AFRICA Culture: The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver's story of colonial arrogance and neo-colonial brutality set in the Congo.

Despite its being written by a popular American novelist, and, furthermore, being a riveting read, The Poisonwood Bible is not a book that has been widely publicised, although it received extremely good reviews from The Independent. Its uncompromising anti-imperialist theme puts it head and shoulders above the usual run-of-the-mill novels produced these days for public consumption.

The story is about a fundamentalist American missionary, his wife and four daughters, who arrive in the Belgian Congo shortly before independence. Through the eyes of the female members of the family, we see the events surrounding independence, and its hijacking at the hands of US, Belgian and French imperialism with the murder of Patrice Lumumba. Imperialism is strongly indicted for having conspired to frustrate the will of the Congolese people, who had chosen Lumumba to represent them, imposing instead the kleptocratic imperialist stooge Mobutu, who was as corrupt as the day is long.

On the one hand, the book describes in graphic detail the horrendous poverty of the Congolese masses, despite living in a country with vast mineral resources mercilessly looted by their colonial masters and their stooges. On the other hand, it shows the great courage and resilience of ordinary people surviving in the face of the deprivations and humiliations to which they are subject.

Ms Kingsolver juxtaposes the missionary, driven by blind faith in the superiority of his imperialist masters and the ideology he has been sent to propagate, to imperialism itself with its self-proclaimed assertion that it is bringing civilisation to backward people. Just as the missionary is a pig-headed self-righteous bully who torments every member of his family, so imperialism bullies the people of the Congo in its efforts to bend them to its perverse will.

The author shows how governments such as that of Lumumba, who merely sought to keep their country’s natural resources for the benefit of the people of that country rather than allowing them to be pillaged by imperialism, were labelled as “communist”. This conclusion leads one of the author’s characters to conclude that, in that case, communism was no bad thing.

Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn by the reverend’s daughters from their African experiences, which profoundly influenced and shaped their lives, very much reflect their, and the author’s, petty-bourgeois outlook. Just because the modern technology introduced by imperialism failed to bring well-being to the African masses, it is assumed that it is impossible for technology to improve Africa, which was happiest as it was 500 years ago before the Europeans came. Even modern medicine, introduced from the west, is seen as being at least as much as a curse as a blessing, because, it is alleged, it is responsible for overpopulation, which leads to famine and war. There is a total lack of understanding that, given control over the means of production, the resourceful African population would run the whole economy of their country to suit their own purposes, and modern technology would be able to create a secure and happy life for an expanding population.

This weakness, however, only appears towards the end of the book and should in no way interfere with pleasure in reading the novel as a whole, which offers the reader much food for thought. Refreshingly, the book also carries a strong anti-racist message.

Above all, the author is reminding us of the methods used by imperialism to mobilise support for its anti-democratic interventions – methods we have seen conspicuously in use against all democratically elected governments in Africa (and elsewhere) that put up resistance to imperialist looting (prominent current examples are Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo).

For this reason, the book is not just a good read, but also a timely one.