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Our Little
African Cousin

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IT has been a busy day for every one. In the short twilight the people gather about under the trees for music and storytelling. Mpuke runs to his house for his xylophone, and begins to play a sweet, sad air. One by one his neighbours join in an accompaniment with their rich voices. The African is a natural lover of music; he uses it to express all his feelings.

It is a weird sight, -- this group of black people rocking their bodies to and fro to keep time with the music. As they enter more deeply into the spirit of the evening song the expressions of their faces change; they seem to forget themselves, and become a part of the music itself.

And now the frogs add their voices to the chorus. The crickets and cicadas pipe their shrill notes, while at short intervals a hoarse sound, between a groan and a whining bark, is wafted upwards from the river. It comes from a lonely crocodile who, no doubt, would like to join the company. It is much better for their comfort that he remains where he is.

Mpuke's xylophone is made of strips of soft wood, differing in length, fastened over a set of calabashes. In each calabash a hole has been carefully bored and covered over with spider's web. Perhaps you mistook the calabash for a gourd, which looks much like it. It is a curious growth which forms on the trunks of certain trees near Mpuke's home.

Our little friend makes sweet liquid music on his crude instrument. He calls it a marimba. The village metal-worker made it for the boy in return for many presents of fish.

“That is a good lad,” said the man, “he is thoughtful and generous. I will make him happy.”

After the people have finished their songs, there is music on other instruments besides Mpuke's. Look at that big fellow blowing into an ivory horn. He needs to have a strong pair of lungs if he is going to continue very long. What a dirge-like noise he makes! But when the tom-tom begins to sound, everybody is roused and joins in a wild dance.

The people wind in and out among the trees, round and round again, laughing, shouting, and singing, until they sink out of breath on the grass.

Mpuke is so tired he can hardly keep his eyes open. He drags himself into the hut where his sister lies on her mat, already sound asleep. Listen! what is that scuttling noise among the dried leaves in the corner? Mpuke's bright black eyes are helped by the moonlight streaming through the doorway. He discovers that it is a green lizard, which he knows to be quite harmless. But it is always wise to be watchful.

One night, not many moons ago, as the black boy counts time, he found a centipede close to his bare feet when he woke up suddenly in the night. He is quite sure that a good spirit roused him to save his life.

At another time a lizard of the most deadly kind must have shared the boy's mat with him through the night. At any rate, he found the lizard at his side when his eyes opened to the morning light.

But Mpuke is too sleepy to think about unpleasant things, and in another moment he is dreaming of the roasted elephant that will make to-morrow's feast.

A week passes by. We will visit Mpuke once more as he is eating his early breakfast.

A messenger from the next village comes rushing in to the people. He has run ten miles this morning through the forest paths, and has brought word to Mpuke's father from his own chief. The two men are blood-brothers, and have promised to stand by each other in all troubles and dangers. “Blood-brothers,” you say, “what does that mean ?” When the chiefs were only boys they went through a sacred ceremony together. An arm of each was cut till the blood ran, then the two arms were pressed together, and the blood was allowed to mingle.

They must never quarrel again. No cruel words or deeds should ever pass between them, because they are now bound together by the strongest of all ties.

But what is the message that causes such a state of excitement? It tells that enemies are approaching. It means war, and preparation for awful deeds. Mpuke's father is asked to come to the help of his blood-brother. Will he join him to meet the advancing foes?

There is only one answer possible; not a moment must be lost. The order is given to sound the war-drums; the people burst into an exciting battle-song; blasts from ivory trumpets can be heard throughout the village; the men cover their faces with charcoal and hastily seek the medicine-man. He, must provide them with charms to protect them from danger. Poor fellow, he is the busiest one of all the people, making little packages of beads, shells, and stones for each soldier to wear as a talisman.

The women are at work getting the spears and arrows together; they must also sharpen the knives for their husbands and sons. These ignorant savages make a hideous sight to our eyes when the fury of war seizes them. It is such a pitiful thing that they are ready to take the lives of their brother blacks for the slightest reason, and that they delight so greatly in war.

Now the men hurry down to the river's side. They jump into their canoes, and are out of sight as soon as they pass a bend in the banks of the stream. Mpuke watches them with glistening eyes; he longs to follow them, but he has been told to remain at home to protect his mother and sisters in case of danger.

He knows already what war means; it was only last year that his own village was attacked. Young as he was, he stood all day behind the spiked wall, sharpened spear in hand, doing his part to defend his home. He was wounded in the leg on that terrible day, and for a long time afterward lay sick with fever. His sister was so good to him during that trying time; hour after hour she sat at his side on the veranda, and kept the flies and mosquitoes from his wound with a broom she made of an elephant's tail.

Mpuke thinks of this as he goes home through the forest path. Suddenly he stops quite still; his eyes roll in terror. A huge serpent lies coiled but a few feet away; he does not notice Mpuke, for his beadlike eyes are fastened on a monkey standing on the ground in front of him. The snake is charming it. He will force it to its own death, and yet he does not stir; it is the monkey that moves. It comes nearer and nearer to the monster; it makes a frightened cry as it advances.

Mpuke knows he cannot save its life, as he has no weapon with which to attack the serpent. He would like to run, but does not stir until the monkey, having come close to its charmer, is suddenly strangled in the folds of its powerful body. The boy does not wait to see the snake devour his prey, but hurries homeward, without once daring to turn round.

The fires have all been put out. The women and children are talking in whispers. They wish to make as little noise as possible while the men are away, lest they be attacked by wild beasts or some passing band of savages.

Night comes; there is no sound of returning warriors. Mpuke sits in the doorway of his home, listening; his mother and sister are beside him. It draws near midnight, and yet there is no sleep for the anxious watchers. Hark! faintly at first, then more and more plainly, the fighting song of the returning warriors is borne to them on the evening wind. And now they can hear the sound of paddles and shouts of boisterous laughter.

The men must have been victorious or they would not come home so gaily. There are but a few more minutes of waiting before the black heroes enter the village. We call them heroes, for that is the way their families think of them.

The men are tired, excited, and stained with blood. They are bringing home two of their comrades wounded, and the dead body of another. They have six prisoners taken from the enemy. These poor wretches are bound with ropes; they know their fate too well. They are now slaves, and must hereafter do the hardest work for their new masters.

The customs of their own settlement are different from those of Mpuke's village. They will suffer from homesickness, and will have many new things to which they must get used.

It seems strange to us that in travelling a short distance in the heart of Africa the people are found to differ from each other so much in language, habits, and even dress. For, scanty as it is, the style of decoration of one tribe varies greatly from that of another.

For instance, in Mpuke's home we know it is the fashion to have wedge-shaped teeth, while not far away the people think that a really beautiful person must have the teeth pointed. In one village the women wear wooden skewers pierced through their noses; in another, their principal ornaments consist of metal rings in the ears, and metal armlets, anklets, and bracelets.

Among some tribes, the men's hair is braided in queer little tails, while others have it knotted at the back of the head and at the chin in tight bunches.

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