Retired roads technician, 62-year-old Washington Mathenge and his 58-year-old wife, Felista Mathenge, say 38 years of marriage have made their love sweeter. They candidly open up to ESTHER AKELLO on the journey they have walked together, lessons learnt, and why they would not advice anyone to quit on love.
38 years in marriage. That means you met way back in…?
Washington: A long time ago! It was in 1978 and I was working as a roads technician with the government in Mukurweini in Nyeri – my father’s ancestral home. I was visiting with relatives when I saw Felista in our backyard. I was 23.
Felista: I was 19 and fresh out of high school. I was visiting my neighbour who happened to be his relative. I saw him and was smitten.
Washington: We ended up talking for almost three hours and when we parted ways, we jokingly agreed to meet again on the same date, exactly a month later.
So did you keep the promise?
Washington: I forgot the promise almost as soon as we made it. But as God would have it (Laughing), exactly a month later on her way home she met me leaning on a car quite tipsy. I had taken one too many! As soon as I saw her, I straightened myself up and told her I had been waiting for her. Without skipping a beat, I escorted her to her aunt’s house and that was our first date.
Felista: (Laughing) I was dumb enough to think he remembered!
When did you realise you were in love?
Felista: We didn’t date for long. Four months into meeting and Washington was already knocking on my parents’ door to ask for my hand in marriage.
Washington: Ah! I loved this lady! I was young and didn’t have much dating experience but I knew she was special. So, I went straight to her dad and asked for her hand in marriage. He refused.
Why did he refuse?
Washington: I was impatient and wanted to bypass all the traditional rites. Her father said he could only discuss his daughter’s marriage with a parental figure. So I went to my mother and told her she was expected to ‘report’ at Felista’s home on my behalf.
Felista: A week later, even as his mum was enroute to ‘report’ to my people, Washington had already whisked me away to his house. I stayed the weekend and then went back to my father’s home at the beginning of the week. I visited the next weekend and refused to go back to my father’s home.
Washington: I lived in my mother’s compound and it was she who hooked her up for me! They became so friendly there was no turning back. Her dad didn’t even remember he had not allowed me to marry his daughter until our second child was born!
38 years in marriage, clearly, you must be doing something right!
Washington: Oh my! Ours is more than a happy marriage. (Turning to Felista) Am I right?
Felista: I would say so. But in every marriage there are moments when couples collide.
Washington: At my age, I‘ve come across many marriages that have fallen apart due to simple things.
Define ‘simple things’ and lessons you have learnt
Washington: For instance, a partner squandering finances. Most of these issues are resolvable and forgivable with time. Another pitfall to marriage is failure to open up. Keeping silent over issues only leads to a pile of mystics from your spouse and eventually something has to give in. This is especially true for men, as often they don’t open up easily. When things fall apart, they tend to look for comfort in other stuff thinking things will get better. They don’t.
Felista: Marriage is a school. Learn your partner, how he behaves, his likes and dislikes. If you learn these things and balance them, then you can’t fail. I think we have relied on telenovelas to define for us what marriage is and when one partner does not live up to those fantasies, we discard them saying they cannot meet our standards.
So what have you learnt about each other?
Washington: Felista is perfect. This woman can do no wrong!
Felista: Washington used to be temperamental but with time it dissipated. In those moments of anger, I would remind myself of his other side: caring, compassionate and a loving dad.
Washington: Sometimes, I’d be so annoyed that I’d break stuff around the house. But even in those moments, I never touched Felista. However, just as fast as I was in losing my temper, I was equally remorseful. It’s only that as an African man, it’s hard to say sorry. Now it comes easily!
Felista: I advise young girls to be close to their mothers-in-law. She helped me a lot. I learnt a lot from her marital experience. She told me Washington pretty much took after his father’s temperament and from her advice I learnt how to deal with him.
Some people have this notion that longevity of a marriage is hugely a woman’s responsibility. What’s your take?
Washington: I believe my marriage is my responsibility. This family is mine, and Felista is my wife. I have to take care of them, come what may.
Felista: I can only speak as a woman and my experience is that a woman needs to be wise. One time Washington drank his entire salary. I realised that even if I became furious, that money would never come back. Instead I told him to find a way to make ends meet for that month. Marriage is also like a company. If one person is constantly looking for resources while the other is spending it, that company is unlikely to survive. Marriage cannot be dependent on one person only. You have to work together.
What’s your advice for this generation that is having a hard time balancing roles in marriage?
Washington: The little that we had we shared and still continue to do so. I was always forthcoming about my sources of income and to this day, even my children know how much I earn. Let your pockets be open to your family and they will never steal from you.
Felista: Some couples seem to have hidden agendas. Many believe it’s a man’s job to provide; yet their partner may be earning more than them. The culture of comparing other relationships with yours can be damaging because sometimes your partner can’t do what you want them to do at that particular time and you need to understand that. Your relationship can only work if you are open with one another. You can live a simple happy life if you embrace cooperation and understanding.
Washington: The challenge is a lot of young people today act like there is a treasure in them, and rightly so. They set conditions that should be met by anyone trying to connect with them, forgetting their partner also has a treasure to be dug. Eventually it becomes a competition. There is no reason why you can’t have a successful relationship if you give yourselves to each other wholly.
Talk about your children?
Washington: Our first child was born exactly nine months after Felista moved into my house! That is Joan Muthoni, born in 1979, and works with an insurance firm. Our second born, Fred Njogu, was born in 1980 and he is a businessman. He is followed by Lofty Kagori, born in 1982, and is a transporter in the UK. Our last-born is Esther Nyambura, born in 1985, and is a caregiver, also based in the UK.
What would you want your children to say about you as parents?
Washington: I would want them to say it has been excellent having us
as parents. I’d say our relationship has been good, even the envy of others. Children are the fruits and flowers of marriage and they should also enjoy their parents because they are the path through which God gave them life.
Felista: I’ve always strived to ensure our children are good people. Ours
is a close-knit family. As for what kind of parents we have actually been, I think it’s better
for them to answer that.
Some of your children are married. What kind of in-laws are you?
Washington: When we give our daughters to their husbands, we look at their in-laws as their parents and when we get daughters-in-law, we accept them as our daughters.
Felista: There have been times when our children-in-law have approached us about certain issues. The first thing we ask is if they have spoken to their partner’s parents even as they approach us.
Washington: We do this to establish fairness. Sometimes parents are blinded by their love for their children and choose not to see their mistakes. So we always encourage dialogue between all families.
How do you keep your romance alive?
Washington: We go for out of home ‘get-a-ways’ – just the two of us. Felista surprises me every once in a while. I’m not good at that kind of thing, though.
Felista: A change of environment is good and we reminisce about our lives together. I hear a lot of women talking about the frustrations they face with their husbands and when I look at our marriage, I appreciate Washington for being kind, generous and charming.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Washington: In 2010 our son, Fred, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. It was expensive treatment – around Ksh.40, 000 per week. Through friends we were able to manage the cost. He was declared cancer free in 2015.
Felista: Like any average family we have also had financial ups and downs. There were moments we were unable to carry out development projects due to lack of funds, but we have managed to get by.
Ever been tempted to stray from your marriage vows?
Washington: Earlier in our marriage, I worked in different towns and unfortunately I indulged in an affair once or twice. I was not proud of it and I immediately felt guilty and lonely. From then on, I resolved to always come home, regardless of how far away my work post was.
Felista: Before he started coming home on weekends, I did wonder but there was no evidence of anything untoward going on. So I let it go. I decided to focus on our strengths and not weaknesses.
What are your highlights in marriage?
Washington: The birth of our children!
Felista: When Fred was declared cancer free. We finally also had our white wedding in 2003. Unfortunately, on the eve of the wedding, robbers broke in our homestead and killed one of my brothers. We had a wedding and a funeral immediately after.
What would you tell anyone who no longer believes in love?
Washington: Look for a pet, especially a wounded one and nurse it back to health. The next man you take, treat him the way you treated that pet. You will have a very special man in your house. If a man is handled properly, he is the best being. Men are wild but they can be tamed and even brought to their knees. Once you know a man and what he likes and doesn’t like, then you are set.
Felista: Sometimes people have reservations because they wonder if a partner is aware of what they like or dislike. Remember, it’s not just about you. Life as a couple is God’s design. Stop hanging the ‘no vacancy’ sign in your heart and instead put the ‘welcome’ sign on.