The Poisonwood Bible
By Barbara Kingsolver
Published by HarperFlamingo – 1998
It was the audacity by way of an uncaring humour that initially took me into this ‘novel’ and only eventually did I begin to appreciate its profound contents and then the mention of Patrice Lumumba, despite that I was well into the book, clinched the matter… a great read for me.
A fanatical Baptist from the USA gets a bee under his bonnet about Africa and the apparently godless and stricken souls there so he ups stakes and enters the Belgium Congo… of all places. With him is his wife and four daughters, all cast into the African deeps, a religious family from a small town in Georgia.
The attempt at coming to terms with the dire predicament they all find themselves in fills the early pages with anecdotes worthy of any adventure but it’s not just that, it’s the way Ms Kingsolver does it…
At the welcome speech with the family all still excessively bedecked in triple clothing plus accessories from the USA flight straight onto an African domestic flight in their clever ruse to beat the baggage weight restrictions…
Sample quote: “The reverend answered his welcome by the Chief with… ‘The Lord rideth’, he said low and threatening, ‘upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.’
“Hurray! They all cheered, ‘but I felt a knot in my stomach [one of the girls says]. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tromping down off Mount Cyanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.’”
The story unfolds as told be each of the family members in turn other than the quite mad dad so it’s a very girly or at least female view that unrolls before the reader. The tales of village life are quite wonderful and of course the numerous misunderstandings owing to the great divide that separates the two cultures.
The more profound value though was the book’s introduction to the calamity caused by foreign interference into the Congo’s first dalliance with democracy, due to that old ‘red herring’ the possibility of a demon Communist taking the reigns of a country replete with resources – mainly cobalt and diamonds. Yes, the USA’s CIA got involved. It was the early Sixties.
If the facts of the matter were simply rolled out as information, especially to one who has only very little acquaintance with Africa, the enormity and absolute wrong of what took place in the Congo would not be properly appreciated. This is the intrinsic value of the book for me.
As the story of these eccentrics, for they are all are so revealed even if only eccentric like we all are to a certain degree given the right circumstances, the meta-plot is related and becomes predominant as Patric Lumumba is seen to be elected democratically then dethroned in as little as weeks into his tenure. The USA choice instead you see was a Capitalist Autocrat – Joseph Mobutu – to replace a Socialist Democrat, and this by a supposed democratic power.
Patrice Lumumba… “who washed his face each morning from a dented tin bowl, relieved himself in a carefully chosen bush, and went out to seek the faces of his nation – was classed as a danger to the safety of the world! – from a roomful of white men who held in their manicured hands the disposition of armies and atomic bombs, the power to extinguish every life on earth.”
The CIA was headed by Allen Dulles, the president was Eisenhower, the CIA Africa station chief was Lawrence Devlin, a ‘scientist Gottlieb concocted a powerful poison for the job plus a million dollars to pay the soldiers was provided, etc. The dark deed took place on September 17, 1960, when Lumumba was placed under house arrest in Leopoldville.
Lumumba escaped November 27 same year after hiding amid a bunch fo shift-changing employees, mostly women, in a car. But the Prime Minister was spotted by a South African mercenary pilot, partly owing to the excited crowd as people got to know Lumumba was in their midst due to a car breakdown in torrential rains. He radio’d HQ and not long after that Lumumba was picked up, taken to Katanga Province and finally beaten to death.
What a mess this caused and established a reign of spies and terror, thus widespread fear across the entire country where before there was simply a big mess of underdevelopment as the colonial Belgians only took interest in the resources, not the people, as had the Portugese and the USA likewise in Angola and Liberia respectively.
Also noted in the book is the contemporaneous case of the young Angolan Agustino Neto who returned from abroad to open a clinic to give decent care to ordinary people and this among other matters brought him into popularity. This took attention of the Portugese then calling the shots in Angola and consequently a gang of white men dragged Neto out of his clinic and after beating him, threw him into prison. His supporters protesting outside the prison were machine gunned! The Portugese army went on a rampage burning villages to the ground, which gained Neto even more fame to the extent he started an opposition political party – as soon as he got out of prison.
Neto did take the power and in the highly violent situation that ensued eventually the day of a peace treaty came but hardly had there been time for anyone to sigh in relief when the USA airlifted a huge shipment of guns to an opposition leader who was out to murder Neto, all because he too had been junked as a Communist. But that’s another story.
In the Congo Mobutu proved to be about as corrupt as any African head of state ever, and likely more so. He built palaces for himself and family at home and abroad. The people were fighting each other in their poverty-stricken dire straights but this was not given heed by Mobutu. Sadly, as poverty can destroy all human values, the entire Congo suffered dehumanisation.
An example of the high level corruption that became institutionalised can be seen in the Inga-Shaba power line constructed by USA manpower and funded by the USA. There was no way this project could succeed. It was supposed to link remote places for power distribution but the region had plenty of hydropower potential without bringing in anything from elsewhere. No way to maintain such link across the Congo’s deep forests and indeed as soon as a length had been built, as the teams developed the line’s front end, the back end was being demolished by materials hungry villagers without let-up. Where were the consulting people? The loan to the Congo of more than a billion dollars by the Export-Import Bank assured a permanent debt that had to be repaid in diamonds and cobalt till some other politician might put an end to the scam, to paraphrase Kingsolver.
Thankfully all is not all doom and gloom in The Poisenwood Bible. Right at the very end the author introduces the Kingdom of Kongo, as discovered by the Portugese so many centuries ago. Certainly not primitive. However, the system was far from a commodity culture as all produce was for local consumption, in fact, some researchers would say, like the Chinese, the culture was against developing machines or artifacts that would cross natural borders or supply external civilisations but rather seen the sense of sticking to their own region and undemanding way of life.
This would allow local control over diseases as they were not opening up new territories or invading rain forests. Food was consumed near where it was grown. No cities let alone mega-cities. No mono-plantations, no wide roads for the rains to perennially destroy. It had all the makings of a Greenie’s heaven plus appropriate technology.
That’s what the ‘enlightened West’ intruded into. That is still continuing. The Congo continues to suffer from the ramifications and activities of a powerful, limited-vision colonising West. Even today.
Thank you Barbara – recommended book.