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?
Later on in Hari's review, he says that African religions "can bring both sweet, illusory comfort and intense terror" to Africans who adhere to more traditional beliefs. Muslims and Christians -- who make up the vast majority according to this Pew Religion in Africa poll -- also "retain these traditional beliefs not far beneath the surface." I found this interesting for several reasons: Don't the practice of religions get affected by the worldview of its adherents? How did the social evolution of Western society, for example, affect the interpretation of Christianity? Is it possible to consider traditional religions without considering the founding philosophy of respective African societies? I ask these questions, not of Naipaul's book (which I plan to read) but of this review and what it says about religion and tradition. I wouldn't have thought that V.S. Naipul would take this on, but I'm curious to see what he has to say.
(Photo Credit: Slate)