The Poisonwood Service


Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history.

Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin.”


Without really knowing what I was getting into, I have fallen completely in love with The Poisonwood Bible.  Every aspect of the book just kept me more and more intrigued and glued to each page, until I finished it and realized it was time to move on.  So many complicated and fascinating characters unfolded before my eyes and I was able to relate to each one meaningfully.  The book is based upon misunderstandings of language (which happens often in languages more complex than our own where words have 3 and 4 meanings), misunderstandings of cultures and most importantly, misunderstandings of one another’s intentions.  This ever-present theme rang so true for me in every word that I read and allowed me to move past a lot of mental blocks I have put on myself, my community and this country.  To finish this book and move on from it fully, I want to complete a second part to the original post I did about a month ago, relating The Poisonwood Bible to my own experience and most likely, many others as well.  These experiences are truly my own, but reading this historical fiction piece has helped me to realize so many trivialities and complexities of humanitarian work and service to others.


While little boys ran around pretending to shoot each other and fall dead in the road, it appeared that little girls were running the country.


I am sure that I have commented on this a thousand times by now, but women truly do run this country.  From the top down, some of the most powerful Ministers are strong and confident women who dictate what fairness and equality is beginning to look like.  Even for many of the women in our small communities, who are considered unemployed, possess so much influence and power within the community members and their own families.  These women work constantly and doing the backbreaking work of maintaining a home and a family.  They carry babies on their backs while they carry 10-gallon jugs on their heads.  They cook over an open fire with an infant nursing at their breast simultaneously, taking care not to burn the child or spill anything into the poitjie pot.  They scrape together money and ensure that their husbands, as well as their husband’s family, is fed and comfortable in their home.  The women do this from the time they are able to pick up a smaller child (usually around 7 or 8) until they are bent with time and in need of a cane to walk around.  This is many of the women’s place in this society, but it does not mean they are not creating the foundation and pillars of what Namibia is slowly evolving into.


(Leah, the child of a Missionary living in the Congo, speaking to a Congolese teacher who she has befriended as they discuss the differences between the Congo and the U.S.)  “There just is.  Things are different from here.”

“What is so different?”

“Everything.”  I said, intending to go on, but my tongue only licked the backs of my teeth, tasting the word ‘everything’.


Nearly every day I am confronted with the massive irregularities that I sometimes think I have become accustomed to.  These instances parade through my mind and cloud my eyesight with their massiveness, until I am able to write them down and purge them from my consciousness.  Trying to explain how it is to live in a country like this is such a tremendous undertaking that most of what comes out in conversations is similar to this.  How do you even begin to talk about the frustrations you feel from a project you want to undertake without starting at the beginning of why people act so apathetically?  And before you get to that, how do you summarize a century of colonization and oppression that has disallowed local people to think for themselves and create a culture of dependence?  But of course, you must then talk about the blatant corruption that shrouds any amount of work and effort made by good people.  It is exhausting and frustrating and tragically flawed, and the hardest thing to explain when you only want to leave your mind and the present moment to remember what you left behind.


When someone has much more than he can use, it is very reasonable to expect he will not keep it all to himself.


This reminds me of a beautiful quote I heard recently, during all of the sad, fearful struggles of a white supremacy slowly falling, that talks of having an abundance and building a longer table to share this wealth instead of walls to keep people at bay.  I have been struggling internally for quite some time now about how to reconcile my desire to give to others, especially when I have much more than I require to sustain myself, while also combatting the harmful stereotype that white foreigners, especially those who come in search of a “helping effort”, are simply here to give money and resources to those who are in need.  This is destructive for volunteers and aid organizations, certainly, and it hurts like nothing I have felt before to be asked every single day for money, for my body, for my white skin and for my resources, but it is the most detrimental to the local people and their growing dependency.  No matter how many times I tell myself that there is nothing deliberately offensive in people’s statements and desires, I find myself caving in on myself too often – giving up hope briefly, contemplating what I can teach and how I can give something worthwhile to someone who seemingly only wants a tangible possession.  But whether I, as a foreigner and outsider, agree with this philosophy, it is not for me to choose for another culture.  And that is exactly what some of it is – if a person has more than they can use themselves, they share it with others amongst them.  “I store my food in the belly of my neighbor.”  This is not something that works in the United States usually, but here and for the time being, this is the way it is.


They think you represent a greedy nation.


Along these lines, and among so many other countries, the United States stands among the worst political and human genocide offenders.  Politicians divide lines as they see fit on a continent that was never their own, for their own desires and interests.  People see the unfathomable amount of excess that the U.S. possesses – the things that we throw away, spending money on unnecessary items and creating travesties for the lower SES and classes.  It is no wonder that every child outstretches their hand to me, thinking that I come from a country whose sole purpose is to consume and excrete, consume and excrete, with the largest abundance they cannot even dream up.  Our ideological American dream has been transplanted to a country that is still learning how to sustain itself – the push and pull of holding fast to traditions and what they mean to a people who are being forced to develop and keep up with the technological advancements faster than they are able to manage.  The raging collective conscious that remembers bitterly the skin of white people who oppressed, shamed and killed their ancestors.  Greed does not begin to cover what the U.S. represents in my mind, but it is a start.


Secretly, most of them believe white people know how to turn the sun on and off and make the river flow backward.  But officially, no.  What they hear from their fathers these days is that now Independence is here and white people should not be in Congo telling us what to do.

The sight of my foreign skin seems to freeze their sensibilities.


Another very complex statement that I feel confused about often.  I know what my purpose here is, to create cultural understanding and acceptance, and to share in information exchanges.  It is not to come to another country and impose my beliefs on another person, although that is what many locals think that we are here to do in Peace Corps.  I am not sure if this is the fault of past volunteers who acted in a self-righteous manner, or the fault of the American industrial revolution and the creation of the need for constant production.  We as volunteers come with certain expectations and goals for ourselves and our communities, because these beliefs are engrained in us that in order to succeed at something, we must see tangible results.  In this fallacy, we get frustrated at the meetings that do not happen or the accomplishments that remain on our ‘To Do’ lists for weeks.  We get angry because the work ethic of our colleagues is inherently different from our own, which impedes our ability to say “______ project is finally off the ground and running!”  We lose our motivation when our support groups begin to fall apart and the people in them start to prioritize other obligations.  We point fingers and blame the culture and its traditions while saying “if they would JUST listen to me and do what I am telling them to do, Namibia would be better off!”  The taste is bitter on my tongue and in my mind when I hear myself and fellow volunteers repeat these phrases over and over.  We are not here to make drastic changes.  We are not here to create something that Namibian people are perfectly capable on doing on their own.  I am here to disprove the pedestal ideology that white people and Americans, in particular, have falsely led people to believe and watch as some of the best people I have every met emerge from the ashes of the landscape I burned in my mind.


Trying to learn the trick of what passes for patience.

Pretty self-explanatory.  I am a horrible student of patience, and it never fails to remind me of how far I have to go before I can be considered acceptable.  Sitting on the side of the road for hours, waiting for the next car to pass by and hopefully pick me up to assist me in getting to my next destination.  Being told that a program will start at 8:00 and be over by 11:00, and then it does not begin until 11:00, with greetings and thanks bestowed upon the Ministers and government officials who postponed the event because they “were delayed” in some way or another.  Agreeing on a deadline for something and having the deadline be pushed back time after time, sometimes hours before the assignment was due.  Patience is an ever-teaching, sadistic pedagogue.

We’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.

Some volunteers suffer from unimaginable medical ailments while they are completing their Peace Corps service.  I have spoken to people who were bitten by lethal snakes, contracted a cocktail of intestinal parasites like Schistosomiasis and Dysentery, dabbled with blood poisoning radiating up their entire arm on its way to their heart, and my own body spent 6 weeks purging most of what I ingested thanks to a tasty dose of Giardia from the water in my town.  Our bodies go through a lot of stress and turmoil while we are living in a new country, and volunteers are notoriously unhealthy.  Like many nurses in the U.S., who are supposedly the pillar of healthy, many volunteers partake in one too many alcoholic beverages from time to time and even more are forced to eat in unhealthy ways due to a lack of fresh vegetables and fruits in their small villages.  Although this is damaging in many ways, some temporary and others more permanent, nothing compares to the mental degradation of signing up to be a volunteer.  The emotional drain that the soul encounters while trying to act in a politically correct manner while learning from scratch a brand new culture  – the impact on a person’s confidence and personhood while being harassed in the street daily – the lost autonomy felt when a man decides to put his hands on you despite your refusals, because he is “entitled to your body” – the moral struggle of battling internally what the meaning of a black and white ‘right and wrong’ is when things are no longer so simple and the color of grey is much more prominent.  We give up a lot to be here and even more with each day that passes and we choose to stay.  Sometimes it is the blessing of a lifetime and at other times it seems to be an impossible challenge.


How can I describe the complexities of life here in a country whose leadership sets the standard for absolute corruption?  To an outsider, it looks like chaos.  It isn’t.  It’s negotiation, infinitely ordered and endless.


A beautiful passage that reminds me all the time that I have only scratched the surface of the beginnings of understanding.  There are powerful figures at play, deciding what happens to the small man at the bottom of the political totem pole, which only serves to allow for comparison to the United States who behaves the exact same way.  Negotiation is part of our daily process, negotiating for what we need and simultaneously negotiating to keep our heads on straight while we absorb colossal amounts of stimuli and attempt to process.  Chaos from the outside, structured and compromised from the inside.


I teach classes in nutrition, sanitation, and soybeans, to women who respectfully call me Mama Ngemba and ignore nine-tenths of what I tell them.  Out hardest task is teaching people to count on a future: to plant citrus trees, and compost their wastes for fertilizer.  This confused me at first.  Why should anyone resist something so obvious as planting a fruit tree or improving the soil?  But for those who’ve lived as refugees longer than memory, learning to believe in the nutrient cycle requires something close to a religious conversion.  I ought to understand.  I’ve been as transient in my adult life as anyone in our cooperative.  And only now, after working this same land for ten years, am I coming to understand the length and breadth of outsiders’ failure to impose themselves on Africa.  This is not Brussels or Moscow or Macon, Georgia.  This is famine or flood.  You can’t teach a thing until you’ve learned that.”


It is impossibly difficult to change mindsets.  Teaching someone about budgeting or planning for their future is one of the most profound cultural barriers I have encountered.  Most people in Namibia over the age of 30 remember a time when tomorrow was not promised to them.  Getting a piece of meat or an extra dollar on their paycheck meant that in this moment, that evening, there would be a celebration braai for that meat and an extra plate of pap thanks to that extra dollar.  There was no concept of saving these things that could be enjoyed now when there was no expectation of how long anyone would be around, or whether the meat would be stolen by a neighbor and the dollar spent on a bottle of bear instead of for a child’s education.  This wartime mentality is the hardest thing to work through and will only become more approachable with time, as generations come and go, and with them their stories and lives having lived through Apartheid.


When Albert Schweitzer walked into the jungle, bless his heart, he carried antibacterials and a potent, altogether new conviction that no one should die young. He meant to save every child, thinking Africa would then learn how to have fewer children. But when families have spent a million years making nine in the hope of saving one, they cannot stop making nine. Culture is a slingshot moved by the force of its past. When the strap lets go, what flies forward will not be family planning, it will be the small, hard head of a child. Overpopulation has deforested three-quarters of Africa, yielding drought, famine, and the probable extinction of all animals most beloved by children and zoos.The competition for resources intensifies, and burgeoning tribes itch to kill each other. For every life saved by vaccination or food relief, one is lost to starvation or war. Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill.”


2 thoughts on “The Poisonwood Service

  1. Alex, I saw this quote this morning after I read your post. So, here it is: “When we fail, or when we feel ourselves a failure, we suffer three losses: estrangement from God, from other people, and from ourselves. It’s the latter – our relationship with our own self – that is the lynch pin in all our other relationships.” -Br. Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist
    I read the Poisonwood Bible some years ago and when I was a child read everything I could on Albert Scweitzer. I never had your strength and your courage, however. You do give up more than you can name to be there. My friends who have served in Africa have testified to the terrifying physical and medical side alone. You are deepened beyond our superficial society here and beyond the depths of your peers at home. It is a good and difficult thing. My prayers are with you for patience, health, inner clarity, and the continued willingness to open yourself to people and experiences that change you forever. Sally

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