The central misunderstanding occurs when the missionaries ask the village elders for a plot of land to build their church. The elders thus give them a part of their "evil forest," which, as the narrator tells us, is a part of the forest where people are buried who die of "really evil" diseases and also where strong "fetishes" are dumped. Therefore it is "alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness." The narrator comments:
They did not really want them in their clan, and so they made them an offer which nobody in his right senses would accept.
However, the missionaries are completely unaware of the significance of their "gift" and thank the elders, accepting the land, bursting into song. The next few days are watched by the villagers with great suspense to see what will happen:
The next morning the crazy men actually began to clear a part of the forest and to build their house. The inhabitants of Mbanta expected them to all be dead within four days. The first day passed and the second and third and fourth, and none of them died. Everyone was puzzled. And then it became known that the white man's fetish had unbelievable power. It was said that he wore glasses on his eyes so that he could see and talk to evil spirits. Not long after, he won his first three converts.
Thus, the villagers are amazed at the white man's ability to live in the "evil forest," and conclude that the only way that this is possible is because the white man's fetish was more powerful than the spirits surrounding him. Lots of misunderstandings on either side, as the tribal elders give the missionaries a gift that is not at all a gift, but which is received as one, and then the survival of the missionaries is interpreted as superior magic.