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Dancing With Cannibals

Congo Free State, Africa 1903


In Kabinde, hidden deep in the jungle, Betu watched from a sedentary position as the three naked bleeding white men who had tried to attack them bled dry. They were hung from the low limbs of an umbrella tree by their feet, their bodies in an awkward lean toward each other. Every few moments a muscle twitched as they bled to death, a drip at a time. Village dignitaries and young warriors dressed in leopard skins drank the blood falling into their cups. Two dogs licked the drops that hit the rocks piled beneath them.


One awoke and the screaming began.


Betu didn't like the screaming. If she were Chief Mfumu—please, sweet ancestors, don't let him hear these thoughts—she would kill them first. She would chase them and take them down and butcher the pieces and then boil them. But the men believed their power came in the dripping blood, and they needed to be kept fresh until the water in the pot could boil.


Well, maybe they had power, but maybe not. She hoped that someday these men will listen to their young and sensitive women. As a child, when she still had the courage, she asked her uncle Pomu why they had to be bled to near death and boiled while alive. He referred to ancient tradition. If they were chased and killed, said Pomu, their power could be gone before the feast. She wondered to herself if days passing made changes possible—oh ancestors do not smite me just for thinking!  


She hated the screaming, and to stop listening she found the prayers to thank the ancestors for not allowing women to be eaten.  It was said that their flesh was bad and only eaten when men's flesh could not be had and all were starving.  She continued her prayer that asked that her people never be starving. She would feel too much sympathy for women.  Their people had never been attacked by women.


The screamer woke the other two and then the three made a singing noise in harmony, just as she finished her prayers. Chief Mfumu raised his voice above their musical noises, telling his chief council, the Balombi, and all others gathered that they would remember in their dreams this high-pitched shrieking that these Pale Ones could make. Let this memory keep them strong and rooted in the ancient ways, and safe from all strangers who tried to harm them, even as their brothers to the south and east were being killed.


Indigenous and village neighbors came running from the many villages around them as the rapid pounding of the drum messages called out first the beat of trouble, and then ending in joy. No one wanted these strangers in their midst. These villagers, and Betu, too, would rather be left alone for all the days of life. But more and more invaders crossed the lands of far off, and they hoped that by eating them, one after another, these strange visits would stop.

These men were caught by the warriors near the river. They were easy to notice as strangers, not clothed in native plants and animal skins. They spoke their strange words and wore those heavy black cloaks as though they, and not the natives, belonged in this land.  When Chief Mfumu made a threatening gesture, telling them to leave, one of them shot at the closest holding a spear, causing a terrible wound to appear on his stomach, spurting blood over the others. Their warrior had died screaming.  The rest of the natives protected themselves behind rocks and trees and underwater as the others continued to shoot, until the smoking noises stopped.  Those three men began to run, but they couldn't run as fast as the warriors.


The indigenous warriors caught them, although the fourth pushed everyone aside and leaped into the river, risking the crocodile-infested water rather than the native's pots.  As the natives watched, a crocodile had a grand feast.

"Bamba," they all screamed in victory as they pushed their new captives to their village hanging tree. "These are truly enemies that deserve to be punished and eaten."


Chief Mfumu ordered the playing of their traditional instruments to invite everyone to join them for a feast.  The whistle of the flutes and clacking of the finger bells filled the ears as well as the hunger filled their bellies.


"Eat and don't leave anything." The old woman witchdoctor performed the cannibals' ritual song. "Bulaya na mango, bandeke hino." She shook her head as her feet moved in time with her song as the captives were strung up in the tree and their sides punctured for the bleeding.


The fire grew bigger as Balombi wives brought more wood and got the water boiling in their big sap-treated clay pot. The singing, dancing and drum beats rose with great and sincere passion as the celebration continued.


Betu helped cut the brushy wood for the wives to gather and bless and throw on the fire. Betu limped with the remnants of a leg injury, so she wasn't forced to cut so much, giving her time for her thoughts, and finally they allowed her in her sedentary position again.


"Eat your enemies so their souls can never come back to revenge their death." The witchdoctor moved with her long stick to get close to the bodies, and the drumming and singing paused. She hit the bodies as though to bleed them faster, making them sway and whimper, and the men with the cups danced around under them to catch the drops. "They provoked us. They attacked our ways. They killed us." She jumped around them, whacking with the anger that recalled their recent battle as their rich red blood streaked down their naked bodies. "These mysterious creatures take our brothers in the night! We are anxious to add you to our pot and bellies!"


Chief Mfumu, who sat in the midst of everyone, received a whispered word from one of the women. "The pot is ready!"


Before Betu finished remembering how Pomu's wife had died, too, at the hands of these black-cloaked creatures from those smoking guns, she realized the screaming had stopped. The men now boiled in the water, with the chants of the villagers tamed by the wind as they waited for the sacred feast. She came up behind the others gathered around the pot where one of the men still lived, his last moments in a kind of raptured misery. He called to the heavens in that awful language—Betu guessed asking forgiveness of their awful gods—and then slipped underwater to become their food.


Betu wondered why his pain had not ended before he sank underwater, as others boiled seemed only to fall asleep and drown.  She was fascinated by the human body. Years ago a lion bit her brother's hand off. He said he only felt pain when he touched the top layers, but he could touch the gaping muscle shown in the wound without feeling any pain. He let others poke at the throbbing red muscle of that arm, too, as she watched but she herself could not touch because it was her unclean time. Another time Betu helped Pomu remove an arrow from a man.  She watched, fascinated, when the victim did not feel Pomu digging into the man's inside parts.


The women next to her talked about how these men at first seemed harmless, saying they would help the natives have better lives. "Put us in clothing, give us better food, educate our children to know and love their God?" They laughed, using these memories to increase their appetite for men who used those mysterious sticks that made loud noises and killed their people. These sticks seemed harmless now, but warriors, just to keep the people safe, tossed them into the river.


Betu wished that they could have allowed the men to suffer less. She saw they were fearful, and maybe they could have learned from them.  But she felt her belly rumble with hunger, just the same as always.






Belgium, 1897


In the falling of the sun, in the marketplace of Brussels, many people rushed to buy food and other necessities.  The rush was due to the hour—the sellers were getting ready to close down their stands of fruits, vegetables and meats of lamb and pork along with the ever-changing variety of merchandise such as candles and pots. Customers grabbed without looking just to have something to eat from the little variety that was left at this late hour. The sellers were busy taking their remaining goods from their stands, a motley collection of small metal tables off the stationary bricks, or tables covered by homemade cloth coverings, and old clothes sewn together in a patchwork tent to create a bit of shade from the sun.  


Jean Turken walked unhurried as the rest pushed and shouted around him—sellers with last- minute bargains of spoilable goods calling in those last few customers.  He looked down at the litter on the ground under his feet as he walked, agonizing about the dream he had that upset his entire day.  Even his mother Marie couldn't help.  She told him to see the fortune teller. 


Gustav, a German, interpreted dreams and read palms. He was also known as the healer of hearts in trouble, a wise man and a motivator.  Marie thought her fatherless boy could find simple guidance from a man who might take pity on him.


Jean didn't know how to share what bothered him with his mother, because he just wasn't sure himself.  He didn't tell her about the dream. Or how he had taken a fancy sparkling piece of jewelry from a friend's house, only to find out that it was a real diamond and its owner was frantic to find it. Marie swore to them her son would never have taken it, even though he had just been visiting there before it went missing.  Jean had reassured her that he would never steal, and that very night he had the dream.


Jean could saw the aging fortune teller about to close his stand.  He turned to go home.


"Come, young lad. How can I help you?" Gustav watched as the boy stepped up to him.

A co-authored work, using the historical research of a native of the Congo, and current South African resident.