Naipaul on Africa

Why had the foreign-revealed religions wrought such havoc with Africa belief? These foreign religions had a difficult theology; I didn’t think it would have been easy, starting from scratch, to put it across to someone here.

I asked Prince Kassim. He was a direct descendant of Mutesa, but on the Islamic side, a family division that reflected Mutesa’s early half-conversion to Islam. The prince said I was wrong.

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 the world of spirits, and the ancestors.

That is V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian author and Nobel laureate, in The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief.

As one would expect, the book is beautifully written. I wish I had his talent for spare prose. It’s the substance of the prose, however, that troubles me.

Naipaul writes travelogues of a sort. Each follows an intellectual theme, alongside the usual travel tales and foibles. For his African occasion, Naipaul explores the intermingling of Africa’s traditional and foreign systems of belief. He starts in Uganda, where he spent 9 months in the 1960s, later circling round the continent, moving west then south.

Color me surprised. And disappointed. Hardly a page turns without a distasteful reference to garbage on the streets, squalid housing, or scoundrels fleecing him for cash. The picture he paints is that of a petty and ruined people. Romanticized are the traditional and pre-modern past, the natural wilderness, and the early glories of post-independence Africa.

Yes, the capitals of Uganda and Nigeria and others are more crowded and (in some respects) squalid than they were five decades ago. But I didn’t recognize his portrait of the continent. I actually see a return to the hopefulness of the 1960s after several decades of pessimism.

Also, I have never been fleeced for cash like Naipaul, who seems to nervously throw away dollars and pounds at the slightest provocation, reinforcing (even enlarging) a needless practice, one usually performed by the least savvy tourists. I expected a more broad-minded and sophisticated writer. Instead I found a prim and fussy traveler who retreats to Africa’s most obscenely expensive hotels at night.

It’s fashionable nowadays to be the Africa booster: Africa on the rise! Africa emerging! Africa empowered! That too is a book I’d deplore. But insight, originality, and balance would be nice. Naipaul offers these qualities, but rarely.

Other, superior reader recommendations?