"And God said unto them,
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,
and subdue it: and have dominion
over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
The mid-twentieth century Western world, eyeing hungrily the ripe Congo, prowled the region looking to uphold the legacy of tyranny and exploitation fathered fifty years before by King Lèopold II of Belgium. World superpowers bludgeoned Africa with Christianity and other symbols of Western cultural 'superiority'. As rubber, cobalt, and diamond Jesuses danced atop a country stripped of its autonomy, the Congolese struggled and finally wrested their independence back...for fifty-one days. President Eisenhower had smelled 'Communist' in the Congo's newly elected Patrice Lumumba (and no doubt was aware of the surrounding natural resources) and consequently had masterminded a CIA coup that installed the anti-communist but power-hungry Mobutu Sese Seko.
The five women in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood BibleOrleanna Price and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth Mayfind themselves set against this political backdrop in 1959. They have been dragged into the Congo by Nathan Price, head of the household and fiery Bible-thumper who trumpets the words Civilize, proselytize, Christianize! Toting along number-2 pencils and Betty Crocker cake mixes, they are jarred by sharp dissimilarities between the jungle setting and their hometown of Bethlehem, Georgia. The contrast between American and Congolese lifestyles and beliefs illustrates a huge cultural gap, revealing the injustices of neocolonialism and the White Man's Burden: dominating and assimilating other countries 'civilizes' no one, but wreaks misery and cripples the inhabitants.
The Price family brings to the Congo a capitalist and political mindset that perplexes the villagers. Democracy, an esteemed liberty in America, actually appears unfair to the villagers, who note that it forces the losers remain dissatisfied and silent; " 'if two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is finished' " (p.333) The local Kilangans, by contrast, barter after voting until everyone is satisfied. After all, says the village leader, Tata Ndu, " 'It takes three stones in the fire to hold up the pot. Take one away, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fire.' " Even the children's games differ dramatically. The Price girls, living leisurely in America, can afford to play 'Mother, May I?' and 'Hide & Seek', but the Congolese children in their brutal surroundings play much more practical games: " 'Find Food', 'Recognize Poisonwood', 'Build a House' " (p.114).
So are the Kilangans 'primitive' and deserving of oppression simply because they hold a different culture? Nathan, answering 'yes'after all, he must think, they are savages who live "as if nakedness is nothing special" (p.24)declares that he will plant a garden in honor of the Saviour, "who obviously is all in favor of subduing the untamed wilderness." (p.36) However, the garden becomes sterile, and the jungle swallows it; similarly, Western ideals can be preached ad nauseam, but will never take root in a cultural jungle drastically different from the white man with his Kentucky Wonder beans.
Futility in culturally transforming the Congo didn't dissuade world superpowers from ravaging Africa. Nathan, likewise, continues to evangelize despite his lack of influence. With his religious goal merely of "subduing the earth; and having dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"1, he displays the most fundamentaland dangerouscontrast between America and the Congo. While the Congolese are content to live isolated from world affairs and political agendas, imperialist America strives to insinuate itself politically, religiously, and culturally into Africa. This Westernization irrevocably hobbles the Congo, paralleled in the Price family’s 'pet', a parrot named Methuselah. He, "a sly little representative of Africa itself" (p.60), was ripped from his native environment and enslaved. Though "curiously exempt from the Reverend's rules..., in the same way Nathan was finding the Congolese people beyond his power", Methuselah's domestication spells doom for the bird when he is abruptly freed. "What can he possibly do with freedom? His wings are atrophied, probably beyond hope of recovery. Where his pectoral muscles should be, he has a breast weighed down with the words of human beings...." (p.137) The Congoenslaved, manipulated, and persecuted by the West, subject to successions of tyrant after tyrantis as maimed as the abused parrot.
Evangelical Christianity historically has viewed the world only in terms of black and white, with a distinct 'evil' symbolized by a snake forever condemned to slither on its belly. In the eyes of American imperialists, Africa represents the primitive cultural snake that must be beaten into the form of propriety. Within the Congo, however, lives the green mamba, "this serpent where the diabolic genius of nature has attained the highest degree of perfection" (p.362). The snake, far from crawling on the ground, lurks overhead in the forest canopy, completely concealed above humans. However, when a vindictive local shaman uproots the snake from its natural routine for his own selfish purposespainfully echoing the Western imperialists' subjugation of the Congo's indigenous peoplethe snake reveals its deadly power. Innocent Ruth May accidentally disturbs the mamba, and it retaliates in an attack that kills her. Her death mirrors the figurative death of America's innocence that has resulted from the injustices committed in the Congo, and it forebodes the disastrous consequences of reckless forays into vulnerable countries.
The Bible (KJV). Genesis 1:28.
Any non-attributed quotes owe their source to the following:
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1998.