The Masque of Africa

Article excerpt

How are are Africa's religions faring in the 21st century? Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul visits to find out.

Born in Jamaica in 1932 to a Hindu family, V.S. Naipaul moved to

England as a young man to study and pursue a career as a writer. In a

series of novels, essays, and travelogues that was recognized with

the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Naipaul has drawn upon his

personal origins to explore what happens when two worlds meet.

He is particularly interested in the intersection between Western

modernity and traditional cultures, quite often in postcolonial

countries once governed by Europeans.

Naipaul is perhaps the only Nobel laureate whose literary output has

focused so heavily on travel writing. His unusual stature as a travel

writer stems from the unusual nature of the travel books themselves.

They're psychologically dense, drawing on reams of interviews with

locals to render a narrative that's as much as landscape of the

mind as a landscape of the map.

In The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, Naipaul travels

to Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa,

exploring how indigenous religions, as well as Christianity and

Islam, are faring as Africa faces the 21st century.

Many of the destinations Naipaul visits in "The Masque of

Africa" are places he's been before, which makes the book a

journey not only through geography, but time. Naipaul begins his trip

in Kampala, a city where, more than four decades ago, he had done a

stint as a university writer-in-residence.

He finds the city dramatically changed, and not necessarily for the

better, with development marring the green hills for which Kampala

was once famous: "All those hills were now built over; and many of

the spaces between the hills, the dips, were seemingly floored over

with the old corrugated iron of poor dwellings.... The roads

couldn't deal with the traffic; even in this rainy season the roads

were dusty, scuffed down beyond the asphalt to the fertile red earth

of Uganda. I couldn't recognize this Kampala, and even at this

early stage it seemed to me that I was in a place where a calamity

had occurred."

The scene keynotes one of the book's prevailing theme: how

physical displacement might portend spiritual displacement as well.

Much later, in the darkly mystical woodland of Gabon, Naipaul wonders

if a forest religion can survive if the forest is gone.

Naipaul suggests that the answer might come soon: "Thirty-year

[logging] permits have been granted to the Chinese, the Malaysians

and the Japanese. …