Naipaul on Houphouët-Boigny’s Religion

From The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, by V. S. Naipaul (Knopf, 2010), pp. 148-149:

[Houphouët-Boigny] died at the age of eighty-eight. This was his official age; he was believed by many to be much older. His great age was further proof of his fetish-given power. He was said to have died on an important political anniversary. But no one in the country at large knew for sure. The private life of the ruler, the king, was always a mystery.

The royal compound was in the middle of the town of Yamoussoukro. This town was built around the site of Houphouët’s natal village. A chief’s village, but it would originally (before the French) have been close to bush. The compound was now surrounded by a high ochre-coloured wall nine miles long and was closed to ordinary visitors. From the outside you could see something like a young wood behind the wall. Heaven knows what secret rituals, what sacrifices, served by heaven knows what secret priesthoods, contrived to keep the king and his kingdom safe, at a time when nothing in Africa seemed solid.

Far away from the royal compound, at two different points in the new town which he had built, were mighty emblems of the imported faiths: a beautiful white mosque in the North African style, a style that had had to cross the Sahara to this far-off place in the wet forests of tropical Africa; and a cathedral that in its design paid homage to St. Peter’s. It was said to be higher than St. Peter’s (in spite of the pope’s request that its dome might be shortened by a metre or two). This was more than cross-cultural town-building. Mosque and cathedral, growing out of no communities, might have seemed like a game in the desert, the whim of a rich ruler looking for foreign approval. But they were seriously meant. Religion mattered to Houphouët; it was what kept him afloat; he would have felt, almost, that he ruled because he was religious. It pleased him, in his expensive new town, to honour these two world faiths, even while yielding to the profounder African stirrings which might have been played out in private rituals, meant for the king alone, in the royal compound, beyond the moat with its sacred crocodiles, fed at great expense every day.

Richmond had said that Houphouët’s magic had worked for him. And so it had. Power had stayed with him to the end. But even a king was only a man, and when his time had come Houphouët had died from prostate cancer.

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