ZOGORWEE, LIBERIA, JUNE 2009
DANCING WITH THE DEVIL
In 1935, the writer Graham Greene set off on a journey through Sierra
Leone and Liberia. In his book Journey without Maps, Greene asked what
were the Europeans doing there? What did the slogans about civilising
the natives actually mean? Humphrey Hawksley has been there to retrace
Graham Greene's journey.
Shortly after dark as the solitary stilted "devil dancer" walked back
into the Liberian forest, we headed off, but soon found the road blocked
and in the darkness it was difficult to see why.
My torch beam picked up piles of bananas on the side of the road. I
call it a road, but it was more like a farm track.
I then saw sacks of rice, a huddle of people - maybe 20 or 30 - they
were passengers from a blue flatbed truck that was skewed across the
route, its front wheels trapped in a ditch.
I heard what I thought was a baby's cry and ran forward only to find
that four bleating goats were part of the truck's cargo. They were strapped
onto the side, hanging and wrapped in brown cotton sheeting.
"We'll have to return to the village," I muttered to my Liberian driver,
"No, we'll fix it," he said. "The chief back in the village is happy
because we gave him some dash. So the devil is happy. So soon we'll
Dash is an old word for gift that the writer Graham Greene handed out
to village chiefs when he walked through Liberia in 1935. I was tracing
his route to see how much had changed.
Today, disease is still rampant, although the yellow fever of Greene's
day has been overtaken by Aids. Pot-bellied children run around villages
that are controlled by paramount chiefs. Christian missionaries still
run much of the health service.
That morning, I had stood outside a small, stone church - such as you
would find in any English village - at the entrance to the United Methodist
Mission in the town of Ganta.
It was far in the northern interior of Liberia, and in Greene's day
the inadequate map had simply marked the area as being inhabited by
Greene had stayed at this mission station as a guest of a Dr Harley
who had built the church, set up a clinic and was an expert in the secret
societies and spiritual ways of the devil that Mickey and I had just
been discussing with the village chief.
One of Dr Harley's successors was Sue Porter, a quietly spoken and thoughtful
American missionary nurse, who explained that many Liberians felt they
had one foot in the bush and one in the modern world. And it was the
same with their belief in God.
"When you talk about spiritual power here, it's about the power or an
ability to do something whether it is good or bad," she said as we sat
in the shade of a tree in the mission school grounds.
"Our Western culture doesn't allow us to see it as a dual-sided figure."
"It's our bush society," said Victor, the Liberian mission hospital
"The secret societies are meant to make you a good citizen, so the devil
reminds you that if you are bad you can be punished."
Mickey and I had gone on to the village of Zorgorwee, where a "devil
dancer" was to be performing at dusk.
The village chief, dressed in a bright yellow and brown robe, said he
was too hungry to speak to me, until Mickey gave him some dash - a packet
of biscuits from our car. Then the chief summoned a translator.
"My name is Jacob Kermon," he said in a booming voice that carried above
the sound of singing and drums heralding the arrival of the devil. "And
Jesus Christ is my personal saviour."
"Then, why are we here worshipping the devil?" I asked, slightly confused.
"When the devil comes out people feel good," he said. "He brings happiness
and reconciliation within the community."
As the sun dropped and villagers lit fires, a stilted dancer walked
in from the forest.
He stood six metres high. His face was covered with a black mask, his
head rimmed with shells. He was dressed in orange pyjamas, his hands
sealed within the cotton.
One by one the devil plucked us from the crowd.
I had to stretch up my hands to hold his, staring through wood smoke
at the mask and on to a star-filled sky, as he twirled me round and
"In the Christian world," wrote Greene, "we have grown accustomed to
the idea of a spiritual war, of God and Satan."
But, he added, in this supernatural world there was "neither good nor
evil", simply power, a concept that was beyond our "sympathetic comprehension."
But it was not beyond that of Mickey, my driver.
He was a wiry, powerful, young man, expert in making things work when
they should not.
He had already used soapy water to replace leaking brake fluid and found
petrol hidden in mayonnaise jars in a town where we were told it had
Now he stalked around the hapless flatbed truck, speaking softly to
some people, raising his voice to others.
Tree branches went under the wheels. Men lined up to push. The driver
waited for a cue, which was delayed while the bleating goats were unhooked
from the side.
Then with a heave, the wheels spun and caught. The truck lurched, and
to much cheering, it bounced back onto the road.
Mickey gave me a knowing look. "As the chief told us," he said, "if
you dance with the devil, the devil will be nice to you."