Many couples can only hope to be together for 50 years and even fewer can claim to have attained it. This month, Bishop Simeon Obayo and his wife Mary Obayo, will be celebrating their golden jubilee. ESTHER AKELLO caught up with the Kakamega couple who share the wisdom gained from their long and successful marriage.
You come from a generation where arranged marriages were the order of the day. Was yours arranged?
Simeon: Yes. I worked at a church mission in Suna in South Nyanza. My parents wanted me to get a wife so I came back home to Vihiga and met several of the girls they thought were a good match for me. Unfortunately, the minute they heard I was an aspiring pastor, they scattered because they said I was too poor, which to be fair to them, at the time I was. Later on, my family introduced me to Mary and she also rejected me.
Mary: I thought he was too old. I was 19 at the time. When I expressed my misgivings to my aunt who had arranged the meeting, she advised me not to look at his age as women age and mature faster than men. I mellowed and invited him home to meet my family as I wanted to see their reaction.
So what made you do a complete turnaround and marry him?
Simeon: (Emphatically) I simply charmed her parents!
Mary: That’s true. The fact that they liked him endeared him to me and I thought if he makes my family happy, then I can live with that.
Was there any courting or emotional bonding?
Simeon: Not as such although make no mistake, we love each other dearly. When I was looking for a wife, my father advised me to look for one who would be willing to join me in church ministry work and support me to succeed. Mary met my criteria for a good wife. I wanted someone dark, beautiful and of medium build.
Mary: For me the main thing was to have someone who feared God. Simeon was not bad looking either and he fitted the bill of the partner I wished for. On June 14, 1966 – a month after meeting – we got married.
Simeon: It was a small wedding; just Mary, the pastor, five witnesses and I. We didn’t have money to splurge on a huge wedding. A few months later, I went to the mission station in Taranganya Bukuria while Mary joined my family in Vihiga.
How was it to be newly married and living separately?
Simeon: It was not easy but I didn’t have a choice at the time. After two years of Mary living with my family in Vihiga, I discovered they had been mistreating her.
Mary: It took two years for me to conceive after our wedding and this spawned a lot of friction between his parents and I. At one time, one of my brothers-in-law beat me up violently after he came from a drinking spree. I reported the matter to the chief who informed Simeon.
Why didn’t you tell your husband about the mistreatments?
Simeon: I was disappointed that she had not told me and was livid at my family for not treating her better. I would encourage couples to always be open and honest with each other on issues affecting their marriage.
Mary: I had been attending women’s meetings in my husband’s absence where I had been strongly advised against divulging family information and so I followed their advice and kept the conflicts with my in-laws to myself.
How would you advise families to deal with conflict?
Simeon: It took the encouragement of the missionary working in my church to forgive my family for mistreating my wife. Couples must try to live independent of their parents and other family members so that they can mould their relationship without interference.
Mary: I would advise couples to use wisdom. While I encourage women to be guarded against complaining about everything to their husbands, where violence and even the possibility of death is concerned as evidenced by so many couples in the news today, getting help might just save your life. Talk to your respective family elders, police, your pastor or neighbour if necessary.
Have you experienced any hardships in your 50 years of marriage?
Simeon: For a long time money was tight! I worked as a gardener at the mission station for Ksh 60. While the mission provided us with housing and the church members provided food, it was not enough especially when we started having children. I got a scholarship to join a Bible College in Kaimosi in 1970. I would sell some of the supplies we got in college such as soap to get money to send to my family.
Mary: I did casual labour such as tilling neighbourhood farms for a pay of Ksh 1.50 a day. It was a lot of money then. I was so determined to keep the family going while Simeon completed his studies that the back- breaking work didn’t bother me.
Some happy times?
Simeon: The Bible School hired me as a pastor and teacher after my graduation so my salary increased and Mary joined me in Kaimosi. I got a chance to go study in the US for three years in 1978 and things started looking up.
Mary: Our seven children have been a source of great joy to us. They are Beatrice Evoge born in 1968, Osborne Ndong’a in 1970, Margaret Matimbai in 1973, Grace Barassa in 1975, Doreen Kamau in 1979, Terry Balwana in 1981 and Ophy Isiaho in 1984.
Was it always the plan to have seven kids?
Simeon: My plan was to have two boys and two girls. After trying to get another boy and ending up with girls, we closed the chapter and made peace with the fact that all children, gender notwithstanding, are a blessing.
Mary: I was okay with whichever gender and welcomed all my children with great joy.
Are you happy with how your children have turned out?
Simeon: At one point I feared they would rebel but they have made us proud. They never complained even when money was tight. We gave them freedom to choose their careers as well as spouses. We treat their spouses as our own children.
Mary: Simeon was the good cop and I the bad one. I did most of the disciplining and never feared to use the rod. Any indication of rebellion was quickly dealt with. Beatrice works for the Vihiga County government and Osborne, a former youth pastor, now works for the Parliamentary Service Commission. Margaret is a businesswoman and gospel artist, Grace is a pastor, Doreen and Terry are businesswomen and Ophy is a programmes assistant with the UN.
There is the perception that pastors are perfect. How you ever had issues with members of your congregation?
Simeon: Several times. One time while doing my laundry Mary found in my pocket a note from a female congregant asking me to buy her something and if I refused she would accuse me of having an affair with her.
Mary: We went to the woman’s home with Simeon and I gently asked her what her relationship with my husband was. She admitted to trying to extort money from Simeon and asked for our forgiveness, which we granted and put the matter to rest.
How do you deal with temptations?
Simeon: My wife can smell ill motives from a mile away! And to be honest, I have had weak moments. Mary always calls me out on those moments. I have learnt to be open to that kind of rebuke and can honestly say this has been instrumental in keeping our marriage intact. We have also developed our own silent language and can tell what the other is thinking even before they open their mouth to talk, especially when in public places.
Mary: You cannot fail to have admirers when you serve the public but when you are strong in your relationship you know how to deal with such situations. We always pray against temptation and even the tempters.
Intimacy can get tricky with age. From familiarity to reduced energy, to illnesses, how do you manage to keep it ablaze?
Simeon: I am a man. I can’t pretend intimacy is not important. Equally important is the fact that Mary is my wife and the Bible says that spouses have to satisfy each other. She tells me when I fail to satisfy her and we look for a joint solution.
Mary: Old age comes with different challenges. Medication for conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes can impede one’s libido. You have to work together and understand how your bodies work. If all else fails pray! Don’t opt for an affair.
Simeon: The frequency with which you become intimate also changes with age. You just need to understand each other and know when a cuddle in bed is just enough and when you are all revved up and ready to go.
So after 50 years, do you still surprise each other?
Simeon: (Laughing) I like to buy Mary gifts. I also like to make it a surprise. I can tease her for weeks on end that I will buy her something before actually taking her to the shops to make her selection. I learnt my lesson when at one time I bought her some expensive clothes and she got rid of them before wearing them.
Mary: (interjecting) They were all small!
Simeon: I don’t hesitate spending on my wife because I love her and I know she too loves me. Don’t you love me Mary?
Mary: (with emphasis) With all my heart! What’s the secret to a successful marriage?
Simeon: Perseverance. We have had our difficult moments. We have at times hurt one another to the point of anger and tears but we always find our way back to love. We have learnt what makes each of us happy. There is no hypocrisy between Mary and I. When we disagree, we take time to pray and come to an agreement. If I’m on the wrong I admit it and ask for forgiveness.
Mary: Simeon and I are like fire and water. I can be highly charged and sometimes push things too far but his tender and patient nature always grounds me. Along the way we have learnt to pray about everything, love, laugh, forgive and forget. Forgiving and forgetting can at times be difficult but we resolved right from the beginning that once we moved past an issue, we would never recall it again or use it to manipulate each other.
Published in August 2016