The marriage of Nancy Heffernan, 47, to her husband Anthony Heffernan, 48, almost caved in when Antony, a security consultant, took to alcohol to mask his depression. The couple who lives in Nottingham England and is visiting friends and family in Kenya tell ESTHER AKELLO about how alcohol almost ruined their marriage, growing apart and finding each other again.
Your birth countries are worlds apart! How did you cross each other’s paths?
Anthony: (Excitedly), We met in an Irish pub in England. She walked in and I was blown away. I sidled up to her, introduced myself, bought her a drink, and asked for her number. I proposed four months later. We have been married for 12 years now.
Nancy: I moved to England in search of greener pastures when my work as a banker in Kenya ended. The night I met Antony, a friend and I had gone to the pub to listen to a live band.
Your relationship escalated quickly!
Nancy: I was ready to get married. I was in my thirties and it was just time, you know! His mature and kind nature and that devilish Irish charm won me over!
Anthony: I was also looking for a serious relationship and we got on very well.
Any family reservations about your friendship?
Nancy: They didn’t even know we were dating! We were also not sure it was going to work. My heart was screaming ‘go for it’ while my head was screaming ‘no!’ Looking back, some things are just meant to be. I always said the man who marries me has to engage me on my birthday and that’s what Anthony did.
Anthony: It happened so fast! Our families found out when we invited them to the engagement party. They were supportive of our relationship and still are.
Considering the traditional and geographical divide in your cultures, how did you go about planning your wedding?
Nancy: We did everything in reverse. With my family’s consent, we got married first. My brother represented my family and a Kenyan family friend in England gave me away on behalf of my father. Thereafter, Anthony came to Kenya to meet my family and pay dowry.
Anthony: I am easygoing and I understood from the word go that we would have to mix it up.
Did you have a hard time gelling as a couple?
Nancy: No. Just a few things here and there, for instance, coming from a culture where mothers pre-determine how the house is run, I had to learn to ask my family what they prefer on matters such as food and family activities, and plan around that as opposed to imposing it on them.
Anthony: The food wasn’t a big deal. I love ugali and kachumbari. I am not a big fan of millet porridge though. The only thing that stands out is when she speaks Kikuyu because her tone changes and sometimes I think she is fighting with someone when she’s on the phone!
Have you tried to learn a bit of Kikuyu or Swahili?
Anthony: I know basic Swahili words like asante, kwaheri, and habari? You can gossip about me and I’d be clueless. I don’t find it offensive when she speaks in her mother tongue but I seek interpretation just to ensure it’s not a heated debate or if I want to get in on a joke.
Nancy: When with family members or Kenyan friends, Kikuyu is my go-to language! I’ve had to apologise to Anthony a couple of times because sometimes I forget he is part of the conversation.
Did you have a cultural clash with reference to expectations of what a man’s and a woman’s role in marriage is?
Nancy: Not really. Kikuyu and Irish cultures are not so different. He fends for the family while I build a home. However, on his free days, he looks after the girls, goes shopping and so on.
Anthony: I can do everything in the house – vacuum, cook, hang the clothes out and so on.
In Kenya we call that kukaliwa chapati, meaning your wife has put a spell on you to do her bidding!
Nancy: (Exasperatedly), I know! But he does it willingly. His conscious participation in our routines has helped us bond immensely as a family and couple.
Anthony: We have challenges but we work together and that eases burdens.
Nancy: The only major challenge we have faced is, thanks to his Irish roots, he became fond of his liquor. Over time, it escalated and that strained our marriage.
How much strain are we talking about?
Nancy: I almost kicked him out of our house. At one point the stress was so unbearable it started manifesting physically. I was in so much agony, some nights I would wake up screaming in pain. When I went to the hospital, the doctor said there was nothing physically wrong with me. It wasn’t until my vicar told me that I was under intense stress that I started dealing with the problem.
Anthony: It took a financial and emotional toll as well. I would spend around £200 (Ksh 20,000) a week in the pub. Nancy had to take extra jobs to push things along. We also split our joint account so that I couldn’t dip into the household finances. We grew apart intimately and often times, everyone just stuck to his or her corner of the bed!
Nancy: (Emphatically) All I needed for warmth were my socks!
What caused the drinking?
Anthony: I was diagnosed with depression, which stemmed largely over the loss of loved ones. I lost my brother to a heart attack just hours after we had spoken. I arrived at his house to find an ambulance wheeling him away.
Nancy: I knew the drinking had gotten out of hand when he started lying. One time he said he’d gone to work while in reality he was at the pub. I had an errand to run with the girls and on my way back home, I saw him on the street. He quickly ducked behind a car. I marched up to him and told him he did not look like he was working and stormed off! When I arrived home, he was already back!
Men tend to bottle up their emotions. Did it ever occur to you to open up to Nancy?
Anthony: I told her but briefly because I did not want to trouble her and I thought I could handle it on my own. I sought counsellors but along the way I dropped off.
Nancy: He doesn’t know this but I used to write him letters to tell him to change but I could never bring myself to hand them to him.
Why did you stop drinking Anthony?
Anthony: It’s weird. I was in the pub and for some reason no matter how hard I tried to down my drink, a little voice kept telling me not to do it! I gave up, went home and told Nancy I had given up drinking.
Nancy: I am religious and had prayed a lot for his transformation. My vicar was my confidant and at one time I confessed to her that I had given up on Anthony and I feared the drinking would graduate to alcoholism or hard drug use. Admittedly, when he revealed that he had given up drinking, I was skeptical. Four months down the line and I am a believer!
What made you stay Nancy?
Nancy: The children. Growing up, my dad was my hero and I could not imagine my children not having that kind of relationship with Anthony. I also dreaded explaining to the girls why I had kicked their dad out.
How has the recovery journey been thus far?
Anthony: It’s been four months since my last drink and a month since my last cigarette. I joined the gym because I needed something to replace my trips to the pub. I do proper balanced meals now and junk is off my list. I also stopped hanging out with my drinking buddies and now I have a friend who suffered from my kind of situation so we understand each other pretty well.
Nancy: The transformation is big. He has lost 21 kgs in three-and-a-half months.
Anthony: The first three weeks were the hardest. When I stopped drinking, I started smoking heavily. However, once I got myself out of the pub environment, I knew giving up smoking wouldn’t be hard. It’s been a month now.
How has the transformation affected the family?
Anthony: Wow! Nancy and I are close again. Our intimacy levels have also gone up. She listens to me more now and even takes my advice, which makes me feel needed and appreciated. I also got my daughters back and we spend more time together. It’s the best feeling in the world. I would recommend to anyone who drinks to have someone film them so as to see what it does to them and their families. They will never touch the bottle again.
Nancy: (Smiling) He can warm me up now anytime! We have had to work through our intimacy issues, as the connection did not come back immediately. He is gentler now, surprises me with flowers and helps out more. Due to the new atmosphere, I can now concentrate on my career development. I will be joining Gloucester University this month for a degree in family studies.
You have two girls. Has parenting turned out to be what you wanted?
Nancy: Even more. Our first-born, Jessica, is a brilliant 11-year-old. She scored straight As in the primary level exams. She is reserved and artistic. She also attends the London School of Arts and plays netball.
Anthony: Nicole is nine years old. She is bubbly, feisty and outspoken She’s a gymnast and has competed nationally. She also likes drama, dancing, acting and swims and plays football.
Both cultures have a different take on discipline. How did you manoeuver those waters?
Anthony: We are lucky. We have never had a lot of trouble with them. They know they should mind their manners, respect their elders and whisper a prayer every night.
Nancy: We don’t cane them. It’s illegal in England! But they know when mom raises her voice, somebody’s bound to get into trouble so they get back in line!
Are you keen to raise your girls in the knowledge of Kikuyu customs?
Anthony: We decided from the word go that the girls would be raised in the English way of life. From my observation, a lot of children in interracial or mixed types of families end up with an identity clash because their parents keep trying to make them fit in both worlds.
Nancy: I joined the Kenya Nottingham Association back home in Nottingham. We meet up and celebrate Kenyan national holidays such as Jamhuri day so the girls have a level of awareness about their Kenyan heritage. However, there is no pressure for them to know everything. As they grow and as they interact with family members in Kenya, we are sure they will learn more. Don’t forget, their British and even Irish heritage is just as intensive!
How often do you visit Kenya?
Nancy: I visit more as an individual. Sometimes, however, I come with the girls and sometimes we come all of us.
Anthony: My intervals are less.
The last word?
Nancy: I got my man back! For any woman out there going through the same road, unless your life is in danger from your spouse, just hold on and pray. Change will come and it will feel good.
Anthony: Nancy inspires me – her strength, beauty, good heart and her willingness to stick by me motivate me. I love her. To other couples, don’t give up on each other. You can turn things around and you can find each other again.
Published in September 2016