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A Religious Journey

by Travis Kavulla

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, by V. S. Naipaul (Knopf, 256 pp., $26.95)

V.S. Naipaul is a gifted writer whose diction, imagery, and insight on postcolonial societies from the Caribbean to South Asia have won his work, both novels and narrative non-fiction, great and deserved admiration. Born in Trinidad to an Indian family, Naipaul is at heart an Anglophile wielding language precisely and with a dry wit. Regular readers will chuckle at his gloomy turns of phrase — here he spies a “moraine of garbage,” there he observes “Africa drowning in the fecundity of its people.”

The Masque of Africa is a rambling travelogue taking the reader in six chapters to six different African states: Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa. Its stream-of-consciousnesss approach is similar to that of Naipaul’s previous works, as well as to that of his late brother Shiva Naipaul’s masterly African travelogue, North of South, one of the genre’s best.

In this travelogue, Sir Vidia cruises around African capital cities and backwaters, inevitably finding himself — because of his own social position — edged into the higher tiers of Africa’s social strata, which, depending on location, can mean anything from a rendezvous with an Ashanti royal at a luxury hotel to a session with a village witch doctor deep in the bush.

On one occasion the reader encounters Naipaul and the Trinidadian ambassador being motored, “flag unfurled,” on a four-hour ride through Uganda. They arrive in the western city of Fort Portal, and call upon the shabby palace that is the seat of the Toro kingdom, but there is no royal to meet them — only a gin-eyed functionary who scams the ambassador into paying $37 for a framed souvenir photograph, hastily developed, of himself admiring the palace hours before. (This reviewer’s reception at the same palace, apparently around the same time as Naipaul’s, was much more courteous!)

In the company of another diplomat, this time in Ghana, Naipaul lunches at the home of Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings, who twice launched successful coups against the Ghanaian government and twice returned the country to civilian rule — getting himself elected president in more-or-less-fair votes twice in between.

These bizarre and amusing encounters give a feel for the institutions of religion and government in modern Africa. The best parts of the book are quintessentially travelogue and not those instances when Naipaul dips into his purported subject matter, which is, as the subtitle says, “glimpses of African belief.” Fortunately, Naipaul dips in relatively infrequently.

His “glimpses” are just that — so fleeting that you barely notice them. He introduces us to concepts like “traditional African religion” without ever offering a definition of the same. An extremely patient reader might excuse this with explanations of the work’s attempted subtlety, but even this Naipaul fan was left exasperated by the author’s amble around the matter at hand.

Of Naipaul’s few sweeping conclusions, some are simply false, such as the claim that “traditional African religion had no doctrine.” In fact, the rules that governed most of traditional Africa were premised on increasing social cohesion and fecundity, and buttressed by tedious regulations upon individual lives. Although such doctrine was not written down until thousands of missionaries and anthropologists gave their careers to doing so, it was extensively formulated long beforehand.

Neither does Naipaul much delve into the current state of African belief. Incredibly, he appears never to go to a Pentecostal or evangelical church service — or for that matter any church service — during his visit to Africa. This is a conspicuous absence, since the Pentecostal belief in the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit has spread like brushfire through much of Africa in the past few decades. Pentecostals now outnumber members of mainline denominations like Anglicanism and Catholicism. Really any book about African belief written in this decade ought to have Pentecostalism as its first chapter, so profound is its influence across the continent. Yet there are only scattered mentions of the Pentecostal movement, which Naipaul dubs “evangelical,” “Pentecostal,” “born-again,” and “rock-and-roll.” Beyond this, there is little attempt to describe the theology of this force that is sweeping across Africa, or why Africans might find it appealing.

Instead, Naipaul uses race as a proxy for belief. This is not uncommon. Like many authors writing about the post-colonial world, he wrings his hands over the confused identity into which many Africans are born: a culture mutated by the religious and political inheritances of European colonization. Naipaul is also given — like many writers on the subject of Africa — to a dichotomous portrayal of traditional religion versus white Christianity and Islam. He remarks, not without a hint of obnoxiousness, about one of his friends in Ghana: “His life had been too varied, full of unconnected or disparate parts, and he hadn’t worked out a way to present himself. I suppose that meant he hadn’t been able to make a whole of his experience.”

Truth be told, many Africans have long ago gotten over the ambivalent postcolonial identity that has been ascribed to them. As early as the 1950s, some Africans were finding ways to wiggle around within mainline Christian denominations, even while others founded their own nominally Christian churches that were packaged even more in a particular tribe’s precolonial beliefs. In Pentecostal churches, Africans have taken on the patois of the American televangelist — but, even so, the Pentecostal focus on miracles in the here-and-now (which other Christians say deemphasizes the afterlife) seems to have more theological overlap with more materialistic African traditions, in which religious places were typically “where people could come to ask for boons,” as Naipaul says.

Naipaul has less comfort in the flexibility of African culture than many ordinary Africans. One of the notable Africans he meets is the Oba of Lagos — a modern-day chief with power over the metropolis’s government who describes himself as “trustee for the dead, trustee for the living, and trustee for those to come.” This line comes nearly verbatim from Burke, a fact Naipaul must know but does not disclose. In other moments, Naipaul describes the ancestral spirits — the interveners of much of precolonial Africa’s faith — in a way that borders closely on the Christian concept of sainthood. And yet Naipaul does not draw the comparison explicitly. These are just two examples of Africans’ using durable terminologies of European thought to classify some of their own preexisting beliefs. It’s hardly a process of subjugation, the image of a culture being torn apart. Cultures can adapt, differences are sometimes mediated. That is just what we are seeing in Africa today.

In writing a travelogue, in which the author is inevitably a character, it is impossible to deny the influence of his individual eccentricities. Naipaul is more or less forthcoming about his. Let me pick but one bone: It is a little strange that a grouch like Naipaul, who spends much of his Africa travels grousing about, even sneering at, his brother man, has an overwhelming fondness for cats. Africans, he discovers, do not particularly care for cats — livestock or roaming delicacies in some places.

The plight of cats is brought up no fewer than four times, probably more than in any other book about Africa. In his last morning in Ivory Coast, he learns that cats destined for the table are put in a bag and dispatched in gruesome ways. Reflecting on the incident, Naipaul writes, “The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast seem unimportant.” This is not something that a visitor to Africa with an appropriately adjusted sense of priorities would say.

Stranger than this, however, is something beyond Naipaul’s control. His first chapter is titled “The Tomb at Kasubi,” an occasion for Naipaul to describe his visit to the eponymous thatched-roof shrine of the Buganda kings — a giant structure and one of the few symbols of a prosperous, centrally organized kingdom to be found in Africa when Europeans began colonization in earnest in the late 1800s. Throughout colonialism and the violent despotism that followed, Ugandans looked to their tribal institutions for comfort and normalcy. The Kasubi Tomb is testimony to that and a symbol of the endurance of custom. Or it was a symbol: In between Naipaul’s writing this travelogue and its being published, the tomb at Kasubi caught fire and burned to the ground. Riots broke out after rumors blamed arson. The incident remains a mystery.

There is a temptation to regard Africa as a timeless object. That is not so. The Kasubi Tomb may well remain a symbol, its immolation a demonstration that the outward trappings of traditional African belief may not be long for this world. More and more, the old customs are being cloaked in the trappings of the modern Christian and Muslim worlds. A mask, as Naipaul says, but much more than that.

Religious belief and the institutions that attend it are often the only counterbalance to Africa’s young, volatile, and sometimes terroristic governments. Those governments constantly attempt to legitimate themselves through appeal to tradition. But, in fact, the diverse churches and mosques are often truer repositories of African custom than those fabricated nation-states headed by rulers who rarely, if ever, had precolonial analogues. The real story of how Africa is changing, where it’s heading, is there.

– Mr. Kavulla, a former NR associate editor and Gates Scholar in history, is a writer in Montana. He won the November election to serve on the state’s public service commission.

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