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Our Little
African Cousin

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WHEN the crops begin to dry up, it is the medicine-man who has the power to bring rain; when fever visits the settlement, his herbs and charms are alone of any use in relieving suffering. Therefore, when Mpuke becomes ill, the medicine-man is immediately visited.

His hut stands a little apart from the others in the village. It is very seldom that an outsider is allowed to enter the sacred (?) place. After Mpuke's mother has wrapped up her little son, and placed him on his mat, she hastens to the home of the charm doctor, carrying an offering of tobacco and palm wine to the great man.

As she draws near the hut, he appears in the doorway. He wears many chains of metal rings about his body. Funny little packages are tied to the rings, and are supposed to possess the power of working wonders. Feathers of different kinds of birds are sticking out of the packages, while a doleful clanging is made by iron bells at every movement of the “doctor.”

When told of Mpuke's sickness, he goes back into the hut and puts on his tall hat of panther's skin. He takes some herbs and wonder-working, charms from a dark corner, and comes out looking very solemn and quiet. He rarely speaks to Mpuke's mother as she reverently follows him to her own home.

In a few moments he is standing by the black boy's side. He makes some weird and mysterious motions, and tells Mpuke that he is driving away the evil spirit that has taken hold of his body. He gives the anxious mother a charm made from the hairs of an elephant's tail; this is to be fastened around the boy's neck. She is told to repeat certain words many times a day, and to draw a circle with ashes around the hut to keep bad spirits from returning.

But this is not all that is to be done for the cure of the boy; for the doctor really does know many good uses of herbs. He has discovered that the use of one of these is almost sure to break up a fever like Mpuke's, so he steeps a large dose of this medicine, to be taken during the next three days. Then he goes away as quietly and solemnly as he came; the villagers bow before him in awe as they pass him on his way.

Mpuke is soon strong and well. What cured him? Did the doctor really have the power to drive spirits away? Or was it the medicine the boy swallowed? Of course, his mother believes nothing could have been done without the magic charms, but those who are wise must see that if the herb tea had not been made and swallowed, Mpuke would most likely be still burning with fever.

But Mpuke is now well and strong, glad to be out once more in his canoe; eager to look for honey in the wild bees' nests; chasing the monkeys from the banana-trees; feeding his chickens, and doing a hundred other things beside all these.

But the chickens we hardly recognise as such, they are such poor, scrawny things, with their bodies and feathers all awry; and when Mpuke's mother prepares a chicken stew, the meat is so dry and tasteless that it seems scarcely worth eating. What can be the reason that the African chicken is so much poorer than the American bird ? Perhaps it is because it is tormented by such numbers of insects.

This reminds me of something that once happened at Mpuke's home. One night, in the midst of sound sleep, they were suddenly attacked by an army. There were millions, yes, billions, in that army, yet it made no sound as it drew near. It had travelled many miles through fields and forests, and Mpuke's home happened to be in the line of march. That is the reason it was attacked.

For a few moments the sleepers were in a state of great excitement. There was much scuffling, screaming, scratching, and running about. Then all was quiet once more, and the family returned to their mats and dreams.

The strange army was not one of human beings, but, nevertheless, it caused fear and trembling while it stayed. It was composed of ants, much larger than any we have ever seen in our own country. They were under the orders of generals who marched at the sides of the advancing columns. Each ant knew his place and duty. He was ready to bite any living creature that barred his way; and it was a fierce bite, too, for a piece of flesh was taken out each time before he let go.

For some reason unknown to us, the ants were changing their camping-ground and moving to another part of the forest. Such a small thing as Mpuke's home must not be allowed to stand in their way, so they passed through it, and took the people inside by surprise.

“Ouch!” screamed Mpuke, as he woke up to find himself covered by these wise but uncomfortable insects. Then, one after another, the boy's father, that brave warrior, his mother, his sister, and himself, fled from the hut as though a pack of hyenas were after them.

When morning came the ants had departed, but not an insect was left alive in the house. The fat spiders that had spun comfortable webs in the dark corners were now skeletons, a baby lizard lay lifeless in the doorway, and

many crickets had fallen victims to the resistless invaders. Worse still! when Mpuke looked for his pet chicken, nothing was left of it save bones and feathers.

Paul Du Chaillu, an African explorer, has written very interesting accounts of the ants found in that country. The wisdom of these little creatures fills us with wonder. Small as they are, they travel in such numbers that even the wild beasts of the forest hasten to get out of their way. They are not fond of the sunlight, and when marching in the daytime they prefer to stop in their journey and dig a tunnel underground rather than pass over an open plain.

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