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Intimate Strangers

Thursday 21 January 2010, author(s)-editor(s) Francis B. Nyamnjoh

Intimate Strangers tells the story of the everyday tensions of maids and madams in ways that bring together different worlds and explore various dimensions of servitude and mobility. Immaculate travels to a foreign land only to find her fiancé refusing to marry her. Operating from the margins of society, through her own ingenuity and an encounter with researcher Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny, she is able to earn some money. Will she remain at the margins or graduate into DUST - Diamond University of Science and Technology? Immaculate learns how maids struggle to make ends meet and madams wrestle to keep them in their employ. Resolved to make her disappointments blessings, she perseveres until she can take no more.

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ISBN 9789956616060 | 334 pages | 229 x 152 mm | 2010 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

4 Book Reviews

  • Intimate Strangers 21 January 2010 13:03, author(s)-editor(s) Jane Bennett, Director

    Don’t be deceived by Immaculate, a key voice in Francis Nyamnjoh’s Intimate Strangers. At first glance, her observations about the country in which she’s called makwerekwere are open-eyed, light-hearted, going with the flow. Beneath the flow of her experiences, Nyamnjoh has created a darkly hilarious, incisive, and brilliant commentary on what it means to be known – and unknown – in contemporary Southern Africa. The novel is crafted with precision, wit, and a delicacy that exposes your own heart even as it suggests – with simplicity and elegance –- new ways of seeing the familiar.

    Jane Bennett, Director, African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, South Africa

  • Intimate Strangers 21 January 2010 13:12, author(s)-editor(s) James Ferguson

    Intimate Strangers is both an engaging story of a stranger in a strange land, and a feast of revealing observations that link matters such as xenophobia and race relations to the intimacies of sex, romance, friendship, and betrayal. Brimming with humour, humanity, and cross-cultural curiosity, this book leads the reader through a fascinating set of encounters that provide a vivid and convincing portrait of contemporary life in a modern southern African society.

    James Ferguson, Professor of Anthropology, Stanford University, USA

  • The social life of ’maids’ 17 April 2010 10:19, author(s)-editor(s) Efua Prah
    Efua Prah reviews Francis Nyamnjoh’s ’Intimate Strangers’, a book in which ’we learn and unlearn a lot about human beings and the solidarities they forge and deny one another’.

    Through Francis Nyamnjoh’s Immaculate of Mimboland, a foreigner in Botswana, we learn and unlearn a lot about human beings and the solidarities they forge and deny one another. 

    I think my sense of what was normal and accepted behaviour really got tested as I read the stories Immaculate transcribed for Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny. My surprised reaction really is exemplary of how easy it is to normalise certain ways of being (like what our expectations are and what we measure as acceptable) and categorise relationships according to these definitions. 

    It never occurred to me that the relationships between ’maids and madams’ could be such a rich area for research. I really enjoyed how the lives of others allowed the reader to engage with an issue that I have up until this point taken for granted. I found myself making comparisons between the relationships explored in the book and the relationships I entertain in my daily life. Throughout my childhood we have always had extra help around the house. The people my parents employed certainly had an infinitely different relationship with us (the children). I imagine that my parents may have had to consider a whole set of different parameters of engagement compared to the ones I took on. For me, the people who helped around the house, now that I really do think about it, were ’intimate strangers’ – intimate insofar as they knew a lot about my growth in the world and were indeed strangers because I knew next to nothing about their growth in the world. It was as if our relationship was held in time and bound by geographic obstacles. They often lived far from our home and would travel to and from work everyday at fixed times. Hence, I think an exploration of the relationship between children and ’maids’ would also allow for an interesting narrative. 

    After reading about these relationships, I questioned my mother about the validity of the accounts as they were vastly different to my experience with domestic workers here in South Africa. I found it so intriguing that such differences could take place in so close a distance between countries – Botswana is a neighbouring country to South Africa. I have an aunt that lives in Botswana and I was curious to find out if such narratives were possible. When I questioned my mother she replied that she was unaware of the nature of the relationships between ’maids and madams’ in Botswana and so I have to assume that the stories in the book are in fact relationships that get played out daily, although even now I find myself saying, ’Really? Can it be so that both "maids and madams" feel as it is written in this story?’ 

    Another fascinating dynamic was that of ’foreigners’ (Bakwerekwere) and Batswana. It was very interesting to be introduced to such forms of discrimination that were seemingly justified by the characters in the book. The ways in which people judged and made suppositions about others along cultural lines within the framework of ’maids and madams’ was eye-opening. It was interesting to draw parallels between the lives of South Africans and ’foreigners’ living and seeking employment here in South Africa – who gets hired, for what reasons and the consequent results of ’foreigners’’ successful employment. 


    The subtlety in which the reader was exposed to obvious racial preferences articulated by ’maids’ ensured that a balance of the main themes was maintained. Furthermore, weaving race dynamics into the narrative in the way ’Maids and Madams’ does created a space for the reader to formulate their own opinion as to why such perceptions may be held. The text neither attempted to assuage the reader into any position except their own nor did it ascribe judgment on any one party for holding or fuelling this perception. 


    I thought that in looking at aspects of interaction as determined by one’s age highlighted the cultural trappings people fall into in attempts to survive in a job, as was the case with Angels’ mother-in-law and her elderly ’maid’. Cultural norms play an enormous part in determining which roles each person takes on. As shown in the stories, the hiring and firing of ’maids’ is solely the domain of the ’madam’, so regardless of the exhausting job of finding the right ’maid’, the husband does nothing to ease the burden, expecting the home to be run as efficiently with or without a ’maid’. The wife’s role is to make sure the kids are fed and ready for school in the mornings, picked up in the afternoons and then she must make sure that lunch and/or supper is prepared for when the husband comes home hungry. As if this was not a lot to do, at some point during the day it is the expected and accepted duty of the wife to conduct the search for the perfect ’maid’ whilst still finding time to go to work to pay necessary bills. It is a wonder what the man does in terms of creating a home for his family. Nothing in the stories is offered so I am left assuming that men are counter-productive in the creation of a home in Botswana. 


    The social life of ’maids’ in the home setting of the ’madam’ really was the element within the stories that left me wide-eyed and mouth agape. Having never had such experiences with any of the domestic workers my parents employed I found it quite astonishing that ’maids’ happily brought their boyfriends to their place of employment. I understood when it was written that of course if you are living and working on the same premises then it ought not to be a problem to have your loved one spend evenings with you. What surprised me was the extent to which ’maids’ expressed this need. The lives of ’maids and madams’ in Botswana is a very colourful one indeed! 


    Reading about the sexual advances made between employees and domestic help did not strike me as something surprising. Although I neither have first- nor second-hand knowledge of such cases, it seemed to be something that could easily play out within the home setting, especially when the stranger plays such an intimate role in one’s life. I think that assertions of sexuality and power occur in many places of employment and on many stages of interaction. When such occurrences take place in the home many variables are immediately thrown into the narrative (i.e., the children if there are any, class discrepancies, etc). Many other relationships get entangled when one crosses that line. It was interesting to read about how such incidents creep into homes. Moreover, I really am enjoying how these stories of sexuality and power have generated assumptions and opinions in me and mostly how it has created an internal debate as I navigate through ideas of morality and ethics. 


    Immaculate really was the needle weaving the string through the fabric of this story. Through her character, the reader met Angel, Mrs Winter-Bottom Nanny and all the other people who willingly shared their stories. In a sense she was a representation of the way in which ’maids and madams’ are described as ’intimate strangers’ – the reader enjoyed the luxury of sitting in on the lives of others without offering anything in return. Immaculate became an open-ended book to discover and map our assumptions and opinions about ’maids and madams’ on her narrative. Her character unfolded at a steady tempo to the final build-up, where she reveals the delicate parts of her story to Dr Nanny. The only character that is left unturned is Dr Nanny, who functions as the omnipotent researcher. One catches only a glimmer of her character when Immaculate listens to an over-run of the interview conducted between Dr Nanny and someone else. The idea given is that Dr Nanny did not switch off the recording device before answering her phone to speak to a friend. She is heard commenting on the intrusiveness of domestic workers on her life – how at first it was a fascinating anomaly to her but now she was feeling as though it was an infringement of her personal space. 


    The tying-in of the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs – computers and cell-phones) into the narrative added an extra layer that built upon Immaculate’s narrative. She was the primary user of a computer (emailing transcriptions) in the story as well as being the primary character in the unfolding of the possible role cell-phones take on in communication. She is haunted by the text messages left by Philip on her cell-phone and keeps them as a reminder of the hold he has of her. Within this framing, examples of herbs used in malice are highlighted. These examples are weaved simply into the story and one does not get the sense that it is a far-fetched reality. Medicine and its malpractice is a topic only explored in the last few chapters, which ensures that the main themes of the book become pronounced and the surrounding themes (like that of ICTs and malicious medicinal practice) act as support structures for other more prominent themes. However, it is a risk to introduce such a vast and thick topic such as medicinal herbal lore within the framework of ICTs right at the end of the book, as I feel it is a topic needing its own narrative. 

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. It generated a healthy debate within my mind and stretched my thoughts about the fixed ways in which I formulated opinions based upon expectations and measures of accepted behaviour.

    Efua Prah

    2010-04-15, Issue 477



    * Francis Nyamnjoh, ’Intimate Strangers’, Langaa Research and Publishing, Bamenda, ISBN: 978-9956616060, 2010. 
    * Efua Prah is a PhD student at the University of Cape Town.
    * Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

  • Bridging Fact and Fiction: A Review of Nyamnjoh’s Intimate Strangers 17 August 2010 00:07, author(s)-editor(s) Megan Greenwood

    I cannot help but reflect on what having a BSocSci in English and Social Anthropology offers me as I approach writing a review of Francis Nyamnjoh’s (2010) Intimate Strangers. Both disciplines offer lenses through which to review literature. What sets them apart? The one concerns itself with character and plot development, literary techniques and thematic explorations. The other shows interest in methodological principles and the development and substantiation of arguments - yet not at the exclusion of thematic exploration and literary aesthetics. Which lens is more appropriate for Nyamnjoh’s book? Perhaps some of my hesitancy to settle for either is reflective of the way in which Intimate Strangers seems to traverse the boundary lines between fiction and ethnography.

    On one hand it reads as a collection of rich, raw ethnographic content awaiting analysis. Yet, elements of it are pure fiction. It appears like a piece of creative non-fiction which offers, among other things, a subtle exploration into the relationship between fiction and ethnography.

    Intimate Strangers is a collection of transcribed accounts about maids and madams, presented from the perspective of Immaculate, a research assistant and transcriber for anthropologist Dr. Winterbottom Nanny. Set in Botswana, Nyamnjoh does well in developing the voices of the individuals who agree to participate in Dr. Winterbottom Nanny’s research. Presented predominantly through the accounts of interview dialogues, Intimate Strangers explores a multiplicity of dynamics that shape maid and madam interactions. It examines the interplay, trickery and blurring of shifting, elusive and - at times contradictory - nodes of identity formation and power negotiations at work in the interactions and relationships between maids and madams in Botswana. It explores the relationship between perceptions of similarity and foreignness, and of belonging and exclusion that persist, pervade and confuse across socio-economic differences and state-drawn boundaries. Although the transcriptions are effective in reflecting a part of what anthropological research entails, at times this presentation is too dialogue-heavy. The rhythm of the read would have been enriched with the weaving in of more action-centred activities undertaken by Immaculate and perhaps even Dr. Winterbottom Nanny.

    Nevertheless, Nyamnjoh’s book is a process of showing not telling. It offers layered textures of the complexities of relationships individuals encounter in their daily living spaces. It explores the dramas that accompany the mundane, such as hiring a maid, negotiating contracts and stipulating boundaries. Made visible during this exploration is Nyamnjoh’s playful enjoyment of the relationship between words and objects. Riddled with allegory, the reader encounters characters named “Wobble”, “Dr. Beauty” and a university with the acronym “DUST” which invite humorous reflection. Unfortunately, although Immaculate’s transcriptions undoubtedly would reflect her name, the proofreading of the text is less than immaculate; unnecessary errors intrude.

    The title Intimate Strangers alludes to a core type of relationship that can be characteristic of maids and madams. In addition, the book considers other forms of intimate strangers- strange in their intimacy. Consider the relationship Dr. Winterbottom Nanny develops with those who participate in her research: individuals share parts of the intimate details of their daily lives with Dr. Winterbottom Nanny, a stranger. Furthermore, a strange intimacy is established as we, the readers, become privy to the intimate details of strangers’ lives while we remain strangers to them. In addition, despite the intimacy formed with Immaculate as the narrator and conduit through which we as readers have access to the intimate details of research participants, much of Immaculate’s life remains strangely unknown for the majority of the book. Dr. Winterbottom Nanny, who seeks out the intimate details of others’ lives, remains even more of a stranger to both the research participants and to us, the readers. Through this exploration, Nyamnjoh provides a critique of some of the processes and consequences of anthropological research that relies on relationships established on varied degrees of intimacy and strangeness. Although Nyamnjoh focuses on relationships established through anthropological research, the unevenness of the interplay between intimacy and strangeness protrudes beyond the confines of research-related relationships.

    Furthermore, Nyamnjoh defamiliarises that which is familiar to a trained anthropological audience to enables a critique of some of the anthropological practices of Dr. Winterbottom Nanny. I found myself noting with some criticism the way in which Dr. Winterbottom Nanny used leading questions in some interviews and recognised how odd it can be for someone to pull out a voice recorder when conversation seems “ripe.” I noted the limits of Dr. Winterbottom Nanny’s study, wishing it had taken into account the views of husbands and maids of the households of the research participants. Furthermore, although Immaculate indicates whether she was present in interviews, little information is provided as to the way in which her presence may have shaped the interviews she attended. Further exploration of how some of the participants may have responded to or interacted with her as a foreigner from Mimboland and of a different socio-economic standing to Dr. Winterbottom Nanny would have enriched the themes explored in the text.

    I recall my amusement soon after beginning to read Nyamnjoh’s book. I found myself imagining how the famed South African cartoon duo that grace the Mail and Guardian in Stephen Francis and Rico Schacherl Madame & Eve would respond. I envision a quiet moment in the Anderson household: Gwen and Mother Anderson have left to do some shopping. Eve is alone at home. She plonks herself on Mother Anderson’s armchair. Reveling in the moment, she reaches for the book that lies next to the gin and tonic on the nearby sidetable. The title reads Intimate Strangers. Eve flips through it, then begins to read it a bit more closely.

    “Eish...secrets are out!” Eve exclaims.

    Bridging fiction and fact, perhaps the subtitle should read: a pocketbook guide into what madams know (and don’t know).