Room of Masks

 

I went to visit W. and K. because for several years I had done translations for their website, but I’d never met them. I had only spoken to them over the phone or exchanged emails – though they had invited me to come and stay with them often enough.

They lived in the south of The Netherlands near the Belgian border.

They were successful. W. was a surgeon working in a big hospital; K. worked in a medical research organisation. They lived in a big, comfortable home with a roof of cut reeds.

They were running an NGO in Ghana; it administered a series of clinics, schools, medical centres and homes. Twice a year they went out to Ghana to check to see how things were going. They were planning on eventually retiring to Ghana.

 On arriving at their place, they showed me to my bedroom. It was on the second story, at the top of a flight of creaking wooden stairs.

On the way to my room, we walked through a large room filled with masks. They came from different countries; Nigeria, Congo and Mali. They were for sale. Many of them had price tags next to them. The proceeds went to the N.G.O.

The prices varied from 1 – 5,000 Euros.

 

On my first night there, eating dinner outside in the garden, I began peppering W. with questions about the masks.  

W.’s interest in African artefacts began in the early 1980’s when, after graduating from medical school, he spent several years working in a village in Ghana. Sometimes his patients – they were helped free of charge – gave him carved wooden artefacts as a present. He collected them and back in The Netherlands, began doing some research. These artefacts, he discovered, belonged to a traditional, village Africa – which was rapidly vanishing.

On regular trips back to Ghana, during which W. set up a clinic and school, he collected more artefacts.

By the late 1990’s, there weren’t many of them around, leastways not the genuine articles.

There were a lot of false artefacts appearing on the market.

The traditional masks, which no longer meant much to the Africans, were drawing the interest of the Europeans, who were willing to pay (especially by African standards), enormous sums of money for them.

In the meantime, fake artefacts had become a thriving industry. One had to be careful.

Over the years, W. befriended reliable dealers in various African countries. They alerted him if something turned up.

 

 

In recent times however, the main source of African artefacts for W. and K. was not Africa; it was elderly Dutch people, many of them former missionaries, who had collected artefacts during their years in Africa between the 1950 and the late ‘80’s. Their artefact collections symbolised their connection to their past, to another very different Africa: a continent which they were no longer able to visit and not only because of their physical frailty but because the Africa they had known, no longer existed.

They were not interested in selling their collections to private dealers. Their lives had never been devoted to the commercial impulse. They had gone out to Africa to do God’s work and God had meant: helping the less fortunate in the world.

Donating their collections of artefacts to an organization like W. and K.s was a desirable option;

‘We get phone calls from people who say ‘I’ve got a few boxes in the attic, you’re free to come and have a look around.’ 

‘K. and I will go out there and unpack all this amazing stuff…sometimes from around the turn of the century. One old bloke, a former Catholic missionary, had tried to set up a museum in the Congo, but no one came because the Africans weren’t interested in ‘old relics’. He closed his museum and boxed up the artefacts and brought them back to The Netherlands, where they stayed boxed up for over 10 years. Those artefacts were worth tens of thousands of Euros.

When we get a bequest like this, we send the donor photos of how the money is being used, a new clinic or school…. something like that…these people have spent the best part of their lives in Africa and they want to remain involved…’

 

 

The bathroom and toilet nearest to my room was at the end of the mask exhibition room. This meant that to take a piss in the middle of the night, I had to grab my torch, navigate my way down the steep flight of creaking stairs, and then find my way through the room of masks to reach the bathroom door.

On my first night, on my to the bathroom, my torch illuminated a row of masks.

I stopped and shone the torch on the other masks around me.

They looked eerie lit by torchlight. It was as if I was in a tomb filled with departed spirits. There was something primeval about it. The carved wooden faces metamorphosed into ghostly forms such as the eyes of a person living in Africa centuries ago might have seen them.

And worshipped them and feared them.

 

Back in bed, I couldn’t get to sleep. It was as if I was in a haunted house.

With the images of those masks in mind, memories came back to me of experiencing magic rituals in villages, especially in remote areas of the Himalaya during the 1980’s. I’d seen whole villages fall under the spell of shamans. Seen animal sacrifices and flagellation ceremonies.

Snippets my conversation with W. and K. that evening came back to me.

The strange faces in the room of masks were the product of an ancient spiritual world which was collapsing before forces such as urbanization, modern communications, nationalism – and the imported foreign religions of Christianity and Islam.

Ghana, like so many of the neighbouring African countries, was becoming increasingly divided between the adherents of these two religions. Traditional African beliefs, based upon the village, which had been passed down through the generations by word of mouth, songs, rituals and dances, were vanishing. In the fast-changing modern times, they were no match for the missionary religions, which had a written text, a doctrine, and formidable sources of foreign finance behind them; they were unable to offer Africans any coherent way of understanding and dealing with the contemporary world.

 

In W. and K.’s description of what had happened to the traditional village culture in Africa, I noted that there was a certain sense of uncertainty, even fear, mixed with optimism. They were worried about the future.

In many African nations, there was a state of simmering hostility between the world’s two great missionary religions, Christianity and Islam. Outbreaks of violence were not uncommon, though often not reported by the foreign media. With the rapid growth of the population in Africa (the top 20 nations of the global population growth index were African), the tensions between the two religions might intensify. In the nations neighbouring Ghana, there were some grim examples of this scenario – e.g. Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria.

Ghana also was home to large communities of Christians and Moslems. If Ghana went the same way, W. and K.’s work in Ghana, everything they had built up during decades of hard work, might become tendentious – along with their plan of renouncing everything in The Netherlands and devoting their lives to their projects in Ghana. For W. and K., this was an unbearable prospect.

 

 

I went to sleep thinking of something I had read in a travel book by V.S. Naipaul.

In ‘The Masque of Africa’, Naipaul had suggested that it was the remnants of the African culture which could provide an antidote to the epidemic of religious extremism.

It was odd notion.

That the ancient past, which Africans had rejected, the past of superstition and witch doctors, might hold the key to a regeneration of African identity.

That in the room of masks, rather than the pages of the Bible or the Koran, lay the best hope for avoiding the descent into civil war.

 

 

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