The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile

Author: Samuel White Baker

Chapter VI. The Funeral Dance.

Drums were beating, horns blowing, and people were seen all running in one direction;—the cause was a funeral dance, and I joined the crowd, and soon found myself in the midst of the entertainment. The dancers were most grotesquely got up. About a dozen huge ostrich feathers adorned their helmets; either leopard or the black and white monkey skins were suspended from their shoulders, and a leather tied round the waist covered a large iron bell which was strapped upon the loins of each dancer, like a woman’s old-fashioned bustle: this they rung to the time of the dance by jerking their posteriors in the most absurd manner. A large crowd got up in this style created an indescribable hubbub, heightened by the blowing of horns and the beating of seven nogaras of various notes. Every dancer wore an antelope’s horn suspended round the neck, which he blew occasionally in the height of his excitement. These instruments produced a sound partaking of the braying of a donkey and the screech of an owl. Crowds of men rushed round and round in a sort of "galop infernel," brandishing their lances and iron-headed maces, and keeping tolerably in line five or six deep, following the leader who headed them, dancing backwards. The women kept outside the line, dancing a slow stupid step, and screaming a wild and most inharmonious chant; while a long string of young girls and small children, their heads and necks rubbed with red ochre and grease, and prettily ornamented with strings of beads around their loins, kept a very good line, beating the time with their feet, and jingling the numerous iron rings which adorned their ankles to keep time with the drums. One woman attended upon the men, running through the crowd with a gourd full of wood-ashes, handfuls of which she showered over their heads, powdering them like millers; the object of the operation I could not understand. The "premiere danseuse" was immensely fat; she had passed the bloom of youth, but, "malgre" her unwieldy state, she kept up the pace to the last, quite unconscious of her general appearance, and absorbed with the excitement of the dance.

These festivities were to be continued in honour of the dead; and as many friends had recently been killed, music and dancing would be in fashion for some weeks.

There was an excellent interpreter belonging to Ibrahim’s party—a Bari lad of about eighteen. This boy had been in their service for some years, and had learnt Arabic, which he spoke fluently, although with a peculiar accent, owing to the extraction of the four front teeth of the lower jaw, according to the general custom. It was of great importance to obtain the confidence of Loggo, as my success depended much upon information that I might obtain from the natives; therefore, whenever I sent for him to hold any conversation with the people, I invariably gave him a little present at parting. Accordingly he obeyed any summons from me with great alacrity, knowing that the interview would terminate with a "baksheesh" (present). In this manner I succeeded in establishing confidence, and he would frequently come uncalled to my tent and converse upon all manner of subjects. The Latooka language is different to the Bari, and a second interpreter was necessary; this was a sharp lad about the same age: thus the conversation was somewhat tedious, the medium being Bari and Latooka.

The chief Commoro (the "Lion") was one of the most clever and common-sense savages that I had seen in these countries, and the tribe paid far more deference to his commands than to those of his brother, "Moy," although the latter was the superior in rank.

One day I sent for Commoro after the usual funeral dance was completed, and, through my two young interpreters, I had a long conversation with him on the customs of his country. I wished if possible to fathom the origin of the extraordinary custom of exhuming the body after burial, as I imagined that in this act some idea might be traced to a belief in the resurrection.

Commoro was, like all his people, extremely tall. Upon entering my tent he took his seat upon the ground, the Latookas not using stools like the other White Nile tribes. I commenced the conversation by complimenting him on the perfection of his wives and daughters in the dance, and on his own agility in the performance; and inquired for whom the ceremony had been performed.

He replied, that it was for a man who had been recently killed, but no one of great importance, the same ceremony being observed for every person without distinction. I asked him why those slain in battle were allowed to remain unburied. He said, it had always been the custom, but that he could not explain it.

"But," I replied, "why should you disturb the bones of those whom you have already buried, and expose them on the outskirts of the town?"

"It was the custom of our forefathers," he answered, "therefore we continue to observe it."

"Have you no belief in a future existence after death? Is not some idea expressed in the act of exhuming the bones after the flesh is decayed?"

Commoro (loq.).—"Existence AFTER death! How can that be? Can a dead man get out of his grave, unless we dig him out?"

"Do you think man is like a beast, that dies and is ended?"

Commoro.—"Certainly; an ox is stronger than a man; but he dies, and his bones last longer; they are bigger. A man’s bones break quickly—he is weak."

"Is not a man superior in sense to an ox? Has he not a mind to direct his actions?"

Commoro.—"Some men are not so clever as an ox. Men must sow corn to obtain food, but the ox and wild animals can procure it without sowing."

"Do you not know that there is a spirit within you more than flesh? Do you not dream and wander in thought to distant places in your sleep? Nevertheless, your body rests in one spot. How do you account for this?"

Commoro (laughing).—"Well, how do YOU account for it? It is a thing I cannot understand; it occurs to me every night."

"The mind is independent of the body; the actual body can be fettered, but the mind is uncontrollable; the body will die and will become dust, or be eaten by vultures, but the spirit will exist for ever."

Commoro.—"Where will the spirit live?"

"Where does fire live? Cannot you produce a fire (The natives always produce fire by rubbing two sticks together.) by rubbing two sticks together, yet you SEE not the fire in the wood. Has not that fire, that lies harmless and unseen in the sticks, the power to consume the whole country? Which is the stronger, the small stick that first PRODUCES the fire, or the fire itself? So is the spirit the element within the body, as the element of fire exists in the stick; the element being superior to the substance."

Commoro.—"Ha! Can you explain what we frequently see at night when lost in the wilderness? I have myself been lost, and wandering in the dark, I have seen a distant fire; upon approaching, the fire has vanished, and I have been unable to trace the cause—nor could I find the spot."

"Have you no idea of the existence of spirits superior to either man or beast? Have you no fear of evil except from bodily causes?"

Commoro.—"I am afraid of elephants and other animals when in the jungle at night, but of nothing else."

"Then you believe in nothing; neither in a good nor evil spirit! And you believe that when you die it will be the end of body and spirit; that you are like other animals; and that there is no distinction between man and beast; both disappear, and end at death?"

Commoro.—"Of course they do."

"Do you see no difference in good and bad actions?" Commoro.—"Yes, there are good and bad in men and beasts."

"Do you think that a good man and a bad must share the same fate, and alike die, and end?"

Commoro.—"Yes; what else can they do? How can they help dying? Good and bad all die."

"Their bodies perish, but their spirits remain; the good in happiness, the bad in misery. If you have no belief in a future state, WHY SHOULD A MAN BE GOOD? Why should he not be bad, if he can prosper by wickedness?"

Commoro.—"Most people are bad; if they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad."

Some corn had been taken out of a sack for the horses, and a few grains lying scattered on the ground, I tried the beautiful metaphor of St. Paul as an example of a future state. Making a small hole with my finger in the ground, I placed a grain within it: "That," I said, "represents you when you die." Covering it with earth, I continued, "That grain will decay, but from it will rise the plant that will produce a reappearance of the original form."

Commoro.—"Exactly so; that I understand. But the ORIGINAL grain does NOT rise again; it rots like the dead man, and is ended; the fruit produced is not the same grain that we buried, but the PRODUCTION of that grain: so it is with man—I die, and decay, and am ended; but my children grow up like the fruit of the grain. Some men have no children, and some grains perish without fruit; then all are ended."

I was obliged to change the subject of conversation. In this wild naked savage there was not even a superstition upon which to found a religious feeling; there was a belief in matter; and to his understanding everything was MATERIAL. It was extraordinary to find so much clearness of perception combined with such complete obtuseness to anything ideal.

Giving up the religious argument as a failure, I resolved upon more practical inquiries.

The Turks had only arrived in the Latooka country in the preceding year. They had not introduced the cowrie shell; but I observed that every helmet was ornamented with this species; it therefore occurred to me that they must find their way into the country from Zanzibar.

In reply to my inquiries, Commoro pointed to the south, from which he said they arrived in his country, but he had no idea from whence they came. The direction was sufficient to prove that they must be sent from the east coast, as Speke and Grant had followed the Zanzibar traders as far as Karagwe, the 2 degrees S. lat.

Commoro could not possibly understand my object in visiting the Latooka country; it was in vain that I attempted to explain the intention of my journey. He said, "Suppose you get to the great lake; what will you do with it? What will be the good of it? If you find that the large river does flow from it, what then? What’s the good of it?"

I could only assure him, that in England we had an intimate knowledge of the whole world, except the interior of Africa, and that our object in exploring was to benefit the hitherto unknown countries by instituting legitimate trade, and introducing manufactures from England in exchange for ivory and other productions. He replied that the Turks would never trade fairly; that they were extremely bad people, and that they would not purchase ivory in any other way than by bartering cattle, which they stole from one tribe to sell to another.

Our conversation was suddenly terminated by one of my men running in to the tent with the bad news that one of the camels had dropped down and was dying. The report was too true. He was poisoned by a well-known plant that he had been caught in the act of eating. In a few hours he died. There is no more stupid animal than the camel. Nature has implanted in most animals an instinctive knowledge of the plants suitable for food, and they generally avoid those that are poisonous: but the camel will eat indiscriminately anything that is green; and if in a country where the plant exists that is well known by the Arabs as the "camel poison," watchers must always accompany the animals while grazing. The most fatal plant is a creeper, very succulent, and so beautifully green that its dense foliage is most attractive to the stupid victim. The stomach of the camel is very subject to inflammation, which is rapidly fatal. I have frequently seen them, after several days of sharp desert marching, arrive in good pasture, and die, within a few hours, of inflammation caused by repletion. It is extraordinary how they can exist upon the driest and apparently most innutritious food. When other animals are starving, the camel manages to pick up a subsistence, eating the ends of barren, leafless twigs, the dried sticks of certain shrubs, and the tough dry paper-like substance of the dome palm, about as succulent a breakfast as would be a green umbrella and a Times newspaper. With intense greediness the camel, although a hermit in simplicity of fare in hard times, feeds voraciously when in abundant pasture, always seeking the greenest shrubs. The poison-bush becomes a fatal bait.

The camel is by no means well understood in Europe. Far from being the docile and patient animal generally described, it is quite the reverse, and the males are frequently dangerous. They are exceedingly perverse; and are, as before described, excessively stupid. For the great deserts they are wonderfully adapted, and without them it would be impossible to cross certain tracts of country for want of water.

Exaggerated accounts have been written respecting the length of time that a camel can travel without drinking. The period that the animal can subsist without suffering from thirst depends entirely upon the season and the quality of food. Precisely as in Europe sheep require but little water when fed upon turnips, so does the camel exist almost without drinking during the rainy season when pastured upon succulent and dewy herbage. During the hottest season, when green herbage ceases to exist in the countries inhabited by camels, they are led to water every alternate day, thus they are supposed to drink once in forty-eight hours; but when upon the march across deserts, where no water exists, they are expected to carry a load of from five to six hundred pounds, and to march twenty-five miles per day, for three days, without drinking, but to be watered on the fourth day. Thus a camel should drink the evening before the start, and he will carry his load one hundred miles without the necessity of drinking; not, however, without suffering from thirst. On the third day’s march, during the hot simoom, the camel should drink if possible; but he can endure the fourth day.

This peculiarity of constitution enables the camel to overcome obstacles of nature that would otherwise be insurmountable. Not only can he travel over the scorching sand of the withering deserts, but he never seeks the shade. When released from his burden he kneels by his load in the burning sand, and luxuriates in the glare of a sun that drives all other beasts to shelter. The peculiar spongy formation of the foot renders the camel exceedingly sure, although it is usual to believe that it is only adapted for flat, sandy plains. I have travelled over mountains so precipitous that no domestic animal but the camel could have accomplished the task with a load. This capability is not shared generally by the race, but by a breed belonging to the Hadendowa Arabs, between the Red Sea and Taka. There is quite as great a variety in the breeds of camels as of horses. Those most esteemed in the Soudan are the Bishareen; they are not so large as others, but are exceedingly strong and enduring.

The average value of a baggage camel among the Soudan Arabs is fifteen dollars, but a good "hygeen," or riding dromedary, is worth from fifty to a hundred and fifty dollars, according to his capabilities. A thoroughly good hygeen is supposed to travel fifty miles a day, and to continue this pace for five days, carrying only his rider and a small water-skin or girba. His action should be so easy that his long ambling trot should produce that peculiar movement adopted by a nurse when hushing a child to sleep upon her knee. This movement is delightful, and the quick elastic step of a first-class animal imparts an invigorating spirit to the rider; and were it not for the intensity of the sun, he would willingly ride for ever. The difference of action and of comfort to the rider between a common camel and a high class hygeen is equal to that between a thoroughbred and a heavy dray-horse.

However, with all the good qualities of a "Bishareen," my best camel was dead. This was a sad loss. So long as my animals were well I felt independent, and the death of this camel was equal to minus five cwt. of luggage. My men were so idle that they paid no attention to the animals, and the watcher who had been appointed to look after the four camels had amused himself by going to the Latooka dance. Thus was the loss of my best animal occasioned.

So well had all my saddles and pads been arranged at Khartoum, that although we had marched seven days with exceedingly heavy loads, not one of the animals had a sore back. The donkeys were exceedingly fresh, but they had acquired a most disgusting habit. The Latookas are remarkably clean in their towns, and nothing unclean is permitted within the stockade or fence. Thus the outside, especially the neighbourhood of the various entrances, was excessively filthy, and my donkeys actually fattened as scavengers, like pigs. I remembered that my unfortunate German Johann Schmidt had formerly told me that he was at one time shooting in the Base country, where the grass had been burnt, and not a blade of vegetation was procurable. He had abundance of sport, and he fed his donkey upon the flesh of antelopes, which he ate with avidity, and throve exceedingly. It is a curious fact that donkeys should under certain circumstances become omnivorous, while horses remain clean feeders.


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Chicago: Samuel White Baker, "Chapter VI. The Funeral Dance.," The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile in The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024,

MLA: Baker, Samuel White. "Chapter VI. The Funeral Dance." The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile, in The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile, Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Baker, SW, 'Chapter VI. The Funeral Dance.' in The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile. cited in , The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile. Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from