Prince Tortoise

Another story from inland, told to me by the chief’s daughter on the shores of Lake Tumba,

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One day all the animals in the world gathered together to vote for a chef, and when all the votes were counted, the winner turned out to be the Lion – which of course made the Lion very happy. His first decree, now that he had the authority to do so, was that he should be properly enthroned, with proper celebrations as befitted his new status.

The other animals wanted to know what form the celebrations should take.

“There must be feasting and drinking,” said the Lion. “There must be dancing. And there must be sport, the climax of which shall be a trial of strength. And for the winner there shall be a magnificent prize – the hand of my own sister, the lioness, in marriage.”

Of course all the animals were dying to have a go. To marry a lioness – to be a member f the royal family? There could be no greater honor. t once all the strongest and most powerful animals began posing and posturing, training ad boasting, preparing for the great day.

The enthronement came, and as the lion had promised, the entertainment was wonderful. All the first day there was feasting and drinking – and let’s just say that no one went short. At the end of the day everyone went to bed happy, looking forward to the next day when the competition would begin – climaxing in a trial of strength and the marriage of the winner to beautiful and magnificent lioness.

The big day arrived, and it began with sport between the smaller animals, who had no chance of winning he big prize. Then the larger animals turned out. The heavy weights didn’t come on till right at the end.

The rhino was already married, so the real fight was going to be between the hippopotamus and the elephant.. When everyone saw these two huge animals limbering up, making the earth quake and the river froth,, everyone else went very quiet. It was certain no one would stand a chance against them.

Then the tortoise stepped forward.

“I see that only the elephant and the hop have put themselves forward to win the bride,” he said. “Everyone is afraid of them – but not me. If Your Majesty will allow it, I am certain that I can win the day.”

The elephants laughed down his trunk. “You, the smallest of animals in the forest?” He said. “You don’t stand a chance. I wouldn’t even waste my time bothering to fight such an insignificant speck.”

“Was that old big nose blowing his own trumpet, as usual?” Asked tortoise. “Always original – and always looking for the chance of avoiding a fight.”

When the elephant heard this, he started to jump and shout with rage.

“I accept the challenge,” he bellowed. “All I have to do is stamp, once Iike this ..” Ad he stamped so hard that a young tree growing nearby fell down … “And you will be nothing but a stain in the mud.”

“My power is not on the dry land,” the tortoise replied. “My power is in the water. If you face me there, you will not stand a chance. Of course, if you are afraid …”

“Ridiculous,” snorted the elephant. And he accepted the challenge.

Next the Lion asked the Hippo if he was willing to fight the tortoise.
“Me, fight a pie with a hard crust?” said said the hippo. “Of course not. Besides, I wouldn’t want to hurt the poor little thing.”

“Ah, there goes old big gob, who wipes his bum on his own tail, trying to get out of a fight again,” said tortoise.

The hippo was enraged. ” I accept!” he roared. “It won’t take a moment to finish you off. I’Il just drag into the river and leave you to drown.”

“My power is not in the water, but on dry land,” said tortoise. “if you dare to face me there, I promise to make you sorry you ever heard my name.”

And so the hippo accepted too. The antelope was appointed referee. The fight was on!

At last all the other sports were finished and it was time for the big match. The elephant stood waiting for the starting whistle on the banks of the river, while a little further away, the hippo waited in the shallows for things to begin.

The tortoise went to the elephant first, with a rope.

“Tie this end of the rope around your foot. I will go into the river, where my power is. When you hear the starting whistle, pull as hard as you can. The first to pull the other onto in or out of the river is the winner. Agreed?”

The elephant agreed.

Then the tortoise went to the hip, with the other end of the same rope.

“Tie this around your foot. When you hear the whistle blow, pull! The winner will be whoever pulls the other in or out of the river. Agreed?”

The hippo agreed.

Finally the tortoise went to the antelope. “I am going to my end of the rope. When you feel me tug it, blow your whistle and the fight shall begin.” He walked and shortly after, the antelope felt a tug on the rope, blew his whistle, and the great battle began!

The hippo pulled. Great waves churned up the river. The elephant pulled! Earth was ploughed into clods. The hippo pulled, the elephant pulled! Great clouds of dust and spray rose into the air. The water beat against the shore, the earth crashed into the water! The noise was so great, the antelope bolted in panic and ran off to ride.

“Pull!” yelled the tortoise.

The elephant pulled. The hippo pulled. Pull, pull, pull!

The great fight went on all evening, all night and on into the next day. The elephant and the hippo pulled and pulled and pulled, but no matter how hard they strained, neither was able to drag the other in or out of the river. As the second day sank towards evening, both animals were so tired they felt like weeping – but neither would give up. Pull, pull, pull!

By the morning of the third day, both animals were so tried they could hardly stand up.. The elephant was on his knees. The hippo was in danger of drowning, he lacked the strength even to stay afloat. But the tortoise, who had had a good night’s sleep, was as fresh as a daisy.

At midday the lion called a fifteen minute break, and the tortoise took the chance to visit his two rivals, who lay exhausted in the shallows, panting and groaning with pain. When they saw how fresh the tortoise was, and how ready he was to carry on, their hearts sank.

“Well!” the tortoise said. “What a good fight. I had no idea you would be so hard to beat. But now I’m loan forward to the next round. Are you ready to carry on? This business of having breaks is for babies!”

Both the elephant and hippo shook their heads – they were broken beasts.

“No more,” groaned the elephant.

“Enough,” whimpered the hippo. “You win.”

And that is how the tortoise won the greatest fight the animal kingdom has ever seen, and became a prince by marriage. And as you will see if you ever come across a tortoise talking to the other animals, they all treat him with the utmost respect.

The Tortoise and the Eagle

After A VERY long break, I’ve found the time to go back to my notebooks from the Congo and carry on writing up the folk tales I collected … (and to notice, incidentally, that most of the photo’s I posted have been lost when the website was changed – must do something about that!)

Camping on the banks of the Congo

Camping on the banks of the Congo

This story was told to me in the village in the village of Samba by the chief’s son. It’s more like the kind of thing we’re used to in Europe, with it’s happy ending and traditional fable structure. Readers of African folk tales will be familiar with Tortoise the trickster – always one of my favourite characters from folk tales and myth. In this one, he teaches a friend a lesson about the differences of others.. The eagle, as you can see, was a bit stupid, but personally if I’d been him, I might have been tempted to drop our shelly friend on the way back home ….

The Tortoise and the Eagle

The Eagle and the Tortoise were the very best of friends – so much so that every single day, the eagle flew down from the high mountain where he had his eerie, across the steep cliffs, down past the stony slopes, over the trees, across the river, and past the meadows until he came the scrubby wilderness where tortoise made his home.

Tortoise was always there to meet him and make him welcome, and the two friends would have lunch together.

This went day after day, year after year, and the friendship between the two never wavered, until one day, the Tortoise noticed that his friend was quieter than usual. He asked him why.

“Have you ever noticed that its always me who comes to visit you?” the Eagle said. “In all these years, I don’t think you’ve ever come to my house even once.”

“But you live so far away!” replied the Tortoise. “There are mountains to climb, ravines to get over, rivers to cross. The forest is full of tangled roots, the way is littered with boulders and stones. It would take me forever, if I got there at all.”

” Still,” said the Eagle. ” I think you might have managed it just once, if you cared for me as much as I care for you.”

The Tortoise was hurt and shocked that his friend felt this way, but the journey was far, too difficult and dangerous for a stumpy legged little thing like him to ever attempt.

“Don’t be like that,” he begged.  “I’m sorry you feel let down. Give me time. Let me try find some other way of proving my loyalty to you.”

Months past and the Eagle sadly thought that the Tortoise had forgotten his promise. But then came his birthday, and he forgot about his doubts, looking forward to the big day. Every year, the Tortoise prepared a special lunch for his friend and always began the meal with a splendid present.

On the day, the Eagle excitedly made the flight down from the mountain to the desert in double quick time, he was so excited. But when he got there – what’s this? No table spread with goodies, no group of friends – no Tortoise. All there was a package and a card.

The Eagle opened the card and read.

“My friend, I’ve tried for months to think of a way to repay you for all the visits you’ve made to me over the years, but I’ve failed. So today, on your birthday, I’ve decided to come to visit you at your house. It’s a long journey for me, so I’ve decided to take several days to get there, to make sure I’m on time. As you can see, I was unable to carry your present as well. I hope you won’t object to carrying it yourself to your house – where I shall be ready to greet you and help you celebrate this special day!”

“Wow,” thought the Eagle. “Finally – he’s actually doing it!” He took the present in his talons and set off – over the desert, across the meadow, over the river, which he noticed today was very full and strong … Above the forest that was as the tortoise had said, full of tangled roots breaking up the ground, as well as sharp thorns in the twigs and branches. Then up, up he soared, up the slopes of the mountain, beyond the stony slopes and towering cliffs back to his eerie home.

The Tortoise wasn’t there.

“Never mind,” said the Eagle. “It IS a long way for someone who can’t fly.  He’s probably still walking. I can wait”

The Eagle waited … and waited … and waited.

After a bit he began to worry. The mountain certainly was very steep. The Tortoise had such tiny legs – there were a million places where he could slip and fall to his death.

“I’ll find him and give him a lift,” the Eagle thought. He flew off over the mountain, up and down, up and down. But there was no sign of the tortoise. He asked his friends the other eagles to help, and they all flew to and fro, but none of them saw anything.

“Maybe he fell into a ravine,” one of the other eagles said.

“Unless he’s crept past us and is waiting for you at your place, ” said someone else. The Eagle dashed home, full of hope, but the tortoise still wasn’t there.

“Maybe he’s still at the river. But that’s ludicrous – he can’t swim with that shell. He’ll drown! He stupid I’ve been! I must stop him,” thought the Eagle.

He flew off down the mountain side to to river and searched and searched – he even got one of the crocs that lived there to help him … But no one found anything

“Maybe one of my cousins found him first,” suggested the croc.

Off the Eagle flew, in a panic now .. back home , then to the forest, then to the desert, then to mountain again, then back home, then off again … back and forth and to and fro, until his wings ached. But of the tortoise, there was no trace …

It was getting late now. The Eagle realised that what for him was a simple journey on the wings of the wind, was a terrible ordeal for his little friend – an ordeal that had surely killed him. He flew wearily back home, full of guilt. He had lost the best friend in the world, and it was no one’s fault but his own.

He got back and – who should be there to greet him, but  the Tortoise himself,  looking comfortable and rested as he raised a glass to his friend.
The Eagle too one look and said…

‘HOW!!??”

“Can’t you guess?” said the Tortoise. “You gave me a lift! I was hiding … inside the parcel you so kindly carried here for me. I AM your birthday present!”

When he realised he had been tricked the Eagle was at first angry … then relieved … then angry again … and then at last he began to see the funny side and started to laugh … and laugh … and laugh.

Finally, they had their party.  At the end of the day, the Eagle carried the Tortoise safely back home and dropped him gently  at his front door. ”

“Just promise me one thing,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“Don’t EVER come to visit me again! I don’t think I could stand the stress!”

No Hands, No feet, No Eyes.

This story was told to me in a Pygmy house, in the village of Samba on the Lulonga River, almost exactly on the Equator. The chief’s son, Bokote, a Bantu man, came there to see me and told these stories.

Bokote, the Chief’s soon, who told me the story of the boy with no hands, feet or eyes.

The Boy with no Hands

A Mother gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, who had no hands, or feet, or eyes. What could they do with such a child? They could not afford to keep him, but they did not have the heart to get rid of him. They kept him, looked after him, loved him and fed him; and he grew up strong and healthy, even though he was unable to do anything for himself or for anyone else, and depended entirely on the charity of his family. In time, the parents even managed to find a wife for him, even though they had to provide for them both themselves.

Every day the parents and the wife went into the forest to work, and they had to leave the son at home on his own. Each day they said to him, “All you have to do is watch the pot and try to keep strangers away, in case they steal our food.” Then, they left to do their day’s work.

One day a stranger came to the door and demanded to be given food.
“I have no hands, no feet and no eyes. I can give you nothing,” said the son.  But the man peered in through the gaps in the walls.  “I can see the food in the pot,” he said. “Give it to me!”
“I don’t see the food,” said the boy. “But if you can see it – eat, and welcome to it.”
The man came in and ate the food.

When the parents and the wife came back, they were very angry that the food had been eaten. “It’s hard enough that we are poor and have to feed you, without you giving away even the little we do have,” they grumbled.
“I am someone who has to live by the charity of others,” said the son. “So how can I refuse charity myself, when someone asks for it?”

The next day they went out again, leaving the son behind; and once again they told him to keep the pot safe; and once again the man came and asked food.
“There is food right next to you,” said the man. “All you have to do is give it to me.”
“I have no hands – how can I give you anything?” said the son. “But if the food is there, please – help yourself.”
So the man ate the food and went on his way. That evening, when the parents and the wife came home, they were more angry than ever. But again the son answered, that as he had to live by charity himself, he could not deny charity to others.

On the third day, the same happened. The man came by and asked the son to carry to pot to him.
“I have no feet, I am unable to move anywhere,” said the son. “But if you see food here, please walk in and take it, and welcome.”
The man did; and when they came home that evening, the wife was so angry she threatened to leave her husband, and the parents could hardly blame her.
“If this carries on, we shall have to take all our food with us each day. We cannot afford this charity you love so much, for anyone who happens to walk past.”

The next day, the strange man returned.
The man said; “I have eaten 3 times. Now I wish to repay my debt. I have some gifts for you, but in return for these gifts, you must make some promises. If you make anything, you must give me the first thing you make. If you collect food, you must give me the first fruits that you pick. Whatever you do you must give me the first fruit of your labour.”
“I can perform no labour, so I can never give you anything,” said the boy bitterly. “But if I ever do, I promise that I shall give the first of it to you.”
The man said to the boy,  “Open your eyes he said,” the boy opened his eyes. He could see. “Stand up on your feet,” said the man. The boy stood; he had feet. “Give me your hand, and shake hands with me on our bargain,” said the man. The boy looked down and saw he had hands. He shook hands with the strange man, who smiled, turned around, and left the house.

When the parents and the wife came home, it was to the surprise and delight of their lives. For the first time the boy could see those who loved him. For the first first time he could truly touch his wife. And now there was a strong healthy son and husband to work by the side.

The son proved a quick learner, and very quickly aquired all the skills he should have learned years ago as a boy. He soon found he was particularly good with wood, and very soon he was able to make some chairs, which he took to the market to sell. Everyone was delighted with them; everyone wanted one of his chairs. Soon he was making a good living as a carpenter.

Now that he had hands and feet, the boy loved to exercise. One day walking through the forest he saw a palm tree laden with delicious fruit. Of course he climbed the tree, picked the fruit, ate his fill, and took the rest of the market to sell.
He took some home to eat as well, and his wife had never tasted such delicious fruits from a palm tree in her life. She asked her husband to take into the woods and to show her the tree, and of course he was happy to do as she asked. Once again the boy climbed high up to reach the delicious fruits growing high up in the branches. But as he did, he heard a noise below him. Looking down he saw the strange man.

“Wait there,” he called. “I am collecting fruit for you now. In a moment you will be eating the most delicious palm fruits you have ever tasted.”
The man said, “You have sold the first chair. You have sold the first  fruits. You have no respect for our obligation. Now, I want to take back my gifts.
“I want to see my eyes,” he said. And once the eyes fell out of the boy’s head and down to the man’s feet.
“I want to see my feet,” said the man. At once the boy’s feet fell and landed down the man’s feet.
“And now I want to see my hands,” said the man. The hands fell down – and the boy fell down after them. He crashed down and fell to his death on the ground.
The wife wept to see him what had happened. “Who has done this to my husband?” she cried. But there was no one there to answer. The strange man had vanished. She returned to the village to tell the parents what happened to the boy. They searched and searched for the man who could give such shifts and take them back, but no one ever saw him again.

That’s it – only not quite. If this were a western story, we might very well include the moral in thd end. No doubt the poor boy would have seen the error of his ways, or he might have had bad brothers who had no sympathy for the man asking for food; and it would have been them who came to a nasty end, not the hero. But in the Congo, the ending of stories is a little more interactive … it’s a bit like a game. At the end of each story, the story teller would say ..

“Now – what lessons can we learn from this story?” – and then you have to try and find as many lessons as you can.

Let me begin.  For one – always keep your bargains. For another – look after your family before you look after others; charity begins at home. the boy appeared more generous than he really was. For another – those with power take unfair venegence.

Any more? I’ll be happy to post any lessons I failed to find ….

That night, I was woken up by music – chanting, shouting, drumming. It was my paddlemen for the next day who had gathered together and were celebrating a journey with Go-Congo. I obviously wasn’t going to be getting any sleep, so I went to join them. We drank agene, the local palm spirit – kind nice; it certainly did the job put it like that. The singing was full of energy and rhythm. But when I say drumming, I don;t really mean drums. All they had were sticks and cans to bang. But like the agene – it did the job!

About an hour in, it turned out we were camped next to the medial centre and while we were chanting and dancing, a baby was being born. Great excrement! And the poor child was christened on the spot.

You Melvin, less than an hour old.

Poor child, with a name like that! I was invited to make a contribution to his education. How could I say no?

Now, that’s what I call a bong ….

… and that’s what I call stoned.

The Pygmy people always live away from the centre of the village in poorer huts. This pygmy found a well known way of passing his time …

… all free from the forest!

Paddling by the Lulongo river to the next village, and more stories ….

The next morning we set off up river again to the next village.

The river … not a breath of wind …

Next time, another village, another story …

Stories from Inland

These first few months of 2012 have been far too busy, but things are settling down so I reckon it’s time to re-start telling the stories I collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010.

The stories that follow are rather  different from those I’ve told so far. The first part of the journey, in Kinshasa, was over. After a week there with Save the Children, investigating the phenomenon of child witches, I took a trip with a company called Go Congo deep into the country. I flew first to Mbandaka, right on the equator, where I was met by my guide, Peter. We spent the night in a tent on the banks of the Congo river – such a huge river, you couldn’t even see the opposite bank.

The Congo river. The bank you can see is that of an island in the river - and there's more than one on the way across.

The next day we drove across country to the village of Samba on the Lulonga river.

It was a pretty odd experience. Samba and the other villages I was taken too had no roads, no electricity, no services of any kind. We went from place to place in dug out canoes – pirogues – which were basically the only way to get from A to B in that part of the world. There was myself, my guide Peter, six paddle men, a cook, and one other to deal with the putting up my tent and so on. When we set off, I was sitting like Lord Muck in one of those white plastic chairs people often use in this country for patios; Peter sat behind me also in a white chair, while all the others stood and paddled. Seven black men all for the purpose of pushing one white tourist along the riverways! – I felt like a fraud. But I reminded myself of something some friends of mine who live in Nepal once said. When they first went trekking over there, they carried their own bags, and did there own work; but the locals were furious with them for taking work away…

In fact, everyone was delighted to see me. What’s he doing here? A tourist! Great! We want more of them! I was certainly the only tourist I saw in the whole week … So I reminded myself that I was good for the local economy, and tried to enjoy myself.

Welcome to Samba!

The trip was pretty uncomfortable in many ways. The DRC is a Lingali and French speaking country, so I was reliant on Peter, and Peter’s English was poor to say the least. Anyone who is immersed in language as I am, and who finds themselves struck dumb by being both foreign on an idiot monoglot abroad will know what I mean. It was uncomfortable, hot, sweaty and damp, there were mosquitoes everywhere. Kulu, who was doing the tents, had forgotten much of what he’d been taught so I was frequently dripped on. But hey – how often do you get to go visiting villages deep in the forest, that can only be reached by canoe? The people there saw a white person once in a blue moon, they all came thronging round wanting their picture taken to see themselves on the screen. It was fabulous – what an experience!

I should say a few words about the nature of the trip – the package, because that’s what it was. That part of the DRC has two main tribes – the Bantu and the pygmy people. The pygmies are not the very small people you sometimes see on TV documentaries, who live deep in the rain forest. The pygmies I met were slight boned, usually not so tall as the Bantu, perhaps, but certainly not much smaller than the rest of the population.

A Pygmy family - and a few friends.

There is unfortunately, a good deal of racism from the Bantus towards the pygmies. In the villages I visited, no one had much. This was the tropics, and there seemed to be enough to eat, so long as you were happy with manioc root and manioc leaves, bananas and a few other fruits and vegetables. But no one had any money – not a penny. As such there was no economy; it was all subsistence farming. Even so, the Bantu had more. Their homes often had mud walls, roofs made of banana leaves or even corrugated iron. Often the pygmy houses were little more than shelters made of leaves and branches. Their houses were in a separate part of the village, on the outskirts, away from the centre; and they were generally looked down on by their neighbors.

My trip was an anthropological trip, as Michel, the founder and boss of Go Congo put it. The villages that we went to all had pygmies in them. My guide was a pygmy man and some of the paddle men were also pygmies. I think it was a novel experience for some of them to have a pygmy man in charge over Bantus, although I never saw any decent or arguments – everyone was very good natured. Even so, Michael had recently had to re-vamp his trip because the previous guide, a Bantu, had diverted the visits away from pygmy villages to those exclusively Bantu, were his own family and friends lived. He was determined to ensure that his trip favoured the pygmy people

And of course, I collected stories everywhere I went … So; tomorrow – The Boy With no Hands or Feet.

The Boy Who Cried Croc

This story was told to me by Madou, who worked in save the children’s offices in central Kinshasa. She told me her children loved this story and that they will always willing to find a lesson in a story.

Many years ago, I remember reading an article arguing that black Africa had a far greater influence on Western Culture than was at that time usually thought, via ancient Egypt. One of the themes was that the fables attributed to Aesop originated in central Africa. Anyone who has followed these stories  will be familiar to the themes common to both these African and our own European folk tales, and the odd way they sometimes surface. In this case though, you’ll know the story just from reading the title. There have been many comings and goings over the years between Africa and Europe, and where this story began – that’s anyone’s guess. But I include it here for the sheer fun of hearing a story we all know from a land in which wolves are unknown.

Never Cry Croc

One day there lived a family with 4 children, 3 girls and one boy. All the children were good except one – you guessed it was the boy. But he wasn’t just unruly – he was also funny. He wanted to spend the whole day playing jokes on people.

One day the boy was sent to get water from a river that was full of crocodiles. After he had collected his water he put the pots safety on the back. Then he started to call out at the top of his voice, “Help! Help! The crocodiles! The crocodiles!”

When they heard his screams, everyone was in a panic. They all came running as fast as they could down to the river bank to help him. When they got there they found him laughing his head off. He’d fooled them all! He thought he was hilarious.

Of course everyone was very cross. “You called us was nothing. You interrupted our work for nothing. You stupid, bad boy.”

Another day the boy was given the same job to go down to the river to collect water. This time though he really was caught by the leg by a crocodile. He pulled all he could and yelled and screamed – “Help! Help! The crocodile the crocodile!”

Everyone in the village heard, and rolled their eyes. “Yeah yeah yeah,” they said. “He does that all the times. Take no notice.” When his screams got really loud and panicky, they all shook their heads. He doesn’t give up, that boy, does he? But he’s not fooling us twice!”

No one realised that they were really listening to the boy being attacked and then eaten by a huge crocodile, until they went down to the riverbank later on and found nothing but a pile of clothes and some bloodied mud.

And what is the moral of the story? Simple: you must never lie. You must always tell the truth. Even when you want to make a joke.

This is the last story fro Kinshasa. The next post will be from Samba, a village almost exactly on the equator in the DRC.

Or … and this is my version of the moral because who wants to live in a word with no jokers and no jokes … don’t make practical jokes about dangerous things – they really aren’t funny!

Short Parents

A short father and a short mother gave birth to 4 tall children. But these children weren’t just tall – they were vain. When they got old enough to think for themselves, they looked down their noses at their parents and said, “These people cannot be our parents. We are too big to have come from such little things.”

So they left their parents and went to ask King to provide them with a new set. They knew he would never give them new parents if he knew they already had some, no matter how short they were; so they lied, and told him that they were orphans.

You should know that these children were planning on making a living by baking.

The King listened carefully, and then he said; “I will give you parents. But in return you must give me 2 sacks of charcoal. But this charcoal must not come from wood. You must make it out of pure fire.”

The tall children have no idea how to do this, so they went back to ask their short parents for advice. Of course, they did not want to tell them how they were trying to get new parents, more befitting to their tall stature; so they lied again, and told them they went to the King only to ask for food.

“We asked him nicely, but he told us to make some charcoal from nothing but fire! How do we do it?”

Of course the parents wanted to help their children, so they agreed.” Okay. Go back and tell him that the charcoal is cooking, but that in order to prepare it properly you need to have jars filled with the King’s tears.”

They went back to the king and did as their parents had asked. The King said, “I have no tears. But I now know you have not been telling the truth. You are being too clever. Someone must have told you to play this trick. The only people who would help you in this way must be your parents.”

And so the tall children had to go back and live with their short parents.

So what is the lesson of this story? Whether they are rich or poor, or tall or short ot strong or weak, you must love your parents as they are. They are irreplaceable in your life. You can search the whole world but you will never find anyone else who will be parents for you.

That’s the story. Not a good moral if you happen to be an orphan, or loose your parents through no fault of your own. Not always true either. In Kinshasa I met several children who’s parents had left them to live on the streets, who were later adopted by brothers or other relatives – see the story of Nono earlier in this blog.

Many of the organisations that help the street children of Kinshasa reunite with their families are funded by Save the Children.  Evarista Kalumuna who told me this story used to work for Save the children and he, like me, would be delighted if you were return the favour. If you’ve spent the time to read this, please spare a little more; return the favour with a small contribution. You can help Save the Children continue their important work by clicking here.

Kubangwa

At the end of my visit to Kinshasa last year, I was taken to visit a friend of the director of Save the Children – Mr  Evarista Kalumuna. Everista, like me, is a lover of stories and those that follow were told by him, sitting in a conservatory in the suburbs of Kindhsasa while the rain fell around us. Very nice!

These stories are a little different from the ones I’ve posted here so far, all of which were told to me by street children – kids outside of family life. These stories are, as you’ll see, more complete – not so much in the tales themselves, but in the way they are told. More specifically, in the way they are ended.

They were told to Everista by his father and, and to his father by his grandfather – a true oral tradition. As you will see, they have a great deal in common with the Aesop, in that each one ends with a discussion of the morals to be gleaned from the narrative – although they are considerably more sophisticated than anything in Aesop, I think. I suspect that originally, many of the stories the street children told me would have ended with a similar discussion. Few of these Congolese stories have a “proper” ending as we might understand it in Europe – a satisfying tying up of loose ends and a clean finish. Perhaps that’s because they were never designed to be told like that in the first place. Instead, a place for discussion is left at the end, where the listeners can try to work out the morals to be gleaned from the tale.

I can’t help wondering if traditionally, all the stories would end up with a discussion of the action, without which each tale is often a little incomplete.

Evening in Kinshasa

The 1st story  is called …

Kubangwa.

There was a king who owned many dogs. He loved them all. Every day when he came to the table to eat, he called the his dogs to him so that he could give them tit bits and pet them and have them share his food. He loved all dogs, but there was one dog he loved more than all the others – Kubangwa.

Now the Queen, the favourite wife of the King, was nine months pregnant and likely to give birth any day. But she was feeling restless and wanted to be busy and useful, so she called a servant to her, and took him with her into the bush to collect firewood. She took the dog Kubangwa along with her as well.

They soon collected plenty of  wood, but of course the Queen was too heavy with child to carry the wood herself. Instead, she piled it all onto the backs of the servant and the dog. More and more wood … higher and higher she packed them up, until they both groaned under the weight. Kubangwa was a loyal dog, he wanted to please, he was big and strong …. But he was getting old. It was a a hot day, the Queen kept piling up more and more wood on his back. At last the weight was too much. With a groan, the dog collapsed.

The Queen and the servant knew exactly how furious the King would be if his favourite dog didn’t come running for tit bits from his plate that evening, so they both did everything they could do save him; but it was too late. Kubangwa was already dead.

So when the evening came and the King called his dogs to him, one of them did not come …

The King ordered the palace and all the grounds to be searched. The search went on half the night, but there was no sign of the dog. He was an old dog – but not that old, and in full health. The King quickly came to the conclusion that someone had killed his favourite.

He called all his people to a meeting and asked each one of them, who had killed his dog. No one admitted it.

The King was furious, certain that someone had killed his favourite dog. So he devised a test to make the culprit tell the truth and swore that every single person in the land would have to submit to that test, no matter how old or how young they were, or if they were strong or weak, well or sick, no matter if they had lived in his country only a few days or for a lifetime. Even if they were from his own family, every single person would have to go through with it.

This is the test he devised.

There was a river on his land, running fast and deep through a gorge. The King ordered a rope to be attached from one side of this river to the other, high above the water, high above the foaming, rock studded rapids below. He made each of his people cross from one side to the other, swinging by their arms. As they went, they had to call out aloud, “If I killed Kubangwa, I want to fall in the river and drown.”

Starting with the poorest and going up to the most important and wealthy, the King made every single one of his subjects cross the river in this way. When they had all passed the test, just to show how serious he was, he made his own family do it, one after the other. First his youngest children were forced across the water. They cried and wailed, and their mothers begged, but the King would not be moved. Then the elder children had to cross. After them, it was the turn of the wives to go, starting with the least of them and working up to the most important. Finally, because he had come this far and would not back down, he made his favourite wife perform the test, even though she was nine months pregnant. She begged to let off for the sake of their child, but the King was on a point of pride; No; she must go as well. As a concession though, he allowed her take a servant with her – the same servant who had been with her in the woods.

The two set off across the rope together. They held on as well as they could, calling out, “If I killed Kubangwa, I want to fall in the river and drown.” But at last it was too much, and one after the other, first the servant, then the queen, fell into the raging river below. The King was horrified – he had not expected this. But he had publicly said that whoever killed his dog should be left to die in the water. As the King he felt he had to be true to his word, and now he was going to loose his favourite wife as well as his favourite dog. All he had to die was issue the command, but he would not. He was the King – his word could not be bent. The servant hit the rocks and was killed at once, but the Queen landed in the water. As she was washed away towards the rocks, he shouted after her – “You will die!  You will Die!  You will die!” – until at last she disappeared under the water.

The water was fierce and deep, there were many jagged rocks in the torrent, so everyone assumed the Queen would die; but she did not. Instead, the water rushed her away, right out of her husband’s country and far away and into a forest of ouerje trees.   She almost drowned many times, but in the end she was able to grab hold of a small plant and pull herself to the water’s edge. She crawled out exhausted onto the bank, and fainted away among the trees that stood tall around, as if they were looking down at her and wondering who or what she was.

She had one been a Queen, but now she was alone in the bush, wet, hungry, with no help, and about to give birth.

“Oh, if only those oujere trees would people” she exclaimed.

Now the trees had never seen a person before, and they were fascinated. To her amazement the trees replied. “We will become people,” they said. “But you must never tell anyone would were once trees.”

The Queen made her promise. The trees became people. Very shortly after that, the pregnant Queen gave birth to a healthy boy. The boy grew up, and in time he became the king of the forest, and all the trees became his people.

One day, many years later, one of the tree people, who was unhappy with the rule of the boy king, when to see the old King in the neighbouring country. “Your wife survived; your son was born,” he told him. “He is now a king in his own right.”

The old king was angry at the news – firstly that his word had not been carried out, and second that a rival King should be ruling in a neighbouring country. He decided to kill his son. He sent people to commit the murder, but each time they arrived, the old queen greeted them with a song ..

“The King here is tall and beautiful

My son, your father’s friends have come to kill you,

but they will not succeed.”

When he young King heard this, he did not harm them in any way. Instead, he welcomed them and gave them gifts of goats, and cows, and asked them to settle in his land and stay with him. Seeing this, each assassin put away his spear and stayed to live under the young King.

The old King was astonished to discover that his people were staying with the young King, so he went to see for himself.

The old Queen greeted her husband in the same way …

“The King here is tall and beautiful.

My son, your father has come to kill you,

but he will not succeed.”

His son welcomed his father into the kingdom with goats and cows, just as his friends had been before him. The old Queen came forward and welcomed him herself, and told him how sorry she was that she had accidentally killed his favourite dog. The old King was deeply moved and shed tears to see his Queen again, all these years later. He admitted that over the years he had regretted his hasty actions. He stayed for several weeks, and as he watched his son, and saw how gentle, how beautiful and how shy he was, he reminded him of what he had been like when he was young. All his aggression melted away.

He thought to himself – “This kingdom belongs to my son – I can’t kill him. But I can unite our kingdoms.” So that is what he did. The old king became the high King, while his son ruled his own Kingdom, and became his heir to rule both when the older man died.

So all ended happily.

Now – what morals we can learn from the story? There are a great many, but here are 5 that Evariste gave me

1 When you are angry, please, that is not a good time to act.

2 Note that the old king made all his subjects cross the rope first and his own family only at the end when he had failed to find the perpetrator.  So Never think that your children are wiser than the children of your neighbour.

3 Always tell the truth – every time.

4 always pardon your neighbour.

5 never think that when you’ve decided to harm your neighbour that you will succeed.

I can think of a few more myself – like, people are more important than dogs. And notice how the Queen learned to keep her word after her initial lie – she never told anyone that all the people of that kingdom were really trees. I think a family could have a lot of fun trying to see how many morals they could squeeze from a story like this.

Any more?

I hope you enjoyed the story of Kunbangwa. You can see that in the Congo, there is a strong and really wonderful tradition of using stories to educate children – I think we could learn from it. Unfortunately, poverty and political upheaval make it a hard place for many to be children over there. A little money goes a long way – check out Save the Children and make a donation.

Next story – Four Brothers. Shades of Jacob and his coat of many colours ….

Three Dogs

There’s been a bit of a break in my writing up the stories I collected in the Congo, when I was there with Save the Children last year. It’s been a busy summer and autumn, with a new book out and Andersen press Re-issuing The Cry of the Wolf. But I’m back at my desk now; so here’s another one, collected from the street children of Kinshasa. This story has witches, and a witch child right at the heart of it – which is poignant because many of the children I spoke had been accused of witchcraft themselves, and chased out of their homes and onto the street by their own families

Three Dogs is a classic folk tale of entrapment. It’s well known that witches love to eat human flesh, and that pregnant women love to eat the fruit of the safu tree. Put the two together – and the witches know they’re onto a good thing.

Safu fruit, by the way,is a purple-ish fruit that has to be carefully prepared  before it tastes good. Even so, it is said to be incredibly bitter to western tastes. But it must have something good in it, because pregnant women are known to often have cravings for it. Many thanks to Exhause, one of the children I men in the Sainte Famille open center for street children in Kinshasa, last year,
for telling me this great tale.

Three Dogs

A man a woman owned three dogs. One of these dogs was black – as strong as a wolf. Another one was white, a fierce, brave, loyal dog. They were obedient and loyal. But the last one was a weak dog, a dog the colour of mud, who never did anything good. He was lazy, disobedient and impossible to train. So they called their dogs black dog, white dog and weak dog.

Soon after the man and woman got married, the woman fell pregnant. As soon as her belly started swelling, like many other pregnant women before and since, she developed a sudden passion for safu fruits. She would hardly eat anything else – all she wanted was safu fruits, safu fruits – as many as she could get.

Fresh safu fruits.

Her husband wanted to do everything for his wife, so he went into the woods looking for safu trees. Pretty soon, as the weeks went by and the craving continued, he’d picked all the fruits near his village, and was having to go further and further afield to satisfy his wife’s craving. One day, in a part of the forest he had never been in before, he found a wood full of safu trees, all full of fruit. He picked all he could carry and went home with a big bag of fruit. But his wife was so greedy for the fruits, that she ate the lot within two days.

“Let’s go back to that woods together,” she said. “We can carry enough between us to last us for ages.”

Her husband agreed, and they went back to find the fruits.

Now, what that couple did not know was that these trees belonged to a witch. In all innocence they went there, climbed up the trees and started to pick.  There was one tree with the biggest, ripest, fattest safu fruits they had ever seen, and the wife climbed straight up that one and began to pick the best fruits she could reach.

It was at that moment that a witch child came along. This was the son of the most important witch, the chief of all the witches in the area. The husband and wife did not know that anyone else owned that tree, but even so, they were surprised to see someone from another village, so they kept very still.

The boy stopped beneath the tree with the wife in it.

“I feel someone is hiding in our tree,” he said out loud. Then he sniffed the air. “I can smell someone hiding in our tree!” he said. “And I’m sure it’s a pregnant woman.”

He looked up – and there she was.

“I want you to come down from our tree,” said the boy. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t run away. You are welcome to eat this lovely safu fruit. I want to introduce you to my father. He’s always happy to see visitors to our part of the forest.”

The husband and wife knew that they should ignore the boy and go home, but somehow, they didn’t seem able to do what they wanted. They climbed down from the trees and followed him through the woods to the village of the witches. The boy led them straight to the house of his father, the most senior witch. This man, whose importance was shown by his incredibly long nose, was, as the child had said, delighted to see the visitors.

“Well done, my son,” he said. “Thank you for bringing such delicious meat to me. Oh, I’m going to enjoy eating these two!”

The couple tried to run away, but it was already too late. They were held in a nearby house while the chief witch sent out a message to all the other witches in the area. “On this Saturday,” he told them, “We are going to have some good things to eat!”

A Congolese village house.

Saturday came. The senior witch called all the witches together for the feast. One of them, a huge, hungry witch, rolled out a huge cauldron from his house and filled with water. This was the witch cook. The witches built a fire and boiled the water. Then, the cook grabbed hold of the husband and prepared to throw him in.

The man had one last chance to save himself, his wife, and his unborn child. He shouted at the top of his lungs ….

“My black dog, my white dog, my weak dog – help me, please help me!”

Far away in the home village, the dogs heard his cry. They were tied up and locked in the house, but they pulled so hard that all three of them, even the weak dog, broke their leaches. But they were still trapped inside.

The man called out again. “My black dog, my white dog, my weak dog – help me! Come running quickly to me!”

“Shut him up – he makes too much noise,” said the senior witch crossly.

But the dogs had heard. The black dog broke jumped up and shook the door. The white dog jumped up and shook the door. They jumped up and banged against the door over and over, until at last until the door burst open …

And those three dogs came running, running, running through the woods!

The man heard them barking and he laughed.

“Why do you laugh?” asked the chief witch.

“Call this laughing?” said the man. “I’m not laughing. I’m just feeling sad that this is my last day on earth.” And he grinned at them

The witches looked at him as if he was mad. The chief witch jumped to his feet. “Enough!” he shouted. “Fling him in the pot. Let the feast begin!”

The witch cook grabbed hold of the man and dragged him to the pot of water, which was bubbling away. But just at that moment, the three dogs came bursting into the village. The witch cook wasted no time – he lifted up the man above his head and prepared to throw him in. The strong dogs, the black dog and the white dog, were held up by the crowd of witches who jumped to try and stop them. But the little weak dog, the dog the colour of mud, the dog who did nothing good, leaped forward and sank his stubby blunt teeth right into the cooks big toe.

“Agh!” yelled the cook. He dropped the man, who rolled across the ground out of the way. Then the three dogs really began their work.

The strong black dog grabbed hold of the chief witch by his ridiculous nose and began to drag him around the village. The strong white dog seized hold of the big witch chef and shook him until he died. And the little weak dog, the dog the colour of mud who did nothing good, chased and harried the witches round and round the village, snapping at their heels and barking at them when they hid, so that the other two, the strong black and the strong white dog, could come and finish them off.

When it was all over, the man and his wife walked around to have a look. All the witches were dead. There was  only one they couldn’t see, and that was the witch child that had trapped them in the first place. The husband, the wife and the three dogs went to hunt for him – and guess who found him. It was the weak dog, the dog the colour of mud who never did anything good who found him, hiding under his bed.

That was the end of him, and the end of the village witches, too. From that day, all the pregnant women in the village had all the safu fruit they wanted.

****

That’s it – Three Dogs. And that’s the last story from Kinshasa, and the street children – the child witches themselves, who didn’t get all that much to eat from what I could see – let alone meat. The next stories up will come from a different source, from Everista, a family man I was introduced to, who lived just in the suburbs of Kinshasa. You may find it interesting to see how different his stories were, how they were told and used in the context of a family – as they were always intended.

The street children, of course, had no such luxury. Tragically, many of them had been chased or scared away from their own families because they were feared as witches themselves, who might eat human flesh in the night-world. Accusations of this kind can come from almost anything – bed wetting, bad behavior, or just an odd appearance. Even more tragically, up to 80% of the families who had let them down so badly realise their mistake once it is simply pointed out to them what the real cause of their children’s behavior  is; often – as usual –  a break up in the family.

Save the Children do valuable work re-uniting children and their families in Kinshasa. You can help with a donation, no matter how small. Don’t let our current economic woes blind us to the nature of real poverty as it exists for so many millions of people in the third world. Make a donation now, and help a child find a family.

... wish it was true ...

The Plate and the Cane

This story is from Naomie, one of the girls who used the Santa Famillie open center in Kinshasa. This one is like a number of stories I’ve heard from Europe, but it’s not the sort of thing we might might tell our children these days. And once again, unlike many of the European stories I’ve heard, there’s a lot of humour in it.

Sharing a meal at the Sainte famille open center for street chidlren in Kinshasa. I wonder how many of these tots had been chased out of their homes for witchcraft? 80%, the center director said. A more unlikley bunch of witches I never saw!

A wife and a husband lived together by a lake, where they caught fish for a living. One day, out on the lake with his nets, the husband pulled in huge plate. What to do with it? They had no use for it, it wasn’t a particularly nice place … so they threw it back. As soon as it hit the water, the plate called out to them.

“Don’t throw me away – ask me!”

The fisherman was amazed, and scared – but fascinated. “Ask you what?” he demanded.

“Just ask me.”

The fisherman was troubled. What if the plate was trying to trick him? But then – what it was doing him a favour? In the end, he decided that this was something he just couldn’t miss. So he took the plate home, and he said to his wife, “You’ll never guess what I caught today …”

That evening they both sat and looked at the plate. It seemed impossible to imagine that it had ever talked. “What shall we ask it?” said the man.

The wife thought for a mount, then she said, “Let’s ask it for food. We never really get enough to eat. Asking for food should be quite safe.”

The husband agreed. “Plate, feed us. Please,” he added. At once, a wonderful feast was spread out before them – plates of meat,which they almost never had, wonderful fruit, everything they could hope for. And it wasn’t just food that the plate could serve up. Money, clothes, anything they asked for, the plate produced. After that, they never needed for anything.

Now, that couple had a son who loved football. One day, this son went to play a game against a rich kid. This rich kid was boastful, a bully, disrespectful to his parents and always expected his own way. He boasted so much about what a great player he was, that the fisher’s son grew angry with him, and an argument broke out. In the end they had a bet – who was the best football player? The rich kid bet a fine new football. “And what about you?” demanded the rich kid. “I’m always hearing abut this famous plate of yours. If you’re so sure of yourself, why don’t you bet that?”

The fisher’s son was so angry, he stupidly agreed to bet the plate. They played the game, the fisher’s son was outclassed. That rich kid may have been boastful and irritating, but he was a great football player. So now what? Too ashamed to back down, the fisher’s son crept him, stole the plate and gave it to the rich kid.

When he got back home and his parent’s discovered what he’d done, they were furious. They beat him for his stupidity and went straight round to the rich man’s house to ask for their plate back. But of course, the rich man said no. “Why should I?” he asked. “It was won fair and square. You should teach your son to behave with more respect to you.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” said the fisherman, “when everyone knows how rude your son is.”

“That may be so, but the plate is still mine,” said the rich man. “But I’ll tell you this – I’ll make a bet with you. if you can find a way to make my son behave, I’ll let you have it back.”

The fisherman went home feeling miserable. His son had given away their only bit of good fortune they’d ever had. “And there’s no way on earth anyone could make that boy behave himself,” he told his wife. “Everyone knows he’s the rudest, most unpleasant kid in the village.”

There was nothing for it but to get back to the fishing.

A few days later, the fisherman was out on his boat with his son, and he found caught in the net a cane. “This is no good to anyone,” said the father. “Although I could find a use for it if I thought about it,” he added, looking sideways at his son and swishing the cane. The son looked ashamed, and the father threw the cane back into the water.

But as soon as it hit the water, the cane shouted out. “Don’t throw me away. Tell me, tell me!” The father was delighted – but still a bit suspicious. Just because you have one piece of good luck, it does’t mean you;re going to have a second.

“Tell you what?” he asked.

“Just tell me,” said the cane. The fisherman pulled back the cane into the boat. “Now then – what shall I ask it?” he said aloud. “I know! Cane, beat my stupid son.” The cane set to work with gusto, gave the unfortunate son a beating of his life. It whipped him all the way back to shore and all the way back home, and still carried on when they got home.

“This is the life!” said the fisherman, lying back and watching, while his son hopped and howled. Every time he tried to escape out of the door, the cane would whip him back in.

“But this is perfect,” said his wife. “Now we have a way of teaching the rich man’s son his manners, and we can get our plate back.”

The next day, the man and his wife went to see the rich man, and explained to him that they were ready to take up the bet.

The rich man called his son to him. “Now – show me what you can do,” he said.

“Cane, beat this boy,” exclaimed the fisherman. As once the cane started work. The boy whooped and yelped and ran and twisted this way and that, but no matter where he went and what he did, the cane was there behind him, whipping merrily away. “This is perfect,” exclaim the rich man. “I’m far to busy to make sure my son behaves himself, but now I don’t need to, because this fine thin fellow will do all the work for me.”

So the deal was made – the cane for the plate. And everyone was happy – the fisherfolk because now they had all they could ask for; the rich man because he already had enough, but now he could keep his son in check; and the fisher’s son, because he had no need to worry about that troublesome cane any more. Only the rich boy had any need to feel sorry for himself – and that just serves him right.

That’s the end of the story.  Caning – not the sort of thing we do nowadays in Europe. I guess some of these children in the Congo aren’t so lucky, but I was a child, canings were a common place in books and in comics – half the stories in the Beano ended with an child bending over and getting six of the best from a jubilant teacher.  I remember a folk story I read as a child, one of a collection from the Czech republic, in which a group of rude princesses ended up being caned for three, six and nine days! Not only that, but the illustration showed them in their underwear – long frillies; and with a little crown on their heads. Not something I;d recommend for 11 year old boys today, although as a means of dealing the Royals, it has something to recommend it.

This lady told me all about the child witches she met in the market, and how she had a special gift from God to spot witches. Funny thing was, I have a special gift to spot self deceivers myself, and God was pointing right at her.

Mother Love

This is an interesting and unusual story. It starts off as something we feel familiar with, but the ending is a real surprise. we often talk about how our own folk tales have been sweetened for the Nursery since the Brother’s Grimm – but this sort of thing makes me wonder if the Grimm’s didn’t make the steories they heard a little more palatable for 19C tastes as well …

Unlike many of the stories told to me by street children, this one has something at the end that was almost always there with stories told to me by people in families – the lesson at the end. “What can we learn from this?” was a phrase I heard so often, and then the story would be plundered for lessons.  I think people often tried to find as many lessons in the story as they possibly could – I could imagine a competition for who could find the most at storytime. Perhaps that’s why many of them read so much like fables.

Many thanks to Henoch, who passed this story on to me.

Story time - the Three Little Pigs

A boy and his mother were walking in the woods, collecting food to sell in the market, when they were attacked by a lions. The boy bravely fought the lion and managed to scare it away, but as he did so another lion came from behind and seized his mother in its jaws. He turned and ran at it, and scarred that one away too – but it was too late. His mother was already dead.

Sadly, he took her body away and buried her. Now he had nothing in the world except his own self.

After the funeral, he went to visit her grave.  “Mother,” he said. “Without you I have nothing. I can’t even get any money from working in the woods any more because I don’t have your skills.”

A voice from the grave spoke to him.

“In the desert there is a dead tree. You must find that tree and dig in the sand underneath. You will find buried under the sand some cups, a great many of them, some very fine and grand, some very poor. But one cup and one cup only will have a mosquito flying around it. You must take that cup and bring it home. That will help you on your way in life.”

The boy knew that tree; he and his mother used to pass by it sometimes on their way to the city to sell the berries and grubs they collected in the wood. He went straight there and dug under the tree, deeper and deeper, until at last he began to uncover the cups.  He dusted the sand off them with his hands, and at once, from one of the cups, a tiny little insect flew; the mosquito his mother had told him about. It flew round and round the cup it had been buried with, an old cup, chipped and dirty and made out of cheap pottery.

The boy was disappointed. He wondered why on earth he had to take such a cheap cup when there were so many other better cups about. He would get hardly any money for that one – he wasn’t even sure he wanted to drink out of it himself, with that mosquito buzzing around it all the time. He told himself that surely his mother must have made a mistake – dead people can get it wrong too.  So he took another cup instead, a big, fine, two handled cup that he was sure he could sell for a lot of money.

He picked the cup up – but inside it, something was crawling. With a shout of surprise he dropped it, and as he watched, a small tawny creature crawled out. As it came out of the cup it grew bigger, and bigger and bigger, until before him stood a ferocious lion. The boy jumped away adndclimbed up to the top of the dead tree just in time to save his life.  The lion spent hours prowling around the bottom of the tree before it got tired of waiting for him and left.

The boy climbed down the tree and ran home as fast as he could. That night, his mother’s ghost appeared to him in a dream.

“Stupid boy!  What did I tell you? You never listed while I was alive and now you don’t listen while I am dead; but this time you must listen. Go back and this time take the cup with the mosquito, like I said!”

The ghost disappeared. The next day, very frightened and even more foolish, the boy went back to the dead tree, and this time he did as he was told, and took the cracked dirty cup with the mosquito buzzing around.  That mosquito followed him all the way home, until he was fed up with it buzzing round; but he didn’t dare squash it. Back at home he looked at the cup – and saw that it was full of money. The cup wasn’t very big, but there was enough money in there for the boy to buy himself some pigs. He looked after his pigs carefully, breed them and sold them on and increased his herd until at last, after a number of years, he became rich.

Nw that he had his fortune, the boy began to think about other things in life. He went back to his mother’s grave and told her he wanted to find himself a wife. At once, the ghost of his mother was by his side, looking sadly at him.
“In Kinshasa there is a good wife, and I shall help you find her. Go home; I will come to you in a dream and tell you what to do.”

The boy, a young man now, went home and did as his mother told him. And just as she had said, she came to him in a dream, looking beautiful and young, just as he remembered her in life.

Go to Kinshasa, go to the river and walk upstream. As you leave the city behind you will come to place on the river where there are coffins floating, many coffins, some rich, some poor. If you see a grand coffin, do not take it; but if you see one with a mosquito flying around it, you must take that one. Inside, you will find your wife.”

This was even more scary than the dead tree; and the boy was not so sure about finding a wife inside a coffin. But his mother had looked after him when he was a boy, and when he was a man so perhaps she would look after just as well now that he was ready to marry.  He went to Kinshasa and walked upstream, and soon he came to the place his mother had told him about. There were dozens of coffins floating on the water, jostling about and rattling together. The boy was terrified and wanted to run away, but he heard his mother’s ghost whisper in his ear; “Be strong.” So he tightened up his courage, and went up to the coffins to look among them for the mosque.

Some of them were very grand; but this time the boy had learn his lesson, and he searched carefully until he had found the one with a mosquito bussing around it. He dragged that coffin, a very poor one, out of the water.  On the shore, he broke the coffin open – and out stepped a beautiful young woman, who at once threw her arms around him and vowed to be his forever, because he had rescued her

Well, the young man was pretty worried about all this. She was beautiful all right, but she came out of a coffin. He asked her how she got there, but she shook her head and wouldn’t say. But his mother had looked after him all his life, even from beyond the grave, so he took her home and looked after her.  He soon found out that the beautiful lady knew everything about him – what he liked and what he didn’t like, what sort of food he enjoyed, what made him laugh, what made him happy. He couldn’t imagine getting anyone better for himself. Soon, her thanking his mother everyday for finding such a wife for him, and soon enough he asked her to marry him.

The time for the ceremony came. Dressed so fine, the beautiful girl and he went to the church; but when they arrive there, she would not go inside.

“I want to be married outside,” she said. “What is wrong with that?”

The priest was not happy about it, but he agreed and went ahead with the ceremony; but something dreadful happened when he began to pray. The bride began to writhe and moan. The more he prayed, the louder her cries became. The young man begged the priest to stop, but the priest did not stop. If she couldn’t bear to hear a prayer, what did that mean? On he went, and by the time he arched the Amen, the beautiful girl drooped to the floor – stone dead. Now that she was dead she began to change back to her own shape. Her beautiful face grew old and then decayed, her body withered and her flesh shrank away from her bones, until all that was left was just bones and clothes.  But the boy knew those clothes – they were the clothes his mother had been buried in.

His mother had loved him dearly, and helped him in his life after her death; but she could not face him marrying, because she thought that another woman would mistreat her son.

What can we learn from this story?  Many things. That a mother’s love is good for some things but not others;  that a mother can love her son but still be bad for him; that she can overstep her place in her children’s lives.  We learn that the dead are not always as sensible as the living; and of course, that a mother will love her children even beyond the grave.

Story time - one of the children tells me a story back