The African Library: Entry no 136
Behold the dreamers – Imbolo Mbue
Published in 2016, set mostly in New York with flashbacks to the town of Limbe, Cameroon, this brilliant but quite unassumingly presented novel immediately earned enthusiastic endorsements from multiple highly respected sources – a perspective that the profile of the text (below) endorses. Behold the dreamers could be broadly categorised as a diasporic African novel – one of the works by authors born on our continent though settled elsewhere (usually Europe, the UK or the US, which is where Imbolo Mbue has lived for a decade, having come from Limbe in Cameroon like her main characters), and depicting the struggles and achievements of Africans living in countries other than their own. The author’s skill lies in presenting two families in parallel with almost equal empathy – the main one consisting of the poor Cameroonian immigrants Jende and Neni Jonga and their little boy Liomi. The other is the super-wealthy white American family, the Edwardses, comprising the father, Clark (a Wall Street executive at Lehman Brothers); the mother, Cindy (a businesswoman running a wellness centre); their idealistic, anti-capitalist elder son, Vince (initially about to graduate from law school); and their younger son, the charmingly named Mighty. The two families have very obvious and, of course, enormous differences in the ways they are able to live in America, but, as Mbue demonstrates, they have astonishing similarities, too, in terms of the crises of relationship and moral dilemmas with which they are respectively faced.
The title is not an allusion to the recent coinage referring to the precarious status of the children of illegal immigrants who were born in the States. It refers more obviously (several times in the course of the narrative) to the often frustrated, though persistent, hopes, ideals and strivings of all human beings – the yearning to achieve something better than the circumstances and position in which one finds oneself. Neni Jonga is (along with her husband, Jende) the clearest example of this. She fell in love (in Limbe) as a high school girl with a youngster from a much poorer family than her own; her father, who had come down in income and status since being displaced from his Import Official job by a man with better connections (politically and tribally speaking), refused to allow her to get married as the young couple wanted, especially since Neni had fallen pregnant. Her father was furious, since he wanted his daughter to marry a rich husband. Cameroonian law even allowed him to have poor Jende jailed, as he was unable to pay the bail or the penalty required from a man who impregnates a woman whom he has not married, which must be paid to her father. Eventually, Jende’s own father scraped together the money to free his son, who could find only poorly paid municipal employment as a garbage collector in Limbe, with its limited opportunities – limited also because his family did not have the “right connections” or the funds to give him much of an education.
The initially pregnant Neni, in any case forbidden to see Jende and stuck at home with her bullying and resentful father, sadly lost her and Jende’s little baby daughter, who did not live long. Her father also refused to pay for any further education for Neni, who is clever and had the ambition to become a pharmacist. Eventually, because she convinced him that she’d get either a well-paid job or a richer suitor (though she had no intention of replacing Jende) by these means, her father agreed to pay for her to enrol for a computer course. She heard regularly from and communicated often with the still lovingly devoted Jende. Neni fell pregnant again and gave birth to her and Jende’s son, Liomi. The separated young couple’s rather miserable circumstances made Jende jump at the opportunity of going to the USA on a ticket generously paid for by his dear friend and cousin, Winston, a highly paid tax lawyer in New York. There, he saved and slaved to earn the bride price Neni’s father demanded. But, despite working two jobs and living in terrible, crowded digs to save money, it took years for Jende to scrape the money together to pay for flight tickets to bring Neni and their little boy, Liomi, over to join him in the States. Happily, he achieved this eventually, and the couple could at last get married there.
In the present of the text, Neni is and remains starry-eyed and joyous about the wonders of New York. She has Cameroonian and other African women friends with whom she goes on shopping expeditions. Even though basic items seem incredibly expensive, simply going out to acquire the cheapest available household supplies for her family in the supermarket seems an adventure to her. In addition, Jende is paying Neni’s not inconsiderable fees at a college which will enable her, once she graduates, to enrol for a pharmacy course; she has classes three days a week, and in between she works as a nursing aide. Liomi goes to school.
Then, Jende (who has been employed as a driver for a cab company) gets a hugely lucky opportunity: employment as the driver of Mr Clark Edwards and his family members. A tremblingly nervous Jende does not inform Mr Edwards at the job interview in his (to Jende) awe-inspiringly luxurious office that his “papers” merely give him permission to do paid work while he awaits the outcome of his asylum application – which is in the hands of a dodgy Nigerian immigration lawyer who was recommended to Jende’s city-smart cousin, Winston. (It is also Winston who indirectly got Jende recommended for the chauffeur job with Mr Edwards.) Nevertheless, to his and Neni’s joy and relief, Jende gets this extremely well-paid appointment, having made a favourable impression on Clark Edwards. Before taking the narrative further, I cite Mbue’s evocations of some key moments of this small history – firstly, Jende’s thoughts upon getting his US visitor’s visa in Limbe:
He was leaving Cameroon in a month! Leaving to certainly not return after three months. Who travelled to America only to return to a future of nothingness in Cameroon after a mere three months? Not young men like him, not people facing a future of poverty and despondency in their own country. (19)
It is thus that he replies with candour to Clark Edwards at his job interview, after giving a glowing description of Limbe that prompts a question from the big man:
“Why did you come to America if your own town is so beautiful?” …
“Because my country is no good, sir.” … “I stay in my country, I would have become nothing. I would have remained nothing. My son will grow up and be poor like me, just like I was poor like my father. But in America, sir? I can become something. I can even become a respectable man.” (39)
When Jende, one evening after a rare social outing, sits with Neni in the spot where he used to go to seek comfort in the long years when he achingly missed Neni and Liomi (who were, of course, both still back in Cameroon), he tells Neni that the two of them are sitting “at the centre of the world”, for “Columbus Centre is the center of Manhattan. Manhattan is the center of New York. New York is the center of America, and America is the center of the world. So we are sitting at the center of the world, right?” (96).
Neni is certainly no mere free rider on the back of her husband’s hard work. Her evening activities in preparation for the following day require her to keep long late-night hours:
Midnight, and she still hadn’t started yet. First it was Jende’s work clothes she had to iron. Then it was Liomi’s homework she had to help with. After that she had to cook dinner for the next day because, between work and evening classes, there would be no time to cook and clean the kitchen. She had to do everything tonight …. For three hours she studied, first reading at the dinette in preparation for her next history class, afterward moving to the desktop by the window to finish her English Composition essay she had started in the library, then returning to the dinette to study precalculus, referencing her class notes, her textbook, and practice problems and solutions she had printed from the Internet. (53)
Then comes the bombshell announcement from the immigration lawyer, who bluntly informs Jende in a phone call that “the asylum application was not approved” (56), even though, as Bubakar then explains more soothingly, there is no immediate threat of deportation. Nevertheless, Jende and his family will, from this point on, live under the shadow of this announcement, for Neni’s study permit depends on Jende having sufficient income to pay her fees and textbooks, and their son was born in Cameroon and would have to leave with them. As Jende sits slumped in the driver’s seat of his employer’s limousine, the despairing thoughts that run through his head are sadly articulated, as follows:
No one could save him from American Immigration. He would have to go back home. He would have to return to a country where visions of a better life were the birthright of a blessed few, to a town from which dreamers like him were fleeing daily. He and his family would have to return to New Town empty-handed, with nothing but tales about what they’d seen and done in America, and when people asked why they’d returned and moved back into his parents’ crumbling caraboat house, they’d have to tell a lie, a very good lie, because that would be the only way to escape the shame and the indignity. The shame he could live with, but his failings as a husband and father … (60, original elision)
These poignant words are matched by Neni’s despairing cry: “Oh, Papa God, what are we going to do now?” (61). The two of them agree that all they can do to try and climb a near insurmountable obstacle is to use every single cent of their painfully accumulated savings towards their and their son’s hoped-for future in the States in this battle. Jende and Neni’s dreams will be both fulfilled and unfulfilled.
In the meantime, their insecure status as an aspiring immigrant family of course causes terrible tensions in their marriage, as each spouse attempts to cope and contribute to handling the problem (both emotionally and practically) in their own way. When an innocent question from Liomi reveals to Jende that their son overheard a telephone conversation in which Neni revealed to her sister that they were facing possible expulsion from the States, he is furious, asking an unanswerable question: “Why are you trying to make me feel so bad?” Neni squirms as she tries to explain herself to Jende and to soothe his ruffled feathers, assuring him that he will get his green card, yet adding: “It’s just that I’m so afraid sometimes. … I don’t want to go back to Limbe, bébé, I don’t even want to imagine what is going to happen if …” (concluding elision original). Nevertheless:
Jende went to bed that night bitter in spite of Neni’s apologies, angry at her for recklessly exposing their child to harmful untruths and angrier at himself for all the failures of his life. He made Liomi sleep alone in his cot that night, wanting nothing of cuddling with a child he might one day disappoint. But the next morning, when he awoke, Liomi was at his side, his small hands on his father’s belly. Jende looked at the round sweat-covered face and knew he had no choice but to snuggle close to his child and enjoy the rest of their father-and-son summer. (129)
Aside from their anxieties about whether they will be allowed to remain in the USA and attain citizenship for themselves and their children, the Jonga parents become increasingly aware of and entangled with the Edwards family’s problems and with the huge insecurities and anguish lying beneath this wealthy family’s glossy veneer. Indeed, at the moment that Jende first enters Clark Edwards’s office, the author gives us an unmistakable hint, for she provides the detail that Clark is “standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder” (5); and the first time Jende speaks to Leah, Clark’s unpretentiously nosy secretary of many years, she – fully aware of her own job insecurity at this time – tells him that the huge company (Lehman Brothers), which is so central to the US investment economy, is in deep, dark and only temporarily hidden trouble. Google reports that the LB filing for bankruptcy on 15 September 2008 “remains the largest bankruptcy filing in US history, with Lehman holding over US$600 billion in assets”. This is, of course, also the year – to balance the preceding point somewhat – that Obama is first elected president (on 4 November), a fact which Mbue works into the narrative at a few points. Clark makes Jende’s absolute discretion a central condition of his employment: that the chauffeur may never divulge to anyone whatsoever what he hears or sees of his employer’s activities and connections – an undertaking that Jende readily gives and keeps to the letter to the best of his abilities.
This requirement does not imply (as we learn) that Clark is anything but a man of integrity, for from the very first significant telephone conversation to which Jende is inevitably privy while driving Clark to a meeting, his employer is doing everything in his power to get the Lehman Bros CEO (seemingly Clark’s immediate superior) to put things right, perhaps by warning their investors betimes, or else by taking the legal, financial and organisational steps to address their dire position, even while they remain responsible for thousands upon thousands of Americans’ savings and investments. Clark’s wife, Cindy Edwards, is – as Jende soon learns from driving her to her plush business premises and to various glossy social events – a profoundly insecure woman. Much later, at a time of especial stress in the wealthy woman’s life, Cindy will reveal to Neni (then temporarily employed by Mrs Edwards) that she was not born into luxury and privilege – in fact, the utter reverse. She is the daughter of an unknown rapist, and was resented and maltreated by a mother who unjustly bore a grudge against her innocent daughter, could often not feed her and remained a damagingly vicious presence in her elder daughter’s life – despite Cindy’s indefatigable attempts to win her mother’s acceptance and respect. Witnessing her conversations with her husband and friends, Jende observes a woman to be pitied more than admired. She is deeply troubled and frustrated by her husband’s preoccupation with his job and consequent long hours at his office or at meetings, unable to meet his promises to Cindy to be present for his family at significant moments and events. Because of her own dysfunctional family background, it means more than anything to Cindy to keep her family together – and she is increasingly aware that she is failing in this endeavour. The elder Edwards son, Vince, is balking at the prospect of following in his father’s footsteps; he has come to despise the emptiness of prosperity in America. He is withdrawing from his family and rejecting their hopes for him of a particular kind of “successful” future; although he is naïve in many ways, Vince’s determination to live only by non-material values is deeply sincere – in spite of the hippy-like clichés in which he expresses them. Eventually, he leaves the States for India, hurting and terribly worrying his mother with his severance from her and their family, for he gradually cuts them out of his life.
Mrs Edwards is basically humane and kindly when unthreatened, for example, immediately giving Jende (without a hint of his asking for help) a cheque for $500 when she overhears his conversation with one of his brothers, who is imploring Jende (unable to assist at this point) to send him $300 to help this brother keep his children in school. It is the thought of the Cameroonian children’s plight that prompts Cindy’s generosity, as she has a deeply held conviction that “it’s never the child’s fault” (84). Yet, she lacks the ability to make concessions for her husband’s broader responsibilities and his sense of moral duty towards his company and its customers, along with his persistent desire to maintain his immediate and wider family’s lifestyle of comfort and luxury. She begins to express distrust in Clark’s marital fidelity in speaking to her friends, partly because she is a sensitive as well as a highly perceptive person – but such an attitude carries its own consequences and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of Mbue’s central achievements in writing Behold the dreamers is her ability to depict all four of her main characters (the Edwards couple, of course, as “second leads” to the Jongas) both unsparingly and compassionately. Her portrayal of these four adults (Cindy Edwards turning 50 in the course of the narrative, Clark probably a few years older and the Jongas in their early thirties) and the central concerns of income and social status for both the parents’ own sake and their children’s sake – as well as the different, often conflicting way each spouse regards as the best method to maintain and improve their family’s welfare – is wonderfully convincing: both natural and vivid. Only an author who has thought long and deeply about their characters’ natures, impulses and differing (while also similar and indeed interconnected) contexts can write like this. In the later part of the narrative, and suitably after having earned sympathy for the characters, the novelist reveals some of the uglier aspects of her characters’ lives as they struggle with the crises of trust, affection and loyalty brought about partly by the more external crises of their respective circumstances.
I begin by citing a long passage evoking Cindy Edwards as observed by Neni Jonga, Neni having been employed as substitute housekeeper and sometimes caretaker of Mighty, the little brother of Vince Edwards:
Every time Cindy walked into a room to see her and Mighty laughing or playing, Neni could sense Cindy’s approval because nothing appeared to matter to the madam more than the happiness of her children, their nonstop possession of every good thing life had to offer. If Mighty was laughing and Vince was smiling, there was not a happier woman on earth than Cindy Edwards. This desire for their happiness (constantly asking if they needed something, always reminding Neni to make their meals and snacks just the way they liked them; giving Mighty three kisses every time either of them left the house) was followed closely only by her obvious need for a sense of belonging, an utterly desperate need she could never seem to quench.
It was a longing that confounded Neni, because on the day they met, Cindy Edwards appeared to be a woman with no desperate needs. From the moment they shook hands in the portico until Cindy left for her dinner, the madam was enveloped in an air of superiority, standing tall and keeping her shoulders back as she walked in long strides, slowly enunciating every word when she spoke, as if she had the right to take as much of the listener’s time as she wished. She pointed with slender manicured fingers bearing a sole emerald ring, nodding like an omnipotent empress as she took Neni around the house to give her polite but specific instructions on what she must do every morning and how she must do it; as she told her things that Anna [the permanent housekeeper] might have said but which she needed to reiterate, things like what she couldn’t stand in a housekeeper: dishonesty, poor communication, and not acting with poise when company was around.
And yet, despite this portrait of a self-assured woman, Cindy seemed to have a near obsession with being where everyone was and doing what everyone was doing. Within four days, Neni noticed that she was on the phone with a friend at least once a day, wondering if the friend had gotten an invitation to So-and-So’s cocktail party, or This-and-That’s dinner party, or that upcoming gala or wedding. On the few occasions when her friends apparently told her they’d gotten their invites and she hadn’t gotten hers, she seemed to be in physical pain …. (115, added final ellipsis)
What is quite brilliantly done here is Mbue’s evocation of the aspirant African immigrant woman’s ability to see readily through the mask of self-important condescension and superiority that the rich white American woman has donned – a mask that slips to show a terrified woman, one who is hugely more insecure in her role than Neni is in hers. It is also made clear here that if Cindy’s sense of being threatened intensifies, she will not hesitate to use or discard people like the Jongas, those who have no hold over her. As Neni says of her later: “I know what kind of woman she is. She looks like she is weak, but she gets what she wants from people, one way or another” (211–212). Evidently, Cindy subscribes to the racial and class profiling prevalent but socially disguised in the circles within which she moves, even when (pitiable as she is in many ways) she is being “nice”. The observational angle the author evokes shows that Neni does feel compassion towards Cindy, but she is quite clearly able to see this wealthy woman as someone who subscribes to superficial values in certain respects and is, as a wife and mother, insufficiently practical and realistic in handling the difficulties she does have in protecting her family and family values because of her husband’s neglect and absences.
The unmistakable first sign that Cindy is at breaking point comes when Neni discovers the white woman sprawled across a bed in an alcoholic and (serious) drug-induced stupor. Neni is initially bewildered and terrified at the shocking sight, quite unsure of what she should do. She is panicky; she has been seriously warned by Jende to maintain utter discretion about the Edwards couple’s private lives, but the situation obviously calls for intervention. She ends up making a call to consult a friend of hers who is studying chemistry and nursing, who advises her to wake Cindy – which she manages to do, running her a bath and telling her that it’s five in the afternoon. Earlier, Neni took a cell phone photo showing Cindy’s state and the empty pill bottle in order to prove to the police (if Cindy could not be revived) that her employer’s condition was self-induced by the substances she had consumed. The next morning, Neni having served her breakfast by the pool, Cindy sternly warns Neni that she had better keep quiet about the state in which she found her the previous afternoon. Terrified and embarrassed, Neni assures Cindy at first that she “saw nothing”, but the rich woman will have nothing of the denial. Cindy then confesses her terrible familial past to Neni to appeal to her pity as another woman and mother, before adding the none-too-subtle bribery offer of a mound of the designer clothes which she no longer wears, from which Neni may help herself. So, it is settled.
Jende, in the meantime, is also more and more involved in the Edwardses’ family troubles. Vince has told his parents that he is dropping out of law school, abandoning his career prospects and leaving for India in a quest for spiritual fulfilment. This shocks Cindy to her core; she provokes a dreadful quarrel with Clark (accusing him of having failed in his fatherly duty). Neni has to deal with this fallout, while Clark Edwards seeks comfort in Jende’s soothing, reassuring company and kind words. Clark has sympathy for and shows understanding of Vince’s decision, but Cindy can see it only from her own position of loss and insult, with Vince’s rejection of what the youngster sees as the materialist values and pride in possession and status that characterise his mother, unaware of her background and determined to make a break from his parents’ lifestyle. Jende has also had discussions with Vince, humanely urging him to try and see things from his parents’ perspective, but to no avail. He feels great pity for this prosperous, powerful family, even as he grapples with his own problems and fears for his family’s security. Anna, Cindy’s long-time housekeeper, asks Neni to come and help out at a house party; she is another example of an employee showing concern for the battered Edwards family, trying to get Neni to alert Clark to the dangerous extent of Cindy’s alcohol dependence and drug-taking. But Neni cannot bring herself to do so; the women also fear for their jobs (and, in Neni’s case, for her husband’s), should the warning be considered intrusive nosiness on their part. Later, the Jongas give Vince a send-off meal of abundant Cameroonian food laboriously and generously prepared by Neni; Mighty (her favourite) is also invited and allowed to come. Despite the meagre furnishings of the cramped Harlem apartment in which the African family lives, both boys bask in the emotional warmth of this family, and Mighty begs to stay longer or to be allowed to come visit again.
Jende has a nightmare concerning a very old friend of his from Limbe; he works out that it stemmed from his friend’s earlier desperate phone call asking him to provide money needed to take his wife to hospital to treat her breast cancer – money Jende is unable to provide. In the dream, his friend’s mother foolishly gives money to so-called “money doublers” – the West African equivalent of the conmen who start “pyramid schemes” or the 417 internet scammers – but it ends with Jende and his friend being chased by the Limbe market crowd, concluding with him at the beautiful town beach, now a stinking, garbage-filled mess. Mbue deftly indicates the parallel between the dishonesty of the small-time Limbe cheats preying on Cameroonian people’s financial needs, and the huge American corporation that has absorbed millions of citizens’ life savings, only to waste their investments.
By the time Jende woke up on the day Lehman collapsed, he had pushed the dream … to the hinterland of his mind. He was thinking nothing of money doublers and their unfathomable victims, merely glad he didn’t have to go to work on a Monday. Cindy had given him the day off, telling him that Clark would be too busy in the office to go anywhere, and assuring him that she and Mighty would be fine in cabs, considering she only had one appointment and Mighty’s piano teacher was on vacation.
Jende thankfully accepted Cindy’s gift – a weekday off would be great for him. With Liomi at school, he could spend some alone time with Neni and help her around the house: clean the bathroom, do laundry, and, if he had enough time, cook and freeze a couple of meals so Neni [now expecting their second child] wouldn’t have to worry about cooking until at least the following week. Her back had been aching unceasingly since she returned from the Hamptons [where she was Cindy’s substitute home help during Anna’s holiday], and he’d asked her to stop working [in her health aide job] and take only the minimum number of classes needed to retain her student visa. Pregnant women are not supposed to do anything strenuous in their last months, he’d said to her, even though his mother had continued farming till the day she gave birth to each of her five children and had in fact given birth to his youngest brother under a guava tree at their farm behind Mawoh Quarters. (170)
Neni, who enjoys being the independent working woman, initially objected strenuously to this, but yields partly because her friends tell her she is lucky to have a husband taking such care of her. “‘I’ll go out there and work four jobs before I let you go out to work in pain and discomfort,’ he promised her” (171). Of course, the reader notices the strong contrast between Clark’s inability even to notice his wife’s distress, absorbed as he is in his career fears and responsibilities (and hardly ever, it seems, at home for a full day with his family), and Jende’s care and forethought for Neni and their unborn second child, even though he also follows a different cultural ethos, which allows him to give commands to his wife – something Neni, who laboured so long under her father’s yoke and his selfish insensitivity towards her, finds hard to accept in their now different context. The next shock to Neni comes when “a week after she quit her job, he took his dedication to her a step further and informed her that she was going to take off the upcoming spring and summer semesters and stay home after the baby arrived in December” (171). Mbue subtly, yet convincingly, shows that although this seems unacceptable to an initially furious Neni, dedicated to her studies and her ideal of becoming a pharmacist, Jende is no mere bullying, selfishly controlling husband isolating his wife from society and thwarting her dreams, but is acting in love and as circumspectly as his limiting circumstances allow him to. It is because she is home watching breaking news on their small television set that Neni is the first to hear the announcement concerning the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Jende telephones Clark, but Cindy picks up the telephone and assures him that he still has a job with their family. Jende “sat down next to Neni. He was dizzy, grateful but stunned. It had just dawned on him how tightly his fate was linked to another man’s” (175).
As Cindy begins to fear after the Lehman Bros fall (Clark himself, of course, escaping bankruptcy and having “[fled] to Barclays”, if to a slightly less elevated position than at Lehman; 181), it is fairly typical for businessmen to seek sexual “relief” from prostitutes at times of such extreme stress. This is indeed what Clark increasingly does – and has been doing for some time – with Jende having to pretend to have no idea of what his employer’s regular visits to a notorious hotel involve. Jende also hears Clark telling his closest friend that “no matter how much he hated to admit it or how much he wished Lehman hadn’t lost its principles …, he was part of it, and because of his involvement in lots of bullshit he didn’t even agree with, however small his involvement had been, this had happened” (182). Jende’s heart is unmistakably rather bigger than Clark’s, however, in his concern (as a much more lowly fellow employee) for the future of Leah, Clark’s secretary over decades, who has also lost her Lehman job, several years before qualifying for welfare – for Clark has done nothing, it seems, to help this now unemployed, middle-aged woman. Jende also cares about the Edwards marriage and foresees big trouble when, after one of his hotel visits, Clark re-enters the limousine without the conspicuous tie with which he left his home in the morning. Jende is too timid and respectful of Clark’s privacy to say anything in warning, but he knows that any attentive wife would have her suspicions aroused by the absence of the tie. Predictably, soon after this event, Cindy summons Jende and – not accepting his polite attempts to refuse what she demands – orders Jende to write down in careful detail everywhere he drives Clark, whom he goes to meet, when and for how long. She “reminds” Jende (ignoring his spluttering attempts to defend and shield Clark from her wrath, insisting that all Clark does is work extremely hard) with unmistakable intent to “think about [his] family and [his] situation”, and to “think very carefully and let [her] know if [he’d] like to have a job to support them” (193). And she warns him, too, that he had better not convey to Clark what she has enjoined him to do. It is a situation familiar to many employees, exacerbated in cases like Jende’s by his being an indigent, dependent African with a growing family, at the mercy of employers in a country where his usual extensive support system is unavailable. And the role of scapegoat that the powerful can assign to the likes of him in such situations is becoming increasingly evident. He ends up telling Clark what Cindy has demanded, and is advised to record all the information apart from the hotel visits.
After a while, with Cindy getting to scan the records of Clark’s journeys as mostly meticulously recorded by Jende at regular intervals, she actually begins to relax. But then comes the explosive revelation that shatters the Edwards marriage: an “escort” (“call girl”) mentions the frequency with which former Lehman executives, now hate figures to many Americans (and now as Barclays employees), keep using the services of women like herself. She mentions Clark (among others) by title, and makes the claim (which, in the climate of resentment, is bound to be believed) that the male customers are using government “bailout money” (213) to pay. The day after this, as Jende drives Cindy, she tells him that she has no further interest in his records of Clark’s journeys. The following day, Jende, primarily full of sympathy for the Edwardses as two deeply hurt people, is driving little Mighty to his school when he notices that the boy is trying to hide the fact that he is weeping. Although there is little time left before school starts, Jende pulls over: “he wasn’t going to let a child go to school crying” (220), as his father forced him to do as a boy when his beloved grandfather had died. Listening sympathetically to the boy’s report that their planned family Christmas holiday has been cancelled and of how terribly his mother was screaming and crying the previous night, with his father futilely attempting to calm her, Jende somehow manages to comfort the deeply upset boy. A few days later, Jende and Neni’s little daughter, Amatimba Monyengi, to be known as Timba, is born. Soon, friends living in nearby areas gather around as a community to celebrate her birth with them. When Jende phones Clark with the news, he tells him to take off from work till after Christmas. However, the following day, Jende gets a letter from Immigration announcing the date on which he has to appear in court; this court hearing will be his opportunity to persuade the judge why the legal penalty for overstaying his visitor’s visa by four years, ie deportation, should not be incurred. When informed of the situation, Winston expresses disgust at the lawyer’s handling of the situation. All Bubakar is able to tell Jende is that they will need a lot more money to fight a deportation order.
In the Jongas’ marriage, their increasing anxieties about their precarious position in the USA begin to push the couple apart (as so often happens), as each sees the situation – and the faint and unlikely possibilities of having it resolved in their favour – from a different angle. Neni finds a church, where she goes seeking solace. She and her children are the only Africans present, warmly welcomed as such by the minister and congregants. When she tells Jende where she went, he mocks her, and then she lets slip that she saw a news report about an American church who gave sanctuary to a family facing deportation. Jende is even more scathing about this highly unlikely “solution” to their problem. It becomes clear, even at this early stage, that Neni’s highest priority – increasingly her obsession – is for them to remain in the USA for their own and their children’s future prosperity to be assured, as Neni unshakably believes it will be; whereas, to Jende, avoiding deportation is not to be fought for at the cost of their dignity. Neni goes to a meeting with the church pastor that she does not tell Jende about, and reveals her family’s deportation anxieties, receiving the sincere assurance that the church will stand by them. Jende gets so angry with her for having revealed this to a near-total stranger, despite their lawyer’s warning that they must talk to no one about their “papier situation” (236), that he comes close to hitting Neni, she senses – for the first time since they fell in love as teenagers. At least, their family Christmas is spent peacefully and quite happily in shared non-commercial family pleasures.
When Jende returns to work five days after Christmas, there is little for him to do. Clark has moved into a hotel; Cindy is keeping to her locked bedroom in their apartment, and has taken off from work. As he drives Mighty to school when it reopens, the boy is taciturn and sad, telling Jende that his parents “fought” terribly (241) again the previous night, and he does not accept Jende’s attempt to soothe him by saying that all couples fight but later on make up again. The next bombshell that strikes Jende is the boy’s telling him: “She was saying, ‘I don’t ever wanna see his face again.’ ... She was telling my dad that he had to get rid of him, get rid of him right now, or else …” (242). This can only be a reference to Jende, springing from Cindy’s resentful scapegoating of the employee who participated by hiding her husband’s infidelities from her. Clark evidently – as Mighty reports his father’s refusal – attempted to refuse to commit such an injustice towards Jende, but (as evidently) Cindy made firing Jende the only proof of Clark’s contrition acceptable to her at that stage. Mighty has no idea whom they were discussing, but is already sure that his parents are getting divorced. Jende telephones his cousin, but Winston is unable to calm Jende’s anxieties. He promises to try what he can. As Jende attempts to follow his father’s sage recipe for self-comforting, thinking of pleasant things, Clark telephones; Jende’s heart drops to his shoes, for Clark wants to see him at his new office, saying ominously that “we need to talk” (247). And, so, Jende predictably loses his well-paid chauffeur’s job. He rails about the injustice (which Clark half-acknowledges), but to no avail; Jende expresses his knowledge that the termination of his employment must have been demanded by Mrs Edwards, but all Clark can do is give him his full month’s pay cheque with a bonus added, shake Jende’s hand, apologise vaguely and thank him for having been an excellent driver.
“The Jende who had returned home … was a husband pitilessly bowed by life” (252). He can only bring himself to tell Neni at five the next morning, when she wakes to feed Timba. When she weeps and expresses her terrors, Jende courageously reassures her that he will return to his old cab-driving job and that they will manage, “drawing her to his chest” (255). But his old employer has no job for him; with the economy in a slump, people are lining up for cab jobs. Jende has to resort to two dishwashing jobs at two restaurants, with poorly paid and back-breaking tasks leaving too few hours in the night for rest and recovery. Neither of them can sleep the night before Jende’s Immigration court appearance, equally bewildered and unsure of a way forward. As Bubakar has foreseen, Jende has to return to the court only in June, but despite the lawyer’s would-be reassuring words: “It seemed to [Jende] rather a pathetic way of being, postponing the inevitable” (259). At this point, Neni takes action. Divulging nothing of her plans to her husband, away washing dishes, with her son at school and her baby daughter in a friend’s care, she goes to Cindy’s apartment, ostensibly to give her a gift. In a brilliantly evoked chapter, we see Neni’s own ruthless side: she blackmails Cindy Edwards by threatening to make public the cell phone photo she took of her temporary employer in a drug-induced, drunken stupor – a picture worth 1 000 mocking words. And Neni has done her homework – every word and demand is skilfully planned and researched so that Cindy is unable to call the police or throw her out. Futilely protesting and swearing, Cindy is forced to pay Neni $10 000 in cash. Neni has returned blackmail (her own) for blackmail (Cindy’s, against Jende), and she regrets nothing. At first, Jende is angry and morally shocked at his wife’s audacity and hardness, but he relents before too long; the money is put away in a joint savings account to help in future difficulties. While vague memories of the enjoyments and communal life in Limbe occasionally play through Neni’s mind, she is still so desperate to remain in the States that she moots a hare-brained scheme in another visit to the pastor: she is thinking of temporarily divorcing Jende and marrying a friend’s cousin, who has a green card, so obtaining citizenship for herself and her children, intending to divorce this man soon thereafter in order to remarry her first husband. The pastor sensibly warns and discourages her. Then, some time later, Neni and Jende learn that a dangerously depressed Cindy Edwards has died, alone in her bedroom, presumably by suicide or through accidental excessive drug intake. It is devastating news, and Neni (who cannot be held responsible for Cindy’s entire despair-inducing situation) knows that her own blackmailing visit (which ended with the erasure of the dreaded photo) might have been one of the final blows to Cindy’s fragile and crumbling self-esteem.
Neni is offered (and subscribes to) Phi Theta Kappa membership because of her good grades, but the hopes of a scholarship evaporate – she is not eligible without legal status in the US (inter alia). At least, Winston takes Neni and her best friend and little Liomi out for dinner to celebrate her success on the night the award is bestowed on her. Then, news comes that Jende’s father has died – and he cannot fly out to attend the funeral. He sends every cent he can spare to the family to help pay for a lavish funeral, every moment of which he watches on hours of videotape, but it is still devastating to him that he cannot be there. However, all their New York friends come for a wake/funeral at the apartment, providing a degree of comfort with the warmth of their condolences.
Unbearable back pain begins to plague Jende, who is having to spend hours and hours on his feet, six days a week, washing dishes. The doctor rightly observes that apart from the obvious physiological causes, the condition is stress-induced. “[Jende] knew it was over the moment he walked out of the doctor’s office”; the dream of a life in America is broken. He tells Neni: “I’m ready to go back home” (305). Neni cannot concede that her husband’s health is at risk and his stress nearly unbearable, showing less concern for his health than Jende did for hers, and she continues to object and protest and make numerous unrealistic suggestions – blindly obsessive about remaining in the US. But Jende has seen what the slump has done even to educated, formerly well-employed Americans; their own time is up. Despite some ugly scenes and terrible strains, their marriage eventually holds strong. Sensibly, Jende accepts voluntary deportation. The dreamers do return to Limbe, yet they do so in new and prosperous roles; with the money saved in the States, they can live well, engage in business (as an enterprising Jende does), send their children to the top schools and return to the old pleasures of their lovely home town. The agony of humiliation which Jende so dreaded never does materialise.
Permeated as it is by compassionate irony, this is a deeply satisfying novel, a narrative that feeds the soul and expands the understanding.