Sunday, June 8, 2008

Voicing the Vanquished's Version of History

What do you know about President Eisenhower? I didn't really know much except that history recognizes him as one of USA’s greatest Presidents. A quick look at wikipedia informs one that:

"Eisenhower was a five-star general of the US Army who served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe...1944-45....As President, he oversaw the cease-fire of the Korean War, kept up the pressure on the Soviet Union during the Cold War made nuclear weapons a higher defense priority, launched the Space Race, enlarged the Social Security program, and began the Interstate Highway System."

Sounds like quite an accomplished guy, huh? I had never read anything very critical about Eisenhower until I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barabara Kingsolver. The book is truly, in my average-joe-reader opinion, a master-piece of literature, of story-telling, of creating multiple (6 in number) full-blooded, sharply etched, distinct protagonists and of using writing to establish a record of history from the point of view of the vanquished instead of the victor, of using writing to deliver a moral rebuke, a sharp awakening slap, to the powerful and empowered who, blinded by a sense of their own moral superiority, act to oppress thousands in the garb of salvaging their lives and souls.

Written in the late 90s and set in the 60s during the struggle for Congo's independence; the Poisonwood Bible has 6 protagonists - 1 woman and mother, 4 pre-teen to teenaged daughters and The Congo, the heart of the Dark Continent. The five female characters are ruled by the family patriarch, a born-again evangelical priest who, convinced of his sacred mission to save the heathen Congolese tribes by converting them Christianity, moves his entire unwilling family from Bethlehem, Georgia to a small village in the darkest depths of the African equatorial forest.

Most of the book is dedicated to the hapless family's tribulations but Kingsolver seamlessly weaves in the emerging turmoil in the Congo. The Congo was Belgium’s only colony and bore the full brunt of its colonial master’s attentions. The atrocities on the native Congolese were legend, and are well documented by history – they included chopping off rubber plantation workers’ hands if they worked too slowly on a particular day. The independence struggle was led by Patrice Lumumba, a postal worker, who was Congo's equivalent of Nehru. Like Nehru, Lumumba was also a Socialist, an anti-colonialist and showed signs of being non-aligned in the cold war. However in Lumumba’s case all of those turned out to be fatal mistakes. As Kingsolver puts it in the book…

“In 1975…a group of senators called The Church Committee… found notes from secret meetings of the National Security Council and President Eisenhower. In their locked room, these men had put their heads together and proclaimed Patrice Lumumba a danger to the safety of the world. The same Patrice Lumumba, mind you, who washed his face each morning from a dented tin bowl, relieved himself in a carefully chosen bush and went out to seek the faces of his nation. Imagine if he could have heard those words – a danger to the safety of the world! – from a roomful of white men who held in their manicured hands the disposition of armies and atomic bombs, the power to extinguish every life on earth…And President Eisenhower was right then sending orders to take over the Congo…he’d made up his mind about things. He’d given Lumumba a chance he felt. The Congo had been independent for fifty-one days.”

After 51 days in power, Lumumba was overthrown by the army led by Mobutu Sese-Seko who was backed by the CIA and Belgium. Lumumba was first imprisoned and then beaten to death. There were many other parts to the plot including a Belgian-incited rebellion in Katanga, the most mineral rich province, but they seem to have been side-shows staged to create the chaos that would justify or at least enable a coup to happen. Once Mobutu was in power, the Katanga rebellion seemed to die down. Mobutu then effectively went on to rule Zaire for 37 years, brutalized its citizens and plundered its treasury. His departure was followed by years of civil war that has still not completely ended and in which thousands of women have been raped.

Its difficult to describe how angry and sad I felt at reading what had been done to the Congo in the guise of saving it from Communism. The Poisonwood Bible
reminded me again of the argument I made in Blasted Into Agnosticism? that extremists succeed too often in sowing misery and chaos - for decades - for at least me to confidently continue to believe in God. It also reminded me that history is often just an account written from the victor's perspective. And sometimes it might make sense to put in that extra effort as Kingsolver did to dig up and voice the vanquished's account too. For it might hold valuable information about true culpability (The Eisenhower name will just not have the vaguely positive resonance for me that it did till recently). Vanquished's accounts can also hold valuable lessons - for example - that the current administration's policy of "You're with us or against us" is not something that was invented 8 years back but has a much older and hallowed tradition.

We might have given George Bush too much credit...even on perhaps the best articulated doctrine of his Presidency. For once that discovery makes me sad.

No comments: