This book is short, but dense and challenges readers from at least three backgrounds, including:
- The Generic ‘Religion as Binding Ritual’ type
I always want to tear my hair out (but can’t because I have none) when I hear people talk about traditional tribal religion as giving shape to communities, providing a pattern of life, and so on, and therefore lament its passing. Yes, it does provide a “pattern of life,” but that is hardly what tribal religion (or any religion) is really about. Make no mistake, according to Naipul many Africans really believe in forest spirits, curses, and charms. They will kill cats (and on rare occasions people) suspected of bringing a curse, sell animals for sacrifices, have the ‘Juju Man’ come and beat ‘offending’ women, and so on. How’s that for a ‘pattern of life?’
Both Christianity and Islam have made huge inroads in Africa over the past century, but Naipaul shows how much traditional religion still survives in Africa, and is even mixed here and there with some Christian ideas.
It’s no good pointing fingers, however. We in the West should think about how much our cuture influences our view of reality. I remember a conversation long ago with a friend who asked me what I thought of Eastern medicine. I expressed my doubts, to which she retorted, “Doesn’t Western medicine proceed with an equally, if not more unbiblical view of mankind as a mere collection of chemicals to be manipulated?” She had a point.
- The More Conservative Christian Type
Many Christians (like myself) are unaware of what it means to change one’s religion in the midst of very deep rooted traditions. I wonder if we have taken into account the social and psychological dislocation that results from this religious change. Naipaul subtly shows how Africa’s sense of itself has been uprooted in part by imperialism, and religious change. This sense of dislocation impacts all areas of life and may contribute in part to much of the continent’s political instability, among other things. And perhaps this is why traditional paganism has a lingering hold. Despite its black magic and confusing ritual it does provide something comfortable and familiar. It is a pattern of life, for all that.
Having said this, one can see the stifling impact ‘traditional’ religion has. The medicine man has to be bribed and appeased. There are veils of secrecy and fear. What we would consider normal social interaction can’t exist in such an environment. Again, back to my first point, you can’t have meaningful ritual or binding ties without those rituals rooted in some kind of belief. So choose those beliefs carefully. I think one of the African Church’s challenges over the next few decades will be to somehow create a Christian culture that is fully ‘African.’ As the western Church has failed at this task in our own culture for the past 350 years or so, I have no advice to give them, and wish them more success than us.
- The African Philanthropist
Maybe westerners are just too impatient with Africa, and because we usually think of religion as a condiment, many well meaning and good humanitarians (better people than myself) have no idea what Africa’s real challenges are. After Rome’s fall, it took Europe about 500 years to reach a ‘pattern of life’ that could bind people together socially and create viable political institutions that could be transferred over time. None of this happened until the continent was essentially Christian, at least in name. And when it had not fully happened, it took ‘Strong Men’ like Charlemagne to hold things together. Are we wrong to think Africa can do this in the 50 odd years or so since most countries gained independence? It may be that we hold them to much higher standards than we hold ourselves to in our own history.
Naipaul manages to detach himself from his writing and report in deadpan style. He forces the reader into an uncomfortable position. Many times I just wasn’t sure what to make of what he saw, although I don’t know if Naipaul always knew either. I felt uncomfortable, but not in a bad way. Overall, this book made me have a greater appreciation for 1) African Christians, who even in ‘Christian’ places face unusual challenges, and 2) The idea that religion does more to shape a place than any other factor. In the end, individuals and communities are what they worship, whether consciously realized or not.