Vicensia Shule gives an appreciative review of Francis Nyamnjoh's 'Married but Available'.
The title of Francis Nyamnjoh’s 'Married but Available' (MBA) is both inviting and intriguing. Being MBA as opposed to having an MBA! Reading the cover page, it was evident to me that the author had set out to refute, or at least interrogate, the existing practice of people being simultaneously married and available for relationships with persons other their married partners. This is a practice that can be traced to almost all societies of the world. Nyamnjoh sheds light on this phenomenon not only in relation to the traditions of the fictional Mimboland in which the novel is set, but more on the global motives behind the possibility of marriage and availability. The most fascinating aspect of Mimboland is its unique ‘products’, such as Mimbo Wonder beer, Air Mimbo and the University of Mimbo, which surface throughout the novel.
Arranged in 30 chapters totalling 371 pages, the novel tells the story of Lilly Loveless, a researcher from Muzunguland (another fictional place) who visits Mimboland to study about sexuality and power relations in relation to consumerism. Britney, a student of the University of Mimbo, assists Lilly Loveless in her research. From these two characters, we see how the author has elevated the role of research assistants in the field of ‘anthropological’ research. Britney’s experience as an insider seems to override the researcher’s knowledge, especially in the way she presents data, as opposed to Lilly Loveless who is obsessed with theories that she can barely substantiate empirically. The author uses names which tell the reader about the character of the characters. For example, names such as Dr Wiseman Lovemore, Professor Dustbin Olala, Dr Simba Spineless, Desire, Dr Sexwhale, Helena Paradise, Amanda Hope and Adapepe reflect the personality and character traits of the characters who bear them and answer the question ‘why’ these characters behave the way they do.
The author uses Lilly Loveless’ doctoral research topic to convey the theme of the novel and the obsession with and dangers of consumerism in our present day world. The novel centres on stories of social mingling, political machinations, economic stagnation and burning desire. It is evident that MBA reflects the current situation of the digital revolution. In it we see how the internet and mobile phones function as instant forms of communication. In celebrating the technological revolution in human bodies, the author shows how women’s ovaries can be frozen for future use. We see how the media struggles to shape the life of people in Mimboland. The Talking Drum, one of the famous musical instruments in West Africa, represents the name of the famous newspaper in Mimboland edited by none other than the most talkative hypercritical Bobinga Iroko (Godlove).
The language adds to the aesthetic success of the narrative. Expressions such as Japanese handbrake, used to refer to men who are slow in providing financial assistance to women, and flying shirts, which refer to young men who are financially incapacitated, give the novel a truly West African flavour. The writer uses terms that are deeply rooted in the cultures of his ‘native’ country, Cameroon, even as his novel is clearly beyond Cameroon in theme and appeal. Although Nyamnjoh uses fictional names for places and characters in the novel, it is not difficult for the reader to identify these with real-life places and figures in Cameroon’s historical present. The use of Pidgin English in many parts of the novel makes the narrative more fascinating and heightens the humour, although it poses a great challenge to a non-West African reader who battles to understand the language, especially in places where no translations are provided. For the most part, the author avoids euphemisms, using direct language instead. Perhaps it is because the subject under discussion is sex and research, and hence warrants a degree of openness and bluntness, especially in the era of HIV/AIDS.
It is unfortunate that I have not read other novels by Nyamnjoh to be able to state conclusively what his ideological standpoint is on the matter of male–female relationships. But I have to say that this novel 'Married but Available' has ultimately portrayed Nyamnjoh as a mature scholar with experience in research skills, a writer whose language is rich in imagery and sense of humour devoid of dullness. He has certainly portrayed women as ‘ingenious’ when it comes to issues of sexuality and possessions, although the cultural settings do not always give them such accreditations.
Regardless of the success of the novel, its style demands that the reader has a certain level of knowledge of research concepts to build the plot, which to some extent means that mostly intellectuals with field-research experience can fully grasp the novel’s narrative style. Although he manages to balance the stories in terms of gender representation, there is still some context-specific use of terms such as watchman (guard/security guard) and houseboy (housekeeper). Tout ensemble, Nyamnjoh’s 'Married but Available' is a great addition to African literature and in my opinion it will serve as interesting ‘raw material’ for other media such as film series and radio soaps.
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* Francis Nyamnjoh, 'Married but Available', Langaa Research and Publishing, Bamenda, ISBN: 9789956558278, 2009.
* Vicensia Shule is a performing artist working at the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
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