Saturday, September 02, 2006

The God of Small Potatoes

Adah in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible:

"So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water standing beside the white chickens. That is one whole poem written by a doctor named William C. Williams. Chickens white beside standing water rain, with glazed wheelbarrow. Red on! Depends much. So?

I particularly like the name Williams C. William. He wrote the poem while he was waiting for a child to die. I should like to be a doctor poet, I think, if I happen to survive to adulthood. I never much imagined myself as a woman grown, anyway, and nowadays especially it seems a waste of imagination. But if I were a doctor poet, I would spend all day with people who could not run past me, and then I would go home and write whatever I liked about their insides.

We are all waiting now to see what will happen next. Waiting for a child to die is not an occasion fo writing a poem here in Kilanga: it isn't a long enough wait. Every day, nearly, one more funeral. Pascal doesn't come anymore to play because his older brother died and Pascal is needed at home. Mama Mwanza without a leg to stand on lost her smallest ones. It used to astonish us that everyone here has so many children: six or eight or nine. But now, suddenly, it seems no one has enough. They wrap up the little bodies in layers of cloth like a large goat cheese, and set it out in front of the house under a funeral arch woven from palm fronds and the howling sweet scent of frangipani flowers. All the mothers come walking on their knees. They shriek and wail a long, high song with quivering soft palates, like babies dying of hunger. Their tears run down and they stretch their hands out toward the dead child but never do they reach it. Whey they have finished trrying, the men carry the body in a hammock slung betwen sticks. The women follow, still wailing and reaching out. Down the road past our house they go, into the forest. Our father forbids us to watch. He doesn't seem to mind the corpses so much as the souls unsaved. In the grand tally Up Yonder, each one counts as a point against him.

According to my Baptist Sunday-school teachers, a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation; admission to heaven is gained by the luck of the draw. At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month's ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would Our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Savior as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth, and reward others for a privilege they did nothing to earn? I waited for Leah and the other pupils to seize on this very obvious point of argument and jump in with their overflowing brace of words. To my dismay, they did not. Not even my own twin, who ought to know about unearned privilege. This was before Leah and I were gifted; I was still Dumb Adah. Slowpoke poison-oak running-joke Adah., subject to frequent thimble whacks on the head. Miss Betty sent me to the corner for the rest of the hour to pray for my own soul while kneeling on grains of uncooked rice. When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God. The other children still did, apparently. As I limped back to my place, they turned their eyes away from stippled sinner's knees. How could they not even question their state of grace? I lacked their confidence, alas. I had spent more time than the average child pondering unfortunate accidents of birth.

From that day I stopped parroting the words Oh, God! God's love! and began to cant in my own backward tongue: Evol's dog! Dog ho!

Now I have found a language even more cynical than my own: in Kilanga the word nzolo is used in three different ways, at least. It means "most dearly beloved." or it is a thick yellow grub highly prized for fish bait. Or it is a type of tiny potato that urns up in the market now and then, always sold in bunches that clump along the roots like knots on a string. And so we sing at the top of our lungs in church: "Tata Nzolo!" To whom are we calling?

I think it must be the god of small potatoes. The other Dearly Beloved who resides in north Georgia does not seem to be paying much attention to the babies here in Kilanga. They are all dying...."

(Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible).


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