Ibeyis (or Hansel and Gretel, Afro-Cuban style)

Son dos los jimaguas/son dos a la bella aure

Thus sang the twins: Taewo and Kainde. The former chased his sister around the palm tree at the base of which they lived. Their joy filled the air. The children loved playing with two rattles, two small drums and two sets of bells. Every time they skipped if felt as if the sound of a whole orchestra invaded every single corner of the forest.

But someone was not happy. The twins’ father, Shangó, had re-married recently after his ex-wife Oshún had left him, tired of his womanising ways. Shangó’s new wife and the twins’ step-mother could not bear the two children. Whenever she had the opportunity she punished them hard. She was forever nagging Shangó and often complained that he cared more about his children than her.

Taewo and Kainde remembered their mother fondly. Oshún was the most beautiful of the female orishas, Whether she was fanning herself with her yellow sandalwood fan or making her five gold bracelets jingle as she walked through the woods, Oshún’s beauty always stood out. It was her grace and poise that drove Shangó mad in their early courtship. It was also what caused the big fight between the twins’ father and Oggún, warrior and blacksmith.

This happened in the early stages of Shangó and Oshún’s relationship. The latter had gone to the river, her dominion, where the small gold fish and the conch shells opened up a path to welcome the lady in yellow. Oshún began to sing: Iya m’ile oro/iya m’ile oro/bobo ashé/iya mi sara mowo e/iya m’ile oro. As she sang she laughed. Her laughter could be heard for miles around. Everyone knew now that the owner of the river was bathing. Her yellow and white dress floated on the surface of the water as Oshún walked further in. Iya m’ile oro/iya m’ile oro/bobo ashé/iya mi sara mowo e/iya m’ile oro. She repeated the chant. Shangó heard it. He began to walk towards the river. But unknown to him, another orisha was aware of Oshún’s presence in the river: Oggún. He, too, ventured towards the stream.

Shangó was not just the king of Oyó. He was also the orisha who jumped the highest, who danced more violently, who gave himself more to the drums. Upon hearing his lover’s voice, he advanced through the thick forest. No tree, regardless of size and width, could stop him, no bush, no matter how impenetrable could halt him. He moved on, head-butting the dense vegetation along the way. Occasionally he did three forward rolls, belting out his own chant, too: oba ibo/si ade o/oba ibo/si ade o/eru’amala ibo/era o oba oso ashée e. At the same time from the opposite direction Oggún was making his way to the river. He was also singing his own warrior’s chant: soke mado dumare/soke mado/soke mado dumare/soke mado dumare/dibu dibu dide o/baba soku ta/sokuta laroye/soke mado dumare.

The two orishas arrived at the same time to see Oshún covering herself in oñI on the river bank. The honey on her black skin glimmered in the hot sun. Oggún struck first. Waving his machete above his head he attacked Shangó. The king took a step to one side and caught his opponent on his leg with his double-headed hatchet. Wounded and powerless, Oggún withdrew immediately, not without swearing revenge.

This is how Shangó and Oshún became husband and wife. But the king of Oyó was very popular, especially amongst the women. Shangón loved nothing more than living life to the full. After the Ibeyis were born, Oshún was left to raise them almost on her own whilst her husband carried on partying. One day, she packed up her things and went back to the river. Since then it had been Shangó’s job, and now his second wife’s to bring up Taewo and Kainde.

These were desperate times in Shangó’s house. There was not enough food. One day Shangó’s wife was waiting for him on the doorstep. She did not even let him put his double-headed hatchet down, take his castle-shaped crown off or remove his red-and-white cut-off trousers. She gave him an ultimatum: “There are too many mouths to feed in this house! We must get rid of those two spoiled brats!”

Shangó, king of Oyó and one of the most powerful orishas, was lost for words. It was true that, although still the monarch, he had fallen into poverty. In fact, his title was useless. He was king only in name. All throughout his land, his subjects were starving.

Shangó looked down to the floor. His wife kept harping on until he sighed heavily. “Okay”, he said, “I shall lead the twins into the forest tonight”.

Unknown to the adults, the two children had overheard their conversation. Taewo comforted Kainde. “Don’t worry, if he leaves us in the forest, we will find a way back home”. He slipped out of the house quickly to fill his pockets up with white cowrie shells.

As soon as the night painted the sky black, Shangó grabbed his two children by their hands and led them into the gaping forest. As they went into the depths of the trees, Taewo began to drop a little white cowrie shell here and there on the already-moist ground. At a certain point the two children found that they really were alone: Shangó had gathered enough courage to desert them, muttered an excuse and left.

Kainde started to sob bitterly. Taewo felt scared, too, but he tried to hide his feelings and comfort his sister. “Don’t cry, trust me! I swear I’ll take you home even if our father doesn’t come back for us!” Fortunately the moon was full that night and Taewo waited till its metallic, silver light filtered through the trees.

“Now give me your hand!” he said. “We’ll get home safely, you’ll see!” The tiny white cowries gleamed in the moonlight, and the children found their way home. They stole in through a half open window, without waking their parents up. They felt tired but they were also thankful to be home again. “Son dos los jimaguas/son dos a la bella aure” they sang as their eyelids closed slowly.

Next morning, when their stepmother discovered that Taewo and Kainde had returned, she went into a rage. Stifling her anger in front of the children, she locked her bedroom door, reproaching Shangó for failing to carry out her orders. The weak king protested, torn as he was between shame and fear of disobeying his cruel wife. The wicked stepmother kept Taewo and Kainde under lock and key all day with nothing for supper but a sip of water and some hard bread. All night, husband and wife quarrelled, and when dawn came, Shangó led the children out into the forest again.

Taewo, however, had not eaten his bread, and as he walked through the trees, he left a trail of crumbs behind him to mark the way. But the little boy had forgotten about the hungry birds that lived in the forest. When they saw him, they flew along behind and in no time at all, had eaten all the crumbs. Again, with a lame excuse, Shangó left his two children by themselves.

“I’ve left a trail, like last time!” Taewo whispered to Kainde, consolingly. But when night fell, they saw to their horror that all the crumbs had gone.

“I’m frightened!” wept Kainde bitterly. “I’m cold and hungry and I want to go home!”

“Don’t be afraid. I’m here to look after you!” Taewo tried to encourage his sister, but he too shivered when he glimpsed frightening shadows and evil eyes around them in the darkness. All night the two children huddled together for warmth in the moonlight.

Dawn broke and the twins started to wander about the forest, seeking a path, but all hope soon faded. They were well and truly lost. On they walked and walked, till suddenly they came upon a strange cottage in the middle of the woods.

“This is chocolate!” gasped Taewo as he broke a lump of plaster from the wall.

“And this is icing!” cried out Kainde, putting another piece of wall in her mouth. Starving but delighted, the children began to eat pieces of sweet broken off the cottage.

“Isn’t this yummy?” said Kainde, with her mouth full. She had never tasted anything so nice.

“We’ll stay here,” Taewo declared, munching a bit of caramelised popcorn. They were just about to try a piece of the biscuit door when it quietly swung open.

“Well, well, well!” said a big, strong man peering out with a crafty look. “And haven’t you children a sweet tooth? Come in! Come in, you’ve nothing to fear!” went on the man. Unluckily for Taewo and Kainde, however, the sugar candy cottage belonged to Oggún, the warrior and, to the twin’s ignorance, their father’s sworn enemy. The sweet-covered house was his trap for catching unwary victims. The two children had come to a really nasty place.

“You’re nothing but skin and bones!” said Oggún, locking Taewo into a cage. I shall fatten you up and eat you!”

“You can do the housework,” he told Kainde grimly, “then I’ll make a meal of you too!” As luck would have it, Oggún had very bad eyesight. It was to do with his job as a blacksmith. Every time he forged weapons, pieces of metal ended in his eyes. As a result he was losing his vision. Kainde smeared butter on his glasses so that he could see even less.

“Let me feel your finger!” said Oggún to Taewo every day to check if he was getting any fatter. Now, Kainde had brought her brother a chicken bone, and when Oggún went to touch his finger, Taewo held out the bone.

“You’re still much too thin!” Oggún complained. When will you become plump?” One day Oggún grew tired of waiting.

“Light the oven,” he told Kainde. “We’re going to have a tasty roasted boy today!” A little later, hungry and impatient, he went on: “Run and see if the oven is hot enough.” Kainde returned, whimpering: “I can’t tell if it is hot enough or not.” Angrily, Oggún screamed at the little girl: “Useless child! All right, I’ll see for myself.” But when he bent down to peer inside the oven and check the heat, Kainde gave him a tremendous push and slammed the oven door shut. Oggún had come to a fit and proper end. Kainde ran to set her brother free and they made quite sure that the oven door was tightly shut behind Oggún. Indeed, just to be on the safe side, they fastened it firmly with a large padlock. Then they stayed for several days to eat some more of the house, till they discovered amongst the Oggún’s belongings, a huge chocolate egg. Inside lay a casket of gold coins.

“Oggún is now burnt to a cinder,” said Kainde, “so we’ll take this treasure with us.” They filled a large basket with food and set off into the forest to search for the way home. This time, luck was with them, and on the second day, they saw their father come out of the house towards them, weeping. “Son dos los jimaguas/son dos a la bella aure” they sang when they saw their father’s double-headed hatchet, his castle-shaped crown and his red-and-white cut-off trousers.

“Your stepmother is dead. Come home with me now, my dear children!” The two children hugged Shangó.

“Promise you’ll never ever desert us again,” said Kainde, throwing her arms round her father’s neck. Taewo opened the casket.

“Look, Father! We’re rich now . . . You’ll be a proper king again”

Shangó could not believe his luck. He had his two children back with him and his fortunes had changed for the better. He opened his mouth wide and began singing. His voice travelled far and away, carrying with it the joy of a father who knew he had done wrong but who had learnt a valuable lesson: love between a parent and their children is unconditional:

Eya aye Shangó yamala ko ile
Shangó yamala ko ile
Shangó yamala ko ile

Eya aye Shangó yamala ko ile
Shangó yamala ko ile
Shangó yamala ko ile

And they all lived happily together ever after.

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