Bel and the Serpent
Beginning until the Fire Hunt
Until now we have only heard Orleanna discuss her guilt over her personal loss in Congo, but now she turns toward the task of making sense of all that happened there on the political level. She learned of the political events years after they occurred, when in 1975 a group of Senators took it upon themselves to look into the secret operations in Congo, and here she reports them to us. In August 1960, Allen Dulles head of the CIA, sent a telegram to the Congolese station chief, Lawrence Devlin, ordering him to replace the new Congolese government as soon as possible. Devlin arranged a military coup, and installed a greedy Congolese man named Joseph Mobutu at its head. On September 14, the army, under Mobutu's command, took control of the Republic of Congo, and placed Patrice Lumumba under house arrest. On November 27, Lumumba escaped. However, while he was on the run he was recognized by a man on the street and pulled into the crowd to give an improptu speech. Among this crowd was a mercenary pilot with a radio, who immediately contacted the authorities. The army recaptured Lumumba, and put him in prison where he was beaten to death.
Leah now brings us back to the very personal events unfolding in Kilanga at the same time as these historic events are playing out. Tata Ndu shows up in church one day and, after listening patiently for a while to Reverend Price's sermon, stands up and demands an election. The election, he says, is to determine once and for all whether the people of Kilanga want Jesus to be worshipped in their village. Nathan calls this approach to religion blasphemy, but has no choice but to submit to the vote. Jesus loses eleven to fifty six. Ruth May is the only Price woman to cast a vote.
The famine has reached desperate proportions, and to secure food for the village, a traditional fire hunt is called. A large fire will be set in front of the jungle, forcing the animals out. As the animals try to escape their burning home, the men of the village will follow them with bow and arrows and shoot them down. A tremendous dispute breaks out over the possibility of Leah partaking in the hunt. Anatole argues on her behalf, pleading that such a good marksman could be very useful to them. Chief Ndu and Tata Kuvundu strenuously object, claming that the old customs cannot be flouted so egregiously by letting a woman partake in the hunt. The issue is put to a vote and it is decided that Leah will participate in the hunt. Tata Kuvundu is enraged and warns that because the villagers have overturned the natural way of the world, the animals will rise up against them in the night. Everyone is terrified by this pronouncement.
At home Nathan reprimands Leah for her part in this dispute and forbids her from taking part in the hunt. Leah openly declares that she will disobey him, and stomps off into the night. Nathan tries to go after her, swinging his belt menacingly, but she is too fast for him. As he lashes at trees, the remaining women lock themselves in the girls' room by pushing the beds up against the door. Orleanna spends the night there, and Leah comes in through the window near dawn. The next evening Anatole finds an evil sign outside his hut, and the following morning he awakes to find a mamba snake curled up next to his bed. Luckily, he sees it before putting his feet down, and so he is saved from certain death. The entire village is convinced that Tata Kuvundu's warning is coming true.
At the fire hunt, Adah, Orleanna, and Ruth May stay with the women, gathering up whatever insects and other crawling creatures are burned, and skinning the meat off the downed animals. Adah watches the mass death solemnly, reflecting on the fact that this horrific slaughter is the only means by which her neighbors can remain alive.
Leah artfully kills an antelope, but Tata Ndu's oldest son, Gbenye, claims that he was responsible for this particular kill. Nelson proves him wrong by showing that it was Leah's arrow that punctured the animal's neck. Gbenye is enraged and commands Leah to skin the animal, despite the fact that she was the one who killed it.
Rachel is overwhelmed by the hunting scene and escapes back home to take a bath. She vows to become a vegetarian.
Though they have killed enough food for everyone, once it is time to divvy up the spoils unfriendly bickering breaks out among the entire village population. Over the heated fights, Tata Kuvundu repeats his warning concerning the toppled natural order of the world.
Orleanna's narrative brings to the fore a theme that has been playing around in the background until now: the intersection of the personal and the political. She reminds us in unambiguous terms that there are two dramas playing out here simultaneously, the one public and the other very private, but parallel in their tragedy. Her guilt attaches not only to the private tragedy but to the public as well; or rather, her guilt regarding the public tragedy is specifically that she was so unaware of it, wrapped up as she was in her private drama. The issue she raises here is an old and familiar one but no less pressing for that; it is the tug between global responsibility and local responsibility, between responsibility to world justice and world events and responsibility to oneself and one's family. It is about the strangeness of going about one's daily life as elsewhere horrific events are unfolding, and also about the need to do just that. This idea ties up intricately with the central theme of the book, the collective guilt we all share for the events in Congo. It adds to this question a further dimension: how are we supposed to alter our private lives in the face of public events? Are we merely supposed to keep on trying to survive? Do we have a responsibility to actively seek out all the information we can about what is going on around us? If we focus on our families and their well-being is this wrong? Would it be wrong to do otherwise? Orleanna does not really provide any definitive answers here, or elsewhere in the book, but she poses the questions provocatively.
Turning now to the private drama in Kilanga, there are several points to note. First, Tata Ndu's notion of a religious election is a brilliant strategy of turning the imported Western culture against itself. It succeeds in exposing the hypocrisy inherent in the Western attitudes toward Africa. The West touts the superiority of elections and the rule of the majority, but then tries to impose a way of life in Africa that the majority despises. It is not majority rule that the West really wants to instill, but minority rule with the semblance of democracy.
Second, as the Republic of Congo struggles to retain its freedom from the West, Leah mirrors this struggle in her relationship with her father. Her insistence that she participate in the fire hunt is a declaration of her right to be who she truly is, and not who her father dictates that she be. We see again here the parallels between womanhood and race. Leah's freedom is curtailed because she is a woman in a culture, or in two cultures really, since both the Congolese and her father agree on this matter, which severely limits the life possibilities of the female. Similarly, the freedom of the Republic is endangered because of the racist belief that African culture is inferior, and African life not worth as much as Western life.
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