SIERRA Leone in Africa has become an icon for human cruelty. Unspeakable torture and torment have been inflicted on the population there, by its own people, the warlords. Its adjacent Liberia is no different, though it was founded on very high ideals. Tim Butcher, a seasoned journalist, follows the trail taken by Graham Greene, one of the most famous authors, over 65 years ago through these countries and describes them. Nothing much has changed, if at all, they are worse off than before, after being colonised by the whites, looted and plundered by diamond thugs and abandoned by the world.
After decades of civil war, peace has come to Sierra Leone, if only fragile. The houses have been burnt and buildings destroyed. There is hardly the presence of the government in the country. People eek a living out of all sorts of sources, while the gun-wielding warlords continue to exploit the natural resources for more gun-running and drugs. The Chinese are running mining shops, which they abandon when the mines started drying up. They have opened bilateral projects all over Africa, which allows them to buy raw material (minerals) cheap, which is shipped China. It is a society where good and bad devils share space with gods, evangelists working to harvest souls and Muslims attempting to exorcise the indigenous of their religion.
Says Tim Butcher in his Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit: “It was not smuggling that made Sierra Leone’s diamond industry so damaging. The country’s poverty meant that when diamonds were discovered they prompted a social revolution, ruining any chance of the economy becoming sustainable. Tens of thousands of young men left a life of poorly paid toil in farms and headed east to the diamond fields. So significant was the loss of young men from the agricultural sector in the 1940s and 1950s that a country which used to make profits from the export of rice was declared bankrupt as farm output collapsed, forcing it to rely on handouts to pay for food imports.”
The country is full of war victims and the perpetrators hardly brought to book. The warlords RUF made it a ritual of not killing its victims but chopping their arms. In fact there are refugee camps for amputees. Butcher brings out the poignant story of a young girl, Bendu, who is not even aware of her age, whose mother was shot dead, with her on the back. The child, three years old then, was picked up by a woman member of the rebel gang and brought up. When she was hardly four or five, she was sexually assaulted by a ‘Major.’ The woman who looked after her was killed and Bendu was rescued and taken to hospital. Then the hospital was attacked and she was back as prisoner of the rebels, one of whom ‘married’ her and used her at will. When war ended, the only thing she knew to survive was to sell her body, until she was rescued again by a charitable organisation. There are several Bendus, who were not fortunate enough to be rescued.
Liberia, the neighbour of Sierra Leone was founded by freed slaves from America in early and mid-19th century. Liberia’s constitution denies citizenship to those who are not coloured. This country’s story is not very different from Sierra Leone’s. Torn by internal strife and quarrels it is lying in shreds.
What makes Butcher’s narration peppy is the way he connects his travels with that of Graham and Barbara Greene. Graham Greene wrote his travelogue as Journey without Maps. He even meets a man who had met the Greene duo. The author discusses the social faiths and taboos, the secret rituals of courting the devil – the good and the bad. The importance of these rituals in the lives of the people of the African countries cannot be understated. They are taken very seriously by the population. The hardships that he faces while walking through these countries is almost as much as Greene did so many years ago. It is as though time has stood still, rather, the civil war lasting decades has left the people bleeding internally, with little hope for rescue. And yet the people live on, to survive the current crisis and overcome it. A good contemporary social travelogue, one cannot help feel despair for the people of the region.
(Chatto & Windus, Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, SW 1V 2SA)