Saturday, 26 October 2013

Liberia - The Way to Africa

As well as reading literature that comes from the place I'm blogging about, I also quite often read travel books by adventurers, mostly European or US citizens, who have ventured out into the great unknown! 

For Liberia, I've read two travel books - the first was Chasing the Devil: On Foot through Africa's Killing Fields (2010) by Tim Butcher, a former correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, who reported from Liberia in 2003, during some of her darkest hours - the second Journey without Maps (1936) by Graham Greene, the famous writer, adventurer and MI5 operative, who travelled to Sierra Leone and Liberia, during his first trip outside Europe. 

I really loved Butcher's first book, Blood River: A Journey into Africa's Broken Heart (2007), which records his journey through Congo-Kinshasa, following in the footsteps of the explorer, Henry Morton StanleyChasing the Devil is Butcher's second book and I also really enjoyed his depiction of Sierra Leone and Liberia, as he walked on foot through both countries, following a journey made by Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara. 

Scenes around Liberia by Tweefur
I find Graham Greene a fascinating character and I've read one of his novels, The Quiet American (1955) set in Vietnam.  He seemed to travel everywhere and I have a feeling I'll be running into the work of Graham Greene (and perhaps, Tim Butcher) as I research for future blog posts.  It was interesting comparing the two works following the same route, to see how much or little had changed in Liberia in the seventy years that separated Greene and Butcher's journeys.  Here are a few of the things that I've noted:

Sierra Leone - a country in reverse?

One of the greatest symbols of 'modernity' and the Industrial revolution is the train.  I was fascinated to learn that, whilst Graham Greene travelled by train to Pendembu - the start of his walk in Sierra Leone - seventy years later, Butcher couldn't do this journey by train, as the train system in Sierra Leone no longer functions. 

As a symbol of 'progress', the disappearance of the train system makes me wonder whether or not Sierra Leone is going backwards, instead of forwards?  Mind you, we also ditched much of the regional rail network in Ireland, once the British left - it doesn't necessarily mean we went backwards or stopped progressing, we just did what we could afford and I guess, for the government of Sierra Leone, it must be the same reason?

When the Greenes visited Sierra Leone, it was still a British colony, with all the trappings of 'civilisation' and a European-style infrastructure, as unsustainable as that may have been.  In the 1930's, Liberia was one of Africa's least explored countries, a real 'Heart of Darkness' and Butcher suspects that Greenes' trip may have been funded by an anti-slavery organisation, back in England, who wanted to find out what was really happening in Liberia's hinterland.  I'm sure the British government was also quite interested in this country neighbouring one of their colonies. 

The joys of travelling light

As well as 26 porters, three personal servants and a chef, the Greenes travelled with; six boxes of food, two beds and chairs and mosquito nets, three suitcases, a tent, two boxes of miscellaneous things, a bath, a bundle of blankets, a folding table, a money-box, a hammock.  I guess it wasn't easy to travel light in Africa in the 1930's, although I do think the bath was taking things a bit too far!  I'd also love to know what was in the boxes of miscellaneous things - no doubt a good deal of whiskey, if the rest of Greene's account is to be believed! 

By contrast, Butcher travelled with a voluntary companion, as well as a paid guide and driver and as much stuff as they could all carry between them.  In fairness to Graham Greene though, for most of the journey, he flouted the expectations of that time by walking through the jungle, rather than being carried by the native porters in a hammock, as most other Europeans would have done. 

Barbara who?

Scenes around Liberia by Tweefur
Butcher does a really good job at including Barbara Greene in Graham's story - considering that Graham barely mentions her at all in his book and you sometimes wonder what she was doing, whilst he was philosophising, admiring the breasts of native women and getting drunk?  Barbara wrote her own account of their journey, Too late to turn back which, if the title is anything to go by, suggests that she found the whole thing quite hard going! 

Having initially accepted Graham's proposal to accompany him to Africa, after a few too many glasses of champagne at a  wedding, Barbara eventually rose to the challenge and even took over the management of the trip, when Graham fell ill. 

Alarming digressions

Having finished Butchers incredibly readable and informative book, I was slightly apprehensive about tackling the eccentric and chaotic world of Greene.  It really struck me how awareness of the reader/audience is much more important nowadays, than it was in the time of Graham Greene.  Greene's book was well-written, because he was a great writer, but it was also rambling, full of anecdotes and digresses often enough to alarm the modern reader. 

By contrast, Butchers writing was 'tight' and on topic, cleverly blending several different strands of the story, to meet the expectations of a modern audience.  I guess the modern commercialisation of the Arts and literature means that the days of eccentricity and digression are over - the reader needs to be wholly involved at every moment, or else a book won't sell.  I can't help feeling that we've lost some of the disorder of a previous age, when writers were less focused on the market!

The Way to Africa

Scenes around Liberia by Tweefur
In total contrast to Butcher, who wanted to follow Greene's journey as closely as possible, Greene himself had no idea where his journey was going to end.  His original visa only allowed him to travel to the capital, Monrovia, through the western part of Liberia.  Instead, perhaps because he had a hidden agenda, he meandered through Lofa province, (French) Guinea and Nimba, eventually reaching the coast at Grand Bassa, now called Buchanan. 

Greene had the vague intention of finishing his journey on the coast at Sinoe (now called Greenville) in eastern Liberia, which was believed to be the centre of an illegal slave trade.  He cut his journey short because he couldn't bear the monotony of travelling through the jungle and because he was running out of money (not to mention whiskey!).  Butcher, on the other hand, obsessively followed Greene's original journey and knew exactly where he was going and how he intended to get there. 

For Greene, this wasn't just his 'way to Africa' but, in many regards, his way to the world.  Anyone who has lived abroad will recognise the importance of that first 'seminal' experience - when you're disorganised, miserable, experiencing culture shock - hopefully you learn from it and do a better job at planning the next trip!  The experience certainly toughened Greene up for later journeys, including his time spent in Sierra Leone, during the Second World War, as a British intelligence officer.  It also helped him cut his teeth, in terms of writing and he went on to write many, many more books and novels, which have informed and entertained countless millions ever since!

I look forward to Butcher's next book and I'm curious to see if he will follow the pattern set by his previous two works.  For Greene, alas, the way to Africa is no more!

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member, tweefur aka Teri Weefur, who is originally from Monrovia, but now lives in Silver Spring, USA.  She has created an interesting set of photos called, Scenes around Liberia and she also has a website

Thanks Teri for sharing these images of Liberia, using the Creative Commons License. 

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