This is an interesting little tale – clearly an Congolese version of Cinderella. It goes to show how these themes travel right round the world. People must have been telling this one, in one form or another, for time out of mind.
It’s the second story told me by the little girls in Kinshasa, sitting in a row in the sun in their best dresses in the Store House Foundation transit and rehabilitation centre for street children in Kinshasa. In fact, all three stories were told me by the girl, who clearly loved stories – and dancing, and being the centre of attention, I think. She was a pretty girl, full of life and fun. I hope she’s reunited with her family now, but you never know.
SANDRA AND SANDRINE
A woman lived on a farm with her two daughters, Sandra and Sandrine. She had no husband, and since the only wealth she had were own two hands, her health and her own strong back, they were a very poor family. They lived in a low hut made of cane and thatched with bamboo leaves, and each day, the mother went out to work the fields, leaving Sandra, the eldest, to stay at home and keep an eye on little Sardine, the baby of the family. All they had to eat day after day was manioc and leaves, manioc and leaves, manioc and leaves, until they were all sick and tired of it. The two girls would have done almost anything just to get a taste of meat. But they never did.
To make matters worse, although the land they lived in was a peaceful place, ruled over by a rich and generous king, nearby there was a fierce war being fought. Every now and then, groups of bandits would past through, stealing everything they could get their hands on. One day they passed through the village where Sandra and Sandrine lived. The rouge soldiers went from house to house in the village where they lived, stealing, raping and murdering whoever stood in their way. The mother of Sandra and Sandrine ordered her daughters to run away and hide in the woods, while she stood up to the bandits, and try to protect her daughters. With barely a thought about it, the bandits killed her. Then they settle down for the night, drinking and eating the food they had stolen, singing songs and growing louder and louder as they got drunker and drunker.
The two little girls hidden in the woods saw everything. They stayed as still as they could for a long time, watching where their mother lay, hoping she would move. But she never did. When it became clear that she was really dead, they crept away deeper into woods as quietly as they could, trying until the noise of the drunken soldiers died away. By now it was pitch dark. They were deep in the woods, motherless, with nothing to eat and nowhere to go. After wandering around clutching each other in the dark, the two sisters curled up together, and cried themselves to sleep.
The morning came, and with it the realisation of the terrible things that had happened. They were too scared to go back to their village, and even if they did – what for? They mother was dead, the fields were burned. The remaining villages had nothing – certainly not enough to spare to feed two hungry orphan girls.
They set off to see where they might go and what they might find. They had wandered a long way in the night, in their desire to escape the soldier, off the paths they knew, deep into the woods, out of sight of any rivers they knew. Even the sun was hidden by the dense leaves above their heads. They had no idea where they were.
They set off anyway, and wandered deeper and deeper into the woods, living off shoots and roots and some insects they found, and drinking water caught in leaves or from puddles on the ground. After several days they found a track, which they cautiously followed, and before long they came to a village. Shy and scared, they hung around at the edges of it, where, after a few hours, a woman found them.
“So! What are you two doing here, sculling around not eh edges of the fields? Come to steal, have you?” she demanded.
Stuttering, Sandra explained to her that they weren’t thieves, but orphans, refuges, victims of the war. The woman listened closely.
“There is really no one to take care of you at all?” she exclaimed. “You are alone in the world?”
Sandra admitted that it was true.
“Well then – you’re in luck. I have daughters of my own, and a few more mouths to feed means nothing to me. You can work, I suppose – hoe the crops and till the soil? In that case, come home with me. From now on, you have nothing further to worry about. You have lost one mother and found another. Come!”
Sandra and Sandrine were overjoyed and happily ran back with their new mother. But when they reached her home they found that far from being well-off enough to feed two more, she was had barely enough to feed herself and her own daughters. Like their own mother, she was a poor woman who had to grow every scrap that she and her own two daughters ate; but unlike their mother, she was mean spirited and selfish, and saw in Sandra and Sandrine nothing more than four more hands to help her lighten eher own load.
The two orphaned girls were given manioc to eat and put to work in the fields at once, where they worked until the sun went down and it was too dark to see. Then they were taken back, given a little more manioc – “There’s not much, we have to eat too,” the woman said – and then put to sleep out the back with the hens and the cow. Next morning, it was up at the crack of dawn and more work, this time without anything to eat at all until nearly midday.
It got worse. Once she found out that the two girls would do whatever they were told, the step mother became greedier and crueler. They were good, hard workers and she sooner found that if they worked all day, every day, she was able to get enough to eat without doing any work herself. Soon she started keeping her own daughters at home as well, but for that to happen, Sandra and Sandrine had to work harder than ever.
“And why should I be just eating manioc and leaves when I’m rich enough to own two servants?” the woman demanded. “I should be eating meat every day, and eggs; I should be living in a compound in a fine plastered hut with a proper roof instead of in this smokey low place with just banana leaves over my head!”
But of course for that to happen, Sandra and Sandrine had to work harder than ever, and her own two daughters were going to have to make a very good match in their marriages in order in find someone rich enough to provide her with meat and build her a fine new house. So, while Sandra and Sandrine worked the fields every hour that God sent them, the new mother and her own two daughters were inside, dressing their hair and making new dresses, while their mother went far and wide trying to arrange a rich husband for them both.
Round about this time, the King of that land decided that it was time for his son to marry. In order to find the right bride, a beautiful girl, a fitting wife for the most important family in the country, the Kind arranged for a great feast. Everyone had to help gather the crops, slaughter the animals and prepare the food – it was going to take days and days of work. There would be a dance; and by the end of the day, the Prince had to choose his future wife.
Of course, the new mother was beside herself with greed. What a chance this was to provide herself with a life of luxury and high status – to be the Prince’s mother-in-law! it was just what she deserved – well, she thought so, anyhow. Just a few years ago she would never have dreamt of such a thing, but now that she had Sandra and Sandrine working for her, she had got herself so bloated with self importance, that she was determined to try and make it happen. She spent hours dressing, pampering and preparing her own daughters to look their best. They spent hours making one another up, trying on different fabrics at the market stalls to see which one would suit their complexions best and practising their dance. Of course, Sandra and Sardine were not going to be allowed anywhere near the Prince, or the feast – they were too busy doing all the work that the whole family of five should have being doing, just the two of them on their own.
The day of the feast arrived. Everyone was in a state of high excitement, the drums had started up and people were arriving from miles around to dance, sing, eat and make merry – and to see who the lucky girl was going to be. Everyone, that is – except Sandra and Sandrine, The new mother had made it very clear to them that they were forbidden to leave the fields that day. They had to work. They must have been the only two girls in fifty miles who did not have a holiday that day.
The two girls toiled side by side. In the distance, the drums began to play. They felt so low. In the old days, when they lived with real mother, they had thought they were poor. They used to complain back then. Nothing but manioc, manioc, manioc, every day. They used to nag their mother for just a taste of meat, but of course she could never afford it. But at least there was enough to eat, and at least they were never bullied, and at least they slept in their place and didn’t have to share with hens and the cows.
They were both miserable, but especially Sandra. She was old enough herself to marry, but the new mother had done her best to keep her out of sight of anyone who she thought might make a half decent husband, to save on competition for her own daughters. And of course, Sandrine would have loved to go to the feast, and try out her dancing skills and her luck with the Prince. But such dreams were far, far beyond her now. Who was going to want to marry a girl who was a virtual slave in her own land?
They bent over their hoes and listened to the sound of the drums, far away through the trees. Sandra could;t help the tears from running down her face. She tried to hid them, but Sandrine spotted them at once. She threw down her hoe.
“We can have a party of our own,” she said. “Come on, Sandra – dance with me!”
Sandra laughed and threw done her hoe and the two girls danced to the drums, singing their own songs, shaking the leaves of the manioc plants around them, stamping the earth and twisting their hips, and lighting up the shadows with their smiles.
But – “What’s that?” cried Sandrine. Sandra followed her finger and saw, coming through the trees, a strange light. It was coming towards them .. closer .. closer … growing brighter all the time until they had to shade their eyes. At last a figure came out of the tress, a beautiful lady, shining with a light they had never seen before
Across her arm she carried a a beautiful dress.
The beautiful lady was a ghost – the ghost of their dead mother. She had come to help her poor daughters – even in death, she was still their mother. She led Sandra off to the river and bathed her, and washed her hair, and put oil on her skin. Then she put the dress on her. Sandrine clapped her hands and danced – her sister was transferred from a slave to a princess. She had never seen anyone look so beautiful
And it was no yet over. The beautiful ghost led the girls away from the river to the road … and there, parked in the shade of a mango tree, was a car. A big, powerful, shiny black car, with a man at the wheel in a smart suit, ready to drive Sandra to the feast.
“You must try your chances with the Prince now, daughter,” said the ghost. “But Sandrine must stay behind and hide in the woods. I cannot be here all the time, and it wouldn’t be safe for her. Once your step mother finds out what has happened, she wile very angry . When you have made your fortune, then she can come forward and take her place by your side as your sister.”
The two sisters embraced. Sandra climbed into the car and it sped away towers the feast. Sadly, Sandrine did as her mother had told her, and melted away to hide deep in the woods – away from the feast and from her step mother’s rage as well.
Sandra arrived at the dance, and all heads turned to see who was going to get out of that sleek, expensive car. When he saw Sandra, the Prince was immediately intrigued – who on earth was this? He’d never seen her before. He invited her over and for the rest of the night, Sandra she sat at the prince’s side. He had eyes for no one else. All the other guests sighed and rolled their eyes and got on with the feast. But when she heard that the Prince seemed to have already found someone he liked – a mysterious girl, beautiful and elegant, the new mother was nary. She crept across to have a look – and imagine her surprise when she saw it was none other than Sandra! “She has crept out of the field and betrayed me!” she thought. “Not only that, but she has stolen my daughter’s husband. What a wicked, ungrateful girl.”
The next day it was announce that the prince had chosen his bride – Sandra. The feasting was to go on for another three days, at the end of which, the marriage would take place, and everyone would live happily ever after.
Not if the new mother had anything to do with it.
Sandra had told the Prince how her mother had been killed by soldiers, so the Prince put her in his compound while the wedding festivities were being prepared. Now, the step mother knew where her house was, and planned every day for a way to get rid of her- to kill her, in other words, so that she would have her revenge and the prince would have to choose again. Now, she knew very well how much Sandra craved a taste of meant, and to this end, she made a beautiful fish of chicken, prepared it with her own hands, made it as tasty as she knew how … and then poisoned it. So cleverly did she poison it,that no one who tasted it could tell the difference. Then she took the dish to the hut where Sandra was staying, preparing for her wedding, and offered it to her.
Many people had taken gifts of food along to the hut, to offer to the bride, but all the really good food was being saved for the feast. Chicken was a treat, something that sandra had never tasted in her whole life. It smelt so good! – she just had to try some.
But as she reached out, the beautiful ghost appeared before her..
“Stop!” she said. “You must not eat this food.”
“But it smells so good,” said Sandra.
“You must not eat it.”
“It’s meat! How often do I get to eat meat?”
“You must not eat it.”
“Is that all you can say? No, no no. Just like you were when you were alive. It smells too good to waste..”
Despite everything she had ben told, Sandra reached out to taste the food. But at that moment, the table shook so violently, that the food fell to floor and the dogs fell on it. Sandra turned round to scold the beautiful woman – but she was gone.
Her first attempt had failed, but the step mother was not going to give up so easily. The next day she came with another dish – duck this time. Again it was beautifully cooked, beautifully presented – and spiced with the most deadly poison. Once again, as soon as Sandra saw it and smelt it, her mouth began to water. She stretched out her hand, looked around … where was that pesky ghost? But no one was looking. She tried the gravy first – delicious! Then she took up some bread and tried a piece of meat. It was every bit as tasty as she had imagined. She finished the whole duck off in a single sitting, and she had barely had time to wipe the juice off her chin, when she fell down dead.
Sandrine, of course, knew nothing of this events, living deep in the forest as she was. The first she knew about it was when a terrible fury came rushing towards her through the trees. It was the ghost of her mother, enraged that her first daughter had disobeyed her, coming to vert her fury on her second daughter. The trees thrashed, the wind stripped the leaves off the twigs, even the earth rose from ground with the ghost’s fury. Poor Sandrine had no idea what was going on. Terrified, she ran .. and ran and ran and ran. The fury followed her deeper and deeper intot the forest, never stopping, always on her tail ….
And what happened to her, nobody knows. But I do know this; she was never seen again.
The Store House rehabilitation Centre, like the other places I visited in Kinshasa, is funded and helped by Save the Children, who do important work helping these delightful young people make their way in the world, and with luck, reunite them with their own families. Please help this important work and make a donation today.
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