Having just finished Blood River I graduated straight onto this book and wasn't disappointed. The author with a companion and two local guides trekked through three West African countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, following Graham and Barbara Greene's journey some seven decades' before. Again we have the same ingredients that made Blood River such a compelling read for me: a vivid description of the hardships of the journey, the lands he travels in and the people he meets along the way, combined with an illuminating discussion of the historical and political background.
The purpose of Greene's trip was probably an intelligence-gathering mission for the Anti-Slavery society. Liberia was a country set up by `returned' African slaves from the United States in the 19th Century. This didn't stop them from enslaving the native population, a practice systematically undertaken until the 1930s. The ending of slavery did not heal the settler/native divide, which formed the fault line of the recently concluded civil war. Sierra Leone had similar antecedents, initially set up as a coastal colony by the British, consisting of freed slaves, but Butcher doesn't treat the historical background for the conflict in Sierra Leone so well as he does for the war in Liberia. Guinea is barely offered any background at all.
So why did Butcher want to follow in Greene's footsteps? The publisher's blurb is somewhat misleading when it claims that the author walked into `a combat zone'. Acutally, two of these countries are now at peace (albeit a fragile one in Liberia) whereas a third, Guinea, has never known a civil war. Butcher's main reason, and the principal man-made menace that he never encounters face to face (luckily for him) but pervades his entire trek, is that the grip of a traditional belief called Poro, something that is sensed rather than encountered, but which nonetheless strikes genuine terror into his guides who are terrified to venture out after dark on account of it. What is Poro? The author describes it on page 108 as a ritual, whereby humans dressed in magical masks and costumes (of which differing types of devils, not of all them malign, are represented) to enact a ceremony which at once acts as an initiation into adulthood as well as having all of the functions we attribute to traditional beliefs. This is 'the devil' the author chases, as a shorthand for a form of arcane belief, which is not be confused with devil-worship.
But he never catches it - it eludes the author despite his very best efforts to track it down. No wonder - the penalties for divulging the secrets of Poro are gruesome. Even to chance upon a ceremony in the jungle could be fatal. So if the author had really caught it, he might not have lived to tell the tale and write the book. I do not make this observation to caw - I doubt any outsider would fare better and doubtless I would fare the worst. Neither do I mean to say that the book loses anything of its readability or narrative drive - it doesn't. It's just that the author is a little circumspect in his failure to get the measure of Poro but somewhat annoyingly, this does not stop him from making some sweeping pronouncements of how Poro holds Africa back on pages 270 to 272 .The totems and taboo vital for survival in the bush inhibit society in the era of the nation state, he claims. While this may well be true (it's certainly superficially plausible) I don't think the author can make such sweeping judgments when he has only dimly apprehended what Poro actually is. For this reason I have to knock of a star from my ratings.
But having said that, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. I was entertained, stimulated and informed. What more could you ask for in a book? And I salute Mr. Butcher for another courageous achievement. Whatever will he do next?