Room of Masks

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In the room of masks, you could see so much beauty and so much ugliness.

You could forget about the price tags, and see those masks come to life.

That’s when the ghosts appeared.

That’s when you found yourself staring at the past and the future at the very same time – and at the fate of nations teetering on civil war – and the fears of two people doing their best to create a better world.



I went to visit W. and K. because for several years I had done translations for their website (one in Dutch, one in English) but 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.

Many of the translations I did for them had given me short, sharp glimpses of another, very different world, one where corruption, superstition and poverty were a normal state of affairs. One lot of translations which made a deep impression on me were about the construction of a home for handicapped children. In Ghana and much of Africa, handicapped children are abandoned. The idea was that they had been possessed by evil spirits. They were cast off – literally. Westerners had another idea about how handicapped children should be treated. W. and K.’s organisation was involved in setting up home for them where they could also be educated. Other children, who were not handicapped, were cast aside when their mother met a new man and the new man decided he wanted her but not her children; he would pay a local witch doctor or god man to pronounce the children possessed by evil spirits. There were thousands of these orphans all over Africa.

Some of the translations were also about the organisation’s efforts to get donations for its activities. It did not receive any funding from the government or any other official aid organization. It was reliant on donations from private individuals and companies. One means of raising money was selling African sculptures, masks and crafts. However – and this interested me – W. and K.’s interest in African artefacts went well beyond selling them to fund their organization in Ghana. They were interested in the artefacts themselves and regularly talked to experts in the field. They had visited most of the notable ethnographic displays in museums all over Europe.

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My bedroom was at the top of a flight of creaking wooden stairs.

To reach the stairs, I had to walk through a large room – the ‘exhibition room’ – which was filled with masks, carved wooden statues and bowls, and other odd implements. These were the artefacts which were due to be sold at the next fair. They came from different countries; Nigeria, Congo and Mali. Many of them had price tags next to them. K. and W. had a good reputation amongst African art buffs. They often visited K. and W.’s home and bought something. The prices varied from one to five thousand Euros.

That night, eating dinner outside, I began peppering W. with questions about the artefacts in the exhibition room.

It might have come as a welcome diversion.

That day he had had to tell someone they were going to die.

‘It’s a part of my job, I have to do it at least once a week, I’ve done it for many years, but it doesn’t get any easier …. it’s hard making people better in a rich country. The surgical measures are always complicated. Often, even then, you don’t get to the root of the problem, which is psychological….in Africa, the simplest treatment can transform a life, you see the results before your very eyes and happiness is a simple equation…’

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, did some research. These artefacts he discovered belonged to a traditional, village Africa which was in a process of 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 art forms which no longer meant much to the Africans were drawing the interest of the Europeans, who were willing to pay what were by African standards, enormous sums of money. Fake artefacts became a thriving industry. Over the years, W. befriended reliable dealers in various African countries. They alerted him if something turned up.

In recent times, 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 knew no longer existed. They were not interested in selling their collections to a private dealer. 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 and 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 aren’t interested in ‘old relics’. It’s a western interest. 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. 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…’

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The bathroom and toilet nearest to my room was at the end of the 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 passed a display of masks to get to the bathroom door.

Sometimes I stopped and shone the torch on the masks. They looked eerie lit by flashes of torchlight. It was as if I was in a tomb filled with departed spirits. There was something primeval about it.

The carved wooden faces, I fancied, metamorphosed into ghostly forms such as the eyes of a person living in Africa centuries ago might have seen them.

Back in bed, I couldn’t get to sleep. It was 2 am. Directly opposite W. and K.’s house was an old church which had been renovated. It was like village churches all over Europe; a tower with a clock. Every hour, a bell rang, the number of gongs corresponding to the hour. In times gone by, when the villagers and farmers couldn’t afford a clock (let alone a watch), they were reliant on the House of the Lord for their sense of time.

As the hours passed and the church bell sounded their passing, I thought about the masks and the kind of society which had created them. In the sound of the church clock, it seemed to me, was the passing of thousands of years; the time it took for the tribes which once wandered the swamps of the present-day Netherlands to acquire the technology to build dykes and windmills – and clocks. And to put the worship of gods and demons behind them. Progress was a notoriously slippery concept. Sometimes though, it was simple enough: who would want to go back to that time when sorcerers and witchdoctors controlled the lives of the people? When everyone was illiterate and at the mercy of superstition, of nonsense parading as wisdom? When there was no medical care (i.e., western medicines) and terrible diseases were commonplace? Who would want to go back to it? Great art had come out of that world, that time of midnight rituals and magic; art which modern human beings could only marvel at. Our appreciation of that art was a part of our privileged existence. We had been liberated from the spell of the magic men. It had taken a long, long time but we had been liberated.

But then other thoughts appeared before me, silent images in the depths of sleepless night.

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, there was fear mixed with optimism. They were worried about the future. How long would it be before the sectarian violence which had erupted elsewhere in Africa – e.g., in nearby Nigeria and Mali – spread to Ghana? If Ghana went the same way, W. and K.’s work in Ghana, everything they had built up during decades of hard work, would be destroyed. They would have to abandon the entire project – confront the danger of being abducted and spending months, even years, in captivity whilst a ransom was being negotiated. This had happened to other people who working for NGO’s in Africa.

For W. and K., this was an unbearable prospect. They were, in any case, optimistic that things would not go the same way in Ghana; Ghana was different, they said, it was politically stable and it had a different history.


I went to sleep with another, odd idea in my mind: that it was the remnants of the African culture which could provide an antidote to the epidemic of religious extremism. In the room of masks, rather than the pages of the Bible or the Koran, lay the only real hope for avoiding the descent into civil war.

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