The Masque of Africa by V S Naipaul


After having read many contemporary writers, I was expecting some heavy stuff from the noble laureate. But I swam in the simple flow that he created with his words. Uganda, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria were all names of the African countries for me with straight-line borders. And I had not even heard of Gabon as a country. South Africa, of course, we know courtesy the stories of Mahatma Gandhi. After reading this book, The Masque of Africa that talks about the belief systems of the people of these countries, I think I know them well. Even without knowing about other mundane things like what kind of governance they have and what are the key industries there.

All these countries had an original faith system. Which was located somewhere in the natural elements and the spirits of those who have departed? Then came an era of colonization. And brought along Islam and Christianity to the continent. Many converted and started following the new faiths. Most of the times motivated by the western education that came along with the conversion. But could they really convert is the question that the author seems to be seeking.

Sometimes the younger generation, sometimes a branch of the family goes back looking for its roots. And bringing alive the old rituals that were performed by their forefathers. Even the children of mixed parents sometimes find themselves more inclined towards the native faith than the imported ones. They understand the rationality of the new faiths, new systems. But they also have this inbuilt faith in their own rituals. Which to an outsider may sound outrageous. Naipaul goes as an observer; he seeks answers but is respectful and absolutely non-judgmental of the faiths. Though he keeps cribbing about the dirty surroundings and shady places that his guides take him to. He also comes across as penny pincher. As at every place, he mentions his fear of being asked to pay to the healers. Most of the times not carrying any gifts or sometimes not even money to avoid paying.

The three religious beliefs coexist in Africa: Islam, Christianity, and Native faith. There is no name for the native faith. Each tribe or each region seem to have their own rituals and their own objects of reverence with some common threads like belief in ancestors as a link to God. A power centered in chiefs who are known by different names in different areas. And healers that show a focus on healing and cure. They have a belief in energy systems too. And people try to get energy from anywhere, sometimes even by killing other human beings. There are descriptions of the elaborate rituals especially for ceremonies like the initiation to the extent author was allowed to observe them.

He introduces you to the middlemen who take him around. And how the chains of men help him reach the one he wants to meet. I found the whole environment so similar to what you would see in India if you scratched below the glittering surface even today. You have these Bengali Babas sitting on every roadside claiming treatments for everything under the sun, more often than not under the influence of drugs and sometimes possessed. And you can see people running to all kinds of healers when they have exhausted all the rational options.

He talks about the favorite profession for youth in Ghana – Okada Riders. A kind of transportation option where you ride on the back of a bike for a charge. He tells about the eating habits of Africans. And the delicacies like cats and bats and the gory description of how they are killed. He even mentions elephant eaters. And is quite disgusted at the cruelty towards animals. I want to know if he is a vegetarian, I do not expect him to be as he mentions all the meat-based dishes he was served.

In the book The Masque of Africa, I liked the chapter on Gabon the most, where the forest is the faith and people believe in the energy of the forest. He talks about the deforestation that is happening. The leasing out of forests to the industries, the promise to plant trees for every tree cut and small tribes that want the forests to survive. In his journeys, he is accompanied by the people in power, guides, and people who have chosen to make Africa their home, those married to a local and those trying to study them. Through a cross-section of people, he tries to dig into their psyche of beliefs. For the rational west, the journeys may seem pessimistic but to me, they sounded very real.

When he describes the lives of those who had converted to Islam or Christianity a few generations ago, he shows that no matter what they practice in everyday life, at the time of crisis they rush back to their pagan ways and approach the spirits to guide them and help them. So deep down they still believe in the faith of their roots, but for everyday convenience or for classification purposes they follow the adopted religions. That leads to a question: can you completely change your religion? If yes, how many generations it would take before you are completely oblivious to your root faith?

The Masque of Africa book raises the questions for you while soaking you in the African environment, it is up to you to find the answer i.e. if there is one.

Read The Masque of Africa to wander through the back alleys of Africa, in the countries you probably know nothing about and to read the simple yet etching words of Naipaul.

You may buy this book – The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief by V S Naipaul at Amazon.

The Masque of Africa by V S Naipaul

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  1. Growing up in Africa, i find what is written up is true. I grew up in Nigeria and spend 12years of my life there. There are religion, even Hinduism… but the tribal roots are deep.
    Its like the caste system or local regional functions/beliefs in India.
    So the soul remain pagan, but the body calls for relition. But when i think about it… is religion like Islam and Christanity not also came from the same roots. The answer may be more complex but it all started somewhere.


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