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February 20, 2011




Page: 19/37

Home > 2011 Issues > February 20, 2011

Naipaul’s African safari
By Dr Vaidehi Nathan

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, VS Naipaul, Picador, Pp 325 (HB) , £20.00.

VS Naipaul travels through Africa to gauge and gain input on the beliefs of the continent. Much of Africa has changed because of the white man’s touch and the evangelical campaign. The natives are getting farther and farther away from their ‘paganism’ to embrace the new religion, which brings them ‘prosperity.’ India has received and withstood the onslaught. Africa seems to be shriveling under it. As Naipaul, the master of words travels from Uganda, to Ghana, to Nigeria and then finally South Africa, he observes unmistakable similarities of the practices of magic.

"To believe in the traditional African religion was to be on the defensive. There was no doctrine to hold on to; there was only a sense of the rightness of old ways, the sacredness of the local earth," says Naipaul, whereas the new religions, Islam and Christianity, offered a philosophical base, a book, one god and global connectivity.

There are several amusing observations Naipaul makes about the people of each country. For instance, he says the Nigerians loved travelling with a lot of luggage. One Nigerian had booked 19 luggages and vanished at London airport. That was not much, considering a big-wig Nigerian was travelling with 37 pieces. The numbers indicate the status for them.

When he describes the African religions, through the mouth of the native, it sounds very close home, to India. The spirits or the lesser deities are used in daily rituals to worship the Supreme Being. These deities could be "trees, stumps, stools, carved idols, rivers and pools. Every community has its own set of deities of this sort, who protect and heal; these deities also settle difficult matters that can arise in communities. These deities have their own spokesmen, who are high priests and prophetesses."

Naipaul describes the gut-retching food habits of the people of Ghana, for whom cat is a delicacy. The wildlife has been almost wiped off by the human population feeding on them.

Though travelling rather fleetingly, Naipaul in his inimitable leisurely style has captured the essence of Africa in this travel writing. The conflict of the old and the new, one trying to edge the other out, rather than co-exist comes through all clear. It is a conflict that African must settle for themselves, of course only if they are allowed to. The harvesters of souls, in the meanwhile are at full play.

(Picador, 20, New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR)




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