'The motive of a journey deserves a little attention,' observed Graham Greene in his 1935 travelogue, Journey Without Maps
. 'It is not the fully conscious mind which chooses West Africa in preference to Switzerland.'
As a result, it's not entirely clear why Greene chose to walk from Freetown in colonial Sierra Leone to Monrovia in Liberia at a time when only their respective coastal settlements were adequately mapped. Last week, I did the same journey in reverse, though mercifully not on foot. My motivation was also clearer: visiting my first new countries since the end of 2019.
I had arranged a trip for April 2020, but that was swept away by the Covid monsoon. More than two years later, I eschewed my usual solo travel and joined a group tour, which proved convivial if not without its frustrations. After a couple of days in atmospheric Casablanca, I flew with a friend to Monrovia at the ungodly hours which seem de rigueur in this part of the world.
To the casual visitor, Greene reckoned Monrovia 'a more pleasant town than Freetown'; the latter being like an 'old training port that has been left to rot' and the former 'like a beginning'. Greene muddies the waters by also calling it a 'shabby little capital', which I found to be more accurate. In fact, besides a handful of ostentatious state buildings, a sorry little national museum and some shacks, Monrovia (the only capital named after another state's leader) was barely recognisable as a city at all.
There was a general air of decay, doubtless hastened by the constant dampness of the rainy season. All we did was visit ruined buildings, many consequences of economic instability and civil war. This was fine by me, for I like ruins – especially the modern sort. Just outside Monrovia was the colourful shell of the Africa Hotel, which in 1979 hosted the Organisation for African Unity conference. The swimming pool was still full and a couple of concrete elephants had lost their trunks.
Robertsport – named after Liberia's first President – seemed more orderly, but it too was punctuated with ruins like the former Liberian Cultural Centre and associated hotel. A challenging trek along the rocky coast also revealed a modern shipwreck, the Tamaya 1, which came ashore in 2016 with no crew on board. A friend in Nigeria told me it was most likely an insurance scam.
The most striking feature of Liberia is its US-inspired political system. Graham Greene thought this 'like a crap game played with loaded dice'. The President ('boss of the whole show') dominates, though the corruption exceeds anything in the mother country.
Outside Monrovia we had an audience with General 'Butt Naked', a civil war veteran whose wide smile and genial demeanour gave no hint of the atrocities he had once committed. Apparently a reformed character, he now takes in drug-addicted children and gives them a trade. That said, he still spoke remarkably coolly about nearly killing a man who as a consequence had lost both his legs. I asked the General how he viewed Liberia's future and he became more reflective, attacking (somewhat ironically) a culture of impunity which hinders progress. Later, he gave me a biscuit.
The United States and its politics are held in high regard. Our guide spoke continually of 'freedom' in the manner of a republican ideologue, although he admitted it had gone too far and needed to be 'curtailed' in certain respects. The streets of Monrovia, such as they were, were adorned with US-style signs and the cars with US-style number plates. Even the police uniforms were hand-me-downs from the NYPD.
The quality of infrastructure, however, was decades behind even the poorest US backwater. As we left Liberia and crossed into the former Commonwealth Realm of Sierra Leone, for four days I was completely 'off grid', lacking wifi (shudder), comfortable bedding and even reliable electricity. The roads were appalling (50kph signs took on a comic quality) and the group sighed with relief whenever our vehicle reacquainted itself with tarmac.
By the time I reconnected with the outside world in Bo, Sierra Leone's second city (known as its 'Manchester'), I received urgent messages from friends and family enquiring as to my safety (I realised that my last social media posting had been an unhelpful selfie with General Butt Naked). Bo did not live up to its billing. It was raining heavily when we arrived and neither our hotel (whose five stars were doing some heavy lifting) nor the city's nightlife offered much respite.
I learned later that Queen Elizabeth II (known locally as 'Mama Queen II') had visited Bo during her 1961 tour of Sierra Leone, which took place a few months after its independence from the UK (although HM remained Queen of Sierra Leone until 1971). I found an old Pathé newsreel online which recorded the monarch's obvious interest in the diamond mines which surround Bo. At its Coronation field, she presented commemorative medals to paramount chiefs following a 'durbar'. On the remote Tiwai Island, we witnessed the same sort of 'secret society' dance the Queen had more than 60 years ago.
Strikingly, everywhere we went this visit and its itinerary were evoked, not always accurately. There didn't appear to be any resentment towards British rule (there were also grateful memories of Tony Blair's military intervention) and throughout Sierra Leone the detritus of Empire had been left pretty much undisturbed. This was especially true in Freetown which, while nothing like the spotless city portrayed on the Pathé newsreel, was still a fine post-colonial city, easily the best I've seen outside East Africa.
Occupying pride of place at the marvellous National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone was a coach built for the Queen's visit but never used due to an itinerary change. During the civil war, its original sheet panels were removed by locals desperate for building material. Since restored, inside was displayed a letter from the Lord Chamberlain's Office thanking the museum's trustees for their 90th birthday wishes and congratulating them on the restoration work.
At St George's Cathedral, the faded and rather grubby signatures of the Queen and Prince Philip could also be seen in its visitors book. Inside was the usual assortment of Anglo-Scottish memorials. One on the west wall commemorated Major Eric Mackay Clarke, a Scot from Durness, who had died just a week after arriving in Freetown. Following their visit, the Queen and Philip departed as they had arrived, on the Royal Yacht Britannia, at what is still known as Queen Elizabeth II Quay.
Freetown appeared calm just a couple of weeks after cost-of-living protests and a resulting curfew. It hadn't helped that the President of Sierra Leone and his family were on an extended holiday in London. A Sierra Leonian colleague had even told me not to go ahead with my trip. Having ignored this advice, I was nevertheless grateful to leave on Sunday morning.
The journey to Lungi International Airport from a part of Freetown known as 'Aberdeen' was convoluted and expensive, albeit novel in that it was mainly via water taxi. Several hours later, and as I relaxed on one of Morocco's high-speed trains to Tangier, I felt as Graham Greene must have nearly 90 years ago: enriched by my West African experience but also relieved.
David Torrance is a writer and historian