A review of Chasing the Devil - A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene by Tim Butcher, Atlas and Company, NY, 2010.
The sub-title says it all. This is a travelogue of an expedition across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea accomplished in 2009 but tracing a similar journey by Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene in 1935. It says much about rural Africa that during the seventy year time span between the two adventures not much has changed, especially if you walk!
The book has three themes that combine nicely. First is the fact that famous novelist Graham Greene made the trek. His motives were money with an overlay of politics. Greene got a book out of it and faithfully reported back to an anti-slavery society that sponsored him - as well as to the Foreign Office. Additionally Greene needed to do something new to refurbish his literary credentials and sate his thirst for adventure. Author Butcher delved through all of Greene’s journals (and his cousin’s as well), writings and papers to sort out references to the walk. He then juxtaposes the Greenes’ views to his own when in this or that village.
Secondly the book permits the author to recapitulate the histories of the three nations involved - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This provides wonderful context to the journey. Butcher recalls early British rule in Freetown and segues forward to the terrible blood diamond financed civil war. In Liberia he traces the ineffective arrogant rule of the Americo-Liberians and their disdain for the “country” people of the interior, a shortcoming that led to their violent overthrow in 1980 only to usher in decades of misrule and conflict. Against the historical backdrop, Butcher and his companions confront the residue of war in the fragile nations in the form of suspicion, tribalism and corruption, which are somewhat offset by generous hospitality as citizens strive to get on with life.
The third theme is Butcher’s walk itself. Accompanied by David, a fellow Englishman, Johnson and Mr. Omaru, Sierra Leoneans enlisted as guides, the group covered up to thirty miles daily in the sweltering heat and humidity. They tried to stick to the jungle paths used by Greene and encountered trials, tribulations and joys as they trekked along. Ever observant, Butcher was fascinated by bush societies - mystery riven secret organizations that initiate youths into tribal adulthood - and their control over contemporary rural life.
This book has great appeal to adventure travelers, but even more it is a unique nonacademic guide to contemporary life in West Africa’s back country. It is essential reading for persons interested in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The walk took place in 2009, five years before Ebola wreaked havoc on the regions traversed. One can only imagine the additional devastation that disease inflicted upon the people Butcher and his companions met along the way.