Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 4 Section 2 Parts 1 2 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 4, Section 2 (Parts 1–2) : Bel and the Serpent (What We Lost, Kilanga, January 17, 1961) | Summary




During church services, Tata Ndu declares an election to decide if Kilanga village will worship Jesus Christ or not. Nathan is outraged, but Tata Ndu insists both Jesus and elections come from the white man, so they belong together. The villagers warn Nathan: "You thatched your roof ... you must not run out of your house if it rains." The vote is held despite Nathan's protests. Afterward, Tata Ndu lectures the villagers. The white man's way is "majority rules," but the Congolese way is different and requires a consensus. Bare majorities mean nothing to them. Leah reports the results: "Jesus Christ lost, eleven to fifty-six." So the white man's system brings about its own downfall.


Tata Ndu organizes a hunt. Leah wants to participate, using her bow and arrow, and she causes an uproar. Anatole and Nelson both argue for Leah's participation, but Tata Kuvudundu and Tata Ndu are against it. The argument spreads to a discussion of "foreigners, the army takeover, and somebody thrown in prison," Rachel explains. Anatole argues the villagers must differentiate between good white people and bad ones.

They vote again, and Leah is permitted to hunt, but Tata Kuvudundu warns of dire consequences. Afterward, Nathan also forbids Leah to hunt. She tells him he is just as bad as Tata Kuvudundu and walks out of the house. He chases after her to beat her but can't find her, so he takes out his rage on the bushes. The rest of the family barricade themselves in their room to avoid him. Leah stays away from the house, but Nelson reports that someone threatened Anatole. A very poisonous green mamba snake was left in his room and could have killed him. He luckily avoided the snake, but many take it as a sign because of his support for Leah's participation in the hunt.


Nathan has been warned repeatedly not to underestimate Tata Ndu, but he does. Tata Ndu uses the white man's tool to rid himself of the white man's god. Nathan is so offended that he viciously insults Tata Ndu and the entire Congolese nation. Some of the villagers respond with the proverb about roof thatching, such as Americans might say, "You made your bed, now lie in it." If white people teach the Congolese about elections, they have to abide by the results of those elections. Of course, as Orleanna has already pointed out, when it suited them, the American government did not abide by the results of the Congolese elections, leading to Lumumba's violent death.

Leah reaches a turning point for herself. She has not felt inspired by her father's sermons for some time, and when she sees how angry he becomes toward Tata Ndu, she thinks if she could pray, it would be: "That this red-faced man shaking with rage would never lay a hand on me again." Unexpectedly, Leah finds Tata Ndu's argument somewhat compelling.

Tata Ndu's lecture is a powerful statement of Congolese wisdom—wisdom most white people never acknowledged the Congolese had. But the emphasis on consensus comes ideally from a simpler society of small villages. Such consensus is impossible to achieve in a nation of millions of people vulnerable to outside colonialism. Leah is perplexed because Tata Ndu makes the American concept of "majority rule" sound like a mistake. Each approach works for a different way of life.

Kingsolver identifies the only topic Nathan and Tata Kuvudundu can agree on: a woman's place. Nathan's sexism is already well documented—he wants them trained to be obedient, and he refuses them opportunities for higher education. Tata Ndu and Tata Kuvudundu also want their women well trained and obedient—and definitely not out hunting. They probably see Leah's desire to hunt as an insult to her father, although Nathan probably never realized the villagers see him as a failure because he does not provide for his family.

The argument over the hunt is the final break between Leah and Nathan, and also the last straw for Tata Kuvudundu's tolerance of the Price family. Anatole receives a life-threatening "warning" because he stood up for Leah. Nathan dismisses Tata Kuvudundu as an example of "old Africa"—all the superstition and ignorance Nathan came to remedy. But the two are very much alike: determined to hold on to their ways of doing things; convinced they know better than others; angry when their words are ignored. Tata Kuvudundu's warning acts as foreshadowing, preparing the reader for what is to come.

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