Tim Butcher, writing war’s wrongs
Tim Butcher has joined a project that draws attention to the plight of young women across the globe by writing a story of abuse and degradation in Sierra Leone – where he went to banish some of his own demons. Helena Frith Powell reports.
“Do you know who that is?” asks Tim Butcher as we make our way to a table at the Bistro Madeleine at the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai, where he is taking part in the Emirates Literary Festival. “That’s Alexander McCall-Smith, the bestselling author. In fact, I’ve been wanting to thank him for years for endorsing my book.”
We walk over to McCall-Smith’s table and they start chatting about elephants. They clearly have a lot in common, but Butcher is here to talk about African women, not elephants, and his involvement in a project called Because I Am A Girl organised by Plan, a leading children’s rights aid group. Butcher has written a moving account of one girl’s horrific “upbringing” at the hands of warring armed factions in Sierra Leone. The chapter is called Bendu’s Dream and is one of seven short stories written by authors including Irvine Welsh, Joanne Harris and Kathy Lette in a book called Because I Am A Girl. It is being sold in aid of Plan’s Because I Am A Girl campaign, which aims to transform the lives of the world’s poorest girls by ensuring they get properly taught through, for example, sponsorship programmes and funding for education.
“You get asked to do so many things,” Butcher says once he has been steered off the subject of elephants. “But what stood out for me about Plan was the fact that it was set up by a British war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War who stopped what he was doing when he came across a small child with a brown tag around his neck on which was written in clumsy letters, Paddington-Bear like, ‘this boy is called Jose, please look after him. I am his father and I will be dead by the time you read this’. I was really moved by that because I’ve spent my career going to places where this sort of thing happens and it was impressive to hear about someone stopping what they were doing to set up a charity to change the world.”
Butcher is best known for his bestselling book about the Congo, Blood River: A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart, a Sunday Times bestseller in 2008 and runner-up in the British Book Awards. He gave up his day job at The Daily Telegraph in August 2009 to achieve his “lifelong dream” of writing books full-time. At the Telegraph he worked for 20 years as a war correspondent, Africa bureau chief and, latterly, Middle East correspondent.
“I liked the suggestion that Plan came up with; different writers attacking the same subject, that subject being the plight of young women and girls in the developing world,” he says. “And also what appealed to me is that they said I had the freedom to write whatever I wanted; poetry, journalism, whatever worked. I was already going to Sierra Leone and Liberia for my next book (Chasing The Devil) so I asked if they had any projects there.”
Butcher was keen to go back to Sierra Leone to “deal with some demons left over from the war”. In May 2000, two journalist friends he had known since the Balkans war – Kurt Schork who was with Reuters, and Miguel Gil Moreno from the Associated Press – were shot dead by the Revolutionary United Front. “For me, going back to Sierra Leone this time was as much as anything about dealing with the fears and anxieties brought on by those wartime memories. I made a private pilgrimage to the site where they died, something that was cathartic,” he says. “But in the people I met, the survivors of the war, such as the girl on whom I based my story for the Plan book, I found not just examples of suffering but also inspirations for the future, evidence of people rebuilding their lives and moving on.”
The story Butcher wrote is based on a girl he met and interviewed in Kailahun, a centre for aid efforts in the “wild east” of Sierra Leone where the war was most intense. “Her name has been changed, but everything about her is real,” he says. “She’s about 23 now, although no one is sure of her real age. She has no parents; they were both killed. She was on her mother’s back when her mother was shot.”
Bendu’s Dream is the story of a girl who sees the Devil in a dream and goes to a village elder for help interpreting it. “She has become a bit of a spokesman [for Plan]. Her story is so powerful and she is so articulate. I have read a lot of the court transcripts in the past and they are shocking, but very dry. They say things like ‘the woman was raped 15 times’, but it didn’t quite move me until I heard this girl describe it.”
“Bendu” became, at a very young age, the plaything of a man called Issay, whom she described to Butcher as “a very bad man, from the dark side”. In the story, Butcher describes her ordeal: “There had been assaults by men, if that’s the right word for the armed brutes often not much older than her. She could remember the rancid smell of palm wine on their breath and the glazed unseeing eyes as they crushed the last remnants of her childhood out of her.”
Eventually she escaped and found help through Plan. She had reconstructive surgery after the war but has been told she will never have children. “It was so moving to see not only the physical scars but the emotional scars on this poor girl,” says Butcher. “I still regard her as a girl because emotionally she is very immature. Also, she was wearing a school uniform; it is the only social anchor she’s got.”
Sharon Goulds, the editor and project leader of the Because I Am A Girl research report for Plan UK, explains that they started the campaign because of the results of their first report on the world’s girls in 2007. “We were shocked at the lack of equality that we found,” she says. “In many parts of the world, girls are fed less, are the first to be pulled out of school if families are poor, and in India in particular, the abortion of female foetuses means that hundreds of thousands of girls do not get to be born at all. Families do not invest in their girls and the cycle of poverty is handed on from mother to daughter. It is clear that there is a correlation between women’s education and tackling poverty but it is all too easy to ignore the welfare of girls and young women. The feeling is that girls go to their husband’s family so why ‘water another man’s garden?'”
Butcher says he would be delighted to do more work for the Because I Am A Girl project. “Anything that promotes education of girls and their well-being is worth supporting, especially somewhere like Africa where, I am sad to say, their ancestry holds them back,” he says. “Female circumcision, for example, is part of their tradition, but it has no place in today’s world.” Campaigns such as this one aim to give girls the confidence to fight back against discrimination. In the foreword of Because I Am A Girl, Rakhi, aged 17, says: “Someday I will prove that I am no less than my brothers.
Because I Am A Girl is published by Vintage and available at Magrudy’s, priced Dh52. For more information or to sponsor a girl, please go to www.becauseiamagirl.org Tim Butcher’s new book, Chasing The Devil, describing a 560km trek he made through Sierra Leone and Liberia following in the footsteps of Graham Greene, will be published in September. M Magazine will run a full interview with him to coincide with the publication.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019