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A review of ‘Love under the Kola-Nut Tree’ by Esther Lamnyam, Author House, 2009, 279 pp. Paperback $19. 95. ISBN 978-1-4392-1823-5

This is a revolutionary novel in several respects but what captures the reader’s attention from the onset is how the author turns the tables by portraying an African woman as the herald of civilization to the benighted West.

Lamnyam’s fictional work titled ‘Love under the Kola-Nut Tree: What City Moms Didn’t Tell You about Creating Fulfilling Relationships’ is a treasure trove of indigenous knowledge and ontological aphorisms. In reading this book I caught myself umpteen times drawing parallels with ‘Les maximes’ (1664) [1] by French man of letters, François de La Rochefoucauld. In ‘Les maximes’ La Rochefoucauld reflects on the conduct and motives of himself and of his compatriots. Lamnyam assumes the same posture in ‘Love under the Kola Nut Tree’. The novel is woven around the theme of a civilizing mission [2] undertaken to America by an African woman, Sophia Maya, queen of the village of Malah. Maya takes leave of absence from her ceremonial duties at home and decides to visit her next-of-kin in the white man’s land for reasons that remain obscure to the reader from the beginning to the end of the novel.

Sophia Maya is portrayed as a woman with much clout in the village: ‘The education of young women and their initiation into womanhood and the laws of nature were under her jurisdiction’ (18). The African queen is presented as someone who is keen on maintaining a symbiotic relationship with nature; she does not seek to domesticate the natural environment; she lives in communion with nature. Thus, Lamnyam’s protagonist is presented to the reader as an anti-thesis of the land he is visiting: a clime where materialism and humanism are locked in a collision course. Maya’s insuperable rhetorical questions leave her admirers hard pressed for correct answers: ‘Can you explain to me how you can love and hate so viciously at the same time?’ Maya asks (116). This seemingly easy question proves tough for Maya’s listeners who are accustomed to the Manichean division characteristic of the Western world. The narrator does not mince words in her acknowledgement of ignorance: ‘We all drew a blank on this one’ (116). ‘Love under the Kola Nut Tree’ is replete with existential questions of this nature as seen in this other example: ‘If lions and other vicious carnivorous animals can be tamed, what more of a woman, flesh of my flesh?’ (83) The parallel the narrator creates between meat-eating animals and women is intriguing.

Maya Sophia is not just a symbol of nobility but also a custodian of traditional values of love, communalism, fidelity, truth, forgiveness, spirituality and more. ‘Love under the Kola Nut Tree’ is a revolutionary novel in several respects but the aspect that captures the reader’s attention from the onset of the narrative is the manner in which Lamnyam turns the tables by portraying Maya Sophia, an African, as a torch-bearer bringing light and civilization to a benighted white man’s land . In fact, in ‘Love under the Kola Nut Tree’, the whole concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ is turned on its head. America is depicted as a dark continent sorely in need of enlightenment. One weighty value that Maya insists on inculcating in people in her host country is the importance of fidelity in interpersonal relationships: ‘…We must have and honor verbal contracts of friendships and relationships…These days I sometimes wish grown-ups were as honest and committed as kids’ (197).

It is noteworthy that Lamnyam is not the first to resort to the technique of reversed psychology to convey messages of crucial importance. In a novel titled ‘Aux Etats Unis d'Afrique’ (2006) [3], translated into English as In the United States of Africa, (2009) [4], Abdourahman Waberi turns the fortunes of the world upside down and invites his readers to re-imagine a world where economic refugees and victims of social oppression escape from the squalor of America and the slums of Europe in desperation to seek freedom and prosperity in the United States of Africa. Several events in ‘Love under the Kola Nut Tree’ substantiate the contention that Lamnyam is hell-bent on painting the portrait of a topsy-turvy world. One such incident is Dr. Morgan’s misappropriation of a mystical stone belonging to the people of the village of Malah: ‘There were many myths about Malah and about the missionaries who came there. It is said one in particular stole the village stone the gods had given to Malah’ (51). It should be noted that Dr. Morgan is a Caucasian American physician whose father is alleged to have lived in Malah and had stolen the stole that meant everything to the people of Malah. The symbolism of the stone is the practice of witchcraft. Tongue-in-cheek, Lamnyam derides Dr. Morgan by putting him in the uncomfortable position of having to be identified with African occultism.

‘Love under the Kola Nut Tree’ could be construed as a discourse on the fair sex. Lamnyam takes her readers through the crevices in the minds of feminist thinkers. From benign statements like ‘Woman, like the earth, is the womb of all creation’ (113), to more convoluted semantically loaded ones like ‘Look at the turmoil in the world today due to the sex act’(112), the novelist takes a stand for and against quite a few gender-related issues in contemporary society. She does not veil her bias in favour of the feminine gender as the following statement seems to suggest: ‘Without a woman, a man is incomplete and lost… Man needs woman to survive this journey and not vice versa’ (113).

There is no gainsaying the fact that Lamnyam’s seminal work treats the reader to a string of intertextual references. Her treatment of the fair sex is reminiscent of the stance taken by French feminist writer, Simone de Beauvoir, who argues in her seminal book ‘Le deuxième sexe’ (1949) [5] translated as The Second Sex (1953) [6] that gender is a social construct. As she puts it, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine’(5). Like De Beauvoir, Lamnyam underscores the role played by prejudice in the oppression of women in contemporary societies.

Lamnyam’s sledge-hammer does not fall on emasculators of sex alone. She wages an all-out war against merchants of racial prejudice as this statement suggests: ‘Being a black man in America is hard’ (123). The burden of being black in the United States of America seems to be the pet-peeve of this valiant fiction writer. The term ‘black man’ should be construed as a generic word referring to all blacks regardless of gender. In a land befogged by racial hatred, hate language and bigotry, Lamnyam’s protagonist comes out with a totally new message. She enjoins her hosts to be color-blind, love one another and nurse no hatred based on pigmentation. She is not alone in her vendetta against racial prejudice. Standing by her is celebrated American writer Toni Morrison who maintains that ‘Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It is real information, but it tells you next to nothing.’ [7]

The subtitle of this novel, ‘What City Moms didn’t Tell You about Creating Fulfilling Relationships’ is an apt portrayal of the moral degeneracy that Lamnyam identifies with the so-called civilized world.

The didactic value of Love under the Kola-Nut Tree resides in the novelist’s proclivity to impart knowledge. Many chapters in the book have proverbial captions. Chapter 5, for instance, is titled ‘When the eyes have a problem, do not think the nose will not be affected’ (19). This figurative saying is pregnant with meaning. The writer goes to great lengths to inform the reader that the proverb is culled from the folklore of the Wimbum people. [8] The importance of this aphoristic expression resides in its relevance in the context of interpersonal relationships. In plain terms, the narrator is insinuating that a dishonorable act committed by one member of a family is likely to bring opprobrium upon the entire family. This is a note of caution to all and sundry to be mindful of despicable comportment.

The title of Chapter 26 is semantically rich as well: ‘The bugs will fly to a lighted candle even at the risk of being burned to death’ (205). This idiomatic expression underscores the risks inherent in foolhardy behavior. Lamnyam resorts to this figurative language in a bid to show that African tongues are rich languages and must be nurtured and preserved. This kind of writing, it should be noted, in a negation of the message paraded around by colonial masters who sought to destroy African languages through the policy of assimilation. Biblically speaking, the lighted candle could be construed as a metonym for the wide road that leads to hell as opposed to the narrow road that leads to Paradise.

The themes of religiosity and communion with God constitute the leitmotif that runs through the entire novel. The caption of chapter 36 is Biblical: ‘Whatever thou resolvest to do, do it quickly. Delay thou not till the evening what the morning may accomplish’ (271). In secular language, this thought would be expressed as: do not leave for tomorrow what you can accomplish today. This is a very powerful lesson against procrastination which secular minds have christened the thief of time. More often than not, the protagonist resorts to Biblical terminology not only to invoke blessings from her ancestors but also to convey her firm belief in the existence of a Supreme Being that guides all human action: ‘Sophia Amena, Amena Nah, Nah Yentoh, Yentoh Bibi’(134).

The language of choice in ‘Love under the Kola-Nut Tree’ is hybrid. Sophia Maya switches codes when she deems it necessary. Oftentimes, she communicates in impeccable English. However, there are moments when she switches codes and speaks in Pidgin English as seen in the following statement: ‘Ma pikin,’ Maya said to Toni, ‘if it was those days in Malah, I would guide you to become a leader’ (129). The expression ‘my pikin’ could be translated as ‘my son’. It should be noted that this expression does not imply a filial relationship between Maya and Toni. It is simply a term of endearment. The question that begs to be asked, though, is why Maya would opt to speak to the same character in two languages at the same time. This is only one of several puzzles that readers of this novel are called upon to unravel. It is a book to be read by anyone interested in African philosophy and traditional worship. Students and professors of African studies would find Lanmyam’s book a priceless working tool.


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* Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta is professor at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute, POM-CA


[i"> François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes et réflexions morales, 1664.

[ii"> Mission civilisatrice (the French for "civilisatory mission”) is a rationale for intervention or colonization, proposing to contribute to the spread of civilization, mostly amounting to the westernization of indigenous peoples. It was notably the underlying principle of French and Portuguese colonial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was influential in the French colonies of Algeria, French West Africa, and Indochina, and in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea, Mozambique and Timor. The European colonial powers felt it was their duty to bring Western civilization to what they perceived as backwards peoples. Rather than merely govern colonial peoples, the Europeans would attempt to westernize them in accordance with a colonial ideology known as "assimilation".

[iii"> Abdourahman, Waberi, Aux Etats Unis d’Afrique. Paris: J.C.Lattes, 2006.

[iv"> _____________________. In the United States of Africa. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

[v"> Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe. Paris: Gallimard, 1949.

[vi"> ____________________, The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.

[vii">Ella Mazel, And Don’t Call me a Racist! A Treasury of Quotes on the Past, Present and Future of the Color Line in America, 1998.

[viii"> The Wimbum people inhabit the Donga Mantung Plateau (formerly Nkambe) of the Northwest Region of Cameroon. They speak a language called Limbum or language of the Mbum people.