Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers begins with a chapter that had me making my way into the story with a curious heart and a slow smile. Jende and Neni Jonga are a young couple whose love has weathered the storms of a teenage pregnancy, and parental disapproval, which led to Jende being briefly imprisoned by Neni’s father. Their relationship survived a subsequent long distance relationship while he lived in America for a couple of years without Neni and their son Liomi. Still, theirs is an enduring love, and my heart fluttered every time they referred to each other as bebé.
Jende is introduced as an eager man from the small town of Limbe in Cameroon - one with crowded teeth and a desperation to survive. After Jende and Neni have spent the previous night preparing for his interview for the role of a chauffeur, he is overjoyed at being hired and at the beck and call of Clark Edwards and his family. Unbeknownst to him, this relationship with the Edwards will be a catalyst for many changes in his life.
Mbue’s debut novel chronicles the Jongas’ struggle for a better life in America, as we learn that Jende is seeking asylum in the US, whilst Neni is a pre-pharmacy college student. When he is denied asylum, the couple begin an emotionally draining battle to stay in America - one that causes them to question their values, and exposes personality cracks that threaten their marriage and happiness.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Jende Jonga goes to America determined not to return to Cameroon until “he had claimed his share of the milk, honey and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America.” After he secures a job with the Edwards, things begin to look up for the Jonga family. The story, however, appears to lull for a while, and my interest is carried along solely by the conversations Jende has with Clark Edwards about Limbe and America.
In near-florid detail, he describes all he remembers about his hometown, from ‘welcome’ signs to the smell of the ocean breeze. When asked why he has left this town that he so obviously loves and misses, Jende tells a heartbreaking truth to which most Africans will relate, about countries that do not care for their own:
As I read, I drew parallels between Cameroon and my country, Nigeria — two different African countries that appear to suffer a similar problem. Nigeria is supposedly the giant of Africa, yet, in my opinion, far too many people lack the support they need to attain their fullest potential. Instead, these people have to deal with nepotism in workplaces and are forced by circumstances to accept positions that pay wages too meagre to support a family.
When his asylum application is denied and the road to American papers becomes fraught with difficulty, Jende begins to think of America less as the land flowing with milk and honey, and more as an unbearable way to live. His wife, however, is staunch in her love for America and even for New York, with which Jende has a love-hate relationship.
For Neni, “America [is] synonymous with happiness.” Her perspective is understandable because most African children, especially from the nineties, grew up consuming American media, from books to movies and sitcoms. So, like Neni says, when “every picture you’ve seen of [fellow countrymen] in America is a portrait of children laughing in snow or at a mall with shopping bags”, how could you ever imagine that, maybe, America is two parts struggle and one part happy for the average immigrant?
I oscillated back and forth, seeing both sides of the coin as the push and pull between Neni and Jonga raged regarding staying in America. Like Jende, I really did not see the point of suffering just to remain an immigrant in a foreign country, but what is there to come back to in a home country that does not offer its citizens the opportunities they deserve?
Nigeria, for instance, is one of the top ten countries currently facing a massive human capital exodus with more professionals, especially doctors, moving to Europe and North America for better pay and superior working conditions. For some Nigerian immigrants, their situation is like that of Americanah’s Obinze. They leave home just to resort to doing menial jobs outside the country. Still, many of these ones are glad to have improved healthcare, constant electricity and, better quality of life than they did in Nigeria.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
In her Etisalat Prize for Literature winning novel We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo paints a tender portrait of her character’s longing for home when Darling says, “There are times, though, that no matter how much food I eat, I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that.” I recall this as Jende’s longing for Limbe feels palpable after the loss of his job with the Edwards and the ensuing financial and emotional hard times his family encounters.
African immigrants leave home despite the love they may have for their culture, food and the energy of their towns and cities, in search of a better future for themselves and their children. When they then arrive at these new territories, the homesickness they feel is compounded by the stark inability to fit in - a feeling that is not new to any African who has lived outside the continent. The lack of acceptance is, sadly, never imagined.
With American immigration laws tightening recently, Bulawayo’s words have never been more relevant. She says, we leave our countries and families -
Reading Behold The Dreamers, I wondered, why then do we leave in droves? Are there ways to make our home, more home? Home enough to hold us up? Support us? Keep us safe? Discrimination, while in the throes of displacement, worsens the heartbreak and loneliness that one already feels outside one's country as an immigrant; a realisation that complete assimilation is near impossible because they will have names too hard to pronounce, cultures too different to completely comprehend. They will always have to make do.
It is hard not to feel like the motherland has failed her children, as one reads on. Yet, one must acknowledge, as Neni does, that America and other first world countries provide our children with numerous opportunities that they would not get at home, unless they were part of the elite class with access to quality education, or wealthy enough to cushion against the many infrastructural deficiencies in their home country.
So, while she misses the exuberance of the open air markets and having a big house and yard in Limbe as compared to the “weirdly serene” grocery stores and a rat infested one-bedroom apartment, Neni knows that “in Limbe, Liomi and Timba… would lose far too many things...the chance to be awed and inspired by amazing things happening in the country, incredible inventions and accomplishments by men and women who look like them. They would be deprived of freedoms, rights, and privileges that Cameroon could not give its children.”
SECOND CLASS CITIZEN
Jende's love for Neni is apparent: from the late night nuzzling to words of endearment and, even in how long he fought against the odds to bring her to the States. Yet, unlearning patriarchy is a long, arduous journey for which many African men lack the patience or desire. So it is that Jende calls the shots in the house, and makes decisions - without discussions - on how Neni spends money she earns; so much so that when she returns to college after having a baby, he pushes her to retort that the child is not his!
A partner in a two-person relationship with equal stakes should be equally valued and regarded. I, however, find that in reality and in literature, African marriages seem to lean more toward a dictatorship than a partnership. While reading Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, I remember most of all feeling annoyed at the derogation of Adah with each passing page. It is pitiable that the girl child is considered of less value than her male counterparts.
Women are told, as Neni says:
Even outside the walls of marriage, women are treated like second class citizens who should sacrifice everything they want for themselves on the altar of marriage and family. Making sacrifices for the things you love is truly an imitable quality, but, again, in a partnership, should only one partner make all the sacrifices?
IT’S A RICH MAN’S WORLD
A sizeable part of Behold The Dreamers is a behind the scenes look at the lives of the wealthy; the Edwards’ rich people problems, and how prioritising work and money-making over family affects the lives of loved ones. The Edwards have two sons - Vince and Mighty. Vince, who has “seen the light”, drops out of Law School and decides to move to India where he can get away from the ‘consumerism’ of America, and his family’s privileged existence - for which he insists has trapped them on a path of pointless material successes and achievements.
While the rich have extravagant parties and spend summers dining and lounging in Hampton houses with excessive bedrooms and luxury, real happiness eludes them. The Edwards’ children are happier spending time at the Jonga’s than they are in their own homes. Cindy Edwards, on the other hand, though she is all smiles outside, needs copious amounts of wine and prescription pills to endure her life with an absentee husband.
TILL DEATH DO US PART
Marriage and family are key themes in the novel, and the subtle contrasting manner the Jongas and Edwards are held up to the light shows that Mbue is an astute observer of the intricacies of married life and couple dynamics,. While Jende comes home to a nice meal and a wife who is eager to hear everything about his day, Clark Edwards is home too late to talk to anyone and when he’s early enough, he and Cindy only quarrel.
Neni and Jende’s marriage is far from perfect, especially as Jende’s frustration with America mounts and Neni’s love for the American lifestyle deepens. The two begin to have quarrels into the night and the nuzzling and cuddling disappear into the air of their small Harlem apartment. Their marriage is a lesson that life changes people. It also makes one wonder about 'forever' and whether the person one chooses would like who one becomes.
In Behold The Dreamers, Mbue intertwines the pursuit of greener pastures in a foreign country with homesickness and nostalgia for the past. The novel is encompassing in scope and yet manages to remain an easy, moving, and frequently funny read. It is almost impossible not to think deeper about what constitutes your values and the things that truly bring joy, while reading it. If you’re looking for something that discusses heavy issues without being preachy or drawn out, I highly recommend it.