An award-winning British journalist retraces the young novelist Graham Greene’s 1935 walk through Sierra Leone and Liberia.
At 30, Greene was looking for “a smash-and-grab raid into the primitive” when he set out on the jungle trek recounted in his travel book Journeys Without Maps. His entourage included his cousin Barbara and 26 porters, three servants and one chef. More than 70 years later, Butcher (Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, 2008) made his way through the same remote backcountry in the wake of civil warfare that he had covered recently as African correspondent for the London Telegraph. Like Greene, he is attracted by the thrill of danger, but he also sought to understand the modern evil that has fostered child soldiering and violence over “blood diamonds” in the region. Accompanied by a friend’s son, Butcher found many villages unchanged since Greene’s visit, which is occasionally recalled by village elders. In Sierra Leone, he visited Freetown, once the “Athens of Africa,” now poor and corrupt, and a transit point for Colombian cocaine barons moving drugs into Europe. Greene based his novel The Heart of the Matter on his own stay in Freetown, whose seediness informs much of his fiction. In Liberia, Butcher met war victims, rice farmers and others, and discovered communities where secret societies worship the devil. While vividly describing the beauty of landscapes and the ugliness of derelict shantytowns, the author weaves in stories of freed slaves who settled both Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the tensions between settlers and indigenous people that have shaped the histories of both places. At journey’s end, Butcher has a new understanding of Greene the adventurer, whose own trek sparked the novelist’s lifelong love of Africa.
This engaging tale will leave many reaching for their Graham Greene.