I do like a true life love story that beats all the odds and features a prince! Well, my guest this week, US author Anita Dennis, has a story worth telling for she fell in love and married the professor of her college anthropology class who just happened to be the chief of the Mende tribe in Liberia, West Africa. Apart from coping with racism, Anita had to adapt to experiencing a different culture too. When her husband died, Anita penned a memoir of their time together – “Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl & The African Chief” – travelling around Africa, meeting presidents, sleeping in mud huts…. and I’m so pleased to welcome Anita onto the blog to find out more about her transcontinental life and marriage…
Hi! I’m Anita. I’m a Christian white woman who grew up on an Ohio farm. In my childhood, I wanted to be a writer, but felt I had nothing to write about. Little did I dream that I’d one day I’d have adventures most people can only imagine. Marrying my anthropology professor took me to remote villages upcountry in Liberia, West Africa, where I was the “chief’s wife.” The year I lived in my husband’s father’s village was the most challenging. I ate elephant meat, faced strange insects, participated in my son’s secret Poro society graduation, and served God as a lay missionary.
I was lucky enough to read a preview copy, thank you, of your latest book, “Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and The African Chief” – a memoir penned by yourself after your husband died, about your extraordinary life together. It is a memoir full of love, life, hardship and adventure. So when you first met your husband, Dr Ben Dennis, professor of your college Anthropology class what were your first thoughts when you found out he also happened to be chief of the Mende tribe in Liberia?
I first noticed the tribal marks on his cheeks, which gave him a distinctive look. The minute he spoke, I knew he was a foreigner because of his strong accent. I was curious when he told me he was an African. It wasn’t a problem until I fell in love with him, since I couldn’t imagine living in Africa! He reassured me that his life and work were in America. And at that time, he wasn’t thinking of going back. I was crazy in love and believed him.
Was it easy being accepted into the Mende tribe? How difficult was it to adapt to the African ways as opposed to what you was used to in the USA?
I experienced culture shock during my first trip to Vahun, my husband’s father’s village. In fact, upon our return to Michigan, I wanted to divorce him. I had seen the other side of his life and I couldn’t imagine living in a mud hut. The Mende and Gbandi tribes, on the other hand, were very welcoming. The Mende people told me, “We don’t look at a person’s skin; we look at their heart.” On my first trip to Vahun, I was accepted into the Mende tribe and renamed “Baindu” during a 3-day ceremony. I slept on a traditional mud bed in a conical hut only briefly. We stayed at the commissioner’s mud-block house, which had concrete-plastered walls and a galvanized zinc roof. There we slept in a wooden bed with a Western-style mattress. The relationship among Mende brothers rattled me the most, because I was considered their wife as well! When my brother-in-law said he was going to sleep with me that night, I was shocked. Later, I was extremely relieved and thankful it was a Mende joke!
As a child what books did you enjoy reading? What genre of books do you enjoy reading now?
I loved adventure books as a child because I wanted more than anything to escape the farm and see the big world out there. I now enjoy Christian books that give me encouragement. I love reading the Bible because it keeps me connected to Jesus, my Saviour.
You also served as a lay missionary whilst in Liberia in the 80s. What changes to the country, if any, did you witness from when you was in the country in the 70s. Do you still visit Liberia?
Liberia experienced tremendous social change from the 70s to the 80s. With the new road over the Kamboi mountain range, the village of Vahun grew as more farm land was cleared and Mendes from Sierra Leone returned. The greatest change came in the military coup of 1980, when the indigenous tribes of Liberia rebelled against Americo-Liberian domination. Ironically, the Free Negroes and freed slaves who returned to Liberia before the Civil War, treated the sixteen tribes living there as they themselves had been treated in America. Because of my husband’s health and his death, I haven’t returned to Liberia since 1984. My sons intend to spread their father’s ashes in his Mende and Gbandi villages.
Out of all the things you’ve experienced as a wife of a Liberian chief – what experience did you enjoy the most and what was nightmare experience?
I enjoyed the love and hospitality of the people. From the beginning, they welcomed me with open arms. When I suffered with hives, they were extremely concerned about me and worried about what they would tell my parents if anything happened to me.
The most difficult aspect of living in Vahun in 1983-84, was not being in control in a familiar environment. The house in the village we moved into had no kitchen or bathroom at first. We had no electricity or running water. The mosquitoes swarming around our heads as we slept there the first night panicked me. Later on, I could never seem to keep the kerosene refrigerator working. Every time things seemed calm, another challenge arose.
Hypothetically speaking, if Beyond Myself was made into a film, what actors would you pick to be the main characters of yourself and your husband?
That’s a fun question! A number of people have said my story would make a great movie. I think Eddie Murphy would be great for my husband and Julia Roberts with red hair for me – although I’m not as beautiful!
Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?
I live in Florida, the casual place! I wear capris and cute blouses, sandals. I love bright colors and follow “Color Me Beautiful” (from the 1980s) for those colors that look best with my skin and hair. I love earrings that match my blouses. Purses that match my shoes.
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?
I have to admit I’m a shopaholic and mall temptations abound! I’m always looking for a blouse that’s one of my favorite colors, or a style or print that’s unique. I usually find something at Macy’s, Penny’s, or New York & Co. I’m 70, but I like a youthful look.
What’s next on your clothes/shoe wish list?
Anything that flatters me. I love to see the new fashions – what’s out there.
Boots or Shoes?
Living in Florida has made me a fashionable sandal woman. I only wear shoes when I go up North.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook/twitter etc so that readers of the blog can learn more about you and your book
Ah, Anita, thank you so much for giving us a glimpse of your memories and I wish you all the best with your book. Your book has kept me spellbound this summer and I highly recommend that readers should put it on their “must read” list! For me, having no electricity would be a nightmare – although no doubt I would’ve adapted, a case of having too! What, dear readers, would you find hard to be without? I’d love to know! So, do tell!
Photographs have been published with kind permission of Anita Dennis.