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.

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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 ….

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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 ...

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Kill All Enemies – Blog Tour.

I’m just about to go off on a virtual tour, guest blogging at various wonderful book sites, where I’ll be writing a lot about the people behind the characters in my new book, Kill All Enemies – the real life people I used to spin the novel from. (For a full list of the sites I’ll be visiting, click  here.) After the recent riots, the book has taken on a sudden relevance. Everyone has dispossessed young people from deprived communities on their minds, and usually they’re pretty disgusted from what they’ve seen. In fact, I can’t remember the last time a group of young people in our society was so universally despised. Since the kids I talked to were often from very similar communities, I’d like to say a word about them here, before the book comes out.

I’ve always believed that the first and foremost creative act we all engage in is ourselves. We are all, of course, the products of our environment, but we are also acts of the imagination – our own.

Many of the people I spoke it had been through very difficult times as children – painful, hateful, often violent. When those things happen to you, you can’t stop the feelings that come. You have no choice. You will be made to feel useless, weak, cowardly, hateful, angry and vengeful. It’s just human nature. What you do have control over, however, is how you react to those feelings. You can react by becoming violent yourself, or by bullying others. You can hide in a room and be sick, or go out and make music about it, or forgive, or rebel, or just stick your head in a bucket and shout to yourself. That’s up to you. All of those decisions, all of those acts, multiplied over the years, turn us the people we become.

Those of us unlucky enough to have many hateful things happen to use when we’re young, if we’re rejected or hurt, or have to see dreadful things happen to those we love, have so many opportunities to become hateful ourselves. Dreadful things happen to so many people, and many of them take the decision to become dreadful themselves. It’s how pain, violence and hatred are perpetuated.

But despite everything, some people manage to make decisions that lead them away from that path. So many of the young people I spoke to had been through the most astonishingly difficult times as young children, when bad things strike the deepest – and yet they had successfully turned themselves into kind, warm people. In my book, the lads from Kill All Enemeis – the band from whom the book takes it’s name – and the girl I based Billie on in particular, have managed to cope with terribly difficult and painful circumstances, and yet come out of it transformed, as if by magic, into people anyone would be proud to know.

I have the utmost respect for all of them. So many children manage against all the odds to emerge from pain and fear and transform themselves, and the disgraceful behaviour of their elders into the warm and generous people they have become today. They are acts of their own imaginations, works of art equal to anything Shakespeare ever wrote, or Michelangelo ever painted, and I’d like to pay tribute to them today.

Melvin Burgess

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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.

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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

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Wind

This is a very short story about a boy called Wind. It’s a joke – the kids laughed like drains when Aron told me this one. Anyone who’s had to steal, lie or cheat to get the often very basic things they things they need in life will appreciate Wind’s mother and her sense of humour.

Wind

Once there was boy called Wind. At school one day, they asked for money to pay the fees.

Wind went home and told his mother. She said, “No problem. This is what we’ll do.  You have to run as fast as you can to the money exchange. Since you’re Wind it’ll be easy for you to steal some money and then run quickly away.  As you go, shout; ‘Everyone should protect children!” at the top of your voice.

So he did it. And it worked!

Well done, Wind. It’s a pity someone doesn’t find a way of getting money off the people who deal in currency in this country to pay a few school fees. I’d laugh as well. Of course, the people who deal in money in Wind’s world are only tiny weenie little piggies compared to the monster porkers who stuff their faces daily on the homes, schools, libraries, hospitals etc in our own neck of the woods.

The boys played drum and the girls lined up to show off their skill. Each dance ended with a double beat as the girls swung their hips - BOOM-BOOM! Needless to say, I was rubbish

Thanks for the story, Aron – I hope someone pays for your school fees without you having to steal them. Hey – maybe who ever is reading this can help. So come on, readers – Aron gave us something from his country; maybe you can help him out with something from yours. A little money towards the school fees of Aron and other kids like him would be a nice start …

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