On Reading Graham Greene in Liberia in a Time of Ebola

By Brian CastnerFebruary 20, 2015

On Reading Graham Greene in Liberia in a Time of Ebola

EIGHTY YEARS AGO, Graham Greene walked across Liberia’s rugged, unforgiving terrain. He was a young writer, just 30 years old, and all of his most famous novels and world travels still lay in his future. His first taste of Africa was on the ship out of Liverpool, featuring daily doses of quinine, mosquito nets on all the port holes, and plenty of unfamiliar talk.

“Plague at Dakar, yellow fever at Bathurst, outbreaks hushed up on the French coast, never reported on the Liberian: one was seldom allowed to escape the subject of fever,” he writes in Journey Without Maps. “One could begin a conversation with religion, politics, books; it always ended with malaria, plague, yellow fever.”

No doubt, if Ebola was known to the people of 1935, it would have made the list.

I recently traveled to Liberia and found that much of the rest of Journey Without Maps holds up. The reclusive back-country Greene explored is in many ways still present in modern Liberia. In fact, the Ebola crisis itself was driven in large measure by the traditional rituals of Liberian society, funeral rites, and close familial contact — customs described by Greene that were brought to fore when they proved a pathway for the deadly virus.

My photographer colleague Cheryl Hatch and I were in Liberia earlier this year for one purpose: to report on the Ebola crisis. Greene’s motives for traveling to Liberia are less explicit, and in keeping with his future career as a spy for MI6, duplicitous. In the opening chapter, he offers one pseudo-explanation: “The motive of a journey deserves a little attention,” he writes. “It is not the fully conscious mind which chooses West Africa in preference to Switzerland.” But the brief discussion that follows doesn’t answer the question, only vaguely references Conrad, a preoccupation with Africa in his dreams, gangster novels, “a quality of darkness” that he needed to explore. The reader is left to accept this as sufficient motivation to spend a month walking across a country with his young female cousin and 26 local porters. It would be decades before the truth was reported: Greene was an agent of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, documenting cases of human trafficking. Not a peep to be found in the book.

Instead, Journey Without Maps is a standard travelogue, somehow both banal and unprecedented. Greene makes no great discoveries of the geographic, lost civilization, or spiritual variety; the prose is merely that of a thorough newspaper reporter. Yet the trip itself is remarkable: all stubborn Englishman pluck. The trek he completed had never been attempted before, neither by outsiders nor by the locals he hired, and many of the villages he visited had not seen a white man in two generations.


On his first trip outside of Europe, Greene sailed from England to Sierra Leone, took a train to the inland Liberian border, and walked across the top ridge of the country. He dipped briefly into French Guinea before, out of frustration and exhaustion, he made a hard right turn for the coast at Grand Bassa and the modern day port town of Buchanan. It took him four weeks; he was beset by rats and cockroaches, his porters got sick and fell away, he fought fever by the end and nearly ran out of money. Somehow, in the middle of the journey and out in the bush, he interviewed Edwin Barclay, the President of Liberia.

There is a colonial cast to Greene’s journey, with his ridiculous pith helmet, constant leering and commenting on every exposed breast, and insistence on the merit of his journey because he walked much of the trip instead of being carried in a hammock. “Too close to using men as animals for me to be happy,” he described the experience, though he indulged it from time to time. Greene’s primary task seems to be drinking whiskey with the local chiefs that welcome him into their villages.

I began my journey where Greene ended his: the capital Monrovia. He eventually leaves Grand Bassa by ship, sailing with the political elite of Liberia who try to ingratiate themselves and swing this white man to one side or the other of their internal squabbles. Greene’s time in Monrovia — visiting expats, traveling up the one “motor road” to the Firestone Rubber Plantation — may be only a post-script to his travels, but they describe the part of the country least-changed by the last 80 years. Greene’s Monrovia is a city of “not more than three dozen whites,” full of telephone poles but no telephones, an array of half-finished stone houses, their concrete foundations and internal supports poured then abandoned, “so that these unfinished buildings have the appearance of houses gutted by fire.” Those rotten teeth in the gap-toothed skyline have been replaced by other akimbo apartment buildings and compounds abandoned when Ebola came, a burned-out Executive Mansion, and the remains of the Ducor Intercontinental Hotel.

Aesthetically, Monrovia looked the same, but over the years the moods of the cities have diverged. Greene’s Monrovia is “pleasant” and growing out of infancy, while mine was just rising from its sick bed, shuffling and still hesitant as markets and schools began to reopen. When I got off the plane at Roberts Field in late December 2014, we were met on the tarmac by healthcare workers in full suits and face masks. We could not enter the shabby terminal until we washed our hands in chlorine and had our temperature taken via thermoflash to the temple; a reading above 38C means you’re off to the Ebola treatment unit. I would repeat this procedure hundreds of times over the next three weeks, at every public building gathering spot, from churches to the flagship CellCom store; it becomes routine surprisingly quickly

While Greene smartly fretted about avoiding fever, I spent the next few weeks chasing it, the hemorrhagic Ebola kind, to slums and ports and remote jungle villages and the Sierra Leone border. I tried to interview President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on my trip, but she wasn’t granting interviews to foreign journalists. The closest I got was the headquarters for the current US military mission in Liberia, at the Barclay Training Center, named after the President of Greene’s day.

I followed a portion of Greene’s footsteps via Army Blackhawk helicopter; his journey of a week took me an hour. You could do worse than a helo out of BTC if you want to travel across northern Liberia. Soldiers call them Crashawks, sure, but they are the preferred method of moving medical supplies, construction materials, and aid workers around modern-day Liberia; the country is roughly the size and general shape of Kentucky, but even now a complete overland crossing would take days. I traveled via helicopter to Tapita and Bopolu, clusters of homes in the interior uplands that the locals call “up-country.” From the air, Liberia appears as nearly unbroken jungle, some low scrub, some true triple-canopy. Every helo pilot and crew wants to see a chimpanzee; only a few have. We followed the rivers, the Saint Paul and the Lofa, mighty rivers that fall out of the rolling highlands in a series of cataracts that beg for a whitewater kayak. The roads through that jungle, such as they are, are made of dried mud, a streak of orange through otherwise endless green, the dust kicked up by motorcycles staining the grass on the banks of the roads. After the vibrancy of the jungle, Monrovia is jarring upon return. From the door of a helicopter it looks all Christmas drab: maroon rusting roofs and deep palm trees.

To really experience the country, though, you need to drive, in a local car held together by zip ties and spot welds, on tar roads and tracts smoked out by the dry season and harmattan off the Sahara. Greene’s hammock may sound ridiculous now, but over and over, he warns of the danger of going native, of acting too much like the local, of not following precaution and protocol. In the Liberia beset by Ebola, protocol and precaution are everywhere, but Greene is focusing on transportation. He talks of a “reckless” Dr. D, who went on a “ten day’s trek, without hammock, without provisions […] He slept on native beds, ate the native food, and died of dysentery.” Most importantly, do not over exert yourself. “Nobody could walk long distance in this climate without danger,” he writes, and this warning still holds true. A few weeks before we arrived, Michel du Cille, the Washington Post photographer, died out in the countryside, of a heart attack while hiking back from a remote village.

Greene’s hammocks are long gone, but I didn’t physically struggle across Liberia either. I sat in the back of a car. The rule in journalism is you never do a story on your fixer and driver, they are facilitators not subjects, but mine were Carton and Prince and my trip would have been impossible without their Nissan Sunny station wagon and general gregariousness. “It would have been easier if I had been able to obtain maps,” writes Greene. I disagree. Who needs a map with so few roads? Simply drive in a cardinal direction and ask a progression of locals; they will direct you like a divining rod without fail. Our process went like this: Carton would stop the car, turn it off to save gas, then ask any random boy on the street. When he got back in, I’d ask where we were going. The answer was always the same. “Straight.” It became a running joke in the car. I wonder if Greene felt the same; his directions from village to village never amounted to much more.

Liberia looks like America, but skewed. With 11 red and white stripes and a single white star on blue, the Liberian flag is a hybrid of Old Glory and the Texas standard. Everyone speaks English, or a pigeon form to which your ears attune in a few days. I was asked for money only once, by a Cote d’Iviore refugee who certainly needed it, and I felt safer alone on the streets of Monrovia than of many cities in the United States. And why not? Liberia’s murder rate is less than Chicago’s. Note: I feel safe in Chicago, too.

Our furthest inland drive was to Bo, a small town in Grand Cape Mount county, along the Mona River that forms the border with Sierra Leone. The drive from Monrovia to Bo only takes half a day, but we were regularly stopped at checkpoints staffed by uniformed personnel. In decades passed, in the civil war, those concrete bunkers would have been manned by armed guards. Now, we stop to wash hands and get our temperature checked by health workers in white suits and face masks.

We finally arrived in Bo in late afternoon. The locals call their village Bowaterside, to differentiate it from the larger city next door. The iron gate on the bridge that links the two countries was locked tight and guarded by uniformed police; they took and kept our passports and press credentials in a brief “papers please” moment that I am now convinced was mostly about relieving boredom. Because of Ebola, the border hasn’t been officially open since July. Dust has collected on the roadway, and a five-ton lorry sat in the middle of the street, abandoned for months.

We had reporting to do the next morning, so Prince found us somewhere to stay, a guesthouse in nearby Sinje. It was our first night spent inland. When Greene lands in Freetown and tells local expats his plans, they react with horror. “You poor innocents,” they say, and try to talk him out of it. “When we crossed the border, how were we going to sleep? In native huts? Had we ever considered what a native hut meant? The rats, the lice, the bugs. What would happen if we got malaria, dysentery?”

As I lay in bed that night, on top of my sleeping bag and beneath the mosquito netting, I began to wonder the same. Greene’s descriptions of such places — “a small stable with two stalls and a verandah. The stalls were bedrooms, containing native beds, platforms of beaten earth spreading with matting” — still fit, substituting only concrete for dirt. Greene’s first night could well be mine in Sinje:

It was the first time I had slept in a native hut, and foolishly, for the sake of privacy, I kept the door closed, as the natives do themselves for fear of wild animals from the forest. I had never before experienced such heat; it was like a blanket over the face, even the thin muslin mosquito-net took the breath. But at any rate there were not yet rats; only a few rustles in the roof, and in the end I fell asleep in spite of […] the music and the heat and the strangeness.

When I awoke, I was covered in a film of dust and sweat that could be scraped off with a knife.

Greene ends his book with a generous spirit. After all of his trials, he declares Liberia not so different than his own native land. “But what had astonished me about Africa was that it had never been really strange,” he writes, in direct contradiction to this own description of his first night in the bush. “Gibraltar and Tangier — those extended parted hands — seemed more than ever to represent an unnatural breach. The ‘heart of darkness’ was common to us both.”

For myself, I was also astonished by what I found in Africa, though it was not what I had expected. Rather than shared tragedy, I saw hope and happiness revolt against blanket despair, a nuance unreported in the news articles I had read before my trip. In the Monrovian neighborhoods of West Point and Sinkor, driving dance music poured from electronics shops and beer parlors and storefront churches. On the first day of high school registration, parents waited in line for hours to enroll their children; in the yard the teenagers themselves wrestled and flirted as if no health crisis had come. I entered Ebola Treatment Units and found the staff lounging and laughing and eating take-out lunch from Styrofoam containers. The discarded remnants of the disease were everywhere — public art displays teaching “Ebola is Real,” large fenced-off wards that reeked of bleach — but Ebola itself was out of sight. I began to feel like I was hunting an apparition, like one of Greene’s “devils,” the secret society witchdoctors and juju priests.

In Buchanan, an old man invited me inside St. John’s Episcopal Church, a traditional edifice dating from 1857 and painted bright blue. He said his name was Lawrence Gabon, and he insisted on playing me an impromptu concert on the organ. Lawrence was missing most of his teeth, but his fingers worked just fine. Half a block away, young men played a serious game of soccer on a dirt field; any one of them could make most US college teams as a walk on. I joined the spectators at the side of the goal. A short man my age walked up to me and began speaking. “My man my man, I want to make good conversation with you,” he said. His name was Opta, but I had trouble understanding him, so he had to repeat it several times. “Opta! Opta!” he laughed. “It sounds so strange to you, right Brian?” We talked about how he fled to Ghana during the civil war. We talked about how Ebola had stopped all economic development. We talked about how he wanted to open a business once the disease was gone.

In the summer and fall of 2014, America was so scared of Ebola that we sent an infantry division to go fight the disease. Meanwhile, in Liberia, I found a place untrammeled by the echo chamber that so often frames the way we view other countries — especially those in Africa.


Travel support for this story was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk, an Amazon Best Book of 2012.


Blackhawk Shadow

The shadow of a US Army Blackhawk helicopter travels over the beach at West Point in Monrovia, Liberia on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. © Cheryl Hatch



Spc. Kyle Salchow, 20, from Nixa, Mo., from left, Spc. Eric Warford, 22, from Denver, Co., and Staff Sgt. Jose Melendez, 39, fro Fajardo, Puerto Rico, wait for a bus ride off Barclay Training Center in Monrovia, Liberia on Dec. 31, 2014. The soldiers are part of the 2,500 U.S. troops in Operation United Assistance that is building Emergency Treatment Unites and training local health care workers in Liberia. Salchow and Melendez are among the 20 percent of the force that began deploying home at the beginning of January 2015. © Cheryl Hatch


Border Bridge

A locked, rusted iron gate blocks passage from Bo, Liberia across a bridge to neighboring Sierra Leone, on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2105. Because of Ebola, the border hasn't been officially open since July. Photo by Cheryl Hatch© Cheryl Hatch


Three Women

Patient Dennis [cq], center, and the Reverend Mother Victoria, right, pray and offer their supplications to God on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, the morning of Watch Night, New Year's Eve, at Mamba Point Beach in Monrovia, Liberia. Members of Faith Ministries Church of Bushrod Island travel to the beach to worship. The Reverend Mother said 2015 would be a year of prospering and a year of delivery. © Cheryl Hatch



A pedestrian passes a billboard with a warning message about Ebola in Monrovia, Liberia, on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014. The government used billboards, murals and songs about Ebola played on the radio to raise awareness about the disease and its prevention. © Cheryl Hatch



A crowd gathers around the body of a man on SKD Boulevard in Monrovia, Liberia, on Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. People reported the man was a criminal who had robbed houses in the neighborhood. They allegedly set a trap, captured him, and beat him to death. A burial team from the Liberian Red Cross arrived to pick up the body and decontaminate the scene. © Cheryl Hatch



Men play soccer in Buchanan, Liberia, on Sunday morning, Jan. 11, 2015. During the height of the Ebola outbreak, there were fewer games played due to the physical activity, sweat and possible body contact. © Cheryl Hatch



A young man walks up the hill to the Ebola Treatment Unit in Sinje, Liberia, on Thursday morning, Jan. 15, 2015. The ETU has patients from the most recent flare up of Ebola in Grand Cape Mount on the border with Sierra Leone. © Cheryl Hatch


Fish monger

A woman barters for fish on the beach at West Point in Monrovia, Liberia, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014. © Cheryl Hatch


Door Buchanan

Children pose for a photograph in the doorway of a home in the port city of Buchanan, Liberia, on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. © Cheryl Hatch


All photographs by Cheryl Hatch. All rights reserved.

LARB Contributor

Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk, an Amazon Best Book of 2012. He is a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer and military contractor, and served two combat tours in Iraq as a bomb squad commander. His writing has appeared in a number of national and regional publications, including WiredThe New York Times, The Daily Beast, Outside, and Foreign Policy.


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