November 3rd, 2010

planet

The Poisonwood Bible

I finished "The Poisonwood Bible". I enjoyed the first 3/4 of it very much. It's about a southern Baptist preacher who brings his wife and four daughters to the Congo in the late 1950s to save souls. They're the worst kind of missionaries... the kind who bring bibles, but no food, and who believe they have nothing to learn from eastern philosophy and the only problem with Africa is that the people haven't had enough exposure to Americans and our genius ways of thinking. Like, they think the people are hungry because no one's thought to grow crops, so the father brings seeds for tomatoes and beans and plants this garden and is shocked when the garden isn't full of fruit in weeks, he doesn't think about the soil or droughts or flooding or lack of bees to pollinate flowers, he thinks God must be testing him. He's completely crazy. He's also borderline-abusive to his wife and children, who realize way before he does that Africa isn't just waiting for their Caucasian hands to guide it.

The story is mostly told through the eyes of the children, which makes it pretty funny, especially the five-year-old who spastically switches topics and confuses ideas in cute little kid ways. Each daughter has a wonderful personality and you can't wait to hear their story.

Towards the end of the book, it starts getting less personal-story, more "learn about African politics". This family is living in Africa during a time when the western world was doing everything it could to screw things up for everyone. If someone rose to lead a newly independent nation, the US would step in and say they had to hold an election. If we didn't like the person who won the election, we'd arm the other side. We helped horrible dictators stay in power because we thought they were just better at western thinking, or because the soviet union was taking the other side, or because they promised us a share of the country's natural resources. Then if a single American was scratched in a conflict (that we caused) we'd send the United Nations in to declare martial law and kill hundreds of Africans in the process.

I took history of the non-western world in high school, and it was a great class, we learned all about India and Africa and Asia, so I've known about how terrible some of these stories are. But the book really spells it out. It also does a brilliant job looking forward at what might have been had we just left Africa alone, and it's touching. Not as interesting as reading about this family and their struggles, but still touching. And you're still getting the whole story through the family, the story just seems to emphasize the news of the day a lot more than sibling conflicts.

The saddest thing for me is that I know Americans still do horrible things in world politics. I mean, we knew that the Taliban was hurting women in Afghanistan in the mid-90s, but they also told us they'd help slow down the opium trade, so we provided them aide and looked away from whatever else they did. We knew Turkey had a very poor track record on human rights, but chose to ignore that because they'd support our "war on terror" and send a few troops to Iraq. We love our random philosophies, we love snap judgments, we love money. We don't love people, that's just the long and short of it. It's a sad story.