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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I love to travel - to see my kids. I would say
that the most beautiful sound to me is my grandchildren's
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
Beyond Myself: The farm girl and the African chief is
published by WestBow Press.