The first—and last—important symbol in the novel is the okapi; the strange animal that Orleanna witnesses during her walk through the jungles of the Congo. As befits such an important symbol, it resists easy interpretation: at first, it seems that the okapi—an exotic African mammal, once thought to be mythical—is a symbol for the Congo itself, in all its mystery and strangeness. But as the novel goes on, and Kingsolver keeps returning to the animal, it begins to seem that the okapi is more like a symbol for the lives of the characters. Throughout the book, we’re encouraged to wonder whether there’s any “silver lining” to the tragedies of the story—Lumumba’s assassination, Ruth May’s death, Anatole’s imprisonment, etc. Yet it’s also suggested that tragedy must always coexist with joy: every cloud has a silver lining. This is the conclusion that Adah Price comes to during her time as a biologist and a medical researcher. In the end, the okapi brings home this point in a memorable way: we’re informed that because of Orleanna’s interaction with the animal, it runs away and ends up avoiding a hunter’s gun, thereby living for a few more years. In this way, it’s implied that even the smallest and most trivial of encounters may have some hidden significance. Ultimately, then, the okapi is a symbol for the importance of all life, and of the unpredictability of the world.
The timeline below shows where the symbol The Okapi appears in The Poisonwood Bible. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1, Chapter 1
...leading her four children—including the youngest, Ruth May—through a forest, until their movements disturb an okapi. The narrator explains that because of the family’s visit, the okapi runs away and ends... (full context)