By George Esunge Fominyen
Is Francis Nyamnjoh’s *Married But Available simply an account of the experiences of Lily Loveless, a Muzugulander (western) researcher, who travels to Mimboland (Cameroon/Africa) to study the relationship between sexuality and power? Or is it about the telenovela-styled sneak peek into the lives of couples by Britney, Lily’s young research assistant? Isn’t it a, rather, witty stab at African leadership, democracy and the role of the media in society?
Lily sets foot in the country when there is strike at the University of Mimbo. It is a deliberate ploy by the author to provide the political backdrop he needs to expose African leaders who claim to be married to principles such as democracy and meritocracy but yield to autocratic, totalitarian and repressive policies; in the same way that Mimbolanders are married (attached) to their spouses (partners) but are available to others.
Leadership epitomized by the university’s administration that is unwilling to accept contradictory thought. An administration disposed to bring in security forces to crack-down on students protesting against its policies such as the construction of a wall around the institution.
“In the context of ruthless and unscrupulous politics in our university campus and lecture halls, the administration cannot sit back and watch vandals destroy what has taken the government and taxpayers of Mimboland much sacrifice to build,” the vice-Chancellor (VC) said on radio in defense of the school authorities. The VC even urged the public “not to inhale the rhetorical smoke coming out from misguided students and irresponsible politically motivated lecturers” (pg 25).
The VC’s response essentially captures the spirit of a declaration by Cameroon’s President ,Paul Biya, in the heat of riots in February 2008. He said the youths who took to the streets (to protest rising cost of food and plans to scrap limits to presidential term of office) were "manipulated" by "demons" who had failed to obtain power democratically and were not bothered about the risk that they made them (the youths) to run by exposing them to confrontations with the forces of law and order.
Officially, 40 people lost their lives (civil groups put the death toll at over 100) as the government (in the president's words) used all legal means available to ensure the rule of law in a constitutional state.
Married But Available was published in the same year which could suggest that the author was partly inspired by these events in his native country to convey the usual rhetoric from “leaders” when they try to justify their use of force against opponents of their views. He obsviously also drew from happenings (strikes) at the University of Buea where he taught sociology in the 1990s. Those who might recognize themselves in some of the characters in this novel would not welcome Nyamnjoh with open arms given the derisive way he turns fact into fiction.
Nonetheless, the problems raised in Married But Available are continent-wide. For instance, the portrayal of how tribalism and regionalism permeate decision making in Mimboland (especially at the University of Mimbo) could be useful in undertanding the issue of Ivoirité (or who is a true Ivorian) ignited by politicians and fanned by sections of the press in Ivory Coast.
Ivoirité has bedeviled Ivory Coast politics for over a decade and surely remains a factor in the post-electoral deadlock where Laurent Gbagbo claims to have won the presidential poll of November 2010 and is unwilling to step down in favor of his rival Alassane Ouattara (once pouted as not Ivorian enough), who is considered by the international community as the winner of the election as proclaimed by the country’s independent electoral commission.
Gbagbo and his supporters have faulted the United Nations, the African Union and the West African regional body (ECOWAS) for interference in a country's internal affairs. Gbagbo's Interior minister Emile Guirieoulou said, in a VOA report that, Mr. Gbagbo's government “will not tolerate meddling” by outsiders in Ivory Coast's internal affairs.
A situation which vaguely resembles the reaction of University of Mimbo authorities to an article on managerial mediocrity at the institution by Dr Mukala Satannie, a western lecturer married to a diplomat working in Mimboland.
“No outsider has the right to dictate priorities to my university,” is the VC’s answer on radio. The diction is staggeringly similar to what is used in real-life Ivory Coast.
In a clever use of the voice of Dr BP, an outspoken lecturer who was found dead at his home, his skull shattered, his brain and genitals missing, the author delivers precious advice to those who wield power on the African continent:
“Woe betides the leader who takes decisions without consultation, and who excludes from leadership people who have a lot of talent because he or she is too afraid to be contradicted or to discover that no single individual however gifted has a monopoly of good ideas.”
A good leader is one who is able to purge him or herself of the delusion that bosses are necessarily better than the people under them, Dr BP says. Whether African presidents, their governments and other appointees really care for such scholarship on democratic principles is another matter.
In any case, they should have read or heard lessons on democracy from the multitude of (often critical) privately owned newspapers, radio and television stations that blossomed in many African countries since the return to multi-party politics in the 1990s, as exemplified by the Talking Drum newspaper in Married But Available.
Through the relationship between Lily Loveless and Bobinga Iroko, the star journalist of the newspaper, the author expertly highlights the challenges facing the African media as the continent grapples with democracy. In some countries where the political space is overwhelmingly occupied by the ruling party/elite, the media seem to have taken the role of the opposition.
Iroko appears to be married to journalism and ideals such as the quest of truth, freedom of expression and democracy. It is evident in his determination to write an editorial following Dr. BP’s murder instead of joining the bandwagon to do a piece on homosexuality. But isn’t he available to sensationalism and personal vendettas as well?
“As journalists we do more than mirror the society…we seek to eliminate the ugly and enhance the beautiful,” Iroko tells Lily.
Nyamnjoh, in his academic papers and non-fictional books such as Africa’s Media, Democracy and the Politics of Belonging (UNISA Press, 2005), has expressed doubts about the media’s positive role in promoting democratization on the continent given their lack of professionalism and respect for evidence.
This is echoed in Married But Available when Lily wonders whether Bobinga Iroko is the top-notch investigative journalist he claims to be or simply a rumor monger (pg 31).
How a novel constructed around a young, western woman’s doctoral research into sexuality in Africa ends up with such insights into media, democracy and politics in the continent is testimony to the author’s ingenuity. But multiple digressions into mini-stories with elaborate descriptions and colorful anecdotes of marital infidelity might distract an unspecting reader from other themes explored in this rich work.
*Married But Available: Paperback, 488 pages Publisher: Langaa RPCIG (2008)