The Masque of Africa

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, by VS Naipaul, Picador RRP£20, 325 pages

In 1966 VS Naipaul taught at Makerere University in Uganda. There he met Paul Theroux. Both have written fiction set in Africa, and both report revisiting Makerere and being dismayed by its neglect and dilapidation. Naipaul, who has explored the effects of Islam on Africa in Among The Believers: An Islamic Journey, has now turned his attention to the African religions and beliefs – how they have been diminished not so much by colonialism as by the invading religions of Christianity and Islam.

He has “a romantic idea of the earth religions. I felt they took us back to the beginning, a philosophical Big Bang and I cherished them for that reason. I thought they had a kind of beauty. The past here [Africa] still lived.” This book is ostensibly an account of his attempts to find that beauty. Instead, he finds ignorance, debilitating irrationality, cruelty to animals and corruption.

Naipaul’s investigations seem to have a rather casual, anecdotal base. There is no sign of any serious reading of anthropology; instead his method, if he has one, is to be guided by one or two not particularly distinguished people, visit (briefly) shrines, witch doctors, bone-throwers and chiefs, and to record his impressions. Sometimes he turns to Speke and other 19th-century explorers for comparison.

The book opens in Uganda. Naipaul is interested in the Kabakas of Buganda, and their very developed government. The last Kabaka, Sir Freddie Mutesa, died in poverty in London in 1969. After the depredations of Obote and Amin, the traditional palace of the Kabakas has been restored and the royal regalia of drums and spears preserved both as a shrine and tourist attraction. Meanwhile, the green hills of Kampala and the university have been submerged in haphazard development and uncollected rubbish. Soon Africa will be buried in rubbish and its forests, often the loci of its traditional religions, will be devastated and all its cats eaten. He finds abandoned kittens everywhere, and evidence of cat-eating. Naipaul also fears that “African fecundity” will drown Africa.

At times he makes bizarre sweeping statements – the Chinese hate the earth, Africa is not polygamous, Africa is polygamous – and he is always aware of being plagued by people who want his money. But occasionally he comes close to the “earth religions”, as when he visits a Yoruba sanctuary, where animals are not harmed and the 60 acres of forest are pristine.

Ben Okri once told me that Nigerians, including the best educated, always consult babalawos or soothsayers. Naipaul asks one if his daughter will marry: the babalawo is not optimistic. He also says: “You have many enemies.” I hoped, but wasn’t sure, that this was reported ironically.

As I read about countries I don’t know – Uganda, Gabon, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire – I consoled myself that I would be better able to judge Naipaul’s observations when he arrived in my birthplace, South Africa. Johannesburg is apparently in the grip of witch doctors, in spite of the fact that “the straight lines of the industrial buildings on the way to the great city belonged to a culture of science and money, the style of another continent, another civilisation”. He lingers over the sales of animal parts for medicines at small shops. Johannesburg has changed, but I can assure Naipaul that, when I was a boy, traditional medicines were always sold downtown, a block from the town hall and great crusading opposition newspapers.

From his first impression, that the light gave an extra shine to the South Africans’ blackness (Johannesburg’s Africans are mostly a light brown), to his feeling that South Africa’s history has conspired “to make the people simple”, there is hardly a line in this section that isn’t utterly trivial.

For me, the South African section cast a retrospective gloom on the earlier chapters and on Naipaul’s great works such as A Bend in the River, whose limpid prose is only occasionally recalled in this lazily written book.

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