Book Review: Chasing The Devil

Chasing The Devil:  A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa In The Footsteps Of Graham Greene, by Tim Butcher

In the vein of the author’s previous work [1], this book is a deeply melancholy and realistically pessimistic travel book that is based at least in part on literature, this time Graham Greene’s travel experiences with his cousin Barbara journeying without maps through Liberia.  In these pages the author along with a travel companion travel by foot through Liberia, visit Sierra Leone and part of Guinea [2] and witness a great deal of what ails this part of Western Africa, from out of touch elites in distant capitals living far beyond the expectations and realistic hopes of divided tribes in the hinterlands to the malign influence of collectivist brutal traditional religions that have no compunctions about demanding that leaders sacrifice their own children or in killing or brutalizing people with no respect for individual human right, along with the usual corruption and the failure of law and order to provide a just social order and the opportunity for advancement for the suffering people of their societies.  This is not the sort of book that one reads for optimism, but it does provide a clear-eyed and humane look at a part of the world is that is remembered, if at all, for its idealistic hopes, and its violence and plagues of disease.

This book takes about 300 pages or so to cover twelve chapters dealing with an epic travel of high degrees of danger and intrigue.  The author, as an international reporter whose beat was to cover Africa, had written some pessimistic but accurate comments about the regime of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, and the result was some death threats that had left him understandably a bit skittish.  Ultimately, though, his curiosity in how Sierra Leone and Liberia were coping with the aftermath of bloody civil wars that had brought their countries to ruin, and where their nearby Guinea had also had a rare coup with potentially threatening results on its own relative stability, led the author to undertake a trip from Freetown to the border of Liberia where he and three others would follow the trail that the Greenes took in the 1930’s to undertake a sub rosa investigation of slavery in Liberia on behalf of British antislavery interests that may hve proven to be a suitable introduction to espionage in Africa that would mark Greene’s later career during WWII and that would give his cousin Barbara the courage to deal with her own dramatic World War II experience.  Throughout the course of the journey we see through the author’s eyes (and camera) the worth of his local travel companions Johnson Boie, Mr. Omaru, and the humanity of the people they encounter along the way.

The insights of the journey are complex and often deeply troubling.  The author witnesses people who simply cannot comprehend that a crazy Westerner would want to travel by foot through their communities without some sort of dark ulterior motive, dark evidence of the reputation of Westerners for exploitation.  He sees the malign influence of traditional religions on the well-being of people who can easily thrive when in well-function societies that provide stability as well as the potential for growth and development.  Some of the lessons are worthwhile for the book’s likely audience of literate and cosmopolitan Westerners, though.  For example, the author reflects on the humanity of the Greenes and the way that they were colored by their own backgrounds and their own expectations and their own frailties in what they wrote and what they thought about each other and the places they saw in their travels.  Likewise, when the author comments about the fragility of the comfort of elites in the face of massive divides in society between a few haves and many more have nots, the author points to the sort of poisonous envy and resentment that rest in many societies that can easily erupt in violence that makes it impossible for anyone to have a good life without choosing a life of exile to a place where thriving is possible.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/21/book-review-blood-river/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/17/book-review-adamalui/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/07/26/today-in-history-on-july-26-1847-liberia-declared-independence/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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