Thirty years later, VS Naipaul journeys through Africa again tracing its pre-modern beliefs. His literary method is as resilient as his subject, says Farrukh Dhondy
IN VS NAIPAUL’s A Bend in the River (1979) a young, angry African, studying to be an administrative cadet, challenges the Indian lecturer by asking him if “Africans have been depersonalised by Christianity”. The lecturer counters with his own questions: Is Islam an African religion and has it destructively eroded African belief? Are the students, men of modern Africa, nervous of losing African beliefs? The young man, Ferdinand, admits to being confused. There are other characters who believe in magic — Metty believes spells can make gun barrels bend and droop, while the President is protected by spells and a white man’s spectre. Set in a fictional Congo, the novel returns several times to these beliefs: in ancestors, sacrifice and magic, bewitchment, spells and their association with restlessness and revolt.
Now, 30 years later, in The Masque of Africa, Naipaul returns to voyage through six African countries to examine, in what he modestly terms ‘glimpses’, the roots of African belief. He searches with his well-honed literary practices of meeting people, questioning them, entering the landscape of their reality and telling their stories; and with the methods he used and reformed in his other distinguished books of travel and discovery — of visiting sites and structures, his descriptions of which make the present and past vivid.
Naipaul characterises his quest as a search for the beliefs that emerged from the spiritual equivalent of the universe’s Big Bang. Just as the Hadron Collider seeks to find how energy turned, in the zillionth of a second after the Big Bang, into stars, planets and dark matter, soThe Masque attempts to examine the spiritual beliefs of people whose continent seems closest to the state of nature, to the beginnings of belief, to the earth, the trees, the animals, the void or world from which life comes.
Naipaul journeys through Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, The Ivory Coast, Gabon and finally South Africa. The search for belief becomes a search for the spiritual sources of power and ultimately for the springs of authority. What power, while able to infuse and interfere with it, lies beyond this mortal coil? With what authority do Chiefs, kings, shamans and witch doctors rule and predict? Naipaul has been on such a journey before in Africa and written about it in The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro. In his other African books, this mindset is an inseparable facet of the drama and shades of this pre-rational belief are attributed to several of his African characters. In The Masque, Naipaul is looking for evidence of this conscious dimension as it manifests itself in the lives and discourse of people.
He maintains that in Africa, to get to talk to the Chiefs, the witch doctors, the keepers of shrines and ancient mysteries, one has to be ‘sponsored’. He talks to the supposed keepers of mysteries, among them ‘kings’ and shamans. The exceptions he makes in Ghana and South Africa are Jerry Rawlings and Winnie Mandela, politicians whom he does not question about African religion.
His quest is limited by the fact that many of the places, tribes and histories whose past and beliefs he seeks to uncover have never had a written script. The verbal tradition through which the past is apprehended transforms history into myth and all that the present has of the past is mythical.
European and Asian societies have had the benefit — through Homer, Valmiki, Norse Legends, the Avesta, Confucian texts and many others — of evaluating the past and separating it from the present. The absence of written histories in the African traditions he explores leaves Naipaul with the recourse of comparing his own perceptions with earlier sojourners like Speke, Livingstone, Du Chaillu and Schweizer. Despite the lack of written histories, he discovers the attributes of kings and chieftains’ supposed power through the myths that sustain their palaces and shrines (a problematic word, as Naipaul explains, because in some contexts it means a place of death, murder and scattered human relics). The Kings of Buganda were, in life and in death, patrons of human sacrifice.
Naipaul’s description of the beliefs that sustained their power is without overt condemnation. He assesses their vanities, the conceit that any of their works would be of consequence; and he quotes Shelley, comparing them to Ozymandias, the ‘king of kings’ who enjoins the traveller to look upon his works and tremble when time has swept away every vanity and left only the empty desert. The book was written with the help of contemporary men and women — diplomats, bankers, businessmen, a poet. His guides, though by birth or conversion Muslim or Christian, subscribe in their deepest being to ancestor worship, muti (using mutilated bits of animals and humans for supernatural protection), fetishes, curses and malevolent beings and energies that need placating — sometimes through the sacrificial murder of a child or parent.
The colonising religions — semitic, monotheist and demanding their own mosques, churches and disciplines — are a veneer. Underlying their doctrines is a vast population’s consciousness that fundamentally believes in the powers of ancestors, fetishes and myriad animism. The paradox that Naipaul’s discovery constantly underlines is that this piety about nature co-exists with a ruthless disregard for the destruction of forests and fauna, including cruelty to and devouring of animals.
THE ENGLISH say there are more ways than one to skin a cat, and Naipaul’s travels have yielded at least three ways of killing them to eat. Africans boast that the simplest way is to stretch the creature’s neck, as done to rabbits, but this has the hazard of being clawed. You can put it in a sack and beat it to death, with the drawback of listening to its dying howls. Lastly and most cleanly, you can drown it in boiling water. Naipaul is sickened by the methodical and casual cruelty he witnesses towards animals, wild beasts and slummy dogs alike. It becomes a theme of the book — as the conventional enquiries into Africa like politics, economics and colonial assessment, don’t.
Is this concern for animals an idiosyncratic deviation from the book’s quest or is it central to its exploration of the relationship with the natural world? Concern suffuses the chapters and we are cumulatively made aware that the cruelty Naipaul witnesses is a metaphor for an aspect of African blindness. A dog starved at his master’s gate/ Predicts the ruin of the state.
Naipaul’s description of the beliefs that sustain African kings and chieftains’ power is without overt condemnation. He assesses their vanities
The Masque is dedicated to the idea that the mind of Africa — even a glimpse into its belief structures — is where enquiry into the continent begins. Naipaul doesn’t set out to describe modern Africa, though there is in the Naipaul style a fastidious clarity in the description of towns, cities, scattered villages and scarred forests, and constant surprises in the landscape, such as the growing rust of urban spread that is Kampala.
But this book is not a travelogue and not about the texture of the continent. It is more important in being a glimpse into the ancient and contemporary persistence of a dimension of belief that many societies may share in some form, but emerges in most facets of life in Africa.