Someday, when these countries have become whole again and the world remembers that they can be beautiful, I might find myself there, gazing out of their harbour, chilling with a beer. In the meantime, I’m content to let Butcher do all the walking.
In 2009, Tim Butcher set out to retrace Graham Greene’s journey, from his book, Journey without Maps, wherein which he walked from Sierra Leone to Liberia (with a bit of Guinea in between). Through his travelogue he recounts the history of both countries, the effects of war, as well as some vignettes from his time as a war correspondent.
I first discovered Butcher years ago, when I read his book, Blood River, about journeying to the mouth of the Congo. I was, at that time, looking for more books/travelogues on Africa and was happy to try his book out. I thought it was extremely well written and was moved enough to buy the next one when it came out.
The thing about Butcher’s books is that they don’t make you want to travel to where he’s been. On the contrary, they usually make me want to do the opposite. His last book on the Congo cemented my desire not to ever, ever go there in my life. With this book it made me think, Why yes, I could possibly go to Sierra Leone if I have to, but I don’t think I ever want to go to Liberia. But then this is not really a travel book—it’s about the people and their history and resilience after decades of war.
It’s not all as depressing as it sounds. Butcher has a matter-of-fact way of telling their story; it’s not all pity and tears or inspiration and cue the heartwarming music. Their journey is interspersed with the lives of the people they meet and he does an excellent job of bringing you into their lives and letting you get to know them as he does.
Butcher contrasts his journey with that of Greene’s in 1935. In some ways, the journey hasn’t changed—Butcher and his travel companions still see the same things and encounter people who live their lives the same as they did in Greene’s time. Greene’s story serves as a reference point and, in their efforts to follow exactly the same route, Butcher is also able to show how the events that have shaped each nation have affected the people, from their difficulties in finding and making their way to entire towns being completely reliant on aid groups to survive.
There’s a pronounced disconnect between the capital and the countryside, a former cause of civil war that could flare up again if this is not addressed. As it is with the rest of Africa, tribal relations play a part in everything. Butcher is not preachy—he does not tell us what he thinks they need to do to make their lives better, to make their worlds better places. Instead he shows us how humankind, in their small acts of violence or kindness, can make a difference, and how, at the end of the day, we can sometimes bring out the worst in ourselves. That essentially is the story of both nations—how they decided to bring out the worst of themselves and how everyone else who managed to get out of their way have gotten on with their lives afterwards.
I don’t want to visit these places; hence this is a #NotTravelTuesday—not because I don’t think there’s anything to see or do, but more because I think I’d just be in the way. Both nations are still rebuilding and, with 90% of all their goods imported, I don’t see a reason why I should add myself to the mess. Someday, when they have become whole again and the world remembers that they can be beautiful, I might find myself there, gazing out of their harbour, chilling with a beer. In the meantime, I’m content to let Butcher do all the walking.
Yay or nay?
Obviously, this book is not for everybody. It’s a VSB (very serious book) with a point and not quite a happy ending, more like a to be continued. (Until the next CNN dispatch…) The descriptions are not too graphic, but you have to know to expect that it is Africa, and they were at war. I would recommend it if you’re looking for an adventure, mixed with current events and recent history. I liked it very much.
Title: Chasing the Devil: On Foot through Africa’s Killing Fields (excerpt)
Author: Tim Butcher
Publisher: Random House
Hardback: 9780701183608 (15/9/2010)
C format: 9780701183615 (1/11/2010)
B Format: 9780099532064 (1/7/2011)
Ebook: 9781407087047 (1/11/2010)