictate of magic ; silence, and in silence we went on to see some Bongo graves.

These graves are marked by stone cairns set with pinnacles of wooden discs and topped with small carved figures, I suppose symbolic. They also bear the horns of bulls, cut with notches to indicate the dead man's skill as a hunter. From the shape of these notches and their number a Bongo may tell how many lions, leopards, elephants and other big game the deceased despatched before, at death, his hut was burnt with proper ceremony and he interred beneath its ashes—unless the heirs choose another spot, a tree or tryst, to which the dead man was known to be attached.

The wooden grave ornaments were stuck with arrows, shot at the

funeral. No wonder that Bongos remain at least within the orbit of the Congo, where they can live and die tomforted by their own rites, since none, venturing far, could hope to be buried with military honours. These "eaters of boiled millet" ! Did the traveller Schweinfurth find a clue to this derogatory term when he noted that the Bongos of Tonj plucked their eyebrows and eyelashes with a small pincers called peeno ? That was in the 'seventies. In those days Bongos were rustled more eagerly by slave-raiders than any other tribe in the Bahr el Ghazal.

I did not notice that the grandchildren of the slavers' victims showed any marked signs of a servile mentality. Among their neighbours was none whose attitude towards strangers has in the past been expressed by the disfigurement of the lower lip to a sulk as big as a coffee-cup saucer. In common with other tribes in the region the Bongos have had their self-respect restored ; a sense of freedom has emerged with the suppression by Britain and Belgium of inter-tribal strife, which in the Southern Sudan continued well into the 'twenties. Internal security may explain why the Bongos do not want to leave the Congo, but I still had not found why they were called "eaters of boiled millet." I asked the Commissioner, he who had told me of a council lately set up in his Gogrial district and whose budget he had just drasti- cally cut, since it had been drawn up in the ingenuous spirit of newcomers to local government. He could tell me about tile-making, which process he had perfected after many experiments with moulds, presses and clay mixtures. He knew how to line a forty-foot well with concrete sections, thus reducing a month's labour, brick- laying, to a day's job. One of his men had been followed down the well by the planks from the top. The victim ? An "eater of boiled millet ". . .

A Bongo, he had come from a village, several of whose members' worked in the Tonj dried-meat factory. I went to this factory and there met Mohammed Yassin, a handsome Nuer, educated at Gordon College, Khartoum, and now wearing creased white shorts, a bush shirt, white stockings and a new sun helmet. He said he was making five tons of biltong a month ; cured hides went to Khartoum, where they sold wholesale for fifteen shillings each ; dried blood was in good demand in Uganda ; bone ash went—I do not know where—and beef dripping in four-gallon petrol tins had been known to travel as far afield as fat-starved Britain. Mohammed

Yassin's ability to raise production in the straw-thatched rakubas of his quaint factory was limited only by the unwillingness of Dinkas

to part with their beloved cattle. And the Dinkas were the ones who spoke of the Bongos as "eaters of boiled millet." That explained it. The tall Dinkas of the Upper Nile swamps—they stand head and shoulders over the Bongos—are mildly contemptuous of their neigh- bours, whose wealth is not counted in cattle, but derived from the cultivator's hoe, from an aptitude for wood-carving and from humble jobs like going down wells, and on to their knees to dry out the blood of beasts which they, the aristocracy of "the Bog," pass on to Government at five pounds a head.

In the opinion of the Dinkas, the Bongos are just another of those, meat-hungry tribes for whom the Government is starting biltong factories. Inhibited cannibals, forced when unable to find a shilling for a pound of dried meat, to fall back on boiled millet! More tolerantly viewed, the Bongos are the Celts of the jungle. Animists, they dwell less on material things and more on the whispered word and the secrets of nature. One of those secrets—never revealed by the Bongo stones—is why livestock should flourish in the Dinka kraals and not in Bongo country.

The answer is the tsetse fly, which spreads trypanosomiasis among livestock and sleeping-sickness among men, a factor bearing strongly on the past recourse of the meat-hungry tribes of Central Africa to cannibalism. Dimidium, a new drug to immunise cattle from this fly-borne infection, is now giving promising results in trials held in the Southern Sudan and soon to be completed. If successfully applied, dimidium will bring wider changes to the domestic economy of Central Africa than merely to relieve the Bongos of Tonj of a surfeit of boiled millet. Dimidium may even strengthen the attachment of the Congo Bongos to the seat of their, nostalgic leanings.