When the Price family moved from the USA to a village called Kilanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo they found a parrot named Methuselah in their home. The parrot was kept in a tall metal cage well above the ground and out of reach of predators like killer ants and snakes.
The previous caretaker of the parrot was Brother Fowles. Reverend Price was taking over the leadership of the only church in the village from Brother Fowles whose contract was terminated because he married a village woman.
Unlike Brother Fowles, Reverend Price made no effort to understand the Congolese, their environment, culture, economic activities and their traditional governance system. He openly ridiculed their practices, insulted the dressing of the women, condemned polygamy and disrespected the traditional chief. In one of his misinformed efforts to evangelise and change Kilanga, Reverend Price set Methuselah, the parrot, free from his cage.
Methuselah, like the Price Family, is a fictional character in the “Poisonwood Bible,” an international best seller work of fiction authored by Barbara Kingsolver. The parrot symbolises the Democratic Republic of Congo as seen through the eyes of Orleanna Price, the Reverend’s wife, and her four daughters. Orleanna and the four girls arrive in the African village when Congo is under the colonial authority of Belgium.
The parrot is released from its cage by Reverend Price in the same period that Congo gains its independence from Belgium. After independence, Congo’s founding President, Patrice Lumumba, is assassinated by Joseph Mobutu with the assistance of the USA, because he is of socialist leaning. Joseph Mobutu through decades vandalises the nation robbing it and its people blind. The USA turned a blind eye because it benefited from the country’s natural resources.
The failed independent state of Congo is symbolised by the release of the parrot by Reverend Price. The parrot had been caged for years. The muscles of its wings had atrophied because of lack of flying. The parrot aped and spoke the language of its masters that it had learnt over the years.
When the cage was opened the parrot at first refused to leave. Reverend Price then grabbed the parrot and forcibly threw it to the trees. A few days later the parrot crawls back to the homestead. It could not fly. It could not find a new home. It could not find food on its own. Though independent it remained dependent on its new and cruel foreign master.
Its status post-independence was far worse off than it was during its life in a cage. The parrot went to live in the latrine. It depended on insects that crawled on the ground and food handed over to it by the 4 young girls for its sustenance. Ultimately Methuselah was eaten alive as it could not use its wings to fly to safety when the village was attacked by killer ants.
The author bemoans a nation blessed with natural resources but exploited and laid to waste first by colonialists and then by local leaders acting under the influence of foreign powers. She bemoans leadership swimming in wealth financed by taxes and resources forcibly extracted from destitute citizens. She bemoans citizens arrested and imprisoned, and others killed for attempting to free the country from toxic leadership.
Methuselah’s symbolism easily fits into Kenya’s story. Independence, the introduction of the multi-party political system, the ouster of Kanu, and the Rainbow government all failed the nation leaving its citizens yearning for more.
The potential of the 2010 Constitution today stands in stark contrast to a fractured, angry and depressed nation. The only remaining unifying symbol in Kenya is the tongue. Communities cloister to protect only those who share a similar language.
An exploitative, manipulative and extractive leadership modeled on that of the colonialists continues to clip Kenya’s wings and its ability to fly.
- Kethi D Kilonzo, is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. [email protected]