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Naipaul’s Mysterious Africa

Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum
A sangoma, or traditional healer, with her apprentices, Soweto, South Africa, 1981


It’s hard to be fair to V.S. Naipaul. Fans who have gotten pleasure and enlightenment from the work of this supremely gifted literary artist face a daunting prospect. Here’s a new book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, the latest of his exercises in forensic tourism in the third world. His previous books in this genre have been mordant classics, most of them. But today, the terrain between reader and book is dominated by increasingly polarized right/left critical pigeonholing of the import of his work; and by eruptions of authorial terribilità infantile in the form of insults, feuds, and streams of self-contradictory ex cathedra political utterances.

Hanging over the varying approaches to Naipaul’s work is the bad air released by Patrick French’s biography,1 written with his subject’s full cooperation. The glamour of Naipaul’s achievements (the great novels, the formidable travel works, the essays, the Nobel Prize) and the sympathy elicited by his heroic overcoming of the obstacles facing a poor “Trinidadian of Hindu descent” in racist London and its literary world of the 1950s and 1960s are dissipated by the horrific account of his conduct with the women in his life. This material is so dire that some readers will be tempted to pick up the lens of abnormal psychology in order to interpret much of his work.


The Masque of Africa records Naipaul’s impressions of Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa in 2008–2009. Naipaul has dealt with Africa primarily in his fiction, notably and fully in his major novel A Bend in the River, and partially in In a Free State, Half a Life, and Magic Seeds. He published a long article on the Ivory Coast in 1984, one on the Congo in these pages in 1975, and another on Mauritius in 1972.

Roughly characterizing Naipaul’s travel books, one might say that they are beautifully written, in his highly controlled lyrical-realist style; the character portraiture is deft and the selection of significant detail is inspired. They are deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the nations newly freed from Western colonialism. (The exception is India, in his last visit there, where the late unshackling of capitalist impulses leads to a more optimistic view.)

Bleak comedy abounds. Naipaul is complexly both humane and censorious toward the poor and their shortcomings. His investigations tend to arrive at or assume cultural explanations for the weaknesses of the new independent states. In India’s case, for example, Naipaul identifies the psychosocial aftereffects of the Muslim conquest seven hundred years ago as a primary obstacle to progress, though, for example, the caste system predated it. He is not sparing on the evil legacies of imperialism, when he gets around to them.

Fiction and the travel books form the double keystone to Naipaul’s career. The travel books have been commercially successful. If their popularity has something to do with a sort of guilt-relieving effect on readers living in the Western countries rejected by the newly independent nations, that’s one of those accidents. He wrote what he saw.

My term for these essays in travel is “tableaux,” because they are built out of scenes that elegantly evade the standard ambitions of travel writers toward the didactic and the comprehensive. These scenes are written to be beautiful in themselves, and typically, they are. Of his line of approach, Naipaul says elsewhere:

It is a writer’s curiosity, rather than an ethnographer’s or journalist’s. So while, when I travel, I can move only according to what I find, I also live, as it were, in a novel of my own making….

Naipaul’s characterization of his travel journalism as resembling a novel he inhabits should be taken seriously and kept in mind as one encounters these creations.



For my travel books I travel on a theme…. My theme is belief, not political or economical life…. Perhaps an unspoken aspect of my inquiry was the possibility of the subversion of old Africa by the ways of the outside world. The theme held until I got to the South, when the two ways of thinking and believing became far too one-sided.

Naipaul had been to Uganda before, in 1966, on a six-month writer-in-residence gig at Makerere University. Kampala has decayed since then. The once soothingly blank green hills bracketing the city are swamped now with undistinguished housing. The university, its population swollen to thirty thousand, up from four thousand when he was last there, is a mess: “mildewed halls and dormitories…outside, [the students] lived helplessly amid garbage.” There is a word of praise for the botanical garden built by the British.

Next, religion. Kampala is located within the boundaries of the old Buganda empire, whose king, or kabaka, the guardian of the tribal religion, had invited first the Arabs and Islam, and then the Christians, to replace the old belief system. Naipaul observes:

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.

As Naipaul states in his introductory note on the dust jacket, he has chosen to concentrate on the present significance of the old African beliefs, magical beliefs in particular. From the broad range of indigenous religious practices—divination, supplication, piety toward ancestors—he selects the magical dimension, sorcery in particular, muti (the ritual use of animal and human body parts) above all, as the central focus of this whole book, whose subtitle is, properly, “Glimpses of African Belief.” (Along the way, Naipaul makes some brief, friendly allusions to the attitude toward nature in the old beliefs.)

In the contemporary African religious arena, immense forces are at play—and few of them have any connection with the practice of the old religions. Not even glimpsed by Naipaul, for example, as he offhandedly explores the power of muti, are the ongoing outbreaks of bloody communal violence between Muslims and Christians; or the faith-based persecution of homosexuality and murders of homosexuals; or the faith-based guerrilla wars (the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda); or the faith-based conflict over the mismanagement of HIV/AIDS and campaigns of polio vaccination. All of the foregoing horrors are florid during his sojourn. This is not to say that the survival of witchcraft beliefs, especially in the rural areas, does not lead to recurrent injustice and suffering, but muti is not at the heart of the religious agony of Africa today.

The author visits the shrine-tomb of the Kabaka Mutesa. In preparation for the visit he asks a descendant of the kabaka why the foreign revealed religions “wrought such havoc with African belief.” The answer:

Both Christianity and Islam would have been attractive for a simple reason. They both offered an afterlife; gave people a vision of themselves living on after death. African religion…was more airy, offering only the world of spirits, and the ancestors.

At the tomb, the author admires the workmanship of its grass structure. A kitten is kicked around by a child at the site. Naipaul learns later that human sacrifices went into the foundations of the building. This leads to retellings of other ritual atrocities carried out by the founding kabakas, and of vaster horrors from the days of Milton Obote and Idi Amin.

Naipaul probes around in the direction of local witchcraft practices. There is a droll scene of his visit to a witch doctor, where his appointment is entirely consumed by protocol and maneuverings over money, so that no messages from the spirits are ever given. This makes a perfect shaggy dog story.

A lot has been written about African witchcraft. Detailed typologies have been worked out, distinctions made between the ends it addresses or serves, such as predictions of the future, determinations of guilt, grief counseling, revenge. For Naipaul, it’s once over lightly, yet he is still able to dream up a very far-reaching construct of its power: “To live in a world ruled by witchcraft, a world liable to irrational dissolution in its details, is to be on edge”; thus “being on edge can…turn to pain. It is of this pain, of people driven to extremity…that many of the items in the newspaper speak every day.” This leads to a summary of the reporting of crimes in the local paper, a few relating to crimes associated with witchcraft, most of them not dissimilar to items readily found in the police blotters of big-city America.

The Uganda episode draws to a close with Naipaul visiting the palace of the Queen Mother of Toro, another relic kingdom. He has the idea of an excursion to local sites connected with the traditional African religions. He says, “But since our arrival my interest in this part of the program had gone down and down.” No visits to significant sites take place. It’s almost comic, the frequency with which Naipaul’s desire to interrogate the culture is thwarted by his own waning interest or the annoying shenanigans of retainers to the occult elite.

What does Naipaul come up with? The pursuit of his subject matter has yielded a couple of offhand suggestions as to why the Baganda religion failed in its contests with rival European brands. One of these is the speculation that the ancestral afterlife available to males (only) was insufficiently attractive in comparison with others on offer. Another is the failure of the Baganda to develop writing and “scripts.” But other kingdoms had done so, and they had been taken down, too.

Finally, he causally connects, in an indefinite way, the history of political violence in Uganda up to the present with witchcraft beliefs. Here, a glance in the direction of the old imperial powers would certainly be in order, given the backstage role of the British in encouraging and supporting the vile Idi Amin. But Naipaul has declared his intention to ignore “political or economical life” in The Masque of Africa, except when, as “at the bottom of the continent,” they are “so overwhelming that they have to be taken into account.”



In Lagos, Naipaul asks a successful businessman with a vagarious religious trajectory what he knows about traditional African religious belief:

We have traditional deities that are well known internationally. Then there are sacred sites or shrines and festivals. There is a grove here. It is a recognized UNESCO site and here they have the festival of Osun Osogbo. Followers of the goddess gather here in hordes and they pray for what they want with the priests and priestesses. The sheer scale of human traffic at this festival is awesome. People come from Brazil, Cuba, the USA and Haiti, and it goes on for a week. On the final day a virgin with a big calabash on her head walks to the river followed by legions of people, and she pours the contents of the calabash into the river, giving it a libation. I was crushed by the people. I could not see the virgin.

  1. 1

    The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (Knopf, 2008); reviewed in these pages by Ian Buruma, November 20, 2008.

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