So the book I just finished is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. It’s about a Baptist missionary family, the Prices, who in 1959 move from Georgia to the Congo to win souls to Christ. The chief agent of this move is Nathan Price, who drags along wife Orleanna, teen-aged Rachel, 'tween twins Leah and Adah, and five-year old baby of the family, Ruth May. The book is divided into seven sections, and the five females in the family, all of whom respond to Africa and to their enforced missionary status in different ways, tell the story alternately. Nathan Price never gets to narrate; he just gets to be narrow-minded, stubborn, abusive, and crazy as a bedbug. He’s about as far from true Christian charity and kindness as a person can get. And yet, as patriarch, he’s the boss, and the hapless Price females follow him like ducklings.
Full disclosure: I have mixed feelings about missionaries. I grew up in a church with missions at its heart and a banner on the wall that read, “Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel to Every Creature.” One Sunday a month, all of us Sunday School kids turned in little wooden barrel-shaped banks stuffed with loose change for the Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge. We were doing our bit to evangelize those poor brown, yellow, and red children all over the world, about whom we knew very little other than that they needed our pennies, nickels, dimes and dollars. We wanted them to have enough food to eat and nice clothes to wear! We wanted them to sing, “Jesus loves me / This I know” and mean it! It is not a bad thing to foster generosity in a child’s heart. It is not a bad thing to teach a child to care about the welfare of other human beings.
But I’m not a child any more. I’ve studied and traveled and learned a few more Bible verses, one of which is “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I certainly would not want foreigners who know nothing about me or my country or culture to plunk themselves into the heart of my town and start telling me I was lost and stupid and had earned eternal punishment just for worshipping my own god instead of the big pumpkin they set up in the village square. I’d avoid the strangers and join up with anybody who wanted to give them the boot.
Cultural arrogance as demonstrated in this hypothetical is at the heart of The Poisonwood Bible. Kingsolver’s book reminds readers that barging into a place that has evolved its own way of living in a specific environment and attempting to force change is disrespectful at best and dangerous at worst, to both parties. Somebody, perhaps everybody, will suffer. Of course, in Kingsolver’s book, they do. The Prices, the only whites for miles around, do learn from the blacks, and vice-versa, but the lessons are wrought from pain far oftener than they are wrought from acceptance of a better way.
Woven into the fictional domestic events of the Price family in The Poisonwood Bible are the real-life events of Congo’s struggle for independence from Belgium. Congo had been appropriated first by Belgium’s Leopold the Second as a private enterprise his country did not support. The “Congo Free State,” established in 1885, used forced labor, mutilation, and murder (some reports say as many as ten million Congolese were murdered) to increase rubber production. So horrible were conditions that international pressure forced Belgium to take over Leopold’s private colony in 1908. The abuses were curbed, but segregation continued along with a paternalistic attitude (“dominate to serve”) on the part of whites that they knew best what the Congolese needed.
Of course, the Prices don’t know this history, nor does it matter to single-minded Nathan. The Price females, though, begin to realize they aren’t in Kansas anymore just as Congo’s struggle results in independence from Belgium (June 1960). Congo elects Patrice Lumumba as its first president, but the departing Belgians foment rebellion in the southern region of Katanga, source of Congo’s mineral wealth, in order to cling to its hold on the natural resources of the Congo (diamonds, rubber, copper). Lumumba asks the United Nations for help. It refuses. He turns to the Soviet Union, which sends aid. Lumumba is labeled a Marxist, and the United States masterminds and funds the assassination of Lumumba. In his place, the U.S. in 1965 sets up Joseph Mobutu as leader.
Mobutu has been described as the "archetypal African dictator." Mobutu embezzled between four and fifteen billion U.S. dollars during his 30-year reign. He owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while the nation's roads rotted and the Congolese starved. Public service workers went months without being paid. On trips across Zaire (Congo’s new name), he appropriated the droit de cuissage (right to deflower) local virgins; this practice was considered an honor for the virgin's family. The United States propped up Mobutu for 30 years.
This history comes out in bits and pieces because the novel’s focus is on the tragically misguided and misinformed Price family. Nathan Price refuses to accept that western ways do not—and should not be expected to—work in Africa. For example, he plants a garden just like the one he had at home to show the Congolese that they can grow their own food, as though they are too stupid to have figured that out for themselves. Nathan doesn’t even suspect there might be a very good reason the Congolese don’t have gardens—in fact several reasons, such as flooding, army ants, drought, and so on. Nathan’s garden flourishes at first but then withers away without producing fruit because African pollinators cannot fit into the blossoms of western plants, just as Nathan’s mission makes a big show but produces no saved souls because white ways cannot be shoved into native hearts. The failure of Nathan’s garden parallels the failure of the Prices to evangelize the Africans, who, despite Nathan’s offensiveness, do all they can in secret to keep the Price family alive in a beautiful but dangerous environment.
The Poisonwood Bible is a story of the small and the vast ways humans misunderstand one another at a cost of misery and misshapen lives. The book doesn’t present Africa’s people or politics as inferior to Euro-American people and politics. Kingsolver, like the whites murdered in Congo’s violent struggles and the blacks murdered daily in American cities, knows that skin color matters. To many. But Kingsolver tries, and succeeds, in showing that skin color doesn’t matter to nature. Nature succors and annihilates evenhandedly without regard to race—or even to species—and nature is Africa’s beating heart.
My take-away, apart from seeing yet another dysfunctional family inflict scars on one another, was this: in Africa, western “civilization” blundered in to perfectly balanced systems that had become that way over thousands of years and ruined them. Missionarying has been going on for hundreds of years and will go on forever; it occurs any time one human being disrespects another human’s choices. As Kingsolver says, “everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.”
Good book. Screws on your head a bit differently. Educational and surprising and worth your time. Can be bought for the price of a cup of coffee at a used book store near you.