The Prices are put in a tough spot with Tata Ndu's offer to buy Rachel. They don't want to offend the chief - for he molds the will of the people and can make their lives easier - but they refuse to sell one of their daughters. Rachel is indignant that her parents would even consider the offer. The Prices, however, come up with a plan to pacify the village. Eeben Axelroot agrees to pretend to be engaged to Rachel so that the chief will stop coming around. Rachel and Axelroot have to sit on the front porch together and feign a friendship.
One afternoon Mrs. Price decides to move Ruth May's cot into the living room so that she can be with her sisters, even as she is getting progressively sicker. When they move the cot, they discover tiny buttons stuck to the wall. These are Ruth May's malaria pills. She had put them in her mouth and then stuck them to the back of the wall when no one was looking because she didn't like the way they tasted. Mrs. Price pries them all off the wall and discovered 61 - the same amount of weeks they had been in the Congo. Ruth May's condition is quickly deteriorating and she now has hallucinations and a constant fever. She blames herself and all her sins for her sickness.
Rachel's birthday comes again, this her seventeenth, but it passes with hardly anyone noticing. Mrs. Price gives her a small piece of old jewelry, but the only exciting events of the day come when Adah is stung on the foot by a scorpion and a mongoose steals eggs from the henhouse. Leah begins to draw closer to Anatole. He lets her teach arithmetic to the children and he teaches her French and Congolese in return. He also made her a bow and arrow as a present and she becomes a "frighteningly good shot." This, however, does not win her any praise in the village as she begins to be known as very "unfeminine," which Adah believes will have consequences down the road. Reverend Price increasingly tries to use the Congolese language in his sermons and always pronounces that "Tata Jesus is bangala." "Bangala" can mean "dear" and "beloved," yet the way he pronounces it, it means "poisonwood."
Leah is developing a crush on Anatole and she often wonders what he thinks of her. They begin to have a conversation about the differences between America and Congo. Leah tells Anatole all about supermarkets and the way that crops are grown in the country and shipped to the cities where every family has a car and some have two. Anatole can hardly believe any of this that she tells him and explains to her that the reason that the Congolese do not like white people is because they cannot understand why a nation with so much cannot give it away to those that need it, just like the Congolese people do. He tells her that many white people have come to their village, some bringing tools or learning or Jesus, and the Congolese simply have to determine which of these things is the most useful. He tells her that her nickname, Beene, means "as true as the truth can be," and she promises to make him a globe as he's never seen a map of the whole world.
The day after Rachel's seventeenth birthday, Eeben Axelroot comes by to walk around the village with her, pretending to be engaged. Rachel is becoming more fond of Axelroot, almost finding him handsome before reminding herself that he's a "creep." As they are walking, he shares a cigarette with her, and when they get a a little farther out of the village he kisses her. She is both thrilled and disgusted, and as they are walking back to the village he tells her a big secret: that the U.S. is going to pay the new leader of Katanga to assassinate President Lumumba. One night, Adah sneaks out of the house to spy on Axelroot. He has a friend over and they listen to the radio and talk about the plot to assassinate Lumumba. The news is that someone has created a poison that will simulate an African disease so that the death will look natural. They say they can put it in his toothpaste. This makes Axelroot angry since he knows no one uses toothpaste in the Congo. He thinks he should "be running the show."
Leah is woken up in the middle of the night by Nelson. In a half-dream like state, she is told to run to the river and as she is running, she realizes that the village is being overrun by a giant horde of ants. When she reaches the river she realizes that she has once again left Adah behind and she begs God for mercy. Rachel also makes a dash out of the house, but makes sure to grab her mirror first. Using a trick she learned in a "How to Survive" book, she sticks her elbows out and surfs the crowd rushing to the river. When she reaches the river, however, she realizes that everyone is getting onto boats, but when she tries, no one lets her on. Her mirror cracks as she is knocked off one boat and she is left sitting in the mud. Ruth May gets separated from her mother when a Congolese person grabs her and she tries to think of the safe place that Nelson had told her she would go if she had the talisman. She decides that she wants to be a green mambo snake, so she can sit up in a tree and look down on everything, but the world wouldn't see her. Adah has the most difficult time getting to the river. As she stands on the porch of their house with ants all over her body, she cries out to her mother to save her...but her mother leaves her behind. It is then that Adah says she sees her "dark center" and when the path from growing up to dying began. She is almost crushed by the crowd, but manages to pull her self up and Anatole grabs her and brings her to the river and puts her in a canoe with her mother.
Anatole takes Leah and Ruth May in his boat while Reverend Price is taken in another boat by one of the villagers. They row downstream to get away from the ants until they have passed through the village. Leah, distressed, tries to talk to Anatole, to find out if he thinks it was a bad thing for them to have come and what the future of the country will be; but Anatole doesn't want to talk. He tells her that things are more complicated than Leah tries to make them and that right and wrong cannot be judged so easily. He tells her that the people of the village have been taking care of them in ways they do not even realize - giving them eggs and slipping them food because they knew they were hungry. When they do return to the village, two days later, Leah finds the bones of their own chickens. They had been completely devoured by the ants.
The Price's are beginning to be pulled more into the life of the village, both physically and emotionally. Leah and Rachel both find they are attracted to men in the Congo - Axelroot for Rachel, who we discover is actually a kind of mercenary working for the Americans in their interest in the diamond and natural resource mines in Katanga - and Anatole for Leah, who gives her a position in the school teaching the younger children. In their own ways they both begin to find parts of the Congo beautiful, though they both still hold deep doubts about their place in it. By being thrown into utter poverty, and always close to starvation, the Prices have unwittingly become more a part of the village than they ever imagined possible when they first arrived. Even Tata Ndu tries to marry Rachel so that the Prices would not have to feed her. Reverend Price's stubborn attempts at missionary activity are still somewhat futile, though small glimpses of progress can be seen, such as when he convinces a group of men to thatch the roof of the church.
Ruth May's sickness, then, symbolizes the continual decline of the Price's own innocence in the Congo. She would not take her quinine pills because of the bitter taste, a metaphor for the Price's own unwillingness to accept the bitter conditions of their mission a deep desire to return to the life they left in Georgia. Increasingly, however, this seems to not be an option. The characters of Rachel and Leah, moreover, provide differing metaphors for the ways in which Christianity interacts with those that it seeks to convert. On the one hand, Rachel, and her growing affair with Axelroot, symbolizes the ways in which religion binds itself to the imperial powers of the world who steal the riches of the land. On the other hand, there is Leah, who, in her growing love for Anatole, begins to teach him about the wider world, helping him to discover the riches that lie outside Africa. Likewise, he is teaching her - specifically the language and the customs of this new land. At it's best, Kingsolver suggests missionary activity can be a relationship of interaction and sharing; at its worst, however, it is an activity of domination.
The swarm of ants that attack the village play both a metaphorical and existential role. They are metaphorical because they represent the growing political upheaval in the Congo. Adah learns that Patrice Lumumba is part of an assassination attempt that is possibly being sponsored by the American government. The Americans are more interested in working with the war lord leader of Katanga, a southern province of the Congo that is rich with diamonds and natural resources, than they are in working with Patrice Lumumba who has allied himself with the people of the Congo and is working on reforms to better their lives. Anatole tells Leah that the people of Africa are not that much different than the ants. When they are hungry and disaffected, they rise up and devour anything that is in their way. The looming political strife of the Congo and the way it will disrupt the Price's small gains in the life of the village is represented by the ants devouring of anything the Price's held dear - food, mirrors, and even relationships.
The ant crisis is especially existential for Leah and Adah who both find their "dark center." Adah realizes that she was the only person in her family that felt that her life was worth saving in the stampede. Though she always knew she was looked down upon in the family because of her disability, it is a shock that when she cries for help no one is there to help her. Indeed, even her mother abandons her. The character of Adah, in this way, is fully bound to the symbols of atheism - those who cry out to God to find no one is there. This will now doubtlessly steer Adah's life towards a more detached and cynical disposition. Leah is now on the precipice of losing her faith as well; in her father, in his mission and in the God that she cries out to. Death, for her, seems inevitable and she doubts the very reasons she and her family are here. She identifies herself with the chicken bones she finds when they return to the village after the ant attack; they are clean and represent God turning His back on her. But they also represent the witchcraft of the local Congolese people. The ant attack, then, is a turning point in Leah's own journey - leaving her American self to embrace a Congolese self.
The ant swarm, as well as many of the other tragedies in the village, are retellings of the seven plagues from the book of Genesis. In the Biblical story, God sends plagues to the land of Egypt so that the Egyptians will let the Israelites leave the land. The story is revised by Kingsolver, however, for in the African version of the stories it is the people of the land who needlessly suffer under the plagues - drought, flood, and now ants. Like the biblical stories, these plagues will also lead to an Exodus.