The Masque of Africa_ Glimpses of African Belief - By V. S. Naipaul



Other Books by This Author

Title Page



1. The Tomb at Kasubi

2. Sacred Places

3. Men Possessed

4. The Forest King

5. Children of the Old Forest

6. Private Monuments, Private Wastelands

A Note About the Author


The Tomb at Kasubi

I SPENT eight to nine months in East Africa in 1966. A month in Tanzania; six weeks or so in the Kenya Highlands; the rest of the time in Uganda. Some years later I even used a version of Uganda in a piece of fiction; you can do that only when you feel you have a fair idea of a place, or an idea sufficient for your needs. Forty-two years after that first visit I went back to Uganda. I was hoping to get started there on this book about the nature of African belief, and I thought it would be better to ease myself into my subject in a country I knew or half knew. But I found the place eluding me.

I had gone to Uganda in 1966 to be a writer in residence at Makerere University in Kampala, the capital. I lived in a little grey bungalow on the campus, which was spacious and open and well-tended, with asphalted roads with kerbstones, and watchmen at the barred entrance. My allowance (provided by an American foundation) was enough to give me a driver and a cook. My duties weren’t too well defined, and I was living more or less privately, absorbed in a book I had brought with me, working hard on it every day, and paying less attention to Africa and the students at Makerere than I should have done. When I wanted some relief from the book and the campus, I would drive the fifteen or so miles to Entebbe, where the airport was and where, on the edge of Lake Victoria, which was very grand, the largest lake in Africa, there was also (as there was in other British colonial towns) a Botanical Garden, pleasant to walk in. Sometimes (a reminder of the wildness by which we were surrounded, but from which we were protected) the ground of the Garden was flooded in parts by water from the Lake seeping through.

The drive from Kampala to Entebbe was a drive through country; that was part of its restfulness in 1966. It was different now. You could see from the air, as the plane landed, how Entebbe itself had grown, with more than a scattering of villages or settlements far and wide on the damp green ground below the heavy grey clouds of the rainy season; and you understood that what was once bush in an unimportant area of a small colony had become valuable building land. The shiny new corrugated-iron roofs gave you the feeling that in spite of the bad recent past, forty years as bad as anything in Africa—murderous tyranny followed by war and little wars—there might be a money frenzy down there now.

The drive to the capital was no longer a drive through country. Once you got past the old administrative and residential buildings of colonial Entebbe, still somehow surviving (red corrugated-iron roofs and white-painted bargeboards still in good order), you found yourself in an improvised semi-urban development, flimsy-looking, where many of the buildings that had been put up (groceries, garages, flats) seemed only waiting to be pulled down, and in the meantime were bright, and repetitive, with painted walls advertising mobile phones.

It was like that all the way to the capital. There was no view at some stage of the city and the green hills for which Kampala used to be 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. But with all these dwellings there had come money and cars and, for people who didn’t have the money, the boda-bodas, the bicycles and motorbikes that for a small sum offered you a fast pillion-ride through the stalled traffic, a pillion-ride which in colonial days might have been illegal. 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 recognise this Kampala, and even at this early stage it seemed to me that I was in a place where a calamity had occurred.

Later I got the figures for population. They told the story. In 1966 there were about five million people in Uganda. Now—in spite of the rule between 1971