Author Q&A: Tim Butcher

  • October 11, 2011

A glimpse of why two Nobel Peace prizes went to Liberian women this year: our Q&A with the author of Chasing the Devil: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene

Of all the anarchic and war-torn African nations, none is more forbidding than Liberia, the land that nurtured child soldiers, the violent trade in “blood diamonds,” even ritual murder.  Graham Greene, in search of extreme adventure, ventured through its dense jungles to write the travel classic Journey Without Maps; three-quarters of a century later, Tim Butcher decided to follow Greene’s footsteps, only to find the path even more ominous and overgrown than in his predecessor’s day.

Q&A with Tim Butcher

Of all of the remarkably consistent accounts of travel through the Liberian hinterland, many of which you referenced (some you did not. See: Schwab’s Tribes Of The Liberian Hinterland, Perriot’s Night Of The Tall Trees, The Harvard expedition), Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps is undoubtedly the best written. Did you know this book before you went to Liberia as a journalist?

Yes. My first copy, now much scarred and annotated, went with me to Monrovia in 2003. I read pages at night by head-torch listening to mortar explosions and gunfire in the city. Somehow I think Greene would have approved of the setting.

Your voyage mirrored Green’s journey through a difficult environment, the Liberian hinterland. Near the end of Greene’s journey, although delirious and near death he discovered a moment of clarity: “the beauty and desirability of living.” Did you arrive at any similar moments of clarity? You suggested that this trip was perhaps a bend in the river for you, that you would now sail in a new direction. Can you elaborate? Perhaps you will duplicate the exploits of Richard Burton searching for the source of the Nile or Mungo Park’s voyage to Timbuctoo.

Yes. I made a connection with seeking to better understand Africa that changed my life in one important way. I have made my home here. I had lived as a journalist in various places but after I chose to leave the news reporter treadmill the place I wanted to live is Africa. There are other trips I would like to attempt, trips that I feel would be as illuminating as my Congo journey and my Liberia trek although I am reluctant to follow Mungo Park too closely – he died exploring the Niger River.

Greene’s cousin Barbara, of course, wrote her own account of their trip. Does your partner contemplate doing the same. and what are his feelings about your voyage?

David, my travelling partner, has not written a book about our shared trip. He would speak best as to his feelings about the voyage but it did lead to a life change: he left London where he had worked in the financial sector and for a year or so has been based in Africa working in shipping, currently in Ghana.

You reported that part of Greene’s trip was funded by an anti-slavery society, but what became of his final report to this society?

I did not report that his trip was funded by the anti-slavery society. In my book, I explained Greene’s trip was partly motivated by his desire to help the society gather intelligence concerning allegations of renewed slavery in Liberia. He presented a paper to the society when he got back to London at the society’s annual general meeting which was specially rescheduled so that Greene could appear.

Whereas the Greenes traveled with a multitude of porters, you managed with just two helpers, Mr. Omara and Boie Johnson, who because of their steadfast conduct and reliability, shine through as perhaps the true heroes of your book. How do you see the future of such outstanding men?

They and the many others who helped me are intended to stand out as the heroes of this book. I write travel books merely as a device that uses my journey to tell a much more important journey, that of countries and people through time. Johnson and Mr Omaru were fantastic but not just because they were so efficient, skillful and hard. They added even more in the way the trip was a departure from their own comfort zone. To witness their genuine tiredness, their anxiety in unfamiliar territory and their pride at completing the trek taught me much.

Did you ever discover the name of the mysterious German anthropologist the Greenes encountered in Kailahun?

Yes. The Greenes never named him but I found out he was a researcher called Richard W Heydorn, specializing in African languages. Heydorn spent several years in the 1930s living in the remote north of Liberia where he gathered material for a doctoral thesis from the University of Hamburg. He went on to produce the first written grammars of several Liberian tribal languages and won the admiration of a range of early missionaries in the region who used them to translate religious texts. According to one account he had deliberately chosen to go to rural West Africa to avoid being drafted in the German army, a plan that would eventually fail. During the latter stages of the Second World War he found himself serving on the Russian front where he died.

What will you remember most about that “green wall of mystery”– the Liberian forest?

I came away with a kaleidoscope of memories. Individual ones come to me at different times and settings so it is hard to pick one I remember `most’. Among the strongest, perhaps, is the sense of bush consuming all my energy and spirit. I learnt that the effort simply to survive there (to gather food, find clean water, safe shelter etc) was so colossal it leaves little else.

You reference Stephen Ellis’s book Masks Of Anarchy while discussing the indigenous secret society, the Poro, which is localized to the western half of the country. You must admit: the failing of the Liberian state cannot be laid at the feet of these societies, yet you aver that these societies are responsible for undermining Liberia’s current development. Have you discussed these views with anthropologists who have studied these societies?

Yes. Stephen Ellis and others were helpful in understanding better the role of the secret societies.

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