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The Masque of Africa

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

By / December 20, 2010

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief By V.S. Naipaul Knopf 256 pp., $26.95

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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.

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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.

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