As a former African correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph, Tim Butcher has been piloting in and out of the continent’s biggest stories for more than a decade. His latest book, Chasing the Devil, which comes on the heels of the awarding-winning chronicle of his harrowing journey through the strife-torn Congo in Blood River, returns him to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the scene of one of Africa’s bloodiest and most gruesome civil wars.
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“Chasing The Devil is part travel book, part personal memoir, part political history and part a back-scratching exercise on my part. I tried to understand complex places through the process of travel,” Butcher says. Charting his course in the footsteps of Graham Greene, who traveled the region in 1935, Butcher sets off on foot through one of the continent’s most untouched and remote areas. “In West Africa, history swirls around, and it’s useful to have Greene’s work as a polestar to navigate my way through.”
In your previous book Blood River, you trace Henry Morton Stanley’s steps across the Congo. This time, you’re following Graham Greene, who was accompanied by his cousin Barbara, through the West African interior. How did the two journeys compare?
My trip through the Congo was more psychologically terrifying and demanding. The war was active, the situation more dire. The trip through Sierra Leone and Liberia, which I walked on foot, was much more physically demanding than psychological. There were some cases of managing risk but we walked 350 miles through one of the most tricky environments. It was so enclosed, a jungle environment where the air isn’t moving. It’s almost suffocating at times.
Also, this trip was in some ways a purer sense of travel. I could do this journey on foot. In the Congo, I was rushing through on motorbike because of the nature of the journey, the war and risk. In West Africa, I was able to get more into the rhythm of things. Both were wonderfully rewarding trips in their own ways, but traveling through the Congo was more psychologically demanding, off-the-graph scary.
You referenced Graham Greene’s 1936 travel memoir Journey Without Maps as well as his correspondence and articles at the time in planning your journey. How much different were his impressions in 1935 than yours in 2009?
It was extraordinary, 74 years after that to find that these places—not backward, but remote—were still the same communities untouched that Greene saw on his trip. These places may have once climbed up the Human Development graph, but years of war brought it crashing down again. So many of these places are unchanged, and these people are living the same way Greene observed. Occasionally you’ll see a pair of Chinese flip-flops, but otherwise, they’re subsisting the same way.
You mention that you watched Greene evolve throughout this journey. How, and in what ways, did your journey affect your view of him as an author?
He was half-formed as an author. When he sets off on this journey, he’d only written four novels. He’s struggling, doesn’t quite know what his field or focus is. He’s quite obsessive about needing a near-death experience. In Liberia, this becomes increasingly risky [with so many opportunities to] tempt death. He almost achieves it when he becomes sick. He loses consciousness, one of his traveling companions even prepared last rites for him. After Liberia, he learned to love life again. It’s intriguing to see how he comes alive after that. He heads immediately to Mexico City, where he writes The Power and the Glory, and then comes Brighton Rock. It’s as if he’s gotten this adolescent bogey off his back, exercised the bits that were melancholic and gothic.
Later in 1975, he writes to his cousin Barbara of their trip that it was truly a journey that formed his love of Africa. Africa became a truly big deal for Greene. He traveled back to it many times; he finds the woman of his dreams in Cameroon and has a 40-year relationship with her.
I’ve focused on Africa throughout my career too. I became a foreign correspondent here in 2000, and I make my home in Cape Town now. There’s an element that’s very dangerous about it, but there’s something very pure as well. You can experience both pure good and pure evil here.
Greene was accompanied on his journey by his cousin Barbara. She ends up proving to be invaluable company, even saving his life. You find a travel companion in 24-year-old David, the son of an old friend. What did he add to the journey?
Frankly, when you go to extraordinary places, you can be a bit overwhelmed. It’s nice to experience that in stereo, to be able to ask, “My God, is that as crazy as it looks to me?” I made him my foil. In many ways I saw him as a younger version of myself. We have similar backgrounds. He’d been fresh out of Oxford, thought the world was his oyster. I saw a little bit of myself at that age in him, and a little bit of Greene before us.
When we undertook this trip, I didn’t know David at all. It was almost slightly expedient of me to take him along. I knew the countryside we’d be traveling was dangerous and lawless. And here’s the son of a friend, an experienced, great military guy. I knew if something happened and he was there, they’d send out the cavalry. Does that make me a bit manipulative or calculating?
Any recommendations for books on Africa you can share?
An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah. It’s set in Zimbabwe, a short-story satire. And like the finest fiction, it applies itself to the real world. It’s one of my favorite things to have come out of Africa recently.
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. One of the most perfect books about Africa, and written in the 1930s. It explores journalists and their vanity, passion, confusion and gullibility.
The Rebels’ Hour by Lieve Joris. I’m obsessed with the Congo. There are any number of histories about places, but the books that defuse the lights are the ones that go beyond that. This does. It’s what I try to do in my own writing.