I had never heard of Graham Greene until a few weeks ago as I rummaged through my parents’ collection of abandoned novels on a forgotten bookcase in the basement. A Burnt Out Case was the title, and by virtue of feeling like one myself I picked it up and started reading. It was set in Africa and the description of life there had the distinct feel of authenticity; the author had surely been there. A couple of weeks later, having returned to Cambridge, I was looking for interesting books at our local library when this one caught my attention. The title is provocative enough, especially for a person who actually believes in the devil, but the sub-title was what really surprised me and sealed the deal. I had thoroughly enjoyed A Burnt Out Case for its rich description, relational and conversational depth, and understated and subtle storyline, and therefore was eager to pick up this volume and learn more about Africa and this Graham Greene fellow.
The book is a chronicle of Tim Butcher’s trek across Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2009, following the same route that Graham Greene took almost seventy-five years earlier. Butcher’s skillful journalistic-style writing and the novelty of his adventure made the book a gripping read throughout its 300 pages full of the history of the region, personal anecdotes, and moments of unexpected humour.
The story of these two countries is heart-breaking. War, atrocities, greed, corruption, and perpetually frustrated hopes and dreams, not to mention a widespread secret spiritualism that includes ritual murder and cannibalism, all compound to make these two countries, but especially Liberia, a tragic tale. Perhaps the most striking and profound irony is the fact that Liberia was founded by freed American slaves who crossed the Atlantic to start a new community free from slavery and white oppression, but that within a few generations, and as late as the 1920’s, the country’s leadership was knee deep in selling its own native people as slaves.
As I read Chasing the Devil I felt as though I was there in the jungles of Liberia. As I heard the country’s story my heart was weighed down with sorrow. How badly I wish that these countries could stand up on their own feet but it seems like every time they pull themselves up to their hands and knees some evil kicks them back to the ground. Of course the gospel could transform this broken country and bring deep healing, as well as foster true progress, but to say that almost over-simplifies the complex situation. Butcher wisely warns against painting these intricate and delicate situations with broad brushes of black and white.
Still, it was neat to hear about the Christian fishermen from Ghana who work the Atlantic coast from the Liberian shore. If a fishing boat passes another fishing boat and one of the boats has no catch, the other boat throws over some of their catch in the spirit of sharing, even if the fishermen have never met one another. A splash of grace in a very dark place.