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.