AP Literature: Reading a Novel that Opens the World

by Alan D.,

AP Literature & Composition

I watched Dr. Denis Mukwege’s 2018 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech lying on a couch in my living room. Many, if not most, people on this planet do not have the privilege to possess a couch, an electronic device, or a living room. While we mindlessly wade through Netflix and YouTube, millions wade through toxic waste and the mangled body parts of soldiers and children. We have rooms to live in; others have rooms where they die. Something can die in our living rooms, too: our care for the world. We are complicit in our living room life as the world around us burns. Why should we care? Because we are human. To be human is to be indifferent. As Mukwege says, it is indifference that eats away at our humanity and erodes our livelihood.

During my Congo/Africa journey the past couple months, I gained a multi-level perspective into what indifference is, and how we can stop it. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible gave me feelings, MISO (media/interviews/surveys/observations) research gave me facts, and Mukwege’s speech gave me drive. Right now, I am fighting a war: a war to learn more about the continent of Africa and how I can take action in response to what I learn. This reflection aims to elucidate my experiences in this battle and why I agree with Mukwege in saying that indifference is damaging to society.

My first memory of learning anything about Africa is from fourth grade, when the entire grade engaged in entrepreneurship projects to lend money to small businesses in Africa through Kiva. Though Kiva had opened my eyes, they slowly closed as I pressed on through middle and high school. After Kiva, it was not until this project that I can recall a significant exploration into African events. I think I speak for my fellow Lit students when I say Africa came as a foreign topic to us. While we had learned all about it in history, never before had we devoted any personal thought to it. My reading of The Poisonwood Bible began the same as any normal literature book assignment. But as I flipped the pages, I felt it speak to me. The Poisonwood Bible is not simply a story about the struggles of a family moving to the Congo, it is a story about defying expectations and discovering humanity. I admired Orleanna’s courage, Adah’s awareness, and Leah’s empathy. I saw myself in Rachel. Guided by the immediate resonance I registered with the novel, a new curiosity and desire to be more like the Price girls was ignited within me.                                           

Though the novel had allowed me to relate to events in the Congo on a personal level, I was still missing a concrete basis for the novel’s central themes. I needed a bridge to connect the abstract ideas I gathered from the novel to real-life events. With Iffany, I researched colonialism in the Congo and discovered that African neocolonialism is alive and well. Through our MISO investigation I saw Africa from the lens of foreign aid. Using media I learned that what Africa needs is self-sustainability and job growth, not poorly-directed aid money. Through interviewing one teacher I learned the value in microlending and lending to women over men. Through a student interviewee I learned the necessity for students to engage in cross-border communication. Through another interviewee I learned that, above all, we must love our neighbors. The Poisonwood Bible primed me with a newfound awareness of the dangers of indifference; MISO research expanded my knowledge on the subject and gave me the prerequisites to action.

Dr. Denis Mukwege is an exemplar Nobel Peace Prize recipient. The man has devoted his life to treating victims of sexual violence and rape; the total number of patients he has treated is over 50,000. In the introduction to Mukwege prior to a conversation between him and Emma Watson, the host described Mukwege as “the closest you will ever get to meeting a living saint.” During the conversation Mukwege detailed his experiences during the first Congo war and his role in healing the eastern Congo from widespread atrocities committed in the region. Mukwege makes clear, however, that there is a war also being fought against indifference. As he stated early on in his lecture, “It’s not just perpetrators of violence who are responsible for their crimes, it is also those who choose to look the other way.” As people who look the right way, we must come to admit the reality of human nature–that it is not only rapists, but us who are evil. Though Mukwege paints a picture of gloom, he also spreads a message of hope, hope fostered by multi-national cooperation and empathy and care for those in need.

From all that I have learned about the Congo, it has become apparent the indifference that plagues our society. We are trapped, but there is a way out of our living rooms, a path to peace and to understanding. This path involves learning about African cultures, supporting ethical and sustainable aid and development, practicing empathy and care and, most of all, being ‘different’.

I will finish with a quotation from The Poisonwood Bible: “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.” (Kingsolver)

Dr. Denis Mukwege won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 along with Nadia Murad "for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict." Dr. Mukwege works in a part of the Congo riddled with violence, and the stories he recounts in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech are very difficult to hear. AP Literature & Composition students watched this speech and learned about Dr. Mukwege's work as part of some final synthesis of themes in our unit rooted in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Students are also engaged in service learning projects to meet needs identified in their exploration of key themes and ideas from the novel. To hear Dr. Mukwege's moving speech, click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYOiqbjrZYQ

Thumbnail image: Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash.