It could be true that Christianity contributed to civilisation on the Africa continent, but every single bit came at a cost. Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ is a fictional book but it reflects the events that unfolded during the colonial period.
Africans were forced to work on rubber plantations and many risked their hands being severed off for failing to satisfy their masters. Like many African books written about colonialism, Kingsolver captures a bit of the torture Africans endured as slaves during colonialism.
Quite noticeable also is that colonial masters behaved like two sides of a coin. On one part, they had capacity to use excessive force to have Africans accept their deals and on the other Christian missions were used as a polite tool of persuasion. Unwittingly, as several African men and women fell for this and went to sing praises, the white men whisked away all the gold and diamonds from the mineral rich nations of the continent. This yet captures another reality of the colonial period echoed by strong pan Africanists such as the late former Kenya president Jomo Kenyatta that somehow Christianity was a tool to blindfold Africans as white men became richer.
In the Belgian Congo, Reverend Nathan Price from the United States is sent to perform this duty of showing the light to the highly dominated voodoo community in Kilanga. Price moves from his hometown in Bethlehem Georgian to Kilanga with his wife Orleanna and four daughters, Rachel, Ruth May and the twins Adah and Leah. Adah’s brain is said to be half dead and this reflects in her bodily movements and the entirely mute childhood.
The family thrives on a 50-dollar monthly stipend but it is almost given away as a bribe to Eeben Axelroot, the pilot, to fly in a few groceries and medication. Except for the kids who spy on Mr Axelroot often, Reverend Price and his wife wont really get too much details of the dark side of this pilot.
Orleanna and the girls believe that it could be impossible to transform the Kilanga people into disciples of Jesus Christ, but Reverend Price believes it is a matter of time. Regularly, he throws out Bible lines and verses in defence of real life situations and no one can beat him to that. Even his predecessor Brother Fowles who knew the Bible so well met his match during a visit to the Price family. His interpreter is so used to such arguments about the holy book and it is no surprise that the novel has names of books from the Old Testament written on almost every page.
Price’s insanity later spells trouble for the whole family. Before Congo gets Independence, Price and Oleanna are advised by the mission league leaders (the Belgians) Mr and Mrs Underdown to flee the country and return to the US but Price is adamant. With an outrageous belief that his survival during the war was chanced out of cowardice, proving to God that he will stand by his work is the only chance to redeem his sanctity. Kingsolver shows how such a ridiculous decision made by a parent could victimise the entire family. After their refusal to depart the Congo, Ruth May is bitten to death by a snake that was planted by a village witch Taata Kuvudundu after becoming insecure about the presence of the Price family in Kilanga.
Another strong aspect that is captured in this book is democracy. On several occasions, Reverend Price was forced to explain why casting votes for an individual was a necessary ritual and the reason a single vote counted. Patrice Lumumba, who receives the instruments of independence from the colonial masters, is the new soul expected to carry a similar legacy of democracy forward in the Congo but the double standards of the colonial masters wont let him have a peaceful presidential term.
Mobutu overthrows Lumumba in a coup funded by the western nations. At some point, Lumumba escapes from prison but he is recaptured, starved and beaten to death.
With such events in the Congo, the author shows how survivors from the Price family grew to become independent women. As payment for his sins, Reverend Price is lynched for drowning children in the river during forceful imposition of baptism on Africans. But his last breath would still be a Bible verse connected to the end of his life.