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Interview: Anita Katherine Dennis, author

20 March 2015

'Ben was a hereditary chief, I was seen as the chief's wife'

My love story begins on a college campus. That's where I met my husband, my professor, Ben Dennis, who was also a hereditary chief of the Mende tribe.

Ben and I married in the 1960s, despite extreme opposition by my parents. Ben had been reared in Berlin as a small boy. Not only was he Westernised at a young age, he had been highly educated on American college campuses before we met.

I grew up in an old homestead, on a 400-acre farm in north-western Ohio during the 1950s. My father, a chemical engineer, wanted to be his own boss and try scientific farming. My childhood revolved around school and church, with the farm as our summer playground.

As my marriage progresses, my world is enlarged from an Ohio farm to serving as chief's wife in a remote village in Liberia, west Africa. Faith in Jesus Christ is the bond in our marriage, and, as God leads, we serve as lay missionaries in Vahun, his father's village.

I wanted to show in Beyond Myself how God made possible my interracial, cross-cultural marriage, and how he fulfilled his plan for my life through it. I honoured my husband's memory by writing our love story as well as describing his love for his tribal people. My book preserves the African heritage for my grandchildren.

Liberia is primarily mountainous tropical rain forest. During the '70s and '80s, there was a great difference between the Westernised urban capital of Monrovia, and the rural areas still governed by tribal ways. The subjugation of the tribal people by the Americo-Liberians, descendants of 1800s settlers from America, simmered under the surface until the coup of 1980, when the tribal people took control.

Ben and I were lay missionaries, sharing the gospel as lay people. We spent a year in Liberia in Vahun, Ben's father's village up country, supporting the white missionaries working there, and witnessing in our own right.

It was a unique experience, because the Mende people were my family. Since Ben was a hereditary chief, I was seen as the chief's wife. The people were very good to us, but we were disappointed with the way the missionaries treated them.

I believe there will always be challenges in an interracial, cross-cultural marriage, despite changing social mores. Marriage is hard enough without social pressure and the differing values and expectations of races and cultures.

I missed having electricity and running hot water. I also felt I had no control over problems or events, and I worried about my children's safety. We lived in the heart of the town, and the Mende people are group-oriented, with no concept of Western privacy.

Despite our great differences, our shared faith in Jesus Christ gave us a similar world view that transcended racial and cultural boundaries. I came to love the Mende and Gbandi people, not only as family, but as sisters and brothers in Christ.

The most difficult thing in our marriage was that we were accepted on some level by all kinds of people, but there was no unreserved acceptance by any group, including Christians.

The opposition from my parents is the first third of my story. They took me out of college after the Thanksgiving break of my junior year, and I stayed on the farm with them for nine months. I was permitted to visit my sister in Baltimore the following summer, on the condition I never contacted Ben again. I understand the anxiety of student relationships with professors. I know of cases where students were taken advantage of, sexually. At the same time, there are always exceptions to the rule, and I guess Ben and I were that exception.

We were apart for two years before we saw each other again; but we resumed contact by phone and letters while I was working in a church programme in the slums of New York City. We finally married four years after we met, and when our first son was two years old, we reconciled with my parents.

My father practised conditional love: he loved me if I followed his rules. I now face having a gay son, which I do not believe is God's plan. However, I continue to love and support him, despite his choices. I've come to love his partner as well, and I pray for them daily.

Marriage is all about "soul sharing". I would counsel any woman considering a life partner to choose a man of her faith. Knowing God and Jesus Christ determines our entire world-view, and it colours our understanding of ourselves and our environment.

After Ben and I reconciled with my parents, our family spent holidays and vacations on the farm. Our three boys loved their white grandparents dearly, and weren't told about earlier problems.

Ben's parents were deceased when I met him, so I never knew them, but our boys came to know and understand their Mende and Gbandi heritage during our trips to Liberia, especially the year we lived in Ben's father's village.

Two of my three sons married white women, and my five grandchildren can all pass for white. My youngest son recently told me that people no longer take issue with interracial relationships. That's his view, but I'm from an older generation.

I lived most of my life in America as a faculty wife: at Ohio University, and the University of Michigan-Flint. After the coup of 1980, Liberia descended into anarchy during two civil wars in the 1990s. Ben wanted to write a book about the causes of the wars. Since he was retired and going blind, I essentially wrote the book [Slaves to Racism: An unbroken chain from America to Liberia]. The account is filled with examples of the effect of racism in Liberia and America, with eye-witness examples from his life.

My calling is to encourage others by spreading my story. There is power in sharing our common humanity and struggles.

I've lived in Fort Myers, Florida, since 1992, when my husband retired from the University of Michigan-Flint. I still reside in the home where two of our boys went to high school and off to college, and where my husband died in 2009. But home is everywhere I've ever lived, I guess. Home is a combination of things. It's primarily being with people I love.

My faith was crucial in coping with my husband's death. I agree with the statement, "When God is all you have, you discover God is all you need." Daily quiet time with God was my lifeline.

I'm happiest when I am serving and encouraging other women. As a Stephen minister, it's my calling to encourage women who are strug-gling as we share our lives and love each other. I intentionally include several black foreign women in our church, who have no transportation, to come with me to church events. I cleared out a hoarder's apartment, and, along with the parish nurse, I help the woman organise things. I take her grocery shopping, and dye her hair, etc. I enjoy all of these activities, because whatever I am doing for these women, I am doing for Christ.

I love to travel - to see my kids. I would say that the most beautiful sound to me is my grandchildren's voices.

My husband's faith in God strengthened mine. We travelled in Europe and Africa. He saw to it that I graduated from college, and even encouraged me to get my doctorate, which I didn't do. Socially, I became a part of faculty life and black associations in America.

I am in daily prayer for many people who are hurting physically or emotionally.

If I were locked in a church, I would be thrilled to spend any time with my husband, now that he has gone on to be with the Lord.

Anita Katherine Dennis was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Beyond Myself: The farm girl and the African chief is published by WestBow Press.

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