Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness depicts Africa as a continent of primordial darkness where savage impulses reign. Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, but The Vice Guide to Liberia presents a similarly brutal image of the Dark Continent, except that the darkness has crept out of the jungle into the dilapidated cities. This is not a really a travel guide, however; it is a deliberate search for degeneracy.
Degeneracy is easy to find in Liberia, which is a particularly wretched place, even for Africa. It is a country where underage hookers sell their bodies for less than a dollar to feed their drug addictions, and where cannibal warlords transform themselves into evangelical preachers overnight. The film is reminiscent of a documentary made in the 1960s, Africa Addio. Both show aspects of Africa the West refuses to see, and suggest how difficult it is for Africans to manage a Western-style state.
The Guide to Liberia is part of Vice Magazine’s series that documents the worst countries in the world—there are Vice guides to North Korea and Lebanon. The Guide to Liberia is arguably the most politically incorrect.
All of the guides follow Vice personnel as they tramp their way into the unknown, and this one stars Vice Magazine co-founder Shane Smith. In the opening scene, Mr. Smith is wading through a river with a former warlord known as General Butt Naked, who tells Mr. Smith how he earned his nom de guerre: He and his troops went into battle completely naked in order to terrify their enemies, and as a sign that bullets could not touch them. Gen. Butt Naked, whose troops reportedly killed more than 20,000 people, also describes how his men would kill a child and drink his blood as a pre-battle ritual. The guide then cuts to a clip of a child soldier holding up a human heart, boasting that he is about to eat it.
Mr. Smith then gives us a history lesson. Liberia was founded by American abolitionists as a haven for freed slaves who wanted to return to their home continent. Many abolitionists, including Abraham Lincoln, promoted repatriation but it was not popular among blacks; only 13,000 made the journey.
The ex-slaves who did return to Africa brought ideas from their former masters: They enslaved the natives and established a society like that of the antebellum South. The descendents of slaves, known as Americo-Liberians, continued to dominate Liberia until 1980, when Samuel Doe, one of the “aborigines,” as the former American slaves called them, took power in a coup that left the president and dozens of top government officials dead. A decade later, a rebellion led by Charles Taylor toppled Doe. Mr. Taylor’s father was an Americo-Liberian, and Charles earned a degree at Bentley College in Massachusetts in 1977. At one time he worked for the Doe regime, but was fired for embezzlement.
Doe was captured by an ally of Mr. Taylor, Prince Johnson, who tortured and killed Doe before cutting up his body and giving the parts to his men to eat. The torture was filmed and distributed to media, recording that Mr. Johnson sipped Budweiser as his men sliced off Doe’s ears.
After Doe’s fall, Liberia became a playground for dozens of warlords who fought each other over petty swaths of land. Eventually, they reached a peace agreement and there were elections in 1997. Mr. Taylor won, with the campaign slogan: “He killed my ma, He killed my pa, but I will vote for him.” Mr. Taylor’s rule was marked by generalized chaos, and came to an end in 2003 when mounting foreign pressure forced him out. In 2012, Mr. Taylor was convicted of war crimes by a UN tribunal condemned to 50 years in prison. Since Mr. Taylor’s exit, Liberia has enjoyed relative stability, though the country is still overrun with “veterans” of decades of war and has an estimated unemployment rate of 80 percent.
Mr. Smith meets a white journalist who will help him find former warlords who still have influence among their followers. They have names such as General Mosquito, after the insect that spreads malaria; Gen. Mosquito’s rival was called General Mosquito Spray. Liberians think these are fearsome names.
The journalist leads Mr. Smith to a warlord known as General Bin Laden, but he is locked up in a slum called Baboon Town. Mr. Smith learns he must spring Gen. Bin Laden from jail in order to interview him, but this is easily done by bribing the jail chief.
Gen. Bin Laden seems young for a former war lord: He looks to be only in his twenties. He takes Mr. Smith and his crew to his gang stronghold, where they are soon surrounded by a curious crowd. Mr. Bin Laden explains that the warlords are now community leaders, and provide valuable services to the people. As an example of his community service, Mr. Bin Laden says he teaches karate to the people of Baboon Town.
Mr. Smith has to cut the interview short; the crowd is growing, and seems to think he is a white foreigner with plenty of money to dole out. The Vice crew makes its way back to downtown Monrovia, and finds a Liberian journalist who shows them around.
The journalist takes the crew to the worst slum in the country, West Point. The streets are open sewers, piled with garbage and human feces; the stench is overwhelming. The journalist explains that the slum was devastated by the war and that its residents do not use toilets. Instead, they use the nearby beach. The beach is covered with trash and human waste, but children scamper about, seemingly undisturbed. When Mr. Smith notes that “one of the first basic rules is ‘Don’t shit where you eat’,” the Liberian replies that even the commissioner of the district “squats and shits with the people.”
Mr. Smith notes the influence of black American culture on the Liberians—many of the children wear American basketball jerseys and Tupac shirts. An aspiring rapper does a song for the crew about AIDS, that includes the line: “What type of sickness kills everybody? AIDS!”
The crew goes to a heroin den and finds a young boy who spends all his money there. He says he raped a “big-belly woman” and stole her money. “Break noses, break teeth, cut ears . . . what else are we going to do for money?” he asks.
The journalist takes the Vice crew to a West Point brothel where prostitutes offer sex for less than one US dollar. The brothel is strewn with used condoms and blood. The prostitutes say the UN troops and officials beat them, and have sex with small children. One prostitue appears to be pregnant, while another one is clearly drugged. She starts screaming for money, which draws a crowd that also starts screaming for money. Mr. Smith and his crew escape.
Mr. Smith recounts some sobering statistics: Liberia is the world’s fourth poorest country, half the country is illiterate, seventy percent of Liberian women have been raped, and many Liberians have eaten human meat. The film then cuts to a child soldier from the civil war saying how much he likes human flesh, while other soldiers cut organs from a dead body.
Mr. Smith meets a warlord named General Rambo who says that during the civil wars, local merchants drove wagons of human meat through the city and sold it to residents. He claims he talked to the American government about sending his band of soldiers to fight in Iraq. He says the plan was scrapped, but Gen. Rambo said that he felt Liberians were “the reserve troops of America,” and that he wanted to fight for the US. He says Liberia could quickly erupt into civil war because jungle-dwelling rebels are still heavily armed. He says only the UN keeps the rebels from attacking.
The film returns to General Butt Naked, who says his real name is Joshua Blahyi. He had recently been pardoned for war crimes by a Liberian commission because of his conversion to Christianity, but he had nevertheless just survived an assassination attempt. Mr. Blahyi is now a suit-wearing preacher rather than a nude cannibal warlord. He cuts an imposing figure. He is significantly bigger than the other Liberians in the film, most of whom look weak and emaciated.
Mr. Blahyi takes the crew to his old stronghold where he describes, in detail, his pre-battle routine of killing a child. He says they would stab the child through the back, rip out the heart, cut it into pieces, and feed them to the soldiers. He believed this made them braver during battle. He says he also gave them drugs to make them brave and keep them loyal.
During one such sacrifice, Mr. Blahyi claims he saw an angelic figure urging him to accept Jesus Christ or face death. His gun jammed during the battle, which he took as a sign that he needed to change his ways. He says not all Liberians believe his conversion story, and adds that he has trouble escaping violence because there have been many attempts on his life.
One of the men at Blahyi’s mission was a rival warlord of General Butt Naked. He says he was left with nothing after the fighting, and had to go to a cemetery for shelter. This is common in Liberia, and Mr. Blahyi takes Mr. Smith and his crew to a cemetery to observe this disturbing trend. Mr. Blahyi says homeless veterans dig the bodies out of the graves, where they live. Mr. Smith says an estimated 4,000 people have lived in graves in Liberia.
Mr. Blahyi says he is never sure about eating meat because it might be human flesh. He recognizes the taste of human meat, and a cut he recently ate that turned out to be human. He says that when he was a cannibal, he preferred meat from the back.
The rest of the guide follows Mr. Blahyi’s career as an evangelist. He gives a rousing sermon, and leads the congregation in uplifting songs that sound like rock and roll. Mr. Smith is asked to speak to the congregation, and he congratulates Mr. Blahyi on the “good work” he is doing. Mr. Blahyi comes across as very charismatic and likeable, despite his record. Mr. Smith confesses that his cordial relationship with Mr. Blahyi may be a case of Stockholm syndrome. Still, he wonders if Mr. Blahyi will stick with Christianity or go back to being General Butt Naked.
The Vice Guide to Liberia is clearly meant to appeal to young viewers who enjoy humor and don’t mind profanity. It treats Liberia’s problems seriously, but never hints that they are the West’s fault or that the world owes Liberia anything. What the guide shows are no doubt the most disturbing and incongruous images Mr. Smith could find, but a continent that can produce scenes such as these is one that is unlikely to produce anything that could be called a civilization.