Chasing the Devil by Tim Butcher
Published by Vintage on 2011
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I came to this book after reading the life of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s infamous ex-President, gun-runner, warlord and diamond smuggler. Coming away with the impression that Liberia was surely on most people’s places to avoid, I then read that Tim Butcher was planning to walk through the country! In addition, he calmly tells us, almost as an aside, that he has a Liberian death threat hanging over him as a result of his previous work as a journalist in the country. Then just a few days before he is due to travel, he hears of a military coup in neighbouring Guinea, through which he will also travel. Moreover, while starting off on his journey, he discovers that a State of Emergency has been declared in Liberia due to a plague of army worms, the faeces of which make water sources dangerous for humans.
This then is the context for Butcher’s epic trek through three West African countries, following the footsteps of Graham Greene’s 1935 route. He is accompanied by David, a young man in his 20s who is the son of a colleague.
The book does not disappoint. It is gripping throughout, delightfully insightful, and full of fascinating details that make you think you are walking alongside him. And fascinating people too. He seemingly engages everyone he meets in conversation: taxi drivers, local chiefs, aid workers, bus drivers, local doctors, finding out their names, views and experiences, some of which are amazingly candid. (I don’t think I would have the nerve to ask a lady on a bus ride for her views on female genital mutation!).
Throughout the book two themes reappear. One is the civil war which decimated the country. His account of two journalist friends of his who were ambushed and killed was particularly harrowing. And the presence of the devil, in the form of local witch doctors, and the strong and even murderous spell that they still have over the rural population.
This is an excellent, thoroughly researched and well-written travel book that further positions Tim Butcher at the top of this genre, following his earlier excellent Blood River.