“The poisonwood bible” is the story of a Southern baptist minister who leaves for the Congo in the early 1960s with his wife and four daughters in order to convert the local village of Kilanga to Christianity. Not surprisingly, this supposedly great adventure becmes far more challenging and hazardous than any of the Price family had anticipated. For one thing, the overzealous minister fails to understand and respect local customs and traditions, such as the medicine man and the village chief, nor does he fully appreciate how different nature is in the Congo compared to his native Georgia. Thus, he spends an inordinate amount of effort trying to baptise the village children in the local river, only to discover more than a year later that the villagers thought he wanted to sacrifice their kids because there are chrocodiles in the river! For another, the family was wholly unprepared for the new climate and natural environment. Consequently they lack both the knowledge and equipment to successfully cope with local threats and disasters such as tropical diseases, snakes, floods, drougths, bugs and a general lack of food and medical supplies.
Compounding these issues, the Congo is at a turning point in its history; the Congolese are voting for independence from Belgium’s colonial rule and a nationalist wave grips the country, making it very dangerous to be a white person in a black community. However, where all other missionairies and foreign businessmen choose to flee the country, the Price family stays behind in remote Kilanga, except now they will not even receive the measly monthly stipend from the baptist community nor the infrequent flights with food and medical supplies from Kinshasa, the capital. For all intents and purposes they are now completely isolated from the world. This places them in an exceedingly difficult situation, and each family member chooses a different coping strategy. The minister sees this as God’s way of testing his faith, and becomes more obsessed than ever in his misguided endeavours to “save” the village. His wife and daughters, meanwhile, all seek to escape his rule one way or another.
Given the themes and setting of “The poisonwood bible”, I initially feared that this would be a long and difficult slog of a book. Happily, I was wrong. In fact, however much I hated the minister’s misguided attempts at converting the village, or detested his eldest daughter’s ignorant and racist views of Africa, I nonetheless couldn’t wait to discover whether any of the family would escape what had effectively become a dangerous and pestilent hell on earth. This is an insightful book which explains many of the problems that plague Africa to this day, and an utterly compelling read which will stay with you for a long time.