Saturday, October 5, 2013

March 6, 1924 - Bumba, on the river Congo

Bumba, C.B. 
March 6, 1924

Dear Folks:

Perhaps a few words about our river trip is now in order. It began on February 17th and we are still going. We should have reached Stanleyville (1) two days ago, but owing to various delays we are still five or six days away.

First as to the boat. Ours is mainly a freight boat but has accommodations for ten passengers. The boat is long and narrow, very different from our Mississippi steamers. There are two paddle wheels, both in the rear, and there are also two rudders. The freight, of which there is about 700 tons, is carried in the hold and on the first deck. The cabins are on the second deck, and are so arranged that each pair communicates by a door in the middle and each cabin has a door and window on the outside, so that there is plenty of air and plenty of room. Each couple has two cabins, each containing a bed, a bench, a wash basin, and a mirror.

The food, or “chop” as it is called here, is fairly good and fairly plentiful. We have meat galore, often at three meals a day, and very often two kinds at one meal, sometimes three kinds. The meat is always fresh, for it consists usually of goat or pig or chicken – mostly goat – which is bought along the way and killed as needed.

The crew is made up entirely of natives, except for the captain and first engineer. The pilots are natives, under the direction of the engineer (my first Congo native patient), stokers, and wood carriers, cooks and table stewards. Many of the crew have their families along with them. Each man is paid 1.60 francs (about 5 cents) a day. On each side of the boat a large steel barge is (or was) attached, and on one of these the native women have their fire to cook the food. Whenever the boat stops, as for wood or for the night, the natives rush off to buy chop, trading tobacco in exchange for it. This food is usually massive, a large hard white tuber, which is mashed in a mortar and eaten in several ways. Often they get fish, which they put in the fire until it is charred black, then allow it to dry on top of the boilers or in the sun for several days until it is sufficiently decayed and smells like a burned down livery stable, when it is considered ready for eating. 

Sometimes they are fortunate enough to get some sugar cane. A man will sit on deck with six or eight stalks of cane in front of him, each six or eight feet long, picks up one and with an immense wood shopping knife chop off the “bark” for about six inches, then chop off a few inches of this (remaining) part and put it in his mouth, suck on it until the juice is out, spit the remainder out on the deck in front of him, take another piece, and repeat the process until he is either full enough to burst or is out of cane. Then he may starve a day or two until he is able to get more food.

As was hinted before, wood is used as fuel. All along, at various points there are “wood-posts” where wood is collected and sold to the boat. The boat usually stops once a day for wood and such a stop takes an hour or more, according to the amount of wood available, and it is scarce along the upper part of the river. There is plenty of wood growing but there is a scarcity of labor. Sometimes the boats run out of wood and then the crew has to go ashore and chop some. The boat burns in one hour as much wood as two men can cut in two days. So far we have not run out of wood, but have been very close to it. The boat lands every night soon after sundown, as it is too dangerous to travel at night because of the many sandbars which are continuously changing. Thus we have plenty of opportunity to go ashore for a walk and a tour of inquiry among the natives.

Most of our fun has been in going ashore and looking around in the native villages. At times we are able to buy bananas or pai-pairs (2). Once I bought a bunch of over a hundred bananas for about ten cents and that was more than was asked for them, but I didn't have small enough change.  It is also very interesting to try to speak to the natives, for those along the river speak much the same language as those on part of our field.  Then again it is interesting to see what can be seen of their diseases. Nearly everywhere can be seen signs of disease of one kind or another – some with ulcers, some blind, many with skin diseases. Saw a number of typical cases of yaws, and one of elephantiasis. One chap sitting on the river bank looked for all the world like smallpox, and in the village I saw a number of fresh vaccination reactions, showing that there had probably been a recent epidemic. Ulcers are often covered with a piece of leaf tied on with grass, which makes a very good substitute for cloth bandage. Most of the native women especially have all kinds of fantastic designs cut into their faces, chests, and backs (in childhood), large areas being covered with scars. Sometimes red or black material is rubbed into these cuts when fresh, making a true tattoo. Often these decorations, while heathenish enough, are really very pretty.  A curious looking result sometimes occurs, however, when these scars become more or less large tumor-like growths (keloids).  Another thing which is said to be common here is an excess of fingers or toes. I have seen only two cases so far, both on our boat – one with a rudimentary extra finger on one hand, and another with a well developed sixth finger on each hand. Practically all the children have enormously large tummies, supposed to be due to the large amounts of coarse foods eaten and their enlarged malarial spleens.

The clothing of the river natives is for the most part a curious, ugly mixture of cast off white men’s clothes or gaudy printed calico – the louder the better. One man may wear a khaki shirt – more holes than shirt – and a loin cloth. Another wears a long heavy woolen pair of drawers and a tattered vest. Another, an old black derby and little else. Some have sweaters with the loudest conceivable stripes. One chap wore a long rain coat. Many of the men, however, wear nothing but a small loin cloth. Many of the women have large single pieces of printed goods wrapped around beginning either under the arms or at the waist. Many wear simply short grass skirts, which are really pretty. The youngsters wear a grin and a piece of string or beads around the waist.  Haven’t been able to discover yet what the string is for. At one place we saw many with heavy iron or bras rings around arms, legs, and necks. Some women wore solid iron rings around their necks, at least an inch thick and welded on, never to come off. One very old woman had swell earrings – a large safety pin hung from each ear, with a little twig of wood stuck in each pin.

The river itself is a marvelous thing.  Below the place we started from we saw beautiful yet vicious looking rapids, and in its lower course the river passes between beautiful mountains covered with forests. Farther up the land is perfectly flat and covered with forests so dense that one can see only about ten feet into it from the river. The trees are all different from those we are used to at home; groups of palms of various kinds are scattered here and there and then there are huge trees with flat, buttress-like projections growing out at the trunks and a cotton-like material, holding seeds, hanging from the branches. The river is immensely wide in many places, often twelve or fifteen miles, and as much as thirty. We never see the entire width, however, as everywhere there are islands covered with jungle and tall grass. We have passed many hundreds of such islands so far. Often we can see four or five different channels of the river at the same time between the islands. The islands are never inhabited by people as far as we can tell. We have not seen so very much animal life as yet. Now and then we see an alligator and we have seen at least the heads of a few hippos. One or two monkeys have been spied in the trees. Birds are plentiful, however. Some are very tiny – between hummingbirds and canaries.  Some birds about the size of sparrows are most gorgeously colored, with bright orange and yellow backs and black wings.  These birds build nests in palm trees in such large numbers that the trees are eventually destroyed. Many trees are lost in this way. Fifty or sixty round nests can be seen hanging in one tree with the birds hovering beneath them, as their openings are on the bottom. Have also seen a few eagles and many large buzzard-like birds. On the sand bars are often seen large cranes or stork-like birds and some beautiful white aigrettes (spelling?).  The storks are black. Someone suggested that’s why the babies here are black. The captain shot on of the storks once. Then there are some large awkward looking birds with long legs and very long naked thin necks and long beaks. They are fishers and dive completely under water and swim with only their heads above the surface.

Of the smaller animals, I mean insects, there are plenty.  (“Small animal” – “Nuame (3) muke” is the native way of naming any animal, nearly, under a rat in size.) There are of course mosquitoes galore and of many varieties I have been very much surprised that there are so few of the kind that carry malaria visible. I have not actually been sure of seeing more than two out of all the thousands of mosquitoes.  I don’t know why this is, as there is plenty of malaria along the river. Butterflies of all sizes and degrees of beauty abound; saw some with a wing-spread of six or seven inches.

There are tsetse flies along most of the river, but we have seen surprisingly few, only a few dozen perhaps.  They got their first nibble at me today, but I don’t believe they got my blood.  The chances of sleeping sickness are very small – about one in one thousand bites. These flies are between two and three times the size of house flies and are easily recognized because the wings are folded one over the other, giving the fly a long narrow appearance. They bite chiefly around noon time or during the lightest part of the day, and so it is often necessary for us to wear our mosquito boots all afternoon and evening. A real bite is said to be very painful for a time and to cause some swelling.

I never realized before that there were so many different kinds of ants. Those on the boat are chiefly small ones, but I have seen some on land nearly an inch long and some are said to be much larger. The large ant hills are wonderful monuments to industry and patience. We have seen large numbers of them, many of them ten to fifteen feet high and then to twenty feet at the base. Other curious ant homes are built on the side of tree trunks, extending up for twenty to forty feet.

Yesterday some of us took a walk along some narrow paths through a forest.  The denseness of the forest is surprising; some places are nearly dark in spite of the midday tropical sun. Everything is tangled together with thick twisted creepers and long grass. Large creepers, some six inches in diameter, hang from the trees, at times extending 60 or 80 feet up. There were fungi and other parasites on the leaves and bark everywhere, and we saw hundreds of orchid plants hanging on the trees. None were in bloom, however. Butterflies abounded. After walking some distance we suddenly came to a clearing in the midst of the forest, and soon found it to be a native cemetery. One grave, apparently recent, had a crude wooden cross at the head; on another was a dishpan with some holes in it, and a broken pate and broken bottle, symbolic evidently of the dead.

I have probably mentioned before a Mr. Edwards of the D.C.C.M. (4) whom we met on the Thysville. He also traveled up the Congo with us as far as his station, Bolenge. This station is exactly on the equator, and is a very highly developed one.  We spent nearly a whole day here and were shown all over. They have a good saw mill, a brick works and a fine new hospital, besides many other things. They also teach the native boys wood working, and the furniture they turn out world do credit to most cabinet makers at home.  The hospital was just recently completed and was designed by the doctor on the station, Dr. Barger, an American. He showed us around the whole place and then had Coralee and I at his house for dinner. There was a smallpox epidemic on the station at the time and so we got to see quite a few good cases in all their glory.  Also got some valuable hints on treatment and methods.  This man is secretary of the “Society of Medical Missionaries of Tropical Africa” and edits a little paper called the “Medical Missionary Exchange” to which I subscribed. This paper keeps the men here in touch with each other and contains some very good articles on local medical problems. There is to be a convention of this Society in the Fall to be held at Kinshasa. I was urged to attend, but as the trip would mean six or seven weeks of travel each way it is, of course, out of the question for me. There are less than thirty medical missionaries in the entire Belgian Congo, and five or six of these are on furlough at a time, so the competition is not excessive. Government doctors are scattered about here and there, but they are paid small salaries and consequently are not of the highest grade it is said; many of them are said to be Portuguese.

A little farther up from Bolenge we stopped one evening and were met two young men missionaries who had come aboard to inquire if there were any missionaries on the boat. It developed that they were the only missionaries at the time on their station, which normally had between 12 and 15. Four had died during the last few months and the rest were home on furlough. These men seemed very lonesome, and they invited us up to their house for the evening. They had a small organ which had not been played for many months and so we had a regular song service. A group of native boys who had crowded around the door also sang some hymns for us in their own language.

At one place a little below Upoto the boat stopped for the night a little early and so we all went ashore to look around the village, which was about three fourths in ruins due to a recent fire. We asked the natives a few questions as usual, and before long there was quite a crowd around us, and we soon found that some of them were Christians. They we had a great time talking to each other about God and Christ and heaven, etc., one of us talking to one group, another to another group. They then told us they had learned of Christ at Upoto and soon one fellow got out a native song book and another a Bible, and you should have seen the service we had out there on the beach. We also sang some natives songs that we had with us, one native read from the third chapter of John, another prayed and so it went on until we had to go aboard for supper. The joy on those fellows’ faces was a great sight, you can be sure, and it was great to hear them sing. Only one had a book and the rest joined in with him. Their language was only partly like ours and so we couldn't understand a good deal they said, but they understood all we were able to say. They told us the name of the missionary who had taught them, and said there was no one to teach them in their present place. This little incident was a great inspiration to all of us and made us feel all the more like increasing efforts in language study, etc.

Another little thing happened just this afternoon that showed how hungry many of the natives are for the Word. The boat was stopping at Alberta, near Bumba, and a native boy, an employee of one of the big companies here, came aboard. He happened to see Miss Dakin (5) reading her Bible, and so he came over and asked in excellent English if we had any English Bibles that we could sell him! We had no spare English Bibles, but we gave him a number of single copies of the Gospels in English and French, and a lot of other literature. He chased ashore and divided these with two of his friends, and then they stood on shore with their noses in these things looking happier than if they had just had the first news from home for months, and looking up only to wave us good-bye as we left.  They said there were no religious services in the town except what they had among themselves. We asked for their names so that we might have some Bibles sent them. They work for a big firm with English speaking employees and they want to pass around the literature. I’m passing on the name of one of them in case anyone at home would like to take the opportunity of sending them a few cheap Bibles, and perhaps write to them. I know a real service could be done in this way, and that it would make for happiness on both ends. The name is J.S. King, c/o H.C.B. Alberta, Congo Belge via Matadi & Kinshasa.  The name no doubt is an adopted one; he didn't give his native name. “HCB” is “Huilleries Congo Belge” a great palm oil firm here.

Yesterday I had a little lesson in anatomy.  There was a goat hanging up in the kitchen cut open and with some of the internal organs still present.  This looked like a good chance, and so pointing to the liver I would ask for its name and so for the various parts, in this was learning new words that are not in our book. Just for fun I asked them what some organs were for, and of course they were more or less stumped. Natives always seem to enjoy this sort of thing. Sometimes they want to be taught English and it’s hardly fair to teach that and not French in this territory. I also learned that these fellows in the kitchen had been taught in missions and one of them knows Mr. Studd (6).

I must close now in order to mail this before we leave here (Bumba). We expect to reach Stanleyville in four or five days.  All of us are very well and in good spirits, but glad to be getting off the river soon for some new kind of traveling – on foot, and in canoes for another three weeks or so. In a day or so the two remaining passengers will land and we will have the whole boat to ourselves.

Coralee is busy washing clothes and so is unable to add anything at present. [Personal portion redacted.]

Our love to all.
Coralee and Ralph

P.S. I’m thru washing now thank goodness. This is a great life and we’re having lots of fun. I had a hard time getting Ralph started at this letter, but I thought I was going to have to beg him to stop or we wouldn't have any paper left. Anyway he’s as good as gold and we’re very happy. Much love to all.


  1. Now known as Kisangani.
  2. Probably papayas.
  3. nyama
  4. Disciples of Christ Congo Mission. This American Protestant mission group was in Congo from 1897 to 1932.  Missionaries for the DCCM were appointed and trained by the United Christian Missionary Society.
  5. Miss Augusta Dakin, (known as “Gus”) H.A.M. missionary, stationed at Ibambi then changed missions to Africa Inland Mission when the Kleinschmidts did.  Possibly Canadian. 
  6. Mr. Charles Thomas Studd. Founder of the Heart of Africa Mission, also a well-known British cricketer. 

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