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The Case of the Reluctant Missionaries in “The Poisonwood Bible”

Inevitably, when people learn that I am from Zambia, I encounter the question, “What was it like to grow up in Africa?” I often want to simply hand them Barbara Kingsolver’s book, The Poisonwood Bible, to show that sharing what life is like in any country in Africa takes more than a simple sentence or two. Instead of sharing a book, however, I usually respond with: “It was different. We sometimes had tadpoles shoot out of the faucets in times of drought.” Sometimes, I share a tale about the time we found a sick baby monkey that we tried to nurse to health, or when we found ancient cave paintings… or when my granny chopped off a cobra’s head with a garden hoe… or the times we were delirious from malaria… or the time when my father and his teenaged buddies tried to drive a MINI Cooper under the belly of a giraffe…or the time when…

And through these tales, the experience of living in Africa is relegated and reduced to a host of adventures; exotic experiences from a ‘foreign’ country. The stories do little to convey that this continent is neither foreign nor exotic, but is home to over 10 percent of the world’s population, including my father’s family for five generations. These ‘adventure’ stories do not express the emotions that grip my throat when I think of my home, and while amusing to share, these kinds of stories do little to capture how my beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have been shaped because of my having grown up in Africa. Kingsolver’s characters, however, share stories that accomplish more than simply relating adventures; they do justice to experiences that shape and forever change a person, the land around them, and those with whom they come in contact.

Barbara Kingsolver shapes specific stories to skillfully craft each chapter from the perspective of one of the four daughters: Rachel (who yearns for teenage life in the U.S.), Leah (who most wants her father’s affection), Adah (unable to speak or walk easily due to a disability, but is most “book smart”), Ruth May (the youngest and very precocious), or of their mother, Orleanna. Instead of focusing simply on the trivial adventures that they have while adjusting to life in a new environment, Kingsolver shows how these adventures reveal the depths of the Price family’s problems and inability to cope with life and death. These stories reveal how the Prices become who they are later in life because of their experiences in Africa. They also cast a critical eye on the role of missionaries.

Following the patriarch of the family, Nathan Price, from South Carolina to the then-Belgian Congo during its transition to independence in 1969, the Prices arrive with a self-proclaimed mandate to be missionaries. The women of the family are given the task to keep the home functioning while Nathan Price sets forth to be a missionary. They quickly realize how helpless they are, and then look for a way to achieve salvation from the depths of the Congo.

Nathan Price is obsessed with the idea that if he can baptize enough villagers, he can atone for his military experience during WWII. He shows the definition of missionaries to be those who are “the compromised adjuncts of colonialism… almost synonymous with Western arrogance and cultural totalitarianism” (Wright 431). He ignores and abuses his family to the degree that they must escape his heavy handedness to survive.

Nathan Price is not the only one guilty of being this kind of a missionary. The Underdowns, a Belgian missionary family, live in luxury and also demonstrate colonialist attitudes. Their attitude towards the continent and its people is one of superiority and condescension. As soon as the power balance in the Congo shifts from the Belgians to the Congolese, the Underdowns abandon their work in the country.

Nathan Price also embodies the stereotype of missionaries who visit a continent for a few weeks, months, or years, with little understanding of how life truly functions, and set about demanding changes that fit with their preconceived notions of how things should run. He bases his success on whether he can build a “demonstration garden” to show the natives how gardening should be done, or how many people he can baptize, echoing the sentiment of other missionaries who base their spiritual success only on statistics of baptisms or how many churches or schools they have managed to build.

Nathan Price is not given a direct voice in the book. One gets the feeling, however, that his voice is accurately shared through the second-hand reporting of his behavior because he has no voice, other than that of his obsession. His intentions are misguided, and his obsession renders him a caricature of a character. It is not clear what happens to Nathan Price in the end, although rumors indicate he has gone mad, or that he has succumbed to the darkness referenced in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. His fixation with this ‘mission’ eventually leads to the family’s isolation, alienation, and near-starvation, showing that they need salvation from Nathan Price.

The stories shared by the women of the Price family show the perspective of other kinds of missionaries: the reluctant ones. They are the family members who would rather be “back home.” The Price women are helpless to even do simple tasks, such as cooking, because of the differences in how life functions. Relief for them is limited to the charity of those who can spare time or energy to teach them, which often comes in the form of village children. To cope with this unfamiliar life, they rely on enacting traditions from home.

As the wife of Nathan Price, Orleanna’s perspective is that of a woman who is utterly alone. Her view of religion clearly does not coincide with that of her husband. She claims: “I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house.” For her, being a missionary is nothing but an act of survival in a foreign environment where she finds comfort in vegetation and animal life because there is none to be found from her husband. For Orleanna Price, who does not encounter Christian love in her own home, extending it to others takes considerable emotional energy, although she does what she can to smooth over Nathan Price’s bizarre behavior.

The children are just as reluctant to be in the Congo, and they do little to embrace their father’s mission. They also recognize the difference in their parents. Leah says, “My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit,” showing the differences in their perspectives of faith. Except for Leah, who first attempts to emulate her father, and later abandons this goal, the children express little interest in religion or spirituality. This is a missionary family that needs a different kind of Christian love bestowed on it.

Kingsolver introduces the love that they wish for through the character of Brother Fyntan Fowles. Brother Fowles’ presence is evident long before he appears to the Price family because he has left a ‘cursing’ parrot named Methuselah in the house the Prices inhabit. Nathan Price derides Brother Fowles for having ‘gone native’ by marrying a local Congolese woman, and for extolling the virtues of being a Christian, which Brother Fowles seems to equate with ‘being a humanitarian,’ rather than with spreading Biblical doctrine. Fowles’ pantheistic view correlates with that of the villagers, who welcome him with joy. His willingness to negotiate spirituality and beliefs with the locals leads to his being ‘released’ from missionary work, but does not stop him from serving his fellow man. His current work entails providing humanitarian care to various people in need of food and medicine, especially during the political upheaval of a country transitioning to independence. He shows, through his actions of love and acceptance to the villagers, that there are Christians… and there are Christians.

Nathan Price’s brand of Christianity is portrayed as obsessive and dictatorial. The Underdowns are merely on the continent as long as they are able to live in luxury. Brother Fowles’ version of Christianity is portrayed as too permissive and open, but certainly more humane. The others in the book are portrayed as simply ‘wearing’ Christianity because it is expected of them. These are the truths found in their experiences and stories of Africa.

Spoiler Alert: Long after their initial entry to the continent, each of the Price family members is shaped by their experience in Africa. Orleanna Price gains her independence from Nathan and the strength to embrace a life devoted to women’s activism in the United States. Leah Price finally channels her sense of justice when she marries a Congolese man who fights for the rights of the Congolese people. Always branded as different because of her disability, Adah Price realizes she can overcome the disability, and is healed by her experience. She becomes an epidemiologist, unable to ignore the diseases of Africa. Even Rachel Price, the most reluctant of missionaries, stays in Africa, continuing the colonialist tradition by running a luxury hotel for Caucasians only. Ruth May’s fate is tragic, as she represents the sacrifice that the family must make to survive Africa. And Nathan Price’s fate is left a mystery, much like the continent is portrayed. While the Price family’s experiences differ from those of many others, the truth of what it means to live in Africa is revealed for each individual as they mature into adulthood or independence from their dictatorial father and husband.

Maria Rankin-Brown has lived on several continents (Africa, Asia, North America) but now writes from Angwin, California, where she teaches English at Pacific Union College.

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