The Valley of Taboos

V.S. Naipaul dares to discuss Africa’s indigenous beliefs.

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.

So the same beliefs that make life bearable can make it unbearable again. Is there a way out of this trap? Naipaul is characteristically pessimistic, suggesting the most extreme expressions of these beliefs are inherent to Africa and as eternal as the savannahs. I wish I could take him to see the work of the Tanzanian campaign group HelpAge, who are leading the indigenous African fight against these beliefs.

Juliana Bernard is an ordinary young African woman who knew, from childhood, that claims of black magic and witchcraft were false and could be debunked. Her mother was a nurse, and she taught her that germs, not evil spirits, caused disease. She told me: “I thought—if I can understand this, so can everybody else in this country. They are no different to me.” So she set up a group who traveled from village to village, offering the people a deal: For just one month, take these medicines and these vaccinations, and leave the “witches” alone to do whatever they want without persecution. See what happens. If people stop getting sick, you’ll know my theories about germs are right, and you can forget about the evil spirits.

Just this small dose of rationality—offered by one African to another—had revolutionary effects. Of course the superstitions didn’t vanish. The most scientifically advanced society in the world, the United States, still has candidates for high office who have to deny being witches. But now they were contested, and the rationalist alternative had acquired passionate defenders in every community. I watched as village after village had vigorous debates, with the soothsayers suddenly having to justify themselves for the first time and facing accusations of being frauds and liars. Juliana and many more women like her are offering Africans a different and better story to tell about how tragedy happens and how it can be prevented.                                                                           

Of course, there are more ambiguous—or outright ugly—attempts to change these beliefs, mimicking the old imperialism. On a trip to Tanzania, I saw one governmental campaign to stamp out the old beliefs in action when I went to visit a soothsayer deep in the forest. Eager to steer people toward real doctors for proper treatment—a good idea, but there are almost none in the area—the army had turned up that morning and smashed up her temple until it was rubble. She was sobbing and wailing in the wreckage. “My ancestors lived here, but now their spirits have been released into the air! They are homeless! They are lost!” she cried. Every few minutes, another local would turn up, seeking news of her dead child, or to lift a curse on her husband, or to place a hex on her neighbor. When they discovered they couldn’t, they, too, wailed and began dancing on the rubble angrily, calling the spirits back.

Naipual does acknowledge some of the dilemmas posed in repealing these beliefs, even when they have so many obviously harmful and cruel dimensions. Almost all homegrown African belief systems are, or were, based on a reverence for local ecosystems—a belief that the forests and rivers are sacred—and this helped persuade people to preserve them, alive and intact. But when the colonialists arrived, they dismissed such notions as mumbo-jumbo and forcibly imposed religions that originated in the desert and had nothing to say about the African environment. The old taboos were stamped out, and before long the forests began to be systematically destroyed. It’s an eco-catastrophe from which Africa has never recovered, and which many Africans have picked up and are continuing to perpetrate today. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, offered a personal example when I interviewed her, speaking about one particular tree near her village that she loved: “That tree inspired awe,” she told me. “It was protected. It was the place of God. But in the ‘60s, after I had gone far away, I went back to where I grew up, and I found God had been relocated to a little stone building called a church. The tree was no longer sacred. It had been cut down. I mourned for that tree.”

This sense of grief at seeing a forest destroyed—or even as morally akin to murder—is in fact more sane than our shrugging. The best case for environmental protection is obviously through science, but weren’t the quasi-mystical taboos an early and crude form of science, accumulated over time as Africans saw the evidence of what actually happened to the groups who did trash their habitats? Much in these traditional belief systems amounts to cruel prejudices—the persecution of old women as witches being the most obvious example—but some beliefs have functioned as part of a delicate African ecology, and replacing them by force with a foreign set of superstitions like Christianity that bore no relation to how to live in Africa was a disaster.

I dreaded V.S. Naipaul’s decision to end this taboo—but he has done it more intelligently and thoughtfully than I expected. He shouldn’t be the last. The final time I saw Juliana, she told me, “When I go to a village where an old woman has been hacked to pieces, should I say, ‘This is the African way, forget about it?’ I am an African. The murdered woman was an African. It is not our way. If you ignore this fact, you ignore us, and you ignore our struggle.”

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