When 40-year-old George Obonyo and his wife, 38-year-old Jacinta Mukali, declared their love for each other, just about everyone considered their move unwise. However, the St Andrews PCEA evangelist for the deaf and his tailor wife have remained defiant for 15 years. ESTHER AKELLO travelled to their home in Kitengela in Kajiado County and delves into the love and family life of the couple who prove that being deaf does not equal being silent.
How would you describe your marriage?
George: One full of communication!
Jacinta: It’s been a journey. We have definitely had more tough times than the easy ones. Life also became harder after having children because of needs but we adjusted.
Is it harder to find love as a deaf person?
George: I did try for a while but was unsuccessful. However, after Bible College when I was living alone, I did feel the pressure to settle down and I specifically wanted a deaf partner. My brothers had also tried to set me up with a few women but it never really worked out.
Jacinta: George is my one and only love. I was wary of relationships before I met him because I was afraid someone might take advantage of the fact I was deaf. I also had a list of the kind of person I was waiting for. For instance, he had to be saved, a teetotaller and a non-smoker, among others. That helped me to remain strong in my resolve.
George, why were you categorical that your partner had to be deaf?
George: My heart has always yearned for a deaf girl like me. It is easier to communicate with them through sign language. However, I would like to add that just because one is deaf, it does not make them deficient in love so people should not be afraid to date deaf people. We are also full of life.
You could have married a sign language interpreter.
George: From my experience in observing marriages between deaf people and hearing people, communication is tricky.
So how did the two of you eventually meet?
George: We met in1996 at the Kenya National Association for the Deaf offices in Nairobi where she was waiting for her cousin who worked there to get off work. I introduced myself and invited her for a service for the deaf at the St Andrews PCEA Church and after some work and convincing on my part, we tied the knot in 1999.
Jacinta: Despite the fact that I was independent and supporting myself through tailoring, I had taken my parents warning to be wary of people who took advantage of the disenfranchised very seriously so I wasn’t given to general statements of love from every random Tom, Dick and Harry. Additionally, I felt like we were worlds apart. I was a catholic while he was a protestant. I hail from the Luhya tribe and he hails from the Kisii community. Just to gauge how serious he was, I told him to meet with my father even before I could think of dating him. That did not end well because my father did not approve of him.
Why didn’t your father approve of George?
George: Because I was deaf.
Jacinta: He said never in his life had he seen two deaf people get married, let alone live together.
George: My older brother also said the same thing. He advised us to do away with each other and look for partners with hearing abilities. However, I had resolved to marry Jacinta and chose to remain focussed. Besides, I knew when it came down to the wire, he would respect my decision and attend our wedding, which he did.
What attracted you to each other so as to defy counsel from those close to you?
George: Jacinta has a wonderful smile, is beautiful, hopeful and full of joy. We also communicated very well.
Jacinta: Despite my own initial fears and that of my parents, I came to know George as a serious man, especially on his salvation. I accompanied him to preaching sessions for other deaf people several times and before I knew it, I started warming up to him.
So did your relationships with your individual in-laws eventually thaw out?
George: At this point, I would not define it as problematic. My father-in-law and I have a cordial relationship and Jacinta’s mum encourages me to stay true to
her daughter, which I do and will fully continue to honour.
Jacinta: I work at the Athi River EPZ, which can be hectic, and hence I do not get as much time to visit my in-laws upcountry as I should. However, we meet often with George’s siblings who live in Nairobi. Additionally, communication still remains a barrier. For instance, our sign language is in English and George’s mother is only conversant in Swahili and Kisii, which makes signing extra hard.
What has been your biggest challenge in your 15 years of marriage?
George: Finances. While we both have primary education, I was unable to advance past standard eight. Jacinta finished her form four studies and eventually trained as a tailor. While I do earn a salary, I also end up doing odd jobs such as carpentry, construction, repairing electrical faults, making rubber stamps and so on.
Jacinta: We have had to close several shops due to poor client traffic. Since we cannot really speak, we could not call out to people to come to our shop, and they ended up going to the ones who called out to them the loudest. We hired hearing people to do the same for us but they took advantage and pocketed the money instead. However, we do help each other out. When I make dresses or sew other items, George helps me to look for market.
Many couples separate due to financial problems. How have you coped?
George: I work so hard to supplement my salary from the church, which has also supported us immensely. St Andrews PCEA Church provides the house we live in rent-free. So is the water and electricity. We are also free to tend and eat produce from the farm within the compound. Additionally, when our first-born son Brian joined secondary school, the church paid his fees for the whole year.
Jacinta: Leaving each other has never been at the back of our minds; we want to be a complete family unit especially for our children. We know problems are a part of life and we hope in future, through effort, we can turn the tables. We also want to encourage other deaf couples that it is possible to have a successful marriage.
So you have never been tempted to seek solace in the arms of other lovers?
George: I have seen very many beautiful women but I do not want to engage with them with ulterior motives.
Jacinta: George is the only one for me. Sure, sometimes in the heat of things, anger or when worried, the question pops up but I quickly quash it. To enhance trust we communicate a lot.
What are the key pillars in your marriage?
George: We consider ourselves as one unit. A team. We also get direction from the Bible and pray together.
Jacinta: We also teach other members of the deaf community. We find that counselling them when they have issues has also helped us to work out our own issues. We also run our businesses together.
Do you think secrets are hurtful in marriage?
George: It depends. As a couple, there are some things we share but there are some lines we also do not cross. For instance, while we know each other’s Mpesa and our separate accounts passwords, on the mobile phone front, we do not go through each other’s messages. We discussed it from the word go and decided that we will respect each other’s boundaries as far as that is concerned. Whatever each wants to do with their phone is their business.
Were you afraid of becoming parents given the fact that you are deaf?
George: For both of us, the loss of our hearing was as a result of childhood illnesses. It is not genetic. Still a lot of people questioned our ability to be good parents.
Jacinta: I prayed that we would have perfectly healthy babies. All of them have hearing ability.
How did you manage when they were toddlers? Was it a seamless transition?
Jacinta: I lost my hearing ability when
I was six years old so I had developed some speech and can sound out some words. Every time I breastfed, I would sound out words like ‘baba’ while making the equivalent sign for the same. So I taught them verbal and sign language communication concurrently. Just to ensure they understood, I would point out to a stranger and ask in both speech and sign language, “Is that baba?” And they would say no every time!
George: By the time our other children were born, the fact that the first born who is five years older than the second born was already so comfortable in this life, made it easy for them to adjust. They all speak verbal and sign language.
Describe your children?
George: The first-born is Brian Muraru Obonyo and is a form two student at St Charles Lwanga. He is a typical teenager. Our only fear is that when it comes to his health, he is very carefree and we are forced to really pin him down. He suffers from asthma and sometimes he forgets his inhaler or dresses too lightly during the cold season. He also gets easily distracted and has to be supervised quite a bit. Our second born, Josphat Obonyo is 10 years old and goes to St Phillips Academy in Kitengela. He is contemplative and often times you will not know what is going on in his mind unless you really prod. He is also the obedient type and will always do what he is told.
Jacinta: Our last-born is the most inquisitive. Her name is Elizabeth Indasi Obonyo and she is seven years old and a standard two pupil at St Phillips Academy. She is also overprotective and will often tell us things like not to come home late or when it’s dark, or use motorbikes when going home, as they can be risky. She likes to do what is expected of her and for a young child, very intuitive. Many times she would walk out and come back into the room and tell us she is grateful to God for having us.
Do you think the children misbehave on account of your deafness? Maybe say something naughty after all, mom and dad can’t hear!
George: I want to believe they know better than that though children will always be children. However, we are in agreement with our neighbours and their teachers that in the event they say something inappropriate, they should let us know. After that of course they know what will come their way. Some discipline!
How about when they are home?
Jacinta: There’s only so much we can control. However, we have never placed any restriction on them and we teach them the values we expect them to live by, and that is to stand on the word of God and respect other people. Other than that, when we are a family, we speak in sign language and when they are alone, they revert to verbal speech.
At some point did you have to explain to the children why you are different from other parents?
George: With Brian and Josphat, we have never really had to explain. They understood our condition from the beginning and were content with it. We did however emphasise that we were the best parents for them, we were up to the challenge of raising them and that we loved them. To that end they have never made us feel like lesser parents.
Jacinta: Owing however to the inquisitive nature of the little one, last year she ambushed us and asked why we were deaf. When we explained that we succumbed to the side effects of childhood illnesses and fell deaf, she simply said she loved us and she understands.
Have your children been discriminated against because of your condition?
George: Not that we have heard of.
Jacinta: We try to teach them to come to us first whenever there is an issue. So far, they have not spoken to us about being discriminated against or being teased. If it’s happening, maybe they have figured out how to handle it.
How do you enhance bonding as a family?
George: We pray together a lot. We also encourage them to do what they love. We may not have a lot of disposable income to sign them up for exclusive clubs but whatever we can manage, we do. Brian loves football and has been practicing karate since he was a baby. Josphat also loves football and Elizabeth loves to study. Additionally, they all love singing.
Jacinta: From the word go, we have learnt how to share our challenges with our children. We tell them why we cannot have certain things, for instance when we have to take porridge for breakfast instead of tea and bread.
How do you bond as a couple?
George: We have learnt to respect each other. We communicate very well and that has helped us understand each other better.
Jacinta: We remind ourselves of our love through gifts. Sometimes we go for a getaway or even conferences to just spend some time alone, away from the kids. Being able to provide for our children also brings us closer.
As evangelists and church leaders for the deaf community, is there added pressure to be perfect?
George: (Laughing) We are far from perfect and we are sure to tell the couples we counsel not to expect perfection. We have ups and downs and we even have times when we are at loggerheads.
Jacinta: We are a normal couple. What we tell people is to remain loyal to their vision. Remain faithful to each other and learn from those who have walked before you. However, remember all marriages are different. There is no one perfect formula.
How do you resolve conflicts?
George: It depends on the nature of the conflict.
Jacinta: In October 2015, we had a heated argument that lasted three days. I was exhausted from long hours at work and requested help with the kids. George flatly refused and several times I had to come back home to hungry children late in the night. Anyway, by the third day of the conflict, he must have realised I meant business because I woke up to a surprise breakfast from him (chuckling). I forgot about the argument immediately. I also pay no attention to hearsay and rumours about my husband. We have leant to develop thick skin considering even getting married was a big subject of discussion.
George: We talk a lot. It’s our go to place for conflict resolution. Because we are leaders we also try to avoid scenarios that may cause people in our community to question our integrity so while we may pay no attention to rumours, we do want to know what started them and if it is because of something we did. We try to see if there is a better way of handling the issue in the future.
Sign language interpreter, Susan Nderitu-Cordinator for the Deaf Ministry for P.C.E.A St Andrews Church.
Published in January 2015