What culture am I?…

Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

The man I married in the 1960s – my anthropology professor – had a confused identity as a child.  In fact, Ben had many identities. He came to America in 1950 and became highly educated with two doctorate degrees. And yet, he had begun his life caught between Western and tribal culture as well as numerous identities. Like his father, he was not only a descendant of Ngombu Tejjeh, a powerful Mende chief, but he had strong family ties to both the Americo- Liberians and the Mende and Gbandi tribes in Liberia, West Africa.

Below is an excerpt from our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief

Childhood in Germany

His father was the Liberian financial attaché in Berlin, Germany when his mother returned to the capital, Monrovia, to give birth to twins so they’d be born on native soil. She returned to Berlin six months later. From then on, the family Benjamin Dennisspent winters in Berlin and summers in Liberia.

The boys were educated by German tutors in the consulate. They had a German governess who made sure they made their beds and scrubbed between their toes. There were German servants in the home as well as a chauffeur. The boys primarily spoke German in addition to Mende and Gbandi. After their school sessions, they played with the neighborhood boys. Ben watched Hitler in parades and admired him.

Marching for Hitler

Ben’s identity was challenged when he was ten years old. A gang of friends brought him a khaki shirt and short pants, telling him, “Put them on. We’re going to march for the Fatherland.”

Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine DennisBen’s sister heard the boys talking and ran and told their father. He yelled from his office window, “You’re not going with them. You’re not a German!”

Ben’s friends insisted, “You’re a German!  Your father’s confused. He must have just gotten up from his nap.”

Ben yelled up, “But Papa, all my friends say I’m a German!”

His father said, “Take one step and you’ll answer to me.”

Dejected, Ben ran into the house and complained to his mother, “Papa says I’m not a German.”

His mother said, “He’s right. You’re not a German.”

Ben said, “But then, what am I?”

“You’re an African.”

“You mean the place we go for vacation?” 

World War II Intervenes

Ben’s time in Germany would end abruptly when America declared war on Germany in 1941. Since Liberia would serve as an airbase during the North African campaign, all Liberian diplomats were given 24-hours safe passage out of Germany. His governess wept as they quickly packed. Some of the children from the first marriage chose to stay behind in Berlin.

They fled to London and experienced the blitz there before finding safe passage on a ship, which arrived in Monrovia, six months later. Ben would spend his teenage years in Liberia before heading to Queens College, Oxford University, to study pre-law.