Friday, January 21, 2011

The Masque of Africa : Glimpses of African Belief - V S Naipaul

At the age of 76 ( he is now 78), Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul packs his bags again to Africa. A continent he visited 40 odd years ago, giving us a couple of thought provoking ( though controversial) books. This time, he says, his theme is around "African Belief", and will not be politics or religion.
My theme is belief, not political or economical life; and yet at the bottom of the continent the political realities are so overwhelming that they have to be taken into account."
Starting his journey from Uganda moving on to Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast , Gabon before concluding at South Africa. At the outset, it looks and reads like a westerners prejudiced view of the continent and he hasn't been able to free himself from the it,. Most of his preparation was based on the 19th century European travellers and often he was trying to identify the present day Africa to that of 19th century descriptions.

Africa, to many outsiders are still a mystery. While the new world religions are prominent , the traditional religion or way of living is gaining huge momentum. This phenomenon is seen across sub Saharan Africa. Arabs came for trade and brought Islam to the land centuries ago. While they were less forceful, compared to Christianity, the Saharan and north eastern countries embraced it. However, Christianity came in with the European slave traders.

"The colonial masters came here for business. Slave trade was a business. May be bad, but it was purely business. They took, but they gave us the church. That was a death knell to traditional religion. In the traditional religion, every king had his chief priest and elders to consult. It was a democratic system. It promoted sanity. People did not cross boundaries. The church came and overturned this. They brought in Jesus." and "They took away our land, religion, customs and social structure. Our king, our everything"
To a culture, where spirits and ancestors hold the key, the new religions came in with a different opening.
"Both Christianity and Islam would have been attractive to Africans for a simple reason. They both offered an afterlife; gave people a vision of themselves living on after death. African religion on the other hand was more airy, offering only a world of spirits, and the ancestors.
During these time , end of 18th century and most part of the 19th century , saw the spread of these religion in Africa, at least to the outer world, while the practice of traditional religion and rituals continue to thrive under various clan leaders. 
We were brought up in the faith, and that dictates that African religion as paganism. We were trained to despise it.... Now that I have grown up and had exposure, I see it was a tool to control our African mind. It is how the imperialists worked.
Culture does not die - today it is called witch craft."
Not surprisingly, most of the research or fact finding in the journey revolved around these practitioners. Meeting various clan leaders or priests ( of African belief), Naipaul build his story around the practices of which craft, sorcerer, sooth sayers, healers and black magicians. Obviously, people who claims to have control or ability to initiate the spirits of ancestors hold the key in the life of common man. There is no difference between Country, City, small town, village or the forest in these believes.

Relying largely on the conversations with his guides, sponsors and few of the people of control, he bring about their thoughts and idea of the African belief; at times referring to his previous visits to the continent. And that , I believe, is one of the short fall of the book. There are no insights, often contradicting views with no clarification by the author makes it pretty ordinary read for most part. There is also kind of contempt in his language which does not go well with a sympathizer. At one place, he even experiment with one of these men asking him to find out about the marriage of his girl ( he does not have children). "Will my daughter get married ?"... "The girl is not going to get married. You have many enemies. To break their spells we will have to do many rituals. This will cost money, but the girl will get married.

Across the continent, there is a revival of traditional beliefs, while continue to practice the religion of their birth. This contradiction, which is seen in every aspect of African life, makes the story interesting. More and more writers rely on their own language, more and more governments encouraging the local culture and religion, people of high profile openly coming out in support of the believes and defending them in public. As an outsider the new century Africa will be an interesting place to watch and admire. 
"I want to tell you about language, how important it is. There is a spiritual quality to the language, to words. If you use language as tool to suppress people it will loose all its spirituality.... Our mother tongue historical elements, and words were important."
The blurb proclaim, "The best living writer of English Prose". This book was far from it. Most of the initial writings were very ordinary. It does not reflect the language and insights of a Nobel Laureate. The section about Gabon could be an exception, where I found the language and content beautifully woven. That one chapter made all the difference to reading this book. In general the language and style improved towards the end. Writing on Gabon and that of South Africa were beautifully written. However, I am not excited about this book.
The Masque of Africa ( 2010)

V S Naipaul

Picador India

325 Pages

Rs 595

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