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Congo as Setting

Leon de Moor. J Lebegue and Co. 1896 Public Domain

You are listening to the High Plains Public Radio Reader’s Book Club…. My name is Freddy Gipp, I am an enrolled member of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, and my Indian name is T’san T’hoop Ah’n, meaning “Lead Horse”, in the Kiowa language, I graduated from the University of Kansas and head a small community development firm based in Lawrence, KS.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, we dive into a mixture of greed, ignorance and the conflation of religion, history and plight.

Set in the Belgian Congo a year before they gained their independence in 1960, we follow the story of a Southern Baptist Pastor, Nathan Price, and his family, as they move from the comfort of their Georgia home to the jungles of the Congo, in hopes of finding salvation for the local villagers.

Greed is prevalent in Nathan’s mission and his blind arrogance and pride ultimately serves as his peril. Nathan is too confident in his ability to introduce Jesus to the local villagers, but it is also his ignorance in recognizing the shifting paradigm of politics, culture and religion in an already unstable and unrelenting region.

Africa has some of the most tumultuous stories ever recorded in modern human history. A place that was home to thousands of vibrant and dynamic cultures that populated all parts of the vast continent, only to be ransacked and pillaged by the colonization of expanding European powers such as France, Belgium, Spain and many others.

Among these territories, the Congo was a unique case. Granted to King Leopold II of Belgium, the Congo was a “personal” concession for the King, rather than a colony.  The King, not the Belgian government, effectively owned and controlled the Congo.  Leopold administered the Congo in a notoriously brutal manner, using it to augment his own personal wealth. 

The Congo’s wealth, which included its numerous rubber trees, was brutally extracted through slave labor. It was recorded that if men, women and children did not meet quotas, they would have their hands cut off.  This rubber was then exported to fuel the industrial growth of both nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and America.

Despite the King’s growing reliance on the wealth of the Congo, Leopold never visited this territory himself and by 1908, the territory was so poorly managed that an international effort condemning Leopold had erupted. The atrocities committed by King Leopold were later deemed as “crimes against humanity” by George Washington Williams, a black Baptist pastor, Civil War veteran and outspoken activist on the treatment of Africans in post-colonial rule[1].

That same year, in an attempt to stem this situation, the Congo was ceded to Belgium and placed under the control of the Belgian government, not its king. Belgium then administered the Congo as a colony until independence in 1960.[2]

In historical context, The Poisonwood Bible is set in the same year that change really began to accelerate for the Congo. From a waning Western power that significantly lost its influence after the second World War. To political unrest, riots and lives claimed. This was all unfolding before the arrival of the Price family and what was soon to come.

The effects are still felt today, as many countries are war-torn, plagued with disease, government corruption and instability. An unfortunate but stark reality of the rippling effects of the dominant society's priorities and assurances to maintain their status, wealth and power with sheer disregard for the occupied. 

This is Freddy Gipp, and you are listening to the High Plains Public Radio Reader’s Book Club.

[1] King Leopold’s Ghost: Adam Horschild, pg 112,  Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/kingleopoldsghos00hoch_1/page/112/mode/2up?q=%22crimes+against+humanity%22

[2] Belgian Congo - The Ultimate History Project, http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/belgian-congo.html