The year 2007 was one of no return for me. Having previously visited it every year and a half, the last time I went to Cameroon was that Christmas, as the first shockwaves of the financial crisis were emerging. It’s this time frame that serves as the nexus of Cameroonian newcomer Imbolo Mbue’s much-awaited novel Behold the Dreamers.
Originally entitled The Longings of Jende Jonga, Mbue’s first title deftly explores themes of migration, family, social mobility, and success through the lens of the eponymous cab driver who moves from Cameroon’s Limbe to New York City on a travel visa, in search of a better life. His employer, Clark Edwards, is a Lehman Brothers senior executive with a troubled socialite wife Cindy and two boys. Jende becomes embroiled in the Edwardses’ family drama as they fall from grace. The book asks: what’s the cost of “making it,” and ultimately, its value?
Having recently returned from my first trip to Brooklyn, I see myself reflected in Jende’s tyro rose-tinted binoculars. Cameroon, born 1960, was under the double jeopardy of France and Britain’s rule after Germany lost its share post-World War I, hence French and English as official languages and a lack of official Cameroonian dialect out of hundreds. It’s a beautiful oxymoron: although travel agents may refer to it as “Africa in miniature,” it is an African country you rarely hear about in global popular culture (football excluded)—its influence pervasive but unspoken.