The Land We Were Born On

Imbolo Mbue was born and raised in the coastal town of Limbe, Cameroon. Even at a young age, she has exhibited a deep appreciation of literature. She has read the works of renowned African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Camara Laye, Elechi Amadi, and Chinua Achebe. Her interest in literature made her pursue writing. Her writing would take the backseat after she moved to the United States in 1998 to study business management. She would pursue her writing again after losing her corporate job during the American Great Recession. Her unemployment allowed her to work on her first novel, Behold the Dreamers, which was published in 2016 to wide critical acclaim. It bagged her the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection and was adapted into an opera and a stage play.

Behold the Dreamers was a literary breakthrough that introduced to the world a new literary voice on the rise. The world of literature has unrolled its red carpet to warmly welcome her. It cannot be denied that the world wanted more of her stories. With each passing year, as more readers get to know her, clamor for more of Mbue’s prose rose. The gods of literature finally heeded everyone’s call. It would take five years after the success of her first book before the world would get to explore more of Mbue’s full-length prose. Making her long-awaited literary comeback in 2021, Mbue invited and transported her readers to her birthplace through her sophomore novel, How Beautiful We Were.

“We should have known the end was near.” Through this set of ominous words, Mbue’s second novel commenced. For years, the denizens of the fictional African village of Kosawa have been grappling with different concerns. The valley they have considered their home for centuries was being threatened. Ever since Pexton, an American company, entered their realm, the valley’s landscape has been inevitably altered. Obtaining permission from a seemingly young government, Pexton started extracting oil from the oil-rich region. Oil drilling and extraction have become a lucrative venture, especially for gigantic companies such as Pexton, because of the growing demand for oil in all parts of the world. Nearly everything, from cars to machines, require oil for them to function. Oil has indeed become the proverbial black gold.

“I told her that on all sides the dead were too many—on the side of the vanquished, on the side of the victors, on the side of those who’d never chosen sides. What good were sides? Who could ever hail themselves triumphant while they still lived? Perhaps someday, I added, after all the dead have been counted, there will be one number for the living to ponder, though the number will never tell the full story of what has been lost.”

~ Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were
The Price of Capitalism

The villagers were reluctant at first but eventually gave in to the presence of Pexton in their area. The promise of development and prosperity was too good to be true. The assurance that they can keep their land was also enough to keep them at peace. As long as they have a piece of land that they can till, they know that they can survive; their land will provide. However, as the years passed by and Pexton’s activities grew exponentially, things started going south. The villagers started losing everything that they hold dear. It started with the river. It was once teeming with fishes that sustained the village. However, it has become too toxic that the schools of fish strayed away. The once fertile land was no longer able to produce food that can sustain them. This was, unfortunately, only the beginning.

Like a thief in the night, death started to indiscriminate bestow each household with its dreaded presence. One by one, the children of the village started getting sick and, eventually, dying. At first, the villagers shrugged it off as death was a profound reality of life. But the body count started piling up. There was no escaping death and its firm grip; it was like a curse that permeated the air. Upon investigation, toxic substances have tricked their way into their homes through the water they drink and the air that they breathe. A disaster was looming and the villagers must avert it. They called out on Pexton and the endless oil leakages of its pipes. They were not demanding money, rather, they were demanding for their safety, a promise that the land they lived in will be restored to its former glory. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Representatives of the company were sent to pacify them rather than to provide them with viable solutions.

Greed and Corruption

The plight of the residents of Kosawa was close to Mbue’s heart. She grew up in a region that was also rich in oil but none of the locals were able to directly benefit from the oil refinery adjacent to their domain. Indeed, the struggles between the villagers and Pexton ring with a bell of universality. Giant corporations venturing into new and uncharted territories have become ubiquitous. The prospect for huge profits is irresistible; the rise of capitalism has also allowed it. However, these companies have become remiss in their responsibilities towards the communities surrounding them. This is common among mining companies. The lack of regulation, especially in developing nations, inevitably resulted in environmental catastrophe. And the damage comes in different forms, from landslides to sinking land to contaminated waters. In How Beautiful We Were, Mbue provided a diagnosis of what caused these events to happen.

Certainly, Pexton was remiss in its responsibilities and was even cognizant of it. However, it chose to ignore the calls of the villagers. They knew that they can get away with it because they have the protection and the reassurance of high-ranking government officials in the country’s capital. It was a trump card that ensures their presence in Kosawa. They can do whatever they want to do without much consequence. In turn, the high-ranking government officials benefit directly from Pexton’s presence. The dictatorial government was willing to display its force to stymie the uprising of its people, to mute their calls. The government was unsympathetic to the pleas of its people, as long as its coffers were replenished by Pexton. Any dissenters, such as the villagers who directly ventured to the capital to seek help, meet their untimely end.

“He says he doesn’t need to have experienced what we went through to see our viewpoint but I don’t belive him – no one who had a childhood like ours could ever be at home in another man’s land. Even those who, unlike me, cannot physically return home do so with their spirits – their sanity demands it. No matter where they, go they carry their birthplae, never apart from all that it gave and look away from them. They seeks its warm air on cold days, imagine its sunshine when clouds cannot be subdued.”

~ Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were

Greed was rife. Corruption abounded; it has trickled its way into every level of society. One sacrificed one’s morals for one’s financial gain. One turns away one’s eye to ignore the cries of the helpless. Even in Kosawa, money has corrupted the morals of some of the village’s members. The ones who were expected to lead them, to make their voices be heard, were muted by the promises of pecuniary gains, to the dismay of the majority. As the old adage goes, money talks. Money makes the world go round. And when given to the wrong hands, the consequences can be severe, as the villagers of Kosawa would learn themselves, the hard way.

From the Ashes, Heroes Rise

And on its darkest night, Kosawa found its voice in Thula, a young woman whose father, Malabo, was one of the first villagers who went to Bezam, the country’s capital, to forward their concerns on Pexton. Thula, and her mother, Sahel, wouldn’t hear from the patriarch after the fated trip. Growing up in Kosawa, Thula was no stranger to the plights of her village, even bearing witness to some of its most violent scenes. Her uncle Bongo’s books aroused in her an insatiable appetite for learning. When a scholarship abroad became available, she was the first candidate that passed with flying colors. In New York City, away from her home, she started learning more about herself, about her people, and about what needs to be done for their voices to be heard. Being away provided Thula an opportunity to reexamine everything she knows about Kosawa and its people.

However, choosing to study in New York City was met with resistance from her mother. Studying abroad was a luxury but women were not expected to pursue further studies. Their roles in society were relegated in the home. But Thula persisted and her persistence bore fruit. Studying in New York City introduced Thula to other ideas she would have not heard of in her homeland. It was a eureka moment for the young woman. Gaining a broader perspective, she has become an activist. Through letters, she directed her peers in Kosawa on how to make their voices be heard. She was stern on making demands using peaceful means.

In the throes of heartache, Thula returned to Kosawa, after years of residing abroad. She decided to personally spearhead Kosawa’s drive for restoration and reparation. She explored all means. She even dreamt of declaring Liberation Day, a day when the ordinary people will rise against the impunity of the government. She traveled all over the country, building rapport with the different tribes and villages, seeking their support in the drive to put a stop to the corruption and greed that was undermining their country. However, village leaders looked at her in incredulity. They were belligerent about trusting a woman, an unwed and childless woman at that. Thula rose to the occasion, not because of her need for power but because she knew what had to be done.

“A long song breaks their heart, for they yearn for their motherland to hold them, caress them, whisper in their ears. It will never be so again, those days are far gone. But the nostalgia, it makes crybabies out of grown men on the darkest of nights – many of them will never be whole again. They’ll be forever poorly patched and existing in a world that has little time to ask them to tell their stories – who cares for their stories?”

~ Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were
An Ode to Africa: The Past, Present, and the Future

While the subject at the heart of the novel resonates on a universal scale, the novel was very much African at its heart. Cameroon, Mbue’s homeland, was a melting pot of diverse cultures and ethnicieties, earning it the well-merited title of being the heart of Africa. Cultural touchstones provided depth to the story, while simultaneously reminding the readers of the author’s, and hence, the story’s provenance. One prominent characteristic that floated to the surface was the patriarchal structure. It was the counsel of men that the village adheres to. Women and children, for the most part, were spectators to the events that unfolded. It was this facet that made Thula’s ascent more remarkable. One can also glean the importance of education from the story. Mbue underscored its role in the drive for change and development.

A seminal intersection in the novel involved the question of belonging and identity. As more Africans move to other places to pursue opportunities, and education, as explored in Mbue’s debut novel Behold the Dreamers, the question of nationality and heritage came to the fore. Does one lose one’s heritage and birthright? It was while Thula was in New York City that the question of the motherland was raised, of what it means. Thula had to keep reassuring her friends in Kosawa that she had not lost her identity. She was born in Kosawa and to Kosawa she will return. Other aspects of one’s heritage were explored through Austin, a journalist of mixed heritage who was instrumental in raising the plight of the villagers to the attention of the world.

These cultural touchstones provided a vivid backdrop for the story. As the story moved forward, there was a transition taking place. Three groups of distinct voices started taking shape, each providing their own perspective. Each group presented the changes that took place and are taking place. In Yaya, Thula’s grandmother, the readers were regaled with the details of the past. While her part of the narrative was brief, it explored seminal themes, such as colonialism, and child abuse. The past’s concern revolved around the household. The present came in the form of adults, Bongo, Sahel, and Lusaka. Like members of the past, their concern revolved around the family, but also of the community.

Taking the heft of the story are the voices of the Children of Kosawa. They had the most prominent voices, rightly so as the concerns of the present also affect their future. Their growing awareness of social, national, and even global issues empowered them. They were finding the voice in order to forge their own futures and for their own children’s future as well. It involved radical moves but they were cognizant that it was the only manner in which to drive their message across. They wanted a better Kosawa, a better Africa, and they will fight tooth and nail to ensure that it will be restored to its original beauty. It was quite ironic that while Pexton sought only profit from their venture, the denizens of Kosawa demanded money not to satisfy their luxuries but to repair the damages that Pexton has caused their land. Their priority was their land because it is their land, and everything with it, that was their most prized possession. It was from their land that bounties flow. It was also a reminder of their childhood and their growth into capable members of the community.

“Despite comporting ourselves for decades, despite never resorting to beastly deeds, we hadn’t succeeded in persuading our tormentors that we were people who deserve of the privilege of living our lives as we wished.”

~ Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were
How We Move Forward

How Beautiful We Were, while brimming with local flavors, resonated with a universal message. It depicted the ugly sides of capitalism and greed, of its adverse impacts on people and the environment. If goes unchecked, greed can cause great damage. Companies all over the world have started recognizing their responsibilities and their need to give back to the community they serve. It has led to the birth of the ubiquitous term, corporate social responsibility, a solution to redress their impact on the environment and on communities. While some damages were already done and are irreversible, the recognition of a company’s responsibilities is a starting point.

Mbue started working on the draft of How Beautiful We Were almost two decades ago, even before the publication of her debut novel. However, it was shelved after she pursued her studies, and eventually, her corporate job. The harrowing news that filled the headlines in 2016 made her resume working on her first writing venture. In 2021, it finally hit the stands. In her multilayered sophomore novel, Mbue captured the heartaches that her motherland experienced, from colonialism to the advent of capitalism to unsympathetic governments who only look after themselves. She invited the readers in with her raw and honest but moving prose. The novel ended on a tragic note, tragic but otherwise inevitable. In capturing its heartaches, she managed to deliver the message of hope she has for her native land. It was a stark contrast from her first novel, on several levels, but How Beautiful We Were showcased different dimensions of Mbue’s prose.

Ratings

88%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 25%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

Like many in the world of reading, I was captivated by Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. I vividly recall picking the book up despite having no iota on what it was about or who the author was. But there was something magnetic about the book. I am glad I picked up the book for Mbue simply riveted me with her prose. She made me study a familiar world through a different lens. I was turned into an instant fan and when news broke out that Mbue was releasing new work, I was excited. Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy of the book in 2021 but, unfortunately, I was not able to get to it. It then formed part of my January 2022 reading journey. Both of Mbue’s works dealt with concerns close to her heart. While her debut novel dealt with the African diaspora, her sophomore work explored an ever-present danger in her homeland. How Beautiful We Were had a bleaker voice but it was effective in delivering Mbue’s message. It resonated with a universal message but it was still very much local at heart. Mbue’s second novel was a great follow-up to her first as it showed a different dimension of her prose. Both were equally beautiful with powerful messages.

Book Specs

Author: Imbolo Mbue
Publisher: Random House
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 360
Genre: Literary Fiction, African Literature

Synopsis

We should have known the end was near.

So begins Imbolo Mbue’s powerful second novel, How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells of a people living in fear amid environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of cleanup and financial reparations to the villagers are made – and ignored. The country’s government, let by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interests. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. Their struggle will last for decades and come at a steep price.

Told from the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary How Beautiful We Were is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive from profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold on to its ancestral land and a young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.

About the Author

To learn more about Cameroonian-American writer Imbolo Mbue, click here.