Blending In: VS Naipaul’s Masks and Those Who Wear Them

One should never judge a book by its cover, but I chose to read V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River because I liked the photograph on the front of the man wearing a mask.  I’ve always been interested in masks.  Over the years I’ve collected quite a few and my favorites are the ones that I’ve bargained for on the street.  The best one I have is an ancient looking piece carved out of the side of a tree trunk and painted with thick red and black stripes.  I bought it from a man in Gisenyi, Rwanda.  After a crude exchange of French I got the mask (and three hand rolled cigars thrown in) for $5.  He pointed across the lake towards Bukavu, DRC and told me that it came from a spot of bush on the horizon.  In A Bend in the River, masks symbolize the post-colonial tension between foreigners and Africans.  Who controls the path of the continent?  Is it determined by Africans acting under the mask of Europeanism?  Or is it the Europeans who continue to lead under a mask of Africanism?  What is the true face of African development?  Characters like Father Huismans, Raymond, Ferdinand, and Salim add insight to these questions.

Father Huismans is an early character in the novel who, at first glance, is at ease with traditional African society.  Even though he is a priest and an outsider he reveres the masks he collects.  To him, Africa is a world of discovery.  The feeling does not originate in Father Huisman alone, but a sentiment that goes all the way back to the beginnings of Western civilization.  Its value lies in the fidelity of exploration.

…An ancient Roman writer had written that out of Africa there was “always something new” —semper aliquid novi.  And when it came to masks and carvings, the words were still literally true.  Every carving, every mask served a specific religious purpose, and could only be made once…  He looked in masks and carvings for a religious quality; without that quality the things were dead and without beauty.” (Page 61)

At first the narrator, Salim is puzzled that the priest is not loyal to his Christian beliefs.  Why would anyone take the costumes of the village witch doctors so seriously?  While Father Huismans is deeply involved with the masks, he is disinterested with the political strife of the Africans around him.  He believes that this discord will pass as Africa becomes developed.  His school provides a Western  education that will create an enlightened consciousness in the African people.  They will soon evolve out their primitive, animistic ways.  The masks are important to the priest because they encapsulate a moment of time when the villagers of the bush came into contact with the superior Western civilization.

The masks and carvings looked old.  They could have been any age, a hundred years old, a thousand years old.  But they were dated; Father Huismans had dated them.  They were all quit new… So old, so new.  And out of his stupendous idea of his civilization, his stupendous idea of the future, Father Huismans saw himself at the end of it all, the last, lucky witness. (Page 65)

The cataloging is purely for the benefit of the foreigners.  Ferdinand, one of Father Huismans’s African students puts it best when he says, “It is a thing of Europeans, a museum.  Here it is going against the god of Africans.  We have masks in our houses and we know what they are there for.  We don’t have to go to Huismans’s museum” (Page 83).

The Africans themselves can sense the selfishness behind Father Huismans’s interest in the masks.  When war comes to the town, Huismans’s headless body is found drifting down the river.  The priest’s masks remain in the school’s basement, but detached from their native environment they begin to lose their meaning and rot.  When the town regains its peace, foreigners start to visit again.  They discover Huismans’s collection and continue his ethnographic interpretation of the cultural objects.

We began to receive visitors from a dozen countries, teachers, students, helpers in this and that, people who behaved like discoverers of Africa, were happy with everything they found, and looked down quite a bit on foreigners like ourselves who had been living there.  The collection began to be pillaged.  Who more African than the young American who appeared among us, who more ready to put on African clothes and dance African dances? (Page 84)

Foreigners believe that their interpretations of Africa offer more insight into the continent than the Africans themselves.  Just as Father Huismans archived his mask collection, the foreign Africanists start recording African history to give it a grand narrative that fits cohesively within the context of Western civilization.  Raymond, a school teacher from the capital, is a historian who becomes an advisor to the new president.    “…Raymond keeps a low profile, but he runs the whole show here… He’s the Big Man’s white man… They say the President reads everything he writes… Raymond knows more about the country than anyone one on earth” (Page 125).

Even though foreigners like Raymond appoint themselves as authors of the African story they are sympathetic to the plight of the continent’s people.  Raymond completely empathizes with the hopelessness that the young Big Man has experienced his entire life.

“… It wasn’t just a matter of poverty and the lack of opportunity.  It went much deeper.  And, indeed, to try to look at the world from his point of view was to get a headache yourself.  He couldn’t face the world in which his mother, a poor woman of Africa, had endured such humiliation.  Nothing could undo that.  Nothing could give him a better world.” (Page 132)

The Big Man’s pain is understood better by Raymond than the Big Man himself.  Raymond identifies the problem as one of self-esteem.  If Africans were perpetually playing catch up to Western civilization they would never be on the same footing as their European counterparts.  “…Those clubs and associations are talking shops, debating societies, where Africans posture for Europeans and hope to pass as evolved.  They will eat up your passion and destroy your gifts…” (Page 133).

Raymond denounces the foreigner’s superiority in Africa even as he, a European, whispers guidance into the Big Man’s ear.  He promotes the ideal of African autonomy and seems to recognize the futility of his role as an outsider. “…It takes an African to rule Africa– the colonial powers never truly understood that.  However much the rest of us study Africa, however deep our sympathy, we will remain outsiders” (Page 135).

Yet, Raymond continues to carry on advising the president on what is best for Africa.  It is as if  the European hides behind the mask of the Big Man to take up the White Man’s Burden.  He may look African, but his words still have a colonial accent to them that legitimizes the role that foreigners play in the country.   As Salim observes, “He made us all men and women of Africa; and since we were not Africans the claim gave us a special feeling for ourselves…” (Page 137)

The Big Man is more than a mask or a puppet of the Europeans.  He is a genuine African leader, but when Raymond urges him to represent the Western ideal of Africa it creates an identity crisis.  Simultaneously a slave and a master, the Big Man becomes a paradox.

“…He is a great African chief, and he is also the man of the people.  He is the modernizer and he is also the African who has rediscovered his African soul.  He’s conservative, revolutionary, everything.  He’s going back to the old ways, and he’s also the man who’s going ahead, the man who’s going to make the country a world power by the year 2000.  I don’t know whether he’s done it accidentally or because someone’s been telling him what to do.  But the mish-mash works because he keeps on changing, unlike the other guys.  He is the soldier who decided to become an old-fashioned chief, and he’s the chief whose mother was a hotel maid.  That makes him everything, and he plays up everything…” (Page 138)

In the end, the very anti-colonial sentiments that Raymond romanticizes also destroy him.  The Big Man’s cult of personality grows into it’s own cartoonish entity and he casts Raymond out of the capital.  The European historian literally grows impotent and detached in the bush.  Eventually Raymond disappears, but the essence of his faulty plan to Africanize modern Africa, symbolized in the novel by his house, remains.   “One afternoon I saw that Raymond and Yvette’s house had a new tenant, an African… The doors and windows of the house were wide open now, and that emphasized the shoddiness of the construction” (Page 259).

The Africans can successfully dispose of foreigners like Father Huismans and Raymond, but they cannot purge themselves of their ideas.  The colonial education that Africans, like Ferdinand, have received will continue to exploit them as a people.

“… Nothing has any meaning.  That is why everyone is so frantic… Everything that was given to me was given to me to destroy me.  I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books and everything connected with books.  The bush runs itself.  But there is no place to go to.  I’ve been on tour in the villages.  It’s a nightmare.  All these airfields the man has built, the foreign companies have built– nowhere is safe now.”

His face had been like a mask at the beginning.  Now he was showing his frenzy.

I said, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.  I will do what I have to do.”

 That had always been his way. (Page 272-273)

A Bend in the River depicts the stain of foreign occupation on Africa, but it does not blanketly condemn the role of all outsiders.  Salim arrives in the town without imperial aspirations.  He comes not to educate, but to trade.  His business imports essential commodities from the coast and abroad that create economic development within the community.  The interaction between the Indian and the Africans is mutually beneficial.  It is useless for Ferdinand to reminisce about a time when Africa was a harmonious virgin forest isolated from foreign powers.  That is only myth.  Outsiders have been meddling with the continent since Roman times.  However, contact with other cultures can be beneficial under certain circumstances.  Salim’s general store introduces modernization to the town at a rate that allows its residents to adapt.  Unlike the other foreigners, Salim chooses to make his life in the town.  This investment allows for sustainable trade with global markets.  When civil unrest turns all foreigners into scapegoats Salim must leave.  This cuts off connection to the outside world and the town’s isolation spells out its doom.

Many foreign assistance organizations aspire to achieve results like Salim but fail.  Ambitious poverty alleviation schemes appear to be altruistic, but mask a bureaucracy of policy makers and field workers who profit from development at a safe distance.  They address the problems of the developing world from behind the tinted glass of their Land Cruisers and the guarded gates of their compounds.  Salim’s approach will not feed thousands of starving people, eradicate AIDS, or build an uncorrupt democracy.  It’s more humble than that.  It works at a scale that empowers Africans little by little, but gives them the means to make their own choices.  For Salim’s business to survive he must know the needs of his customers.  Salim may be an outsider, but he understands the African people better than any expert and, therefore, does not need to wear a mask.


Volcanic Post Script

Below is a slideshow from a trip I took up Nyiragongo, an active volcano, outside Goma, DRC in 2010.
Click on the green balloon on the lower left-hand corner of the slideshow to toggle the captions on and off.
Slideshow Photos by Chris Baxter, May 1, 2010

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