Country Focus: Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire)
The Witch Doctor’s Wife
by Tamar Myers
Avon, 2009. 307 pgs.
Time period: 1958
Summary: The town of Belle Vue sustains a Belgian diamond consortium and is divided in half by the Kasai River gorge. White European employees inhabit one side. Black Congolese workers live on the other. An uneasy peace exists between the two. The native Africans are anxiously awaiting their country’s upcoming independence from decades of harsh rule under Belgium.
A witch doctor named Their Death – who holds down a day job as post office groundsman – discovers one of his children playing with an enormous diamond. He confiscates the gem and hides it among the banana trees outside his hut. His clever wife Cripple notices him acting suspicious, uncovers the diamond and secretly swaps it for a similar-sized piece of glass.
Their Death asks his employer, a Belgian postmaster, to help him sell the diamond. The postmaster agrees, but he and his lover hatch a plot to steal it. The postmaster’s lover double-crosses him and snatches the diamond from Their Death. The ensuing chain of events ultimately lead to Cripple pleading guilty for murder. Cripple’s employer, a young American missionary, boldly attempts to save her life.
Cripple was a keen observer, which made her an apt student. Nonetheless, the American followed some strange customs, the rationale for which eluded her. Second Wife either carried the family’s water supply up from the river or fetched it from the village’s one communal tap. No one ever questioned its drinkability. Mamu Ugly Eyes, on the other hand, insisted that her water (she had her very own tap!) be boiled for twenty minutes before being strained through a white cloth. It was then cooled in a machine that produced air colder than even the coldest dry-season morning, which invariably came in July. Although it had another name, Cripple decided to henceforth refer to this machine as “July Morning.”
How The Witch Doctor’s Wife reflects the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Setting: Belle Vue, a fictional town near the (real) Kasai River.
Indigenous people: characters hail from the Bashilele, Lulua and Baluba tribes
Historical events & figures: the country’s long-awaited independence from Belgium
Native language: A few Tshiluba (a Bantu language) and French words and phrases
Food & Drink: bidia (cooked manioc flour and cornmeal); mikata (plantain pancakes); giant grasshoppers
Culture: Belgian diamond mining in DRC; the subjugation of natives by the Belgians; polygamy; the annual burning of the savanna; talking drums; the ebbing power of witch doctors; dozens of other tidbits about the locals
Nature: Myers describes a number of DRC’s animal inhabitants, including lions, pottos and giant pangolins. The most frightening to me: chigger mites – insects that burrow into the soles of your feet – or any other body part touching the ground – and lay eggs beneath your skin.
The author’s relationship to DRC: Tamar Myers spent her childhoood in the DRC and dedicated The Witch Doctor’s Wife to two Bashilele tribesmen who acted as her babysitters, protectors and teachers. She says, “…they became my friends. They taught me many Bashilele customs, entertained me with Bashilele folktales, and how to survive in the wilderness…”
The deadly fire circle featured in the novel was inspired by a similar incident that killed a friend of Myers’.
(On a scale of 1-5. 1 book = turned off. 5 books = lit up)
A simplistic main plot, superfluous subplots, one-dimensional characters, widespread use of clichés, and an über-Disney-style ending would have made The Witch Doctor’s Wife an excruciating read had it not been for Myers’ excellent pacing and intriguing depiction of the DRC.