Reading Graham Greene

I’ve been reading Greene’s “Journey Without Maps” as a companion to my current trip. He travelled from Freetown to Kailahun (in Sierra Leone) and across the border at Foya to Liberia, from there into Guinea and finally back into Liberia and down to the coast. For most of the four-week trip he was trekking through the forest with a retinue of porters.

He writes of the villages and the forest, of the rats and cockroaches in the former and the ants and boredom in the latter. He writes about the "devils" and the secret societies, but above all about the feeling of being a European in Africa. About the fear and the exhilaration that come, at the same time, from the absence of the European culture. Of the feeling I know so well that the heat, the unavoidable presence of the natural world, above all perhaps the rhythms (both in the sense of the natural rhythms of day and night, of sleeping and waking, but also of the rhythm of the drums) somehow bring us back to our origins. Of the supernatural that seems to be everywhere in Africa, the belief in witches and devils and good and bad spirits that you cannot get away from.

& I felt as though I was experiencing so much of the same, some 80 years later. I had travelled from Freetown to the Gola Forest on the borders of Liberia, to trek for three days in the forest, with porters carrying my tent and luggage. After the forest came a journey to Kailahun, and from there across the border at Foya into Liberia, and up into Guinea.

We had passed a masked devil parading through a village as we drove towards the forest, on his way with his attendants towards an initiation ceremony. & as I read about the rats running round at night in Greene's hut, I thought of the rat I discovered in my bedroom in Dakar last month (I turned my bedside light on to see what was making a noise and found myself staring at a rat), and like Greene I had felt somehow safe from it when I tucked my mosquito net in around me. I even found myself, as we drove past a steep-sided rocky hill in Guinea, being told by my guide the same tale that Greene had been told when he visited a high waterfall in Liberia - the tale of how humans used to be sacrificed there until the day when the person being sacrificed, as they were being pushed off the top, grabbed hold of the robe of the chief standing beside them and pulled the chief to his death too.

Of course Greene's situation was very different from mine. He had never been to Africa before yet set off on foot into the heart of a region where there was hardly any hint of European civilisation or culture to be found. I had the benefit of guide books and maps, and did the first part (the time off in the forest) with a well-known local guide and the second part (the journey up-country into Guinea) in a nice 4x4 with a driver from my NGO.

Times have changed too - I did not have to go and give presents to a chief every time we drove through a village. But the feeling of Africa to a European, at least to this one, remains the same. Whether "Heart of Darkness" or "Journey without Maps" it is still to travel to the origins of mankind, to the place where we come closest to our roots in the natural world. It is what I love about Africa.

River No 2 Beach

My colleague got up earlier than the rest of us and walked along the beach to the spot where the fishermen come in. He examined the catch and chose three plump fish which he purchased for our lunch, before he joined us on the little terrace for breakfast: fresh mango, scrambled eggs and toast with coffee.

Then two of us decided to take the boat trip up the river. The boat was moored where the river joins the beach, where it twists and turns through the white sand, watched by herons and flocks of royal terns resting on the sandbars. We stepped gingerly into the boat, and the boatman started to row us upstream, firmly and rhythmically, the paddle first one side of the boat then the other, so we glided smoothly through the water. The white sand quickly gave way to mangroves, and the terns were replaced by blue-cheeked bee-eaters hunting insects over the river.

It didn’t take all that long (not as long as I would have liked) for us to reach the waterfall. Or rather, the jumble of rocks that separates the fresh water river from the salty tidal lower reaches. Only for a few months, during the height of the rainy season, is it a true waterfall.
But we moored the boat and scrambled up the rocks, to the deep, clear pool at the top. A giant monitor lizard that had been sunning itself lumbered off into the forest, and we were keeping our eyes peeled for the monkeys that sometimes go to that area to fish, apparently using their tails as bait. We saw a couple eventually, on the way back, but they were not, unfortunately, fishing.

As soon as I could after we got back to the mouth of the river I was in the water. The tide was going out which meant that the river water was flowing quickly towards the sea. I floated on the surface, with the current pulling me along, around a couple of meanders and into the slightly turbulent bit where the water is so shallow that it bubbles around between the sandy humps on the bottom, turning me 360° before I continued my journey towards the sea. Finally I stood up (the water only up to my knees) and waded out and up the bank so as to go back for another go.

I know I've written about this place before (Beaches and Islands, 8/4/10), but it is good enough to write about twice. There really are not many things in life that beat drifting down River No. 2 in Sierra Leone, between the white sand banks, with the waves breaking onto the beach in one direction and the lush green jungle-covered hills in the other.