During the first months in Africa, the Price family was forced to learn the names of all the plants and trees, Leah remembers. Leah was especially interested in learning the new words. The daughters learned from books left behind by Brother Fowles. They also became closer with their neighbors, such as Mama Mwanza. They also make friends with Tata Boanda, an old fisherman who is extremely thin. Leah knows that Boanda is a “sinner,” because he has two wives, something Leah has always been told is a horrible sin. And yet Boanda’s wives don’t seem “fazed”—on the contrary, Leah thinks, they seem perfectly satisfied.
As Leah spends more time in the Congo, she sees that the people of Kilanga, in spite of the fact that they’re not Christian, still seem happy, moral, and content. There’s more than one code by which to live one’s life, she realizes. This realization puts her at odds with Nathan, who of course believes that there’s one and only one way to live life: according to a strict interpretation of the Bible.
Leah is now 15 years old, and continues to immerse herself in African life and culture. She’s intimidated by the fact that young children speak the language better than she does. She also thinks that the villagers are interested in her family in the same way they’d be interested in a fire or a car crash.
Leah learns an important lesson here: the Congolese find her just as odd as she finds the Congolese. In this sense, Leah is very different from Rachel, who still thinks of herself as the “normal” one.
Orleanna insists that Adah and Leah continue with their schoolwork, even though there’s no school for them to attend. Every morning, they study hard until lunch. Leah continues to envy the Congolese villagers for their knowledge of their own language. She also wishes she had friends to play with. Eventually, Ruth May finds other children to play with. Leah notes that Ruth May is amazingly strong-willed for a 5-year-old.
Adah and Leah concentrate on educating themselves, but they also recognize that education consists of more than copying Bible verses. Leah and Adah are genuinely interested in learning the Congolese language, and yet they’re both reluctant to make friends with the villagers. Only Ruth May has the innocence to befriend Congolese children.
Leah is more interested in playing outside than her siblings. She wishes she could spend more time with Nathan, but instead, she goes hunting for Pygmies (small birds) and feeds Methuselah. She notices that most of the girls her age in the community already have children, and when Leah looks into their eyes, she sees deep maturity. The other girls call Leah “Beelezi”—Belgian. This makes Leah laugh.
Leah can see that the children of the Congo have experienced a great deal: they’ve seen tragedy and cruelty already, some of it doled out by the Belgians. It’s telling that the children consider Leah a Belgian: they’re so used to the Belgians’ tyrannical regime that they conflate all white foreign visitors.
Leah describes the big outdoor markets in the village. There’s a hairdresser named Mama Lo who spends most of her time there, selling palm oil and giving haircuts to little boys. Lo is highly industrious, perhaps because she doesn’t have a husband. Leah also notices Eeben Axelroot, who lives in a shack far from the center of the village. Adah and Leah spy on Axelroot together, and they hear that he owns a radio.
One interesting character among the Congolese is Axelroot, who seems to belong neither to the Congo nor to Europe: he’s isolated from the rest of his community, save for his radio.
One day, Leah returns from spying on Axelroot to find Ruth May playing “Mother May I?” (a children’s game) with a group of young Congolese children. One of the boys playing the game is named Pascal, who’s about 8 or 9. Pascal, Leah explains, is her first real friend in the Congo. Pascal tells Leah about the trees and plants in the area, including the poisonwood tree, which has smooth, shiny leaves. In return, Leah teaches Pascal some English words. Pascal seems more interested in Rachel’s hair and Timex watch than in learning another language. But he’s a warm friend to Leah, and gives her presents, such as sugarcane.
Pascal is an exceptionally generous person—it’s as if he’s too young to have acquired the selfishness and arrogance that we’ve seen in Rachel and Nathan. Here we’re also introduced to the poisonwood tree, from which the novel takes its title.
It occurs to Leah that Pascal lives in another world from herself. He’s never really had a childhood; in fact, he’s been doing grown-up work for years now. Leah feels angry with Nathan for raising her as a “white preacher’s child from Georgia.” She’s embarrassed for being so pampered and privileged.
This is an important turning point in Leah’s life: it marks the first time when she feels truly embarrassed for being who she is; i.e., for being the white descendant of Europeans, as well as a “spoiled rich girl.” Leah will continue to feel uneasy with her own identity throughout the novel.