On the western coast of Africa, in a rambling Liberian ghetto called Chocolate City, a former cannibal is sitting under the shade of a tin-roofed hut explaining how he sacrificed humans to placate a jungle god. "I didn't see it as cruel at the time," the squat, muscular man says in his thick patois, a bead of sweat inching down his grim face. "I saw it as a mediating role between the deity and the people."
A congregation of about 20 teenage boys – an assortment of reformed killers and drug addicts - sits on plastic chairs and listens raptly as the man in a baseball cap and brown military shirt sleeves confesses to leading a militia of drug-fueled child soldiers to kill a purported 20,000 people during a horrific period of unrest in the 1980s and '90s, and to eating children from his own tribe to gain spiritual favor in battle. Until he found Jesus in a burst of white light – shortly after hacking his last victim to death - he merely saw it as part of the job description. "Every time I do this sacrifice," he says, "the battle immediately turns against the enemy. Or turns in favor of us. They would start running."
He also believed nudity was his armor against enemy bullets –thus his wartime moniker, General Butt Naked.
The three white Americans sitting alongside Butt Naked are duly sobered by the testimony. And in the raw reality of the moment, there is the hanging question of why their leader, Tom Freston, the spike-haired media mogul who helped create MTV and once ran the film and TV company Viacom, has brought them here, to a bleak neighborhood in a failed and lawless state, to meet a murderer. Freston and his companions, part of a larger delegation of pampered Westerners in SUVs who arrived in Liberia about four hours ago, couldn't look more conspicuous if they'd been dropped out of a time machine.
But shock, it turns out, is exactly what Freston came here for. Technically speaking, he is in Liberia as chairman of the ONE Campaign, the nonprofit co-founded by his friend Bono, which flew in the delegation of Washington politicos to witness the good works of the G8 countries in fighting AIDS and malaria. The group, according to the itinerary, will visit a hospital, a factory, and a farm, examples of successful development efforts sponsored by Western powers, and then fly east to Ghana to see a rural schoolhouse and help the Peace Corps install mosquito nets in a remote village.
The Butt Naked meeting is not on the agenda. Rather, it's a freelance caper cooked up by Freston, the executive who introduced us to reality TV 20 years ago with 'The Real World,' to provide a bit of garish spectacle to an otherwise earnest mission. It is, in Hollywood-ese, a Tom Freston Production. Freston procured Butt Naked's cellphone number from a friend and suggested it might be amusing if, while in Liberia, he introduced him to our other traveling companion – the right-wing Christian leader Ralph Reed.
The archconservative evangelical meets the born-again cannibal? "That would be like an Ali G move," says Freston.
And so here we are, sitting with this monster-turned-minister and his Christian converts, homeless kids he found living on the streets (some sleeping in empty caskets in the local graveyard), who stare at us with expressions of almost preposterous hope in this postwar wasteland where electricity is scarce and plumbing is nearly nonexistent (as is, apparently, justice for war criminals). Ralph Reed had little idea what he was getting into when he agreed to the unscheduled outing, and his jaw is appropriately loosened in horror as Freston had planned. But Freston looks pretty shell-shocked himself. "That's quite a story," is all he can manage to say.
Equally shocking, however, is how the presence of Freston the big-time American media mogul, whose network of powerful friends includes Rupert Murdoch, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bob Iger, and Tom Cruise, automatically turns this situation into a kind of business meeting. Reed says he knows a couple of evangelical churches that might like to meet the reformed man-eater. And the reformed man-eater, who is now known as Joshua Blahyi, is happy to oblige, handing Freston and Reed copies of his published memoir and the documentary about him that aired at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. "Some people still think I should be hanged," he notes.
Before he goes, Freston sidles up to Butt Naked for a photo op, a postcard he'll email to Bono and other friends. We then climb into the SUVs, roll up the windows, and heave a collective sigh of relief. Freston says he was too stunned to ask the pressing follow-up question: "What does human flesh taste like?"
"I couldn't believe my ears," he says. "I felt like I'd been taken back to some prehistoric time."
But all things considered, he declares the outing "a good little adventure," as he settles into the SUV. He pulls out a bottle of antibacterial gel from his safari jacket, squirts a little into our palms, and laughs: "You've been shaking hands with General Butt Naked!"