Lessons from The Poisonwood Bible

I have been listening to The Poisonwood Bible while working over the last week or so. I read it about 4 years ago, and just convinced my folks to read it,  so I thought I’d give it a second read.

And it’s just as good the second time.

Not good in a positive way.

Not good in a faerie tale, “everyone lived happily ever after” way.

But in a “if this book doesn’t make you think, you must have slept through it” way.

When I first read The Poisonwood Bible, I thought that it should be required reading for all missionaries.

And I still firmly believe that.

Missionaries, volunteers, even travelers in general. If you plan to be around people of different cultures, this is a great book.

The Poisonwood Bible is the story of the Price family. They are Baptists from Georgia who have a calling to take Jesus to the poor heathens in Africa.

At the start of the book, they are confident in their calling and their ability to complete that calling. They will baptize the uneducated villagers within a couple of months.

But things don’t go the way they expect. The family has to learn how things are done in the village. Such as having market day, counting five days, and having another market day. So with basically a 5-day week, everyone thinks they’re mad for having church any old day, even though the Prices try to tell them it’s on Sunday.

In many aspects of life, they try to bring Georgia to the Congo, usually with dismal results.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Poisonwood Bible, especially if you intend to help people of another culture during your travels.

  1. The people you are working with are not children
    Unless they are actually children. But even that doesn’t mean that they are stupid.
    It’s a fairly common thing that missionaries go to a third world country, and because the people can’t necessarily read and write, the missionaries view them as children. But, chances are, if you tried to live their life without the benefits of your usual comforts and aids, you wouldn’t make it.
    One part of the book that I love is when the chief says, “You believe we are mwana, your children, who knew nothing until you came here. Tata Price, I am an old man who learned from other old men. I could tell you the name of the great chief who instructed my father, and all the ones before you, but you would have to know how to sit down and listen. There are one hundred and twenty-two. Since the time of our mankulu (ancestors) we have made our laws without help from white men.”
    We come in and see that the people we’re working with don’t know how to hold elections, or don’t know what indoor plumbing is, and we treat them as children who don’t know how to do anything. But in another part of the book, the men of the village look down on Nathan Price for being a man who has never slaughtered a bushbuck for his family. He buys meat from the others who kill it, but if there isn’t money to buy the meat, he can do nothing to provide for his family.
  2. Don’t start out by trying to change the way that people live.
    Their first moments in the Congo show Nathan insulting the women of the village, who have different standards of modesty than he believes are right. For them, showing their legs is inappropriate. So they wrap their legs in pagnes, which are long pieces of fabric which tie like a wrap skirt, but go topless. To them, it was completely modest. But, when asked to give thanks for the meal, he shames the women, through an interpreter, talking about their nakedness.
    And, if you are going to say something is wrong in God’s sight, at least make sure you’re right. The Bible doesn’t really mention anything about keeping your breasts covered. It talks about not walking around naked, but doesn’t say that uncovered breasts are bad. There are lots of things that are “western christianity”, but aren’t necessarily backed up by the Bible. And there are things that we do that other cultures feel are wrong. For example, the Mom in The Poisonwood Bible wearing her capri pants around the village and causing men to walk into trees while staring at her. Nothing immodest of capris, but in some cultures, you may as well be nude.
    When I was in Africa, we were told to bring basketball shorts to wear while we were hanging out at the hostel. But when the preachers and whatnot came, we were asked to put our skirts back on because it made them uncomfortable. Was it annoying that the guys could stay in their shorts? Yeah. But that’s their culture.
  3. Your mission/ministry/organization does not give you the right to neglect/abandon/abuse your family.
    I’ve actually seen this with various missionaries with whom I have worked and lived. Yes, if you are doing work like this, there will be various sacrifices made by everyone in the family. But if you have decided to have a family, they are your responsibility before your other work.
    One of the parts that irritates me the most is when the Mom and one of the girls are sick in bed, and the Dad spends half of his time out “practicing his sermons for the lilies of the fields” rather than helping out with the “women’s work” in the home. This leaves his other daughters, still children themselves, in charge of finding and cooking food, and caring for the sick members of their family.
    To be fair, I’ve also seen this with regular jobs, and I don’t think it’s better then. Yeah, you’re going to miss certain things. You can’t be at your child’s side every moment of the day. But when you’re missing more than you attend, maybe you need to rethink things. Especially if you’re a missionary or volunteer. I’ve seen plenty of kids completely turned off from that kind of life, because they felt so neglected growing up in it, and they don’t want to destroy their own family in that way.
  4. Everyone responds differently to the same set of circumstances.
    Most groups I’ve volunteered with have “debriefing” at the end of a volunteer’s time with them. Usually, it’s a group chat, or a supervisor taking you out for coffee and talk. But it’s normally the same scripted questions. And they often don’t help me. I like how The Poisonwood Bible is written from the perspective of all 5 females in the family, because you can see how they react to each thing, how they cope with life in Africa after life in Georgia, and how they respond to each other and their Father in the midst of everything. There are 2 that I really identify with, and I’ve seen the others in people I’ve worked with over the years.
  5. 1st world countries don’t necessarily have the answers for 3rd world countries. Or their best interests.
    When my Mom read The Poisonwood Bible, she said that it makes her feel disappointed in the US’s foreign policies. From what I have read, the book was inspired by the non-fiction book Endless Enemies: the Making of an Unfriendly World by Jonathan Kwitny. I’ve not yet read the book, but did just order it from the library.
    The political upheaval and the part the US played in crushing the brand new independence of the Congo is heartbreaking. We are a country very into freedom, unless it is inconvenient to us.
    It is important for people to understand that, just because we’re the US, it doesn’t mean that we’re perfect as a nation.
  6. You don’t know everything.
    Nathan Price gets impatient with his interpreter, and strikes out on his own during sermons. The problem there though, is that many words in Kikongo have multiple meanings, depending on the way you hold you mouth, or where you put the emphasis.
    When you’re learning a new language, you’re gonna mess up. Unless you’re just ridiculously good at languages, which is something few of us are blessed with…
    But there’s a difference between trying to learn, and understand where you’re going wrong, and just talking and pretending you know what you’re talking about.
    And that’s the way he is with everything else as well. He insists that he knows what he is talking about, and will argue a topic into the ground without listening to the other side.
    At one point, one of his daughters says, “Watching my father, I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room.”
    Only when you’re willing to admit that you don’t know something will you be able to learn and improve yourself.


This includes other cultures within your own home country. I’ve seen people act in these ways when they are going to minister to people in the inner city, or places like Appalachia. They think the people they wish to serve are poor, backward people who are basically children.

There are many other lessons to be taken from The Poisonwood Bible, but these are just a few I wanted to touch on. And some that I could share without spoilers.

Seriously though, read the book, especially if you want to experience other cultures. It will make you think, it will make you laugh (really. It seems like a solemn book, but there are so many little bits that made me crack up), and it may even make you cry.

What have you learned from The Poisonwood Bible? Leave a comment and let me know what part grabbed you.

If you liked the book, check out 13 Things You May Not Know About The Poisonwood Bible. The article is a couple of years old, but the info hasn’t changed. Just a heads up though, there are spoilers in the article, so if you’ve not read the book, consider yourself warned.

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