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Chasing the Devil
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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on 5 September 2010
Tim Butcher's latest book, Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa's Fighting Spirit, paints an incredibly vivid and fascinating picture of a continent ravaged by war and violence. After reading his award-winning book Blood River, I couldn't wait to get my hands on Chasing the Devil. Just as Tim in 2004 followed H.M. Stanley's trail through the Congo for Blood River, for his new book, he follows a trail blazed by Graham Greene in 1935. The trek he documents in this book is both courageous and eye-opening. At a time when the world is being, once again, reminded of the atrocities of Charles Taylor's regime (thanks in huge part to Naomi Campbell sadly), Tim's book takes a look at two countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which after years of warfare have been left, in many rural places, lawless and unstable. Tim's account of his trip makes a brilliant read. He is an excellent writer and his years as a journalist covering foreign crises has made him a sympathetic and intelligent commentator. It is at once informative, funny and exciting, (the new light he throws on Graham Greene's trip is particulary interesting and often surprising). With his tales of Africa, you feel every blister, every prickle of fear and apprehension, and every feeling of personal achievement, as he embarks on a gruelling journey across two nations that not many of us would be brave enough to visit.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 24 October 2010
Having spent his career so far living and working in difficult, dangerous and downright disagreeable parts of the world, Tim Butcher is clearly something of an adrenalin junkie. His latest book, following the footsteps of Graham Greene through Sierra Leone and Liberia, dwells relatively lightly on the potential personal risk and instead sets out to investigate why these countries endured such excrutiatingly agonising civil wars. This book works on at least three levels. Lightly sprinkled with descriptions of discomforts - blisters and boils, rats urine that carries the fatal lassa fever, unrecognisable and inedible chunks of meat to name but a few - it is an excellent piece of travel writing. It is also a literary detective story, in which Mr Butcher retraces Greene's 1935 journey, uncovers its multiple objectives and learns much that demystifies the great author and endears him more to both Butcher and the reader. Not least that he probably wouldn't have survived to tell the tale in Journey Without Maps, had it not been for his redoubtable travelling companion and cousin Barbara. And it is a compelling journalistic account of both the troubled history and uncertain future of two small and unremarked countries, brought alive by the anthropological vignettes he draws of the people he meets and talks to and the places he passes through, slowly absorbing sights, sounds, smells and above all stories. The author has carefully, painstakingly, constructed a single coherent narrative which is exceptional for its sincere and non-judgmental voice. I found it compelling.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2011
I loved this book; so much so that I was loath to finish it and have missed reading it since doing so. Once again Tim Butcher has produced an enthralling account of an adventure in Africa. As with "Blood River" he has thread three stories into the book: his journey, that of the explorer in whose footsteps he followed and that of the fascinating countries through which they both travelled; in this case Sierra Leone, Liberia and for a short time Guinea. It is a winning formula.

The reader is taken on a nerve-racking, risky yet hugely exciting trip, and is able to share in this experience through the strength of the author's descriptions. The use of maps, drawings and photos adds a further layer which helps to immerse the reader deeper into the story. From the outset Tim Butcher gently encourages one to reconsider any potential preconceptions or opinions that might be held. He gives clear examples of incidents where he was anticipating a negative outcome and instead experienced a positive one, for example in the prologue. This builds throughout the book where one sees that in spite of all the possible pitfalls and dreadful things that could have happened, his group travel safely arriving unharmed at their final destination; with kindness having been shown to them by the people they encountered along the way.

The relationships that form between the author, David, Johnson and Mr Omaru are a charming aspect of the book. Beginning as strangers they form bonds of trust which develop throughout their journey and enable strength in their team. One gets a sense of the unspoken companionship, as well as security, that they feel from one another. Each gained from the friendships they formed; it takes time but in the end even Mr Omaru opens up and talks about the painful experiences he holds from the war. This closeness creates a sad feeling when at the end of their endeavour they part company.

Once more Tim Butcher has proved himself as a dedicated researcher, with the result that the reader is also given a fascinating insight into the Greenes and their trip undertaken in 1935. Although seventy-four years separate the two, there are a few wonderful moments in the book where the journeys connect through the author meeting individuals whom were not only alive during the Greenes' visit but can remember it in detail, for example the blind man in Zigida. These are thrilling discoveries that emphasise how remote the communities are: they have remained barely touched by the white outsider in three-quarters of a century.

The book provides a concise and brilliant account of the history of both Sierra Leone and Liberia. This enriches the reader's understanding and contextualises the current day observations made by the author, which are detailed and perceptive. He shows the role traditional belief systems play in shaping the cultures of the countries and gives examples of the associated taboo. In Sierra Leone he met a barrier to his questions about FGM, the women on the bus physically turned away from him, and in Liberia, like the Greenes, his group experienced local resistance to their use, as outsiders, of monkey bridges.

The theme of tribal spiritualism is more sinister; as the picture of the Poro in Liberia builds, the continuance of their prevailing power becomes clear. It is riveting reading about their use of masked devils, initiations societies, sacrifice and ritual murder. Tim Butcher's analysis is pertinent when he identifies that the restrictions posed by these behaviours can prevent community members from achieving their individual potential. Very interestingly he points out that Africans thrive away from their homeland, as shown by the fact that each year financial remittances sent back to Africa by family members living abroad total more than the investment by foreign companies in the continent.

In the book Tim Butcher's narrative is balanced and likeable; there is nothing remotely boastful or self-righteous in the voice the reader hears. This adds to the enjoyment of the story, as too does his confidence to share himself with the reader. He talks of the significance of Jane in his life and of the valuable guidance he received from Silk as a young journalist. He describes his grief at the loss of his friends Kurt and Miguel whom were killed in Sierra Leone. This incident combines with the freak accident at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and the exceptional cruelty of Bendu's experience during the war, to convey the sense of tragedy that underpins the country.

Throughout his journey the author's portrayal of the many people he meets is consistently compassionate and non-judgemental. This attribute is a credit to him as a person. In addition it helps the reader to see that in spite of the devastating experience of war, there is an enduring fighting spirit that has enabled the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia to survive through the horror to carry on with life. This is the uplifting message in the book.

He leaves the reader with a final thought: the disparity between the haves and have-nots. This situation, which remains unresolved, is what caused the war in Liberia in the first place. One senses a ticking time bomb, which shows the fragile nature of the peace. This is also clear from the fact that the sensitive issue of holding to account those who are responsible for war crimes in Liberia has not, as yet, been addressed; due to concerns regarding the destabilising effect this could have. This is a matter that one continues to think about after finishing the book.

Through his gripping stories Tim Butcher is bringing these troubled countries in Africa into the minds of his readers. This is important work for which he should be congratulated. As with "Blood River", this book is an excellent read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2011
I have been fascinated by this book. I knew nothing of Graham Greene's expedition in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 1935. I found Tim Butcher's account of it to be very informative. Throughout his journey he refers to the Greenes' experience at the same point which gives the story a dual dimension and enables intriguing comparisons to be drawn. Although he travelled the route many years after the Greenes, the author often found himself feeling as they did in certain places, for example in Zigida, where both groups sensed an uncomfortable spookiness.

There was evidently huge effort involved in undertaking the trek and in progressing through it under trying conditions. Tim Butcher is very impressive. I admire his fitness and strength, as well as his determination in managing with the heat, dirt and fatigue. I was conscious throughout of his sweat and blisters, which he battled through admirably. It is a wonderful story of great endeavour, as was his "Blood River". In both he shows his great ability to cope. It is a remarkable achievement to have made the journey and also to have explained it so well to his readers.

I am grateful to understand more about what is still in many ways an unknown continent; when I was growing up West Africa was often referred to as the "White Man's grave". It was of real interest to me that the book showed the problem that affects much of Africa, whereby the nation states that were imposed during the 19th century by colonial powers led to a grouping of people that are not necessarily state orientated. It seems there are numerous small, remote and distinct communities throughout Africa that do not relate to one another or the broader concept of nationhood.

It was enlightening to gain an insight into what life is like for the members of these communities, through Tim Butcher sharing his experience of travelling through the forest hinterland in Liberia. The reader learns about the current forces at play, such as the Poro, as well as the background of the wars. The awfulness of what went on, with children being enforced into active warfare and civilians having their hands or arms cut off by the RUF in Sierra Leone, is shocking to read.

What was uplifting was that everywhere the author went there was someone that gave him support and kindness. It is wonderful to know that while a small minority might be violent and cruel the strong majority are not. The people of Sierra Leone and Liberia showed themselves to be friendly, helpful and trustworthy with a fighting spirit that has carried them through the barbarity of war. I am thankful for the knowledge of what a modern African state is like. I have learnt much from this superb book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Sometimes I ask myself whether there is calling coming out of Africa that Brits are specially receptive to, think of Livingstone, Stanley, Conrad, Greene to name only a few prominent names in Tim Butcher's two books set in black Africa, "Blood River" and now "Chasing the Devil".
Butcher himself is worthy of being added to that list, if only because it takes a lot of courage to walk first through the Great Lakes region in the Congo, and this time to cross the hinterland of both Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries notorious for violence and infested with disease.
Why do Brits embark on such perilous undertakings? Is it out of love for adventure, of an inborn curiosity for wide spaces originated in their having been raised in a confined piece of land? Has it something to do with the fact that Great Britain as a society was catapulted into industrial age thus leaving a soft spot for noble wilds and communities that somehow escaped civilization?
Be it as it may, there are few better nowadays guides into the wilderness of black Africa than Butcher.
This book is called "Chasing the Devil", in it Butcher returns to former war torn Liberia and Sierra Leone where he was posted as a war correnspondent at the height of the conflict. He embarks on a gruelling trip through the jungle following the footsteps of Graham Greene's voyage in the 30s (a side plot of the book). The further Butcher and his fellow journeymen penetrate into the jungle, the more one gets the impression that sometimes it's not them chasing the devil, but the devil, i.e. the local spiritual underworld, chasing them.
The author has also to settle a score with a personal devil that haunts him since his days as a war-correspondent in that area, as he had been singled out as a target by the Taylor-Regime. In coming back and completing his journey he tries to demonstrate that maybe Liberia has turned the page on a bleak chapter of its history.
The book's subtitle reads "The Search for Africa's Fighting Spirit" and it pretty well sums up what motivated Butcher to enrol on such a tough adventure. On the one hand he explores the circumstances, political, cultural, historical that led to atrocious bloodshed in the last decennia, on the other hand the book is rich in examples that illustrate how the people resist a rough environment and overcome the hardship that followed their countries' violent history.
This book is full of insight and extremely well researched (specially the background of Graham Greene's own travel through that part of the world).
What I particularly appreciated is that the author skilfully avoids two obvious traps:
To paint a bleak picture of and to relish in the horrors we have read about and seen in movies ("Lord of War", "Johnny-Mad-Dog") without ever bothering to find out what lies behind the cliché (I really liked his explanation of the rationale behind the "Poro"-societies).
The second trap, (and in this he maybe different from his admired Graham Greene) is the good doers' distorted view of things, "yes, they had their fair share of problems but these people are so pure and kind that everything will be alright", that sort of pitch. Tim Butcher avoids both traps, he's candid without being cynical.
I loved the book and recommend it to anybody who is curious about West Africa, its history and conflicts and its prospects, too. For all those who share a certain "calling" but not to the point as to face the blisters and the vermin.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 4 February 2011
Anyone who has been as gripped as I was by Tim Butcher's previous book, "Blood River" about the bloody history of Africa's longest River, and its current politico-economic significance, will feel the same about "Chasing the Devil", a successful attempt to re-enact the trek of Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene through Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in 1935, which was published the following year as "Journey without maps". Its slightly more than 300 pages flew by.
During the expedition, like the Greenes, Butcher was accompanied by a younger companion, David Poraj-Wilczynski. The journey , was made largely on foot, but unlike the Greenes', not in hammocks carried by native bearers, and without a large team of helpers, and again unlike the Greenes', without freshly baked bread each morning, but with one and occasionally two local guides.
One can feel the pain of blistered feet and the danger of travel in two countries recently torn apart by civil war of a barbarity that turns the stomach, with the accompanying collapse of civil society. In addition to documenting the major events of the last half-century Tim Butcher explores an unfashionable line of investigation: the role of spirit-worship, the "Poro", and concludes that it has not never gone away and continues to terrorise the whole society.
Yet while reading, one encounters dedication and bravery, and honesty amid rampant corruption.
As Tim Butcher's journey came to an end, one discovers that Johnson Boie, the Liberian guide, as Butcher freely admits, without whose experience and coolness the journey would have failed, had been without work at the start of the journey and at its end was to return to unemployment.
This book is not just a travelogue, it is a vividly-told traversal of two centuries of West African history, with few heroes and numerous villains.
But don't just take my word for it: read it yourself!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 December 2010
In this age when violence is treated so casually in all forms of entertainment one might wonder at Tim Butcher's reluctance to return to Liberia just because a former tyrannical president with a taste for extreme violence had issued death threats against him. Nevertheless he was right to be cautious because all over Africa such memories last a long time and nowhere longer than in those places where poro, juju, gri-gri or other secretive social systems still hold sway. The former fatwa against Salman Rushdie was nothing by comparison. Charles Taylor and his murderous henchmen may be long gone but the threats, the secrecy and the underlying fear that they used still persist as strongly as ever as an endemic element of the culture. This comes across with stark clarity in Yim's new book Chasing The Devil.
We hear much about the failed states around the Horn of Africa but nowadays nobody gives a thought to the archetypal failed state, Liberia, which, as Tim so ably explains, was doomed to be a failure from its very inception. Its neighbour Sierra Leone, once a jewel in the British colonial crown, is today not much better having just emerged, with a little outside military intervention, form years of vicious civil war. In both these countries secret societies, rife with cruel and sadistic rituals, are very much alive and an integral part of the fabric of society, yet Tim found hope and a host of dynamic individuals surviving against the odds despite all the impediments the poro and abject poverty impose.
Tim Butcher's research is thorough, detailed to the point of obsession and leaves no stone unturned even when there may be scorpions beneath. He uses historical detail to explain the current context in a way that only an experienced and accomplished journalist with a solid understanding of Africa can do, painting graphic pictures with his words whilst making the reader feel involved through intimate anecdotes about people he encountered along the way. Into this fascinating exposé he blends the interest of another traveller, Graham Greene, who walked through the two countries way back in 1935. Besides sharing a lot of hitherto little known information about Greene, Tim then set out to explore the hinterland himself, travelling the same route, on foot as Green did, and documented his travels along the way.
I found Greene's account unsatisfying, lacking the vital element that enabled one to feel the country and understand what it was about and at times it was tedious as he droned on about his own personal discomfiture. I know he was ill, but that's no excuse. By contrast Tim Butcher brings the journey to life. You can almost smell the smells, feel the elephant grass swishing past as he walks along winding bush tracks unable to see more than a few feet ahead, you can feel the thorns snagging at his clothes in the forest, the energy sapping heat and hear the mosquitoes whining in his ear as dusk comes as they emerge in search of their nightly blood feast. You feel the undercurrent of magic and, although some of the Devils he met seem serenely benign, the frequency of foul deeds, he freely admits that he was not allowed anywhere near the hardcore poro. Even so the threat of violence if one steps inadvertently into a secret grove, the inherent suspicion of people unfamiliar with strangers who are trying to eke out a living under impossible circumstances and the hopeless poverty of the place all come across with real power. In the middle of all this it is interesting to note how localised divergence can be as his two Liberian travelling companions, Johnson Boue and Mr Omaru, rapidly become strangers in their own country when they move beyond their tribal frontiers. They even have to resort to a form of English unintelligible to the average Englishman, Liberian creole English, which is the only common language in the country, in order to communicate with the villagers they encounter. Finally, you share the relief as Tim and his companions reached the top of that final sand dune and saw the Atlantic ocean and journey's end.
Chasing The Devil is superbly written and will surely rouse rich memories for anyone who has been to West Africa as much as it will open amazing vistas for those who haven't. This is a book you must have on your bookshelf and read more than once.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 November 2010
In 1935 the author Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene set out on a walking tour from Sierra Leone through the unmapped interior of Liberia and parts of Guinea to the Liberian coast. Some 60 years later, after Liberia had recently emerged from two decades of civil war, Tim Butcher set out to re-create the Greenes' journey, and the story of his travels is told in the present book.

In certain areas of Liberia there exist secret societies for men and women, known as Poro and Sande respectively. These societies are connected with the use of masks, initiation ceremonies and animistic beliefs. Charles Taylor, the man who led a rebel movement in the bloody civil war and subsequently became president, is said to have taken advantage of such animistic beliefs, and the civil war featured many stories of ritualistic killing, cannibalism, and the use of bizarre and terrifying costumes. The "Devil" in the book's title is a reference to members of the Poro society who are appointed to a witchdoctor-type office and perform dances while wearing a full-body mask.

If you want to learn about the local people and culture in Africa, then an extended walking tour is a good way to come into contact with a lot of different people. If you want to add a bit of colour and adventure to your journey, choosing a country which is recovering from an unspeakably brutal war will certainly do that for you. Tim Butcher's book is disturbing in parts, moving in others, but all in all a captivating adventure.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2012
I knew Tim Butcher from his previous book Blood River, which I liked a lot.
I had found it fascinating & the whole idea of it quite daring.
I bought this book based on my previous experience & amazon's briefing.
It is not one of the books for which you could say : I couldn't stop reading it, or that : I read it in a day or two.
Mr.Butcher organized his trip & adventure closely on the footsteps of the Greenes & their 1935 trek.
That's fine, but his focus on keeping the exact course of the Greenes & his exhaustive analysis of the Greenes' trek & of the similarities & dissimilarities with his trek make this book finaly tiresome.
Don't get me wrong : it's not a bad book. I read it all, albeit in 2 weeks rather than in 2 days.
Mr.Butcher is clearly an intelligent, observant person who tries his best to be objective.
But I bought this book hoping that it would focus on today (or rather in the decade of its writing) and I didn't expect & I didn't like the volume of pages devoted to the Greenes.
I especially found tiresome the fact that he describes his effort to explain to every single local authority he meets during his journey his purpose of the trek as being to follow the trek of the Greenes of 75 years ago.
Anyhow, reading this book I gained an insight in modern Sierra Leone & Liberia situation as well as a knowledge of their history, which was my objective in buying the book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2011
Tim Butcher has succeeded, yet again, in producing a fine and fascinating account of his most recent African journey. This has a personal as well as historical element, since some colleagues died whilst he was in Sierra Leonne, and this was partly Butcher's way of working through the emotions the deaths had left behind.

In the footsteps of Graham and Barbara Greene, he treks on foot through both Sierra Leone and Liberia, both countries he had reported from when they were involved in horrific civil wars.

Butcher is a master of description - you can feel every blister, inhale every odorous note, picture the scenes of both beauty & devastation, feel the relentless sun on your back.

The people working at the grassroots end of aid were especially interesting - dedicated workers who clearly bring about real, lasting change within the limits of their finances, time and abilities. Their commitment was truly humbling to me, and an encouragement that restoration and transformation are still at work through such people, however small scale their domain.

Tim's companions, too, turned out to be perfect for his journey; Johnson, Mr Omaru (his serious and taciturn guides)and David (his supportive and very agreeable UK companion) were possessed of endless patience, essential knowledge, and the ability to soldier on in very tough terrain.

I look forward to his next account, wherever he might go.
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