Joseph Njuguna was fresh from his teens when he realised that he only had eyes for Hannah Gathiru, a pretty girl, in his Nginduri village.
While he often dreamt of walking over to her and declaring his love – or infatuation at the time – he was sure his poor family background would have been a turn off for the lovely lady.
Still, each time the two of them met at Thigo, the village dance, Njuguna’s heart would be restless.
“The dance nights, which were arranged for young men and women, were meant to discourage misdirected sexual desires. They were always preceded by serious counselling sessions,” he says.
The sessions cautioned girls to against accepting sexual proposals and the boys were equally warned never to force themselves on them.
If either of them compromised, then they would have stripped themselves of the village’s respect and would never have been considered as possible marriage partners.
And so, Njuguna knew that he had to carry himself in a respectable manner if he was to ever catch her attention and the approval of her parents as no family would knowingly accept bride-price from a philandering young man.
Although some young men and women engaged in unwarranted intimacies in such occasions, Hannah was different.
“She had a strong character, discipline and evoked good reports from our neighbours,” a nostalgic Njuguna, 78, now says of his wife of 55 years.
Njuguna had joined a missionary school in 1947, from which he later dropped out in order to support his younger siblings.
“Since my mother couldn’t support us all, I decided to work in construction sites in the early fifties for a monthly salary of Sh40…all the while, keeping one eye Hannah who was five years my junior.”
By this time, they had been just friends, but Njuguna was dying to tell her how he really felt.
“In 1954, I finally gathered courage and told her of my intentions concerning our friendship,” he says, but Hannah was a tough nut to crack.
“I was very reluctant because he came from a very poor family. I felt that he had not done much to improve his financial situation just by looking at his tiny cube of a home,” she admits.
And so, Hannah played hard to get. She knew that her father would quote quite high for her bride price. But Njuguna, she says, was patient and persistent.
“Eventually, I accepted, because I knew that I loved him.”
Back then, a man would inform his father about the girl you were interested in.
He would then find about her clan to make sure that the marriage would be culturally right as there were certain clans from which they could not marry.
“The Ethaga clan, for example, was considered too lazy and so it was up to your father to confirm that your chosen bride was right for you…A delegation would then be sent to the girl’s father for dowry negotiations before they can give the girl away,” he says.
But Hannah was already smitten. She left for Njuguna’s house, partly in protest.
Upon her arrival at his house, Njuguna had mixed feelings.
“I feared that she would complain or run away. There was literally nothing in my house, apart from the bed! But she didn’t”
“When I walked into that house, my initial fears were confirmed. Our beginning was not promising at all. We had nothing, not even start up farms,” Hannah confirms.
Hannah’s father was not very fond of her husband and honestly thought that they would amount to nothing mostly because he had not brought him the 30 sheep he had asked as dowry.
That meant that at their point of need, which was ever so often, she could not seek any assistance from him. The neighbours and close relatives too, spelled doom for them.
Hannah painfully remembers one of her siblings telling them to their faces that we would die before a sheep ever bleated in our compound.
She admits to habouring feelings of anger and at the same time, desperation.
“The piercing comments and were too frequent that my mother began to believe them,” adds Mzee Njuguna, “but we determined to prove them wrong.”
In 1957, a year after the birth of their first born son, Njuguna got employed at the Nairobi Railway Station as a Mechanic.
“My wife remained in the village and the distance gravely affected our relationship but I kept at it because I could finally raise the money for the bride price as my wife did manual labour in farms to fend for the children.”
“His being away left a void,” Hannah opens up, “I missed him and felt that I too had emotional and physical needs to be fulfilled. But in those days, marriage was a commitment, I couldn’t just leave.”
After four years of walking around with a tool box, looking for broken machines to fix, Njuguna decided to become one of Jommo Kenyatta bodyguards, a voluntary position.
Not exactly a wise choice for a man with a wife and four children at home.
“It was a tough decision for me. But I hoped that by being close to Mzee, I would land a proper job after independence. I gave myself to the service for two years, within which I hardly saw my family,” he offers.
During his time in the service, his wife and children got kicked out of his father’s homestead where they had lived all along.
“My father had two wives, each with nine children and my mother was not the favoruite of the two, and hence his support always went the other way.
And his choice to kick my wife and children out was because our struggles were seen to soil the family name. And so Hannah moved back to her parents’ house with the children.
In 1964, Kenyatta’s close associates were able to get Njuguna a job in the General Service Unit (GSU) and so things began to look up. While the job demanded a lot of time from the family man, his wife was supportive.
“We could finally eat properly and clothe well. In 1965, we got our own farm of 30 acres in Nyandarua and re-located… life was good."
Then their boat began to rock.
“I was bitten by the polygamy bug’, ” Mzee Njuguna recounts his ‘exploits’, “I wanted to conquer and prove that I could manage several households at the same time. So I married to more wives.”
And that choice made Hannah rightfully annoyed.
“After twelve years of marital hardships, I could have set out justifiable protests at his decision to re-marry. But I chose not to. Instead, I closed eyes and continued to build my home.”
But these new unions did not last. The two younger wives hardly had any of Hannah’s qualities. They were not strong, and often ran away when storms began to hit.
“Looking back, it was a mistake. I felt a shamed. What good did it bring me? I wouldn’t advise anyone to do like I did,” Njuguna offers.
Njuguna decided to resign from his post in 1975 return to his first love. The children finally got some time with their father.
In June 1992, on their 37th anniversary, the couple solemnised their union at ACK Church Mugumo in Nyandarua.
Today, they are the proud parents to twelve children– though two of them have since passed. Their 24 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren keep them on their toes.
And with five and a half decades of experience in a marriage that has seen its fair share of trials, Mzee Njuguna can claim to know more than a thing or two about marriage.
“Marriage is not about emotions. It is about commitment. We have learned to conceal our problems to ourselves, to respect each other and to be grateful for what we have gone through. For a home to last and be safe there needs to be a strong commitment and responsibility.”
Today, Hannah is happy to have her man back at her side. She’s managed win her man’s heart twice.
“I could have chosen to divorce when things roughed up. But I made a decision and committed myself to it. Now look at us: we are still going strong.”
Indeed, it’s taken the two of them a lot of work to make their relationship work.