Tim Butcher

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Tim Butcher

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in Rugby, Warwickshire, The United Kingdom
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About this author

Tim Butcher is a best-selling British author, journalist and broadcaster. Born in 1967, he was on the staff of The Daily Telegraph from 1990 to 2009, covering all major conflicts across the Balkans the Middle East and Africa. Recognised in 2010 with an honorary doctorate for services to journalism and writing, he is based with his family in the South African city of Cape Town.


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Tim Butcher The current ebola crisis in West Africa certainly churns my mind. Poor Johnson Boie, the sterling guide who acted as gatekeeper for my understanding…moreThe current ebola crisis in West Africa certainly churns my mind. Poor Johnson Boie, the sterling guide who acted as gatekeeper for my understanding of rural Liberia when we walked across the country in 2009, texts me daily. I read avidly. He has retreated – on the advice of health experts – back to his home village up in Lofa County, where the outbreak began in Liberia, and is doing everything possible to keep his community safe.
At first my thoughts were of linkage. I came across ebola when I wrote my first book, Blood River, on my journey through the Congo. Ebola was identified there for the first time in 1976, taking its name from a small river called `Ebola’ that runs into the Congo River north of the riverine settlement of Bumba.
I had reported in 2000 on an ebola outbreak in northern Uganda and got to learn the basics of the disease: a filamental virus, harboured by bush animals most likely bats, once it jumps from the animal to human the virus invades cells, replicates like mad and after 21 days of incubation acts like a wrecking ball to blood vessels, smashing capillary walls and causing the patient to bleed out. Blood loss is so bad catastrophic the patient basically dies of dehydration.
But I also learnt two other things. If treated by healthworkers who stay healthy, the patient can survive if kept hydrated. Survival rates if – and it’s a big if – healthworkers stay healthy are much, much higher than the scare stories of the media suggest. I also learnt that all ebola outbreaks recorded have taken place either in the Congo basin or within overland transport links of the basin.
So my first big thought was: how did it jump 2,000 miles north and west to Guinea, where it first appeared before spreading to Sierra Leone and Liberia? Scientists are debating how this might have happened but there is no clear answer yet.
As the crisis grew bigger, my next thoughts were about another unique feature of this new outbreak: it has reached urban populations. This has never happened before and this makes it so much more important from a global perspective.
We know HIV only became globally pathogenic because it spread to a large urban area ( the Congo, again I am afraid to say – Kinshasa ) and now the same has happened to ebola. Will ebola go globally pathogenic?
My thoughts then turned to Douglas Adams and his refrain `Don’t Panic’. If we panic and give up on helping the West African communities currently blighted, then it is more likely to become a global problem. I recalibrated the refrain to `Don’t Panic Yet’. As long as common sense prevails and good health care arrives, this outbreak will be dealt with and it will not spill globally. But this means the world will have to get involved, because of my next thoughts.
There were about how the fantastic people of West Africa, people like Johnson, are so chronically let down by their hopeless, corrupt, ineffective governments. We know ebola is containable using methods that are not that expensive or demanding in expertise, what is known as `barrier nursing’ where healthworkers are protected.
I know Salone and Liberia have first class health practitioners more than capable of dealing with the outbreak. What they don’t have is the gear, resources and equipment. And here, the local governments are to blame. When I passed through Salone in 2009 on the Chasing the Devil trek, there was one working X ray machine in the government sector. There were lots of broken ones but only one working one. And that comes down to stolen budgets, corrupt management and incompetent administration.
Remember more than 200 people died in Freetown, capital of Salone, just a couple of years ago because of cholera, one of the most manageable diseases in the world. Clean water means no cholera and yet that is beyond the abilities of a government in an economy that grew 33 per cent two years ago (yes, 33 per cent real growth in one year, OECD figures).
Then my thoughts turned to Graham Greene. His 1935 journey passed through the exact hot zone for today’s outbreak. All the places named in reports today sounded familiar to me as I passed through them when following his route and it made me re-read his original diary which I have a copy of. The first name he gave the book that would become Journey Without Maps was different. It was `Journey in the Dark’.
It made me think of Joseph Conrad and the literary millstone he hocked Africa with when he chose the title `Heart of Darkness’ for the novel he wrote out of his own experience on the Congo in the 1890s. Was Conrad presciently hinting at a dark health crisis, then morphing and replicating in the African bush into what would become HIV? Was Greene hinting at another health crisis lurking in the jungle that he crossed?
My thoughts keep churning at every turn of this virus-led ebola health crisis.
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Tim Butcher A single `favourite’ does not exist for me. I have a shelf of travel books that have raised me up at different times over the years. On it you can…moreA single `favourite’ does not exist for me. I have a shelf of travel books that have raised me up at different times over the years. On it you can find: Another Day of Life by Kapuscinski, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Newby, Exterminate All the Brutes by Lindqvist and plenty of Chatwin’s mash-ups.

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More books by Tim Butcher…
What a discovery I made in a book by Laurie Lee. One reads so much about war, one knows how clearly it has been framed by filmmakers, poets and many others, that I rather felt it a topic that can no longer move me afresh.

Yet deep in Lee's `A Moment of War', his memoir about taking part in the Spanish Civil War in 1937/8 was this. No grandstanding, no chest puffing, no swagger, just searing hone... Read more of this blog post »
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Published on January 28, 2015 00:00 • 52 views • Tags: combat, conflict, laurie-lee, tim-butcher, war, writing

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“….So much crueller than any British colony, they say, so much more brutal towards the local Africans, so much more manipulative after begrudgingly granting independence. But the history of British colonialism in Africa, from Sierra Leone to Zimbabwe, Kenya to Botswana and else-where, is not fundamentally different from what Belgium did in the Congo. You can argue about degree, but both systems were predicated on the same assumption: that white outsiders knew best and Africans were to be treated not as partners, but as underlings. What the British did in Kenya to suppress the pro-independence mau-mau uprising in the 1950s, using murder, torture and mass imprisonment, was no more excusable than the mass arrests and political assassinations committed by Belgium when it was trying to cling on to the Congo. And the outside world's tolerance of a dictator in the Congo like Mobutu, whose corruption and venality were overlooked for strategic expedience, was no different from what happened in Zimbabwe, where the dictator Robert Mugabe was allowed to run his country and its people into the ground because Western powers gullibly accepted the way he presented himself as the only leader able to guarantee stability and an end to civil strife. Those sniffy British colonial types might not like to admit it, but the Congo represents the quintessence of the entire continent’s colonial experience. It might be extreme and it might be shocking, but what happened in the Congo is nothing but colonialism in its purest, basest form.”
Tim Butcher, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

“the normal laws of development are inverted here in the Congo. The forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true.” p141”
Tim Butcher, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

“The old man might have been drunk, but he was right. Outsiders have robbed and exploited the people of the Congo ever since the days of the first European and Arab slavers. The territory that Stanley staked in the name of Leopold witnessed what many regard as the first genocide of the modern era, when millions of Congolese were effectively worked to death trying to meet the colonialists’ almost insatiable demand for resources, most notably rubber. And since independence, foreign powers have toyed with the Congo, stripping its mineral assets and exploiting its strategic position, never mindful of the suffering inflicted on its people. And that really was the point. At every stage of its bloody history, outsiders have tended to treat Congolese as somehow sub-human, not worthy of the consideration they would expect for themselves. For progress to be made, outsiders must treat Congolese as equals and they could do worse than follow the example of an amazing white woman I discovered after we got back to Kalemie.”
Tim Butcher, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

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“The old man might have been drunk, but he was right. Outsiders have robbed and exploited the people of the Congo ever since the days of the first European and Arab slavers. The territory that Stanley staked in the name of Leopold witnessed what many regard as the first genocide of the modern era, when millions of Congolese were effectively worked to death trying to meet the colonialists’ almost insatiable demand for resources, most notably rubber. And since independence, foreign powers have toyed with the Congo, stripping its mineral assets and exploiting its strategic position, never mindful of the suffering inflicted on its people. And that really was the point. At every stage of its bloody history, outsiders have tended to treat Congolese as somehow sub-human, not worthy of the consideration they would expect for themselves. For progress to be made, outsiders must treat Congolese as equals and they could do worse than follow the example of an amazing white woman I discovered after we got back to Kalemie.”
Tim Butcher, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

“the normal laws of development are inverted here in the Congo. The forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true.” p141”
Tim Butcher, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

“….So much crueller than any British colony, they say, so much more brutal towards the local Africans, so much more manipulative after begrudgingly granting independence. But the history of British colonialism in Africa, from Sierra Leone to Zimbabwe, Kenya to Botswana and else-where, is not fundamentally different from what Belgium did in the Congo. You can argue about degree, but both systems were predicated on the same assumption: that white outsiders knew best and Africans were to be treated not as partners, but as underlings. What the British did in Kenya to suppress the pro-independence mau-mau uprising in the 1950s, using murder, torture and mass imprisonment, was no more excusable than the mass arrests and political assassinations committed by Belgium when it was trying to cling on to the Congo. And the outside world's tolerance of a dictator in the Congo like Mobutu, whose corruption and venality were overlooked for strategic expedience, was no different from what happened in Zimbabwe, where the dictator Robert Mugabe was allowed to run his country and its people into the ground because Western powers gullibly accepted the way he presented himself as the only leader able to guarantee stability and an end to civil strife. Those sniffy British colonial types might not like to admit it, but the Congo represents the quintessence of the entire continent’s colonial experience. It might be extreme and it might be shocking, but what happened in the Congo is nothing but colonialism in its purest, basest form.”
Tim Butcher, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

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message 10: by Michael

Michael Arden Hi Tim, I thought about your great book, Blood River, the other night watching Anthony Bourdain on CNN with his Congo segment of "Parts Unknown" - the tension he felt being there, a decades-long dream fulfilled, was palpable in the film. I now have a copy of Chasing the Devil and look forward to reading it along with Paul Theroux's latest, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari. Hope all is well with you!


message 9: by Jim

Jim Shaughnessy Hi Tim,

Thanks for your message, that's really thoughtful. Loved Blood River, fascinating read.

Jim


Shovelmonkey1 Hi Tim, accepted your friend request. .. welcome to goodreads! I enjoyed Blood River very much and passed my copy on to a friend who also gave it the thumbs up. I'd love to travel in Africa and one of my ambitions is to take part in the Dakar rally.


message 7: by Susan

Susan Hi Tim,
Thanks for the friend request ... and also for your book! I loved it - looks like I'll be moving on to Chasing the Devil next;-)


message 6: by Nadia

Nadia Hey I read your book a wee a couple of months back now, and was enthralled by the idea of a trip up the Congo... other than war, rampage and pillage it's unfortunately a country that gets zero coverage, so was certainly a very interesting read!


Mathilda I read Blood River twice, thinking that i rated it to high the first time, a year later I read it again and wondered why I doubted my first rating....because of the rarity of this genre of books I try to get hold of everything available but without a doubt I will read Blood River again in the future!
ps. Also enjoyed Chasing the Devil and it is waiting for me to be re-read...


message 4: by Beth

Beth Read it twice Tim....loved the power of it.


Barnyard ISF Thank you. I love a good African account. I am working on my own adventure personal story. Some of it can be found at www.MattoleFreeState.webs.com Thank you so much.


Marieke Hi--I definitely enjoyed Blood River and am looking forward to reading Chasing the Devil. Am I crazy or did Anthony Bourdain meet up with you in Liberia when you were working on that book?


message 1: by Brian

Brian Wiersema a friend who served as a peace corps teacher in liberia recently recommended "chasing the devil".

it's a literate, superb book and a terrific read
and opens the door to a whole new spectrum of
literature on that area, including Greene's original
1935 book (at my library) and tim's "blood river".

i've read a lot of first person travel accounts.
devil tops the list. --brian wiersema


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