Anita Katherine Dennis has written an amazing book. It’s a real pageturner. It’s an autobiography, a biography, a love story, a religious testimony, and it’s about Liberia. It’s the uncredible story of a young, white, American sophomore student who grew up on a Ohio farm and who fell in love with her anthropology professor, a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, 16 years her senior, and still married when they first met in 1964. Their relationship and later marriage faced multiple challenges: differences in age, race, culture, marital status and a forbidden professor/student liaison. For Anita this resulted in parental disapproval, even to the extent of being almost disowned by her father. Luckily this did not happen. After many years of no contacts her parents reconciled with her because of the grandchildren. The marriage between Anita and Ben Dennis – more about his anglophone name later – lasted for more than 40 years. He passed away in December 2009 after a protracted illness, prompting his widow to write down the story of her life. I am glad she did.
‘Beyond Myself’ is a must-read. The book is more than the story of Anita Dennis’ life. It is also a story about Liberia. The author has a degree in sociology with a minor in anthropology and always had the ambition to be a journalist. This does not surprise. The book is well written and reads easily. The author shows that she has always had a sharp eye for cultural and political differences, both during her stay with the Mende and Gbande peoples in Lofa County and when it comes to social relations in Liberia, notably the domination of the Americo-Liberian elite over the tribal majority of the country. She visited Liberia in the 1970s and spent one year as a lay missionary, together with her husband, in the early 1980s. ‘Liberia was an illusion of democracy’, she noticed in 1972 (p. 54).
Her husband Benjamin (‘Ben’) Dennis had a tribal background – his tribal names were Ngombu Tejjeh Gongoli Guyanh – but he was very familiar with the repressive Americo-Liberian elite, she found out. He was from the Dennis family, who had ‘adopted’ Ben’s father as a teenager in Monrovia. The same ‘ward’ system explains the tribal roots and Americo-Liberian background of Liberia’s president since 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Ben’s uncle C.C. Dennis was a prominent Americo-Liberian who published the Liberian Age, the mouthpiece of – then – the country’s only political party, the True Whig Party (TWP). Son C.C. was the flamboyant Minister of Foreign Affairs under President William Tolbert. After the April 1980 military coup he was publicly executed at a Monrovia beach, together with a dozen other ‘big shots’ – TWP leaders and cabinet ministers.
Professor Ben Dennis – with two doctorate degrees – was an excellent academic. He also showed interest in Liberian politics after the demise of President Tubman in 1971. Even to the extent of raising the attention of President Tolbert (1971-1980) who expressed interest in having him as his Vice President (p.146). It is also interesting to note the conversation between him and a young Liberian, a Kru man, visiting him at Ohio University when the latter said: ‘We have to change the government. (…) If we don’t change the government, nothing will change in Liberia.” The Kru leader was Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh, still a household name in Liberia (p.145/146). I was not surprised to read that Dr. Ben Dennis even had aspirations to one day become president of Liberia (p.192).
Above all Dr. Dennis was a man of God. The faith he and Anita shared was central to their relationship. Anita’s journey with Ben was a journey with God, who protected, guided, and sustained her during her controversial relationship and later her interracial, cross-cultural marriage. When Anita and Ben met, racism was rife in the United States – interracial marriages were against the law in 17 US States in the 1960s (!) – and racism still is a big problem in the USA as demonstrated by recent deadly incidents involving Afro-Americans. It is clear from the author’s narrative that her husband was an exceptional man and a strong personality but he always remained modest. He was at ease in his father’s Mende village but also with the powerful Americo-Liberian families ruling his country, the Dennis, Cooper, Brooks, Henries, DeShield and Tolbert families. Son of a Liberian diplomat, he grew up in Germany, and spent his vacations in Liberia. When in the United States he was not quite accepted by Afro-Americans – being a foreigner, an African – but he also was not accepted by racist, white Americans.
The author, Anita Katherine Dennis, shares the aforementioned qualifications: modest, a strong personality, and a sharp mind. Though her life was full of extremes, she kept her balance, even though at times it was very difficult as she frankly admits in her book. In particular I like very much chapters 19 through 24 devoted to her life as a mother and chief’s wife in Lofa County in 1983/1984. She was fully accepted by her husband’s tribe and was given a tribal name, Baindu. Her daily experiences in Vahun, Ben’s father’s village, were very recognizable to me having lived in Liberia. The humid tropical climate, the downpours during the rainy season, the mould on leather shoes, belts and bags, the mosquitos and the inevitable malaria, the sores on legs and feet, the Guinea worm infections, the sunburn, no running water, the troubles with kerosene refrigerators, the insects, the termites, the driver ants, the ever present coackroaches in cupboards and in the bathroom, and so on. On the other hand, she enjoys the warm relations with the people, their culture, ‘an anthropologist’s dream’ as she describes it (p.166), despite the at times annoying lack of privacy.
Anita Dennis has written a book that merits to be read widely. Her style is a frank one, not only on the painful subject of her parents’ rejection of her liaison with Ben. Her parents were absent when they married and her father returned the picture of their first grandson Anita had sent. More amusing is the anecdote of her husband’s initial reluctance to make love in the morning (“If I do so, I’ll be going against my Mende training.”). The author is also very frank about her husband’s deteriorating health and final days. He passed away on December 17, 2009. Anita’s journey with Ben had come to an end.
I am afraid that this review still leaves much to be said about this outstanding book. However, I do hope that this shortcoming of mine will act as an extra incentive to read it. The author ends her book with the sentence: ‘If I had to do it again, I’d still sign up for Anthropology 101’.
I look forward to her next book.
Other books by Anita K. Dennis and/or Ben G. Dennis:
‘Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia’ (Algora Publishing, 2008)
‘The Gbandes. A people of the Liberian Hinterlands’ (Chicago, 1972)