There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don't want to talk about it. We don't know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.
These are not trivial side-beliefs, like vague fears of black cats crossing your path. They are at the core of many Africans' understanding of themselves and the world. I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a "witch" who cast spells on her neighbors. I have stood in battlefields in the Congo where the troops insist with absolute certainty they cannot be killed because they have carried out a magical spell that guarantees, if they are shot, they will turn briefly into a tree, then charge on unharmed. I have been cursed in Ethiopia by a witch-doctor with "impotence, obesity, and then leprosy" for asking insistently why he charged so much to "cure" his patients. (I'm still waiting for the leprosy.)
Where do these beliefs come from? What do so many Africans get out of them? Can they be changed? These are questions that are asked in Africa all the time, but we are deaf to the conversation. It's not hard to see why. The imperial rape and pillage of Africa was "justified" by claiming Africans were "primitive" and "backward" people sunk in a morass of voodoo, who had to be "civilized" in blood and Christianity. Just as there are legitimate and necessary criticisms of Israel but nobody wants to hear them from Germany, any legitimate and necessary criticism of the problems with Africa's indigenous beliefs will never be welcome from Europeans or their descendants. And yet there they are, ongoing and alive, waiting to be discussed. Must we ignore it?
At first glance, the worst possible person to charge into this landmine-strewn valley of taboos is V.S. Naipaul. Yes, the prose of this British-Trinidadian writer deservedly won him the Nobel Prize, but his work is weirdly split. In his fiction, he has a gorgeous, almost preternatural empathy for the humiliated, the shamed, and the downtrodden. Yet in his nonfiction, he is often staggeringly cruel and dismissive about the people he meets on his travels, writing off whole countries as barbaric and even pining for a touch of imperial aggression against them. The thought of this Naipaul charging into Africa's most sensitive subject made me reach for the Xanax.
And yet The Masque of Africais not the jeer I feared it would be. Naipaul starts with this premise: "I had a romantic idea of the [African] earth religions. I felt they took us back to the beginning, a philosophical big bang, and I cherished them for that reason. … The past here still lived." He doesn't barge in with a sneer, as he did in his writing about (say) Pakistan. There is something more meandering and subtle here as he travels the continent, staring at seemingly strange practices and asking why.
In most indigenous African religions, "God" is pretty much inaccessible to humans. But they believe every human is surrounded by a swirl of spirits—of the dead, of the living who can temporarily leave their bodies, of nature—that are constantly at work. Many of these spirits will take on physical representations at key moments, from trees to carved idols to animals. They can protect and heal, or they can smite and curse. Life is a constant exhausting process of wooing the spirits and warding them off. They can be communicated with directly, but it is easier to talk through the local soothsayers and witch doctors. Africans who describe themselves as Muslims and Christians will often retain these traditional beliefs not far beneath the surface.
These beliefs—like all religions—can bring both sweet, illusory comfort and intense terror. One typical story Naipaul stumbles across captures both. In a corner of Uganda, a young woman explains to Naipaul: "My grandmother produced twins who died. They had to be buried in a special way, in hollow pots, and a shed had to be built over the grave, to protect and shade them. Every year my grandmother went there to tend the shed, feed the grave, and sing and dance there. When she became a Pentecostal, she had to stop that, as it is not allowed. She had to remove the shed, and she was so afraid that the twins would come and kill her and her living children."
It's hard enough to accept the emptiness and finality of death in a society like ours, where it is rare and predictable and usually comes after a long life. In places where death is so random, so frequent, and scythes through children more frequently than the old, the idea that the dead live on all around us—that they can hear us and still need us—meets an obvious and aching need. These beliefs are often the best story people can tell to make the world seem bearable again. It's a way of regaining a sense of control amid chaos. There's an intensity to it that Naipaul sees everywhere: People fall into shaking, howling trances communing with their dead. I remember seeing rows of women in a soothsayer's hut in Ethiopia, spasming as they interacted with the "spirits" of their lost children. It's the purest expression I know of Christopher Hitchens' explanation for all religion: "We're afraid of the dark."
Yet along with this obvious comfort there is what Naipaul—and so many Africans—call "the dark side." Once you cede power to an invisible force for which there is no evidence—whether it's Jesus or Allah or a dead child—you cede power to other human beings who can then claim to use those invisible forces against you. It licenses charlatanry. Soothsayers demand money for their "powers," like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he'll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions. During the war in Congo, a soothsayer announced that you could be cured of HIV if you ate a pygmy. I visited a pygmy village where several men had "disappeared" as a result.