I’ve just read the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber, 2000). It’s an incredible, expansive novel, telling the story of five women (a mother and her daughters) who are led to the Belgian Congo from the States by their Baptist preacher husband/father, just as colonial rule is crumbling in 1959. Kingsolver manages to evoke an incredibly visceral atmosphere of a country on the edge, which is echoed by the family on the precipice of the total unknown. An astonishing book, which I would highly recommend, I found this passage to be incredibly powerful, and it prompted me to the think about the notion of audience – what an engaging performance asks or creates of us when we watch: the individual, the group, the whole, the present and the past, all we have known and all we will know – can we be all these things at once?
People are bantu; the singular is muntu. Muntu does not mean exactly the same as person, though, because it describes a living person, a dead one, or someone not yet born. Muntu persists through all those conditions unchanged. The Bantu speak of ‘self’ as a vision residing inside, peering out through the eyeholes of the body, waiting for whatever happens next. Using the body as a mask, muntu itself cannot die.