Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Husbands On the Menu

     In sub-Saharan Africa husbands are dispensable. That might seem a strange thing to say, considering that many African women are downtrodden, are all expected to get married, and often have limited say in whom they marry, while divorce entails returning the bride price. Nevertheless, one has to consider the economic situation. Times are changing, of course, with new technology and urbanisation, but traditional African agriculture was (and in many cases still is) hoe-based, and most of it is performed by women. (A similar situation exists in Melanesia.) Indeed, the fact that a man need not be a significant breadwinner to his wife or children is one of the main enabler of polygyny - 20% to 50% in some cases. I have a book published in 1952 entitled, The Fon and His 100 Wives, in which the author, Rebecca Reyher interviewed the king ("fon") of Bikom in the Cameroons, along with many of his wives. The interesting thing was that his harem, unlike those of a sultan or rajah, did not live in idleness in a gilded cage; they worked in the fields much like village women, their children accompanying them, or dragging themselves up. Perhaps this economic pattern may explain the grotesque events which took place in the same period in what was then the Belgian Congo.
     The 1950s and '60s were the heyday of a married couple, Armand and Michaela Denis, whose documentary films will be remembered by many babyboomers such as myself. At one point they came upon a village deep in the jungle in the eastern part of the Belgian Congo, and were surprised at the behaviour of the women. Clad in expensive, brightly coloured cottons, obviously imported from England or Belgium, instead of displaying the typical modesty of African women, they were behaving in a sexually provocative manner. A Belgian administrator finally explained the mystery.
     As I mentioned before, women don't always have complete say in whom they will marry. A few years previously, a tall and beautiful maiden ended up married to an elderly, soured man who mistreated her. Not only that, but she had no co-wives with whom she might share the work and commiserate, for the village was nominally Christian. When, a few months later, her husband disappeared, she announced that he had gone to the city to look for work. His departure appeared to delight her no end, because she prepared a banquet for all her lady friends. Pretty soon the banquet became a monthly custom whenever a husband went off to the city.
     The plot thickened when the regular poll tax payable by heads of families came due. When the tax collector arrived, he discovered that six men had disappeared, and no-one had any idea where they had got to. When he returned the following year, there were more missing, and some of the women had even remarried. He decided to get to the bottom of it.
     First of all, he questioned the remaining men of the village, especially concentrating on one who appeared definitely ill at ease and afraid. Then it all came out. It turned out the women had formed a society in which, every month, one of them would bash her husband on the head while he was asleep, and prepare a communal feast on his carcass. Then, as he put it,
The village had never known such happy times: the women danced and enjoyed themselves all day, for they had no work to do and only themselves and their children to feed.
     Of course, the women denied it all when accused. The taxman ordered a search of the huts, and in one he discovered a fountain pen which he himself had given the missing man, and which he knew he would not have left behind if he had really departed legitimately. Still, not a single bone or hair of the murdered men could be found to incriminate the murderesses. There was little he could do until an old man whispered a suggestion, upon which he summoned the women together again, and told them:
"Although you are Christians, I shall get a witch doctor who has the power of calling back the souls of the dead. They will tell me what I wish to know. They will also haunt the guilty ones."
     That did it. One of them broke down and confessed, followed by all the others. But there were so many women involved that the administrator had to refer the matter to higher authorities. The upshot was that the ringleader was sent to prison, and all the others severely reprimanded. That was the end of the ladies' cannibal club. But, of course, there was always the possibility that it might be revived - which was why the men of the village were so keen to buy their wives costly apparel, do their fair share of the work, and by and large be on their best behaviour.
     Note that this story only came to light because two English speaking writers happened to pass through the scene of the action.There must be lots of other strange tales still buried in the heart of Africa, which will be forever unrecorded.
     I might add that the whole of the Congolese jungle was famous as a hotbed of cannibalism before the Belgians officially suppressed it half a century before. A decade and a half later, the country received independence, and promptly collapsed into internecine violence, in which allegations of cannibalism again emerged. They emerged again a generation later, during the second civil war. It appears old habits die hard.

Reference: Michaela Denis (1955), Leopard in My Lap, W. H. Allen, chapter 7.

1 comment:

  1. This bears a resemblance to Hungary's 'Angel Makers of Nagyrév' case in the early 20th century. The commonalities are that women had little say in their choice of husbands, and that the husbands were (as Hitchcock might say) disposable.