Saturday, September 8, 2012

Recommended Reading - Chasing The Devil

Here I am imaging a Guinea worm inside my body.
There are a lot of great books out there on Liberia.  Each has its own strengths and/or weaknesses.  I would recommend a few of them based on their scholarship on various Liberian topics or their outstanding visual documentation.  However, far beyond any other book on Liberia that I might recommend to you is Tim Butcher's "Chasing the Devil." This is the ONE book I would recommend across the board to any newbie interested in Liberia.  I think it is the perfect pre-trip read for those interested in traveling to Liberia as it introduces so much of the culture and history in a very accessible, down-to-earth style.  Perhaps you have heard about Tim Butcher and his harrowing journey in Blood River.  If so you might imagine him to be some sort of crazy adrenaline junkie or thrill seeker who goes over the top with stories about crossing rivers full of crocodiles.   Instead you will find here an author as vulnerable and frail as the rest of humanity struggling to come to terms with Liberia.  He does actually get scared.  He does get tired and blistered.  He does actually chafe!  In the process of reading you will find Mr. Butcher to be easy to relate to and a very competent and personable guide into what can sometimes feel like entering the very Heart of Darkness itself.

Wondering exactly what a Bull-Roarer might sound like,
then kind of freaking out a bit

If you have read Graham Greene's "Journey Without Maps" then this book is not a recommendation for you, rather it is a must.  In fact, you have not yet truly read Greene's book until you have read this book by Tim Butcher.  He lets us in on so much back story to Greene's journey to Liberia that no one will ever read "Journey Without Maps" the same way again.

Epiphany!  Graham Greene's bow tie
was really a camera!
Why would this be?  The subtitle to this marvelous book gives the answer: "A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the  Footsteps of Graham Greene."  For those unfamiliar with Graham Greene's 'footsteps' it was a 1935 trip starting in Freetown, Sierra Leone that ended in Monrovia, Liberia by a rather circuitous route (through the so-called Liberian "hinterland").  As Butcher points out, Greene's trip was partly sponsored by powers within the UK government to see if the claims were true that Liberian natives were being enslaved by Americo-Liberians.  (Later, it appears that Greene actually worked as a spy for the British Government in West Africa).  If a discovery of modern day slavery had been made by Greene it would have given Liberia's neighboring colonial powers (stationed in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast & Guinea) reason to deny the Republic of Liberia's international standing.  This could have even possibly led to interested superpowers (read France and England) taking over Liberia's lands in a maneuver to help 'protect' Liberians.  The Fernando Po incident of that era helped add fuel to this strategy, but that is all for another story.

Dreaming of rat infested huts and secret Poro waterfalls
after a hard day of reading

Back to the book.  Time and time again I found Mr. Butcher able to clearly relate the most important insights and facts that would benefit any Westerner visiting Liberia.  Every major topic or point or event that I have brought up to those interested in traveling to Liberia was brought up in this book and it was done so in a very easy to read and entertaining manner.  By entertaining, I don't mean warm fuzzy feelings of happiness like when a child takes her first steps, but rather entertaining in the cathartic sense; in like you just survived a white water rapids ride over a waterfall and are happy to still be alive!  The stories are often gory (but not gratuitous) and deal with such topics as murder, witchcraft, disease, child soldiers and rape, but alas! ...Can there be an accurate telling of Liberia's story without these topics being included?  I'm afraid not.

Learning that I called my 'machete' a 'cutlass' 
as a small boy because Liberian English was 
influenced by "Pirate"  --- arrrgh, Matey!
I could go on and on but I'm sure you would best be served by reading it for yourself.  I will make three observations though before we end.  First, I was grateful for Mr. Butcher's treatment of the Bassa people.  Mr. Greene had no kind words to say for what he considered a lazy 'Basa' race.  He considered them corrupted by civilization and that by having learned the white man's ways they were unworthy of trust and were basically unreliable.  ~ (I suppose by that he meant unreliable for carrying his luggage) ~ While I will not vouch for the entire Bassa tribe (nor the entire white man population!) I have not found most Bassa to be lazy nor unreliable and I appreciate Mr Butcher sharing the moment when he nears Buchanan (my hometown!) and a woman stops and prays for him in Bassa.  That is the sort of generous and spiritually attuned Bassa person I knew growing up and while Mr. Butcher may have only been reporting it to round out his tale I'm glad he decided to include this story in the book.  ~Peace to my Bassa people reading!~

Looking at pictures of Tim Butcher
with his feet in buckets full of water

Secondly, I wanted to comment on the missionary David Waines that he meets in this book.  I've been intrigued by him over the past couple of years and was fascinated to learn that Mr. Butcher actually meets him in this journey.  He seems to like Mr. Waines also as the title of the book is based on his words, and here I quote, "...we are going to chase the devil back to hell through prayer."  Here Mr. Waines is referring to the Poro devil, and specifically the ritualistic murders done in the name of Poro.  It is hard to communicate with someone who has never lived there, but Poro is an unbelievably difficult thing to stand against while trying to live in that part of the world, but this is the sort of guy you will meet in this book.  He appears here as a very interesting chap, a Club Beer drinking Canadian missionary that stayed in Liberia DURING the Civil War!  That's right, during the Liberian Civil War he went back into Liberia!  Wow.  This guy has got to have to some tales to tell.  In fact, here is one...

He supposedly even confronted Charles Taylor, which you can watch in another video at the above site < == I wonder to myself, is that story for true?  It is almost too much, but if so... Wow!  btw- You will find several other hair raising tales by Waines in Mr. Butcher's book as well.  

The first time I heard of Waines was after watching Anthony Bourdain's trip to Liberia on the Travel channel (in which Mr. Butcher also makes an appearance).  I had gotten online and was looking for more information about Bourdain's trip and came across the following interview that had been edited from the airing program (Tony "s-word" alert kiddos)...

Perhaps Tony should have let David talk a bit more here at the end as I'm sure David had more interesting things to say, but hey it is Tony's show.  Whatever the case I became interested in this fellow at that time and began reading a bit about him.  I had lost track of him until I read this book just recently and then there he was again!  I began to have a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Butcher might have been one of the main consultants for Bourdain's trip to Liberia.  If you watched that episode after reading this book you'd see why I say that.  I wish Netflix would bring back Season 6 of "No Reservations" so I could direct you there and also so I could watch that whole thing again myself, but it is no longer there.   The Liberia episode is covered in episode 16 if you do get the chance to view it or buy it.  All that being said, Bourdain himself offers the following glowing recommendation of "Chasing the Devil" when he states on the dust jacket:  

Concurring with the Archbishop's 
- "Africa has a worthy chronicler."
"Amazing. As history, as anthropology, as a ripping yarn.  Both exploration of an epic journey - and a hard yet sympathetic look at a Utopia-gone wrong."  Yep.  I agree, and by the way, Archbishop Desmond Tutu also recommends this book on the dust jacket!

Taking a break from reading in order to 
hold one of Louisiana's many fine 
contributions to society
Lastly, having lived in Louisiana I 'chafed' when Mr. Butcher mentioned Boudreaux's Butt Paste because (in my opinion) the context made it look like it came from Canada.   Now perhaps that particular tube was brought from there, but everyone who has lived in St. Tammany Parish knows that Boudreaux's Butt Paste is Louisiana home grown!  (Just don't ask how its grown --- jj).  Now they make it in Indiana but I just felt like I had to represent all my crazy Who Dats and their Butt Paste otherwise I'd have no place to stay when I come to down to catch cabbages from tractor pulled floats on parade.  So for now I will just heartily agree with Butcher's assessment that this stuff is amazing and it should be included in the Liberian traveler's knapsack.  (My wife says it smells good too!)  This is just one of the many helpful bits of information about Liberia that you will glean from reading this book --- there is much, much more here, but enough already, just read it!

Liberia reading bliss!

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