For the Muokas, the vows go unbroken...

Wednesday February 13 2013

Francis Muoka, 83, and Grace Mathemba, 81, cannot remember a problem that was big enough to rock their marriage. Photo/FILE

Francis Muoka, 83, and Grace Mathemba, 81, cannot remember a problem that was big enough to rock their marriage. Photo/FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP

By FELISTA WANGARI [email protected]

In all the sixty-five years that they have been married, Francis, 83, and Grace, 81, have been almost inseparable. In fact, they have trouble remembering anything that could have possibly shaken their marriage. Nothing really. Old age may have caught up with them, but time has been kind to their union. Not many couples last that long.

To keep the fire of love burning, they not only forgive each other whenever one of them feels wronged but they also travel widely together. They have been to Israel, America, Germany, Switzerland, France, UK, and Rome, trips that have not only rekindled their love, but also exposed them to the wider world.

They were only teenagers when they got married in 1947. Francis Muoka was 19, while Grace Mathemba was 16. It was the norm then. “We lived about seven kilometres apart and used to attend the same church in Machakos, some 40 kilometres away. We were not even acquaintances. But we were baptised on the same day in 1942 but I did not know her name, and neither did she know mine,” Francis says with a smile.

But when Francis’ mother kept dropping hints that he was ripe for marriage, she was the first girl who crossed his mind. “She was a nice girl and I liked the way she sang. When we sang in the church choir, I could hear her voice piercing my heart. She was also not a chatterbox and she exuded confidence, qualities that I admired,” he recalls.

As there was no dating in those days, Francis sent his brother’s wife to Grace to prepare the path for their relationship and declare his intentions to propose marriage. By then, he had joined the police (1945) and was serving as an askari.

While Grace was willing to marry him, her family was wary. “It was before independence and policemen were associated with colonial brutality. But he did not come across as a brutal askari. Instead, I saw a gentle man and liked the fact that he was not jumpy like the other young men his age,” Grace nods as she steals glances at Francis.

Francis was based at Kericho, and with no other way to communicate — there were no mobile phones then — he would pour his heart out in long letters, imploring Grace to accept his proposal.

“He once wrote a 45-page letter to convince me of the great things he would do for me and the wonderful life we would have together if I agreed to marry him,” she giggles.

It took him a week, tapping on the typewriter at night to express his undying love. He then arranged postage stamps in a pattern around the envelope for better effect. When Grace got the letter, she stuck the pages on the wall with gum side by side, and the resulting strip was so long, she was tempted to wrap it around her head.

“I did not read it in one sitting. I would pause for a day to let the affection expressed in it sink in, and when I was done I would reply,” she recalls.

This was one of Grace’s treasured mementos that she kept to show her children when they became of age and got married, so that it could be an example of how they were to love their spouses “the way my husband loved me”.

If Grace ever played hard to get, the reality was that Francis had already won her over. Their only problem was whether her father would allow her to marry a policeman.

“Francis told me that if I did not marry him, he would hang himself. I told him that it was not just him who would hang, but that we would die together. It was the silliness of youthful love, but thankfully, love won the day and we got married,” Grace narrates.

They had a traditional Kamba ceremony and soon after the wedding, they left for Kericho, where Francis was working and where they lived for two months, before she went back to Machakos. At Kericho, they shared a house with two other police officers who had wives and children.

Moreover, Grace loved to farm and that was only possible back home in Machakos where, encouraged by Francis, she kept herself busy on the farm and with the Young Women’s Christian Association and other women’s group meetings.

“But we never stayed apart for long. Due to work, he was always posted away from home, but I would shuttle between Machakos and whichever work station he was based because married couples should find ways to be together as much as possible,” Grace says.

That, and the fact that they believe couples should support and encourage each other to pursue their interests is another reason they have been able to stick together for years. “You have to know what your spouse likes and ensure that you do it for him. My husband likes nicely fried githeri, and I make a point of preparing it with love. He also likes construction work so I have always encouraged him whenever he wanted to take on a new project,” she adds.

Grace also believes that a good relationship with the in-laws contributes to a good and lasting marriage. She would know for she shared a compound with her in-laws — her husband’s father, mother, brother’s, and their wives — for years before she and her husband bought land a few kilometres away and moved.

However, unlike one of her sister-in-laws, she had a cordial relationship with her mother-in-law. “Just before I got married, my mother advised me that if I wanted a happy and lasting marriage, I should love my in-laws the same way I loved my own parents. And that’s exactly what I did. I studied my mother-in-law to know what she liked and I made sure that we were friends,” she recalls.

The fact that they shared the same faith, prayed and laughed together and helped each other cemented their friendship. But this did not go down well with one of the other women, who would ask why she was sucking up to her husband’s relatives.

She would declare that she was married only to her husband and nobody else in the homestead. “But I found that it was better to get along with my mother-in-law and everybody else in the compound,” Grace says.

Years later, their four children — two sons and two daughters — are all married and it has been Grace’s turn to play the role of mother-in-law. The couple’s last born, Kavita, has been married for 28 years. Grace gets along well with her daughters-in-law, but admits that it may not be easy. “I hear that some mothers-in-law are mbwa kali,” Francis interjects. To which, Grace, after recovering from a fit of laughter, responds that if she was having problems getting along with any of her daughters-in-law, she would fix that by involving their mothers to reach out to them.

The couple struggles to remember any major disagreement that would possibly have rocked their marriage. “We’re human and we can’t agree on everything. Sometimes we get angry with each other, but never to the extreme of wanting to be apart. If you do wrong, you ask for forgiveness and make sure not to make the same mistake again,” Francis shrugs.

“Over the years I learnt to quickly and meekly ask for forgiveness when I noticed something I was doing was irritating him, or if we differed about something,” Grace adds.

Then Francis, who has been tapping his temple slowly, blurts out: “The only thing that can ruin a marriage is infidelity. Even if the marriage survived, the union would be weak. Those who say that men are naturally polygamous are just selfish and trying to justify a wrong… but maybe a lack of children may lead to temptation as men desire to have children of their own. God gave me children and for that reason I never saw the need to look for another. Grace won my heart.”

To that Grace asks: “Is there a woman who is loved like me?

Kept the love alive

“My husband has taken me around the world — to many countries in Africa and beyond — and I love him for it and I feel so good about it.”

Even now in their old age, the Muokas enjoy travelling together, and especially enjoy spending time on the beach in Mombasa, where they go on holiday at least once a year. However, age and the accompanying ailments are slowing them down.

Last year, Grace had heart surgery and was in the ICU for several months. This had Francis worried. “I was very distraught and even forgot that I had children. I could not bear the thought that my companion of many years was leaving me, but the support and encouragement of my children plus the fervent prayers from our friends kept me going. It was a trying time, but thank God for granting me a miracle. When I see my wife alive and well, I see a walking miracle,” Francis grins as he gestures.

There is no evidence that Grace was critically ill only a few months ago. And now it is her turn to fret over her husband. Recently, he was fitted with a pacemaker.

“I pray to God to heal my husband. I can’t sleep in peace when he’s suffering from a hacking cough and rolling restlessly in bed at night. I’d rather be the one to go before him… I can’t bear to be separated from him and even on the rare occasions when he goes somewhere without me, I find it hard to eat… he is my rock,” Grace adds.

Francis and Grace insist that there is no secret to the longevity of their marriage. They say that their Christian faith is what has helped them stay together.

“You just have to be patient and tolerant with each other because a wife is not a piece of clothing that you can change in and out of at a whim. There are people who ruin their relationships with alcohol and although it is good to socialise, it should be done in moderation so that you don’t spend more time in alcohol dens than with your wife,” Francis says.

“You have to pay attention, keep the romance alive, have compassion, empathy, and realise that your spouse is a human being who is capable of falling, but who deserves your forgiveness.

“Disrespect and unfaithfulness can water down your marriage. Have eyes only for your husband and don’t compare him with other men if you want a long and fulfilling marriage,” Grace adds.

The Muokas may insist that there are no secrets to a lasting marriage, but it is clear that what they believe in has ensured that the chain of love they began 65 years ago remains unbroken. In 1969, they had a Christian wedding because they felt that it would make their union more solid.

“What has helped our marriage most is that we are led by God’s word. If you put God aside, then you open yourself to many problems, including the temptation to abandon your marriage. But as a Christian, I can’t throw out my wife Our marriage is hard to break,” Francis explains.