Thursday, June 11, 2020

Book show how the west owes Africa more than an apology for colonialism


The recent death of black American, George Floyd, under the hands of a white police officer has seen protests spreading across the world demanding for racial justice. And there is a witnessed pulling down of statues of mostly whites who were deemed as racists. And when it comes to reporting about Africa, many western writers and reporters portray a negative picture of the continent. To a westerner’s mindset, Africa is a continent bedeviled by internecine tribal wars, poverty, diseases and inept and corrupt governments.
In the Poisonwood Bible, author Barbara Kingsolver shows how the western citizens had reaped from crimes orchestrated by their governments against the Africans. The citizens themselves may not have directly approved of these crimes but are undergoing cultural guilt over the same.

Set during Congo's emergence from the post colonial era, the story is narrated by five women. Nathan Price, the protagonist hardly given a voice, brings his family of a wife and four daughters from Georgia State in US to Kilanga, a village in the then Belgian Congo close to the Kwilu River. He's a Second World War veteran and the sole survivor from his battalion that perished in the historical Bataan Death March. He takes this as a miracle and a call and is soon ordained an evangelical Baptist Minister. His religion overzealousness drives him to Africa to 'save Africa for Jesus' without the Mission's League blessings.

Nathan typifies a conqueror's mindset and stands for the US and the Belgian colonialists, the arrogant missionaries who'd sowed strife with their doctrinal winds and those foreigners who, through blinded arrogance, had destroyed the continent.

He doesn't learn about the culture of those around him and believes Africans are ridiculous savages who must assimilate fast to white man's culture. His seemingly right suited culture in context is whoever wrong to the prevailing ones around him and he fails to understand this. His family initially took his view stand before the 'savages' fleshed out as human beings immersed in their own sophisticated and complex culture.

The Congolese and Africans in general, he believes, are a backward people incapable of growing their own food. They're of an inferior reasoning capacity and he wouldn't take advice from the 'race of Ham' steeped in ignorance. When Mama Tataba, their live in house help, warns him against touching and uprooting a certain tree, he ignores the advice. The 'bangala' tree is known by the locals to cause swellings on the body or sudden death when burned and its smoke inhaled. He too wouldn't hear her about baptizing people in the river where a crocodile mauled a local girl to death forcing her to leave him and his family.

In Lingala speak; 'bangala' has two meaning. When slowly said, it means, 'dearly beloved' and 'Poisonwood tree' when quickly said. Because of this cultural hubris and blind arrogance, Nathan, who's a fast speaker, keeps intoning that 'Tata Jesus is bangala' in his weekly sermons meaning Jesus is a Poisonwood tree! He fronts a Saviour the local sees as a dangerous force to be avoided with church membership made mainly of outcasts and society rejects.

The hypocrisy of the west towards Africa is shown through how democracy is imposed. The west touts superiority of elections and the majority rule but doesn't instill the same. They want a minority one with a sense of democracy to protect their vast interests.

When Tata Ndu, the village Chief of Kilanga, declares in one of Nathan's sermon his subject will have to vote between Christianity and traditional religion, Nathan terms this as blasphemy. He fails to realize the west imported to Africans this culture of majority's choice and now it was being turned against itself. He acquiesces and Jesus (Christianity) loses by 45 votes to the African religion that garners a majority 56!

In his inauguration speech as Congo's Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba says Congo must stand as the continent's 'heart of light'. This sharply contrasts Joseph Conrad's depiction of the same as 'Heart of Darkness' where Africans are portrayed as brutal and primeval. The author avers that 'darkness' doesn't emanate from Africa but refers to west's oppression of the continent. It stands for greed and hubris in the hearts of men like Nathan and his ilk.

Using symbolism of Methuselah, a caged parrot later set free but killed by a civet cat on Congo's Independence Day, the author shows how US destabilised the new Congo. There was hardly a training period for transition of power to the Africans making them, like Methuselah, vulnerable and dependent on former masters despite their liberation. This vulnerability was exploited with devastating consequences to the continent. Western nations bankrolled coups in new African states and propped up their own puppets to cater for their interests.

Dwight Eisenhower, then American president, orders CIA to exterminate Lumumba and installs the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu amasses all the country's wealth revenue consigning millions to grinding poverty.

Britain tried to assuage her guilt ridden conscience by offering out of court payments to elderly Mau Mau survivors. Kenya, and Africa, doesn’t need little compensation deals. It needs reparations.


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