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 …
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.
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 ….