“Chasing the Devil: A Journey through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Green,” references the dancing devils that author and former war correspondent Tim Butcher encountered on his month-long hike through Sierra Leone and Liberia. These devils, possessing qualities of benevolence and cruelty, are respected even by Christian Africans and they hint at the complexity of beliefs and way of life in these two war-ravaged countries.

“Chasing the Devil: A Journey through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene.” By Tim Butcher. Atlas & Co., New York, 2011. 325 pages. $26.95


“Chasing the Devil: A Journey through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Green,” references the dancing devils that author and former war correspondent Tim Butcher encountered on his month-long hike through Sierra Leone and Liberia. These devils, possessing qualities of benevolence and cruelty, are respected even by Christian Africans and they hint at the complexity of beliefs and way of life in these two war-ravaged countries.


Chasing the devil is also a metaphor for Butcher’s journey. He revisits a region he covered during the end of brutal Charles Taylor’s rule in Liberia. At the time he received a direct death threat from Taylor himself. On his return, Butcher searches for a deeper understanding of the region and the challenges the impoverished in these two West African nations confront.


In this book — with its tantalizing mix of storytelling, adventure and facts doggedly dug up — you find a truly human adventurer (simultaneously brave and anxious) determined to follow exactly the route taken by Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara 75 years earlier. Greene’s trek resulted in “Journey without Maps” and there are many villages in the dense jungles along the way that remain remarkably unchanged. Readers will enjoy the book just for Butcher’s detailed accounting and unmasking of the Graham Greene he discovers on this trip.


In layer after layer — war, crushing poverty, politics, humanitarian efforts, day-to-day life in the jungle, Graham Greene’s writings, the varied aspects of a grueling trek in blazing heat, disease and, most vividly, the Africans — Butcher describes with great care, literary flourish and emotional connection an affecting panoramic view of Liberia and Sierra Leone.


These countries have similar histories. Both were re-populated by former slaves. The British developed a program to transport former slaves who fought alongside them in the Revolutionary War to Sierra Leone where the majority died from malnutrition and compromised immune systems. Liberia was similarly repopulated by an American effort to send former slaves back to Africa. The main difference was that Sierra Leone soon fell under British rule while Liberia remained independent. Both countries were horribly exploited, time and again, and the ratio of haves to have-nots is, according to Butcher, dangerous still.


The civil wars and ethnic violence were over during Butcher’s 2009 trek, though the journey was far from danger-free. The death threat still hung over his head, for one thing, and there were the dangerous times once the sun went down and the “heart hunters” preyed on people. They were said to harvest your organs and use them in time-honored rituals. Not to mention that Butcher was burdened by his own wartime experiences, which included the killing of a good friend during a roadside ambush. There was an active outbreak of a hemorrhagic fever and a proliferation of a type of worm that burrowed underneath the skin, grew to extraordinary lengths, and laid its eggs in the subdural regions.


Among the most affecting portraits painted is that of the two Africans who helped Butcher on his journey. Johnson and Mr. Omaru both seek balance after the violence and upheavals they’ve endured. They work tirelessly and bravely on Butcher’s behalf, making the trek possible. Greene used 26 porters for his trip but he, too, walked long and exhausting days to cover the territory, not just for his writing, but also most likely for the British government and for the Anti-Slavery Society. He nearly died on his trip.


Toward the end of the book, Butcher writes: “I found the recovery [Liberia] unconvincing. The disconnect between the Liberia I had seen on the trek, a Liberia of Poro-dominated [a pervasive secret society], subsistence farmers living in abject poverty, and the Liberia as represented by city-centre car showrooms and restaurants felt downright dangerous.”


Peace in these circumstances, time has shown, is fragile and unsustainable.


Rae Francoeur can be reached at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.