Late last year I picked up VS Naipaul’s book exploring the origins of African beliefs from my archives, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010). I bought the book back in 2011 in preparation for a trip to West Africa. While I travelled with it, I never finished reading it until I picked it up again last year. I was curious about what people knew, understood and thought about African belief systems, religions and or cultures. I wanted to know what was out there since I had never fully explored the topic before then owing to my historical status as a born-again Christian. The subject of African faith or belief systems was often a no-go area, just like the elephant grave-yard created a dangerous, forbidden blemish in an otherwise beautiful and tranquil landscape of the pride lands in Disney’s The Lion King. It was demonic to even think about it.
So for those of you who didn’t know, VS Naipaul (85) is a Trinidadian/British Writer and Nobel Laureate, who has published more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction including Half a Life, A House of Biswas, A Bend in the River and a collection of correspondence, Letters between a Father and Son. The author is not without controversy and has been accused of being both racist and having “reactionary, artistic, politics” particularly for his book, A Bend in The River (1979) which earned him as much criticism as Joseph Conrad for his seminal work in A Heart of Darkness – which chronicles in fine, colourful detail Central Africa as “a place of chaotic and violent change; tribal warfare, ignorance, poverty and human degradation… punctuated by irruptions of violent death, tormented love affairs and complex, terror-struck responses to the emergence of “the Big Man”, an archetypal African dictator.” The book is listed No.90 on the UK-based Guardian Newspapers’ 100 Best Novels. I imagined I could trust his judgement owing to his standing in the literary world and because he was a non-white person from the outside, inside the commonwealth. I presumed he would have a different, rigorous, removed, perspective. I approached his words with an open mind, like an outsider looking in and was thus surprised to find his views on African beliefs to be no different to those dominating narratives in pre and post-colonial Africa.
The Masque of Africa considers the effects of Belief (indigenous animisms, the foreign religions of Christianity and Islam, the cults of the leaders and mythical history) upon the progress of African civilization. Beginning in Uganda at the centre of the continent, Naipaul’s Journey takes place in Ghana and Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Gabon and ends, as the country (sic) does, in South Africa.
Regardless of my own as yet undisclosed views on African belief systems, reading The Masque of Africa; Glimpses on African Belief, I found V S Naipaul’s overall take on African beliefs to be rather sardonic. He wrote as a benevolent voyeur determined to find some spiritual concept or belief system that could somehow redeem Africans and Africa from continued moral decay, but regrettably found none. From his exploration of the city-scape of Kampala, Uganda whose over-built-up poorer areas were littered with “born-again Christian structures, sometimes fancifully named with sign-boards: as though religion here was like a business that met a desperate consumer need at all levels” to his exploration of ancient Mutesa tombs where he notes how “strange it is that rituals which would once have seemed necessary and vital, serving what was divine, beyond money, have to be disregarded when there is no money.” There was nothing beautiful or redeeming about African belief systems which were imbued with (indiscriminate) traditional culture of human sacrifices, the torture of animals, child and women abuse all done to appease the insatiable demands of discombobulated gods and ancestors who rule their subjects with no mercy. A Lagos city councillor who Naipaul interviews in the book admit that even Christian pastors are afraid of the pagan religions “Muslims and Christians practice forgiveness and cannot harm you. In a pagan religion there is no forgiveness. It is a tit-for-tat religion, there are rules you have to follow very strictly, and if you go against them you die or you go mad.”
I got the impression that for Naipaul Africans were a people caught up in a kind of psychological hell where they are either brain-washed or mind-controlled through the twin foreign religions of Christianity and Islam or they are rendered slaves and human fodder for the appetites of roaming African spirits hungry for fresh blood and energy (souls).
It was a breath-taking, and rather discouraging account of what African belief systems were, are or have become. By the end of the book, I was also compelled to concede and agree with Naipaul that Africans indeed are a savage lot. In spite of myself I began to feel rather grateful that the continent was colonized as it was because now we had a legitimate target for our woes, we have someone else to blame for our savage, cruelty and mindless greedy rituals. We also now have a redeemer, a saviour, who forgives us despite our fits of carnality. Who would we blame if the West had not come to save us from ourselves? Particularly in South Africa were race or racism has become somewhat of “a religious practice.”
The book left me with a notion of Africans as a people bereft of any urgency, self-determination – or an identity of any kind being as they are like animals: slaves to the impulses of our flesh and short-lived appetites, condemned to die like turkeys at thanks- giving with no legacy to speak of bar from that which we have inherited from the Arabs and Westerners, people who were kind enough to risk their lives in their mission to civilize us.
I too began to see Africa as a place where “… a resolution is not really possible until the people who wish to impose themselves on Africa, violate some essential part of their being.”
However chilling I was content with the conclusion of the book, I could not objectively dispute his findings without being defensive, a clear sign of a lack of emotional intelligence or more specifically emotional self-control. I’m not an animal, despite evidence to the contrary. Then I remembered that a good friend of mine had gifted me with an authorized biography of V.S Naipaul written by Patrick French, named after the famous opening line of his book A Bend In A River : “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to be nothing have, no place in it’
The world is what it is:
It is between these pages that I found Naipaul’s subconscious motivation for his literary career and more poignantly the book The Masque of Africa. It has something to do with his father’s stunted writing career and eventual humiliation and mental instability – caused by his inability to find a way forward from the “Hinduism of his childhood with its poorly educated pundits and half-understood rituals” which he was later forced to perform, publicly slaughtering a goat etc, to appease readers of a newspaper he wrote for which further entrenched his mental disturbance. While at Oxford trying to outdo the English, the Blacks and others even as he sought their validation VS Naipaul begged his father to write and prove his critics wrong: ‘You have enough material for a hundred stories for Heaven’s sake start writing them…you are the best writer in the West Indies, but one can only judge writers by their work.’ It is then that I came to understand the man behind the Masque of Africa. In this sense the book, though factual and true, has nothing to do with Africa and Africans. It is about VS Naipaul’s world as it was and or is – projected on the African landscape and by extension it’s people. He was trying to find a sense of peace, to redeem his father’s demise. To appease something…
In conclusion, my exploration of African beliefs through VS Naipaul’s eyes in the Masque of Africa and Naipaul’s motivations and mind through Patrick Frenchs’ The World Is What It Is’ brought me closer to understanding what Ben Okri meant when he said “To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories of itself.” And his warning to “Beware of storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts and who are irresponsible in the application of the art”
I realize that African stories including our belief systems have been poisoned, polluted not only by others projecting their own fears and demons on us but also by ourselves. It is up to us to reverse the perceived moral decay of Africa and Africans. But to do that we have to first start with facing our fears. The ones we buried in the elephant graveyard. They are what makes books like the Masque of Africa possible. They are our blind-spots.
“To know a species is to look at its fears. To know yourself, look at your fears. Fear in itself is not important, but fear stands there and points you at things that are important. Don’t be afraid of your fears, they are not there to scare you. They are there to let you know that something is worth it” C Joybell C