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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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The Things We Learned. Kilanga, June 30, 1960 (Continued)


(Cluster 2: The rainy season keeps the girls inside, Ruth May develops her own ideas about African animals, the Underdowns pay the Price family a visit, and Adah explains her cynical view of Christianity.)



After the disastrous dinner attempt on the part of Orleanna, Anatole sends a student known as "Nelson" to work for the Price family as a houseboy. They decide that he chose Nelson partly on account of the availability of books in the house as well as the obvious need the family had for help.

Leah complains about having to do "the verse" after Adah’s near brush with the lion.

The rainy season arrives with accompanying bouts of malaria and dysentery among the people. For fear of contagion, Orleanna invents numerous ways to keep the girls inside all day. As a last resort she comes up with complex sewing projects the girls are supposed to complete for their hope chests.

Ruth May


Ruth May develops a close friendship with Nelson. She helps him find eggs where the chickens have hidden them and listens to his explanations about Belgian/Congo politics. She also learns African superstitions, especially the ones about snakes. According to Nelson, after dark you have to say "string" instead of snake or the snake will hear its name and attack. Nelson gets angry with Leah for keeping a pet owl because the people believe an owl flies around at night and eats of the souls of dead people.

When Nathan mocks the superstition, Leah interprets her father’s words as defense of her pet and parades around the house with the owl on her shoulder. Nathan punishes her by assigning the verse for her arrogance. In spite of her age, Ruth May understands that Nathan’s words and actions are doing more to make people afraid of him than they are to turn them toward loving Jesus.



The Underdowns visit. Mrs. Underdown tries to make conversation with Orleanna by describing problems she is having with her houseboy. They bring an old newspaper that contains articles about how the Soviets are planning to take over the Belgian Congo and deprive the natives of independence.

The real purpose of the Underdowns’ visit is to tell the Price family that the Congolese are about to declare independence and that it will not be save for white people to live there if that happens. They advise the Price’s to leave as there will be no financial support once the transition takes place. Nathan declares that he will stay until the next missionaries, the Minors, arrive, but the Minors have declined a contract and will not be coming. Under these conditions, Nathan announces that he will stay on indefinitely or until relief appears.



Adah explains how she lost her faith at the age of five. She had challenged her Sunday school teacher about the fairness of admission to heaven based on "luck of the draw" or accident of having been born in a pagan country such as Africa. The teacher punished her impudence by making her kneel in a corner on uncooked rice and pray for her own soul. When she arose, she found that she no longer believed in God.

Adah has developed a cynical outlook on life, which she expresses in her own backward language. It amazes her that Kikongo is a language even more cynical than her own.

The Price family has also learned that the Africans have a better understanding of hygiene than first thought. They have specific designations for how the river is to be used; that is, they wash the laundry down stream, bath in the middle and pull drinking water from upstream far above the village. Of course, this does not take into account that villages farther upstream than theirs are using the water in the same way; thus the water is being polluted before it gets to them. Consequently, each rainy season brings dysentery, which kills many village people.

In spite of their hardships, the people plan for the upcoming election for independence. It will be the first time the natives have ever been given an opportunity to vote. Since none of them can read, the candidates will be represented with common objects, and pebbles will be used for ballots.


This cluster gives the girls impressions of the people around them. There is some subtle foreshadowing of the development of a relationship between Anatole and Leah. Adah and Ruth May are both open minded and sensitive toward the needs of the African people. Nelson teaches Ruth May the African superstitions, or so they are called by Nathan. Ruth May, however, takes them to heart. Leah mocks the "silliness" about the owl, but in time she too will take the old traditions more seriously. Adah shows an early interest in health care with her observation of African hygiene.

Rachel’s focus, however, is on the Underdowns who come to visit them. She reads the newspapers they bring and listens to the adult conversation as the Underdowns try to persuade Nathan to take his family and leave the country. She sees the couple as "plain janes" and objects to "putting on the Ritz" for them. Her father displays his ignorance when Frank Underdown tries to explain the changes that will come with a Congolese election. He sees the people as a "tower of Babel" without the intelligence to hold an election. Consequently, he gives no credence to the Belgian couple’s warning. Rachel prays that a tree will fall on him and break his skull so she will be able to leave immediately.

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