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The Heart of Dimness

V.S. Naipaul has a problem, and the problem's name is God.

By From the February 2011 issue

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The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief
By V.S. Naipaul
(Knopf, 241 pages, $26.95)

“For my travel books I travel on a theme,” writes Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. “And the theme of The Masque of Africa is African belief.” But Mr. Naipaul has a problem, and the problem’s name is God. Again and again in the pages of this otherwise insightful and entertaining short work, we find the author fussing and fuming about the impact of God-centered theist religions born outside of black Africa on the primitive animist roots of native belief. Perhaps this phobia is best expressed in a rather bilious early passage describing present-day Kampala, Uganda: “Foreign religion, to go by the competing ecclesiastical buildings on the hilltops, was like an applied and contagious illness, curing nothing, giving no final answers, keeping everyone in a state of nerves, fighting wrong battles, narrowing the mind.”

Narrowing the mind from what? After visiting Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Gabon, Mr. Naipaul has a confession to make: “I had expected that over the great size of Africa the practices of magic would significantly vary. But they didn’t. The diviners everywhere wanted to ‘throw the bones’ to read the future, and the idea of ‘energy’ remained a constant, to be tapped into by the ritual sacrifice of body parts.” In essence, what Christianity and Islam had supplanted—or at least diminished—was not so much an earlier native religion in the fullest sense, but a kind of prehistoric, proto-religion based on sorcery and nature worship.

My use of the word “prehistoric”  is deliberate. Central to understanding the yawning gap between traditional African beliefs and the more highly evolved “foreign” faiths they now compete with is the realization that the Africa where those old beliefs were born and then atrophied was—quite literally—a prehistoric place, a place without a  history. Why? Because history requires documentation and you can’t have documentation without some kind of writing. The lack of any written language meant that the black African past was no more than a semi-fictional series of spoken sagas, the “religious” part of which was limited to crude, orally transmitted traditions and rituals.

Mr. Naipaul, with his religious allergy, is puzzled by the widespread appeal that outside, monotheistic faiths exercised on the African masses. (“These foreign religions had a difficult theology; I didn’t think it would have been easy, starting from scratch, to put it across here.”) But as one scion of a tribal dynasty in  Uganda explains it to him, both Christianity and Islam were attractive to Africans for a simple reason: “They both offered an afterlife; gave people a vision of themselves living on after death” which African religion, such as it was, did not.

If Mr. Naipaul had thought about it in a broader historical context, he might have been less perplexed. The transformation of post-Roman, largely pagan Europe—as in Africa, not unaccompanied by episodes of violence, disorder, and intolerance—saw millions of “traditional” peasants and tribesmen converted from crude forms of nature and ancestor worship to Christianity. It took centuries, and many old folk beliefs and practices lingered on or were grafted onto core Christianity (local Saints with pre-Christian associations, yule logs, seasonal festivals, folk remedies, and the like), but a conceptual “Christendom” emerged, providing rival tribes, nations, and empires with an overarching moral structure that, fragile and decrepit as it may now be, still defines Western Civilization.

In historical terms, today’s post-colonial black Africa resembles the Europe that slowly, painfully evolved from the collapse of the Roman Empire and ensuing Dark Ages. Africa is no longer the abysmal “Heart of Darkness” depicted by Joseph Conrad. Rather, like the feebly flickering florescent bulbs Mr. Naipaul complains about in describing more than one urban African night scape, it has become the “Heart of Dimness”: a shadowy region where the thirst for modern knowledge (and consumer goods), the struggle of decent individuals and communities against the forces of ignorance, tribalism, and—most of all—brutal corruption, will probably continue, as it did in early Medieval Europe, for many generations. No one can predict how it will end, but even viewed through Mr. Naipaul’s jaundiced but occasionally whimsical eyes, there are some signs of hope.

One of the most enjoyable passages in the book describes a visit to the home of Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, the peacefully (and voluntarily) retired former dictator (and then popularly elected president) of Ghana, where he was instrumental in restoring the rule of law and national self-respect:

[Rawlings] was talking about the rights of the people when Mrs. Rawlings came in and in a nice clear voice said, “Lunch.” We looked at her, but Rawlings went on talking about the difference between power and moral authority. Mrs. Rawlings said with some firmness that we should move, and we did...

A triumph of moral authority, indeed.

SO MR. NAIPAUL HAS NOT ENTIRELY lost the sense of humor that was such an appealing part of his early fiction. He still has a good novelist’s sense for the telling detail and the ironic insight. Sometimes, perhaps, unwittingly: Besides telling us a lot about Africa, the narrative may tell us a little more about Mr. Naipaul than he intended. For example, on more than one field trip to local sorcerers who will expect gratuities in return for their performances, our author “forgets” to bring along his cash, stiffing his hosts or volunteer guides for the bill. On the plus side, in a region notorious for its cruelty to animals, Mr. Naipaul always has a compassionate eye for the starving mutt and forlorn kitten.

This may explain his affectionate take on the primitive pigmies of the Gabon forest, whom most of their Bantu fellow-citizens treat as barely human. “Even with Claudine’s knowledge of pigmy ways, and her love for them, it was hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals. Perhaps they weren’t,” he writes of one educated Gabonese’s view of these forest Nibelungen. Another educated Gabonese, still holding to old animist beliefs, went even further, blandly informing him that the pigmies “have power, and we keep them just like you keep a pet. You can do anything you like with your pet, but there is something in the pet that you don’t have.”

A particularly degrading example of domesticated mojo? Yet, as Zimbabwe-born British journalist Peter Godwin pointed out in his much more compelling and heartfelt book, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, there is something more to Africa than its dark—or even dim—side: “Just when you’re about to dismiss it and walk away, it delivers something so unexpected, so tender.” Claudine, the educated Gabonese referred to above, gave Mr. Naipaul one such example:

I knew a person who went really mad. They took him to a pigmy master who treated him for three months, and he was healed. The man wanted to reward the master with anything and everything—car, house, a plot of land. He said he would do anything for the master. But the master wanted nothing. All he said to the man was, “Take my young daughter home with you. Adopt her and educate her in modern ways.” The man did as the master asked. He brought the girl to Libreville and educated her and treated her like a close confidante. She is now a civil servant and is still very close to her people. You see, the master knew that the world had changed, and the pigmies would need their own people to be a bridge to the new world.

Mr. Naipaul may have his doubts, but at least some of the pigmies seem to be sorting things out.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.