Fifty-four years – that is how long 80-year-old accountant Gilbert Otieno and 76-year-old retired schoolteacher Joyce Otieno have been married. In those 54 years, the couple has not only raised 10 children, but also weathered storms including an auction, the loss of a child and infidelity. The couple, who are keen on helping other couples weather their own marital storms, candidly share on the power of love, joy, pain and forgiveness with ESTHER AKELLO.
Fifty-four years in marriage. That’s as long as Kenya has been independent. Has your marriage been all you wanted it to be?
Gilbert: I am satisfied with how God has worked so far in both of us to make our marriage what it is. I thank God for His blessings.
Joyce: Of course, there was no way of knowing what kind of challenges we would face; just the fact that they would be there. Those blind-sided me more than I anticipated so I would say it has taken some time for it to mature to its 100 per cent success rate. I am, however, immensely grateful for love, joy and God’s blessings which have peppered our marriage.
How did you meet?
Gilbert: We met in in high school. Her brother and I were friends and schoolmates at Maseno School. After high school, she went to Machakos to pursue her teaching studies while I was working in Nairobi.
Joyce: Every so often he and his friends would come for a visit. After my studies, I was posted back home in Siaya. It was then we started thinking seriously about marriage. We got married in April 1963 despite objections here and there.
Gilbert: Superstition was rife back then. Joyce’s father believed that someone would bewitch our union if we got married in Siaya. Despite that, we went ahead and had the ceremony. Ironically, I became sick with malaria immediately after our wedding!
Joyce: Our marriage, I believe, was always God’s plan. My family members were not so keen about it especially one of my brothers. He wanted me to go on with my education up to the highest possible level. He even refused to attend our wedding. But he came around later on.
Did you have difficulties bonding in your marriage?
Gilbert: I think we started off quite nicely (chuckling). The problems began much later.
Joyce: Marriage isn’t always smooth. One time following an argument, Gilbert told me to pack my things and go! I simply replied that there was no way he was getting rid of me and I was there to stay!
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
Gilbert: The death of our first-born son, Morris, in 2008. He was sick for a while and we all knew, including him, that it was a matter of time before he left us.
Joyce: While we like to think he prepared us – he did call us on the day he passed on and we were able to say goodbye – it did not make it any easier.
Any other challenge?
Joyce: Our property was auctioned in 1996. The advice of the pastor who solemnised our union kept us grounded. He had told us there were many ways to lose a marriage and the first was being dubious with financial resources. He told us to always be transparent and generous with each other. Our faith in God also sustained us.
That must have been rough. What happened, considering Gilbert has a background in finance?
Gilbert: I acquired a lot of unsecured loans when I was working. However, four years after I retired from my job in 1992, the creditors came calling. It was a difficult time.
Joyce: It was shocking to say the least. Imagine hearing a knock on your gate at 6:30am only to find lorries packed at your gate. It was difficult for the children as well. Three were living with us at the time. One of them attempted to hide their things by locking them in a room and took off. Another was so traumatised that he couldn’t eat.
How did you bounce back?
Gilbert: We became content with whatever little that was left and relocated to upcountry for a while. We faced a lot of ridicule from friends and even relatives, especially since I’m an accountant. It was then we found out who our real friends were. We eventually managed to recover and we thank God for it.
Joyce: Later on, we sold harvest from our farm and that is what we used to pay off some debts and buy new things.
With 10 children, was it obvious from the get-go that you’d have a large family?
Joyce: We initially stopped at four because we had two boys – the late Morris Onyango and Collins Oduor – and two girls, Christine Akinyi and Lucy Hawi. My father, however, one day reprimanded me for stopping at four so we went on to have six more namely Steven Omondi, Benjamin Ogude, Donald Odindo, Margaret Jabi, Emma Moos and John Odhiambo.
Gilbert: Back then there was no luxury of enjoying the ‘honeymoon’ phase of one’s marriage. We started having our children immediately because even the smallest delay was an indication (to society) that something was amiss in your marriage and one would be encouraged to take on another wife.
How was it raising the children?
Gilbert: We shared responsibilities. For instance, if she was busy in the office and one of the kids was sick, I would attend to the child (laughing). Children are sweet as toddlers but after that stage, they are a nightmare! Getting them to listen is so hard.
Joyce: Our children have gone on to have very fulfilling lives and careers. We did face challenges though. One of our sons had difficulties applying himself in school and despite all our efforts – disciplinary and spiritually – he dropped out of college. He is, however, able to sustain himself but the family chips in when he has an emergency.
Hands-on raising of children at the time was considered predominantly a woman’s job. Were you always so forward-thinking in terms of gender roles?
Gilbert: I’m a typical traditional man! In my day, boys tended livestock and girls farms and kitchens. So when our children were growing up, I enforced the same. That stance has gotten me into a lot of trouble with Joyce up to this day!
Joyce: I’m the only girl and the last-born in our home. My brothers had no problems doing housework including cooking. So to hear him say the opposite annoyed me. Even more ironical was the fact that our domestic helper was a man. The children would always ask why their father doesn’t allow them in the kitchen, yet our domestic helper was a boy.
If you had a second chance to re-do it, would you do it differently?
Gilbert: (Smiling) Yes. I’m converted! I believe in the current trend; responsibilities ought to be shared regardless of one’s gender. I help Joyce out a lot more now. She’ll tell you!
Joyce: (laughing) It is never too late to change!
Polygamy during your generation was commonplace. Did it ever come up in your relationship?
Gilbert: Relatives implied it but I was happy with Joyce. However, at some point in our marriage, I did falter and Joyce found out. She confronted me and I came clean.
That must have been jolting.
Gilbert: Joyce was so angry that in a moment of pain she said she was going to kill me.
Joyce: I was devastated.
Did you ever consider divorce or separation at any point?
Gilbert: As difficult as it was, none was an option. We confided in another couple who were our friends and they acted as mediators and we managed to resolve the matter amicably over time.
Joyce: Where would I go? My brother offered me refuge but I knew it would never be enough. My father was also a church leader and I felt it would bring a lot of scrutiny not just to him, but to me as well. As I thought through our relationship, I realised that Gilbert was my everything. Thereafter, we resolved to plough through.
How were you able to find your way back to love and trust?
Joyce: Through forgiveness, which is difficult to do when in such a situation. It takes time and prayer before you become ‘normal’ again. Can you believe at this point in our marriage we can talk and even make jokes about it?
Gilbert: When a mistake happens, be open and talk about it. If you are the offender, own up and humble yourself because you’re the cause of the annoyance.
Joyce: When you slip, do not allow yourself to stay there. Confess then drop the bad behaviour.
How have you sustained your love through time?
Gilbert: Joyce is my strength. I couldn’t possibly have gone through some things without her. When everyone else leaves, she remains. She also takes good care of me. From food to cleanliness to my wardrobe!
Joyce: Careers, people and even children come and go. You can’t always count on them to give you fulfillment. You have to prioritise each other. My ‘big boy’ over here still surprises me. He brings me flowers and gifts whenever he comes home. The best was when he surprised me with a trip to Frankfurt, Germany!
You’ve been retired for 20 years, aside from the auction, how would you gauge your retirement life?
Gilbert: This journey has been difficult, financially speaking. After retirement, I started doing consultancy work in private practice and that is what has sustained us.
Joyce: With regard to empty nest syndrome or loneliness, we have not been affected. We have each other and God.
What do you consider to be the greatest lesson in your marriage?
Gilbert: Marriage is give and take. You can’t each expect to maintain 100 per cent of what you like. You have to concede and the fifty-fifty you each bring to the table is what will create the 100 per cent that you desire in your marriage. So make it count!
Joyce: Look for someone who you would enjoy living with and pray about it. God is the foundation of marriage. Be tolerant of each other and for wives, be submissive. Love is a lot of things not just money and should start from the door to the bedroom.
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