Their marriage, their rules – SAM AND HELLEN OKELLO

Are you one of those high school sweetheart couples? Sam: No, but we met when we were teenagers. Our fathers were pastors in the Adventist Church and were then posted

  • PublishedJanuary 31, 2019

Are you one of those high school sweetheart couples?

Sam: No, but we met when we were teenagers. Our fathers were pastors in the Adventist Church and were then posted in Kendu Bay, Nyanza. One day, she came visiting her sister who coincidentally is also married to a pastor. We passed each other along the road. I was in Form five.

Hellen: I had just alighted at the bus terminus and was walking towards my sister’s house when I spotted him. We passed each other and I turned to look at him only to find he had turned to look at me as well. I was in Form one.

Sam: That same evening, I went to look for her in her sister’s house. Her sister was a good friend of mine as we had schooled together. Hellen resembles her sister so I knew where to look for her. I cheerfully announced that I had come to say hello.

What happened after the greetings?

Hellen: We started dating. I thought he was different and cool. Back then Michael Jackson was the sensation and Sam played the part. He had on an Afro, a windbreaker and some rubber shoes. My cousin also started dating his brother but later on it became difficult because we had to go back to school. One day as my cousin was visiting, she told me Sam had written to her, expressing many things. I simply told her she could have him.

Very shifty Sam!

Hellen: My cousin didn’t even want him. So I gave him a time out for about a year and then he started writing to me again. We broke up several times thereafter, only to reconnect at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton. We dated for 10 years before tying the knot.

So what made you settle with each other?

Sam: Getting to know her better made me understand the kind of person she was. Hellen is strong willed.

Hellen: The reason we had hiccups is because Sam was a ladies’ man. It’s his personality. He is charming and outgoing yet reserved. However, one of the challenges we had was the fact that my in-laws were not overly accepting of our marriage.


Hellen: There was a girl his family had arranged for him to marry. His brother once even told me that I was wasting my time. For us to keep it strong this many years later, I call us survivors. When God is in a marriage, everything else will fall in place.

Sam: There were a lot of arranged marriages at the time in my community and especially for those who were seen to be of upper class. Some of them went on to be so miserable because they married for their parents and not whom they loved.

You lived in America for 18 years. Was it particularly challenging adjusting to life there?

Hellen: We went there to study then the writing bug hit Sam and we ended up publishing our first book and that’s how our publishing firm started. We had our first son here in Kenya – three months before we left, and our second child was born in the US.

Sam: Life in the States is challenging because we had to deal with the pressures of school, work, and racism. I was doing a Master’s in divinity while Hellen was doing a Bachelor’s in nursing and a Master’s in religion. So many marriages fell apart around us. I believe had we not dated for as long as we did, a similar fate would have befallen us.

What are some of the practical things you did to protect your marriage then?

Sam: I think being pastors’ children played a big role. Marriage for us meant ‘till death do us part.’ We worked out our issues because our approach was nothing was impossible under the sun if you put your minds to it.

Hellen: Marriage is an ongoing process. It’s something you’re constantly working towards. For me the dating period is critical. A lot of people prepare for weddings, which is a day’s event. A lot goes into marriage. Don’t take your spouse as a guest in your life. Know them well before you say ‘I do’. This is the person you’ll fight with, not against; the person who can tell you off and you don’t take it personally because you know they have your back.

How soon in marriage did you have this realisation?

Hellen: It’s ongoing. I remember when I was expecting one of our children there was a lot of issues from my in-laws. That’s one thing that brought friction between us. Outsiders can really influence the success or downfall of a marriage.

Sam: The issue was some investments back home. I wanted to partner with my dad and she with her brother. We decided not to pursue that particular investment since we had a difference of opinion.
Hellen: Be honest with your feelings and speak your mind when you disagree. When things are about to collapse, put the pieces of the puzzle back together.

Is this how you treat all matters of conflict in your relationship?

Sam: In matters investment, be it land or real estate, men tend to be strong willed. If not handled carefully, this can undermine the couple’s trust and when trust is broken, there’s no marriage. It’s simply two people living together for convenience sake.

Hellen: Conflict resolution in marriage should be between those who signed up for the marriage. To me, the solution is the couple. They’re the goalpost owners. Most marriages falter because they believe more in the external forces than they do themselves. It begins with mindset, mindset, and mindset.

Sam: Most people go to marriage counselors to report their partners and for their positions to be affirmed. When they’re not, they walk away embittered. Marriage counselors to a certain degree can help but couples shouldn’t make them the front and centre. Those people aren’t the reference point for your marriage. The reference should be your children. Do the best for those children, and for me that begins with loving their mother. Everything else is a waste of time.

Sam, shed light on your upcoming book – Marriage In The Age Of The Slay Queen

Sam: The book is about how a lot of marriages right now are facing tension as a result of social media and mobile phones. Social networks and mobile phones aren’t bad in themselves; it’s how people use them. If people can share a bed and so much more, why put a lock in your phone? My concern is the misery divorce causes spouses and children. When misery begins from home, the whole society is in peril.

Hellen: Sam can pick my phone and do what he wants and the same applies to me, but of course we don’t snoop. If you snoop, you won’t have a life. However, if someone talks to Sam and says ‘I love you’, it’s HIS reaction that matters.

Some couples aren’t convinced. A Saudi Arabian woman was jailed for three months early October for going through her husband’s phone without his permission…

Sam: When you walk down the aisle, you’re telling the world that you’re bringing together everything about you and your spouse to create a unit. That unit’s survival depends on the two parties understanding that everything they’ve brought together comes with good and bad.

Hellen: Once you say ‘I do’, that ‘I do’ should not just be empty words. It means if you pick the phone and find something, understand this person is human. When your partner stumbles, don’t let them fall, pick them up.

Some people might say that’s justifying toxic relationships…

Sam: That’s why I emphasise dating. Get to know the person you’re marrying. Their true character will emerge and then decide if you can put up with that or not.

Hellen: I’d never condone an abusive relationship. There comes a time when you have to say enough is enough. I know people who’ve walked away and had better lives. Sometimes you get into something that was not really right from the get go.

But younger men are also looking for sugar mummies…

Sam: The lessons in the book apply to men just as it does to women. On the whole I think it’s just the society breaking down and if these breakage continues, sometimes I wonder how it will be in my sons’ time.

How have you managed to remain faithful to each other given that a sizeable chunk of society believes cheating in marriage, especially by men, is inevitable?

Sam: Hellen and I work together. It’s a situation I appreciate others don’t have. I love her; she’s my best friend. She, however, is not my prefect. When you pursue illicit relationships, I believe you’ll feel guilty. That’s why I’m sympathetic to my brothers because they’re dealing with a creature here known as the ‘slay queen’ who is very aggressive and has re-invented the rules and terms of engagement.

Hellen: People ask if we get bored around each other. If someone is your best friend, how do you get bored around them? We have a lot we don’t agree on and yet a lot we share in common. We’re also intellectual equals.

So are we setting low standards for ourselves as a society?

Sam: My approach in the book is this; God created the lady to mark her boundaries. Your husband, children, properties and phones are your boundaries. Men are visual hunters and if we don’t exercise self-control, then we’ll start going after everyone. A lady must mark her boundaries and be unapologetic. There’s a feeling in society that women should not police their spouses but to me that isn’t right. You’re married; you’ve been brought together, sanctified before God. So why should anyone tell you not to touch your husband’s phone or go to his office?

So are you romantics?

Sam: People should stop bringing romantic notions into marriage. A marriage is 85 per cent work and 15 per cent romance. Successful men will treat that 15 per cent like 100 per cent so that the 85 per cent doesn’t feel heavy. Complement each other. Be the first to do it before someone else does. It’s the little things that matter, as Kenny Rogers says.

Hellen: Use your senses. Use touch to build your relationship. What will a hug or a kiss on the cheek cost? Use your eyes to see the right things and correct the wrong things. Use your ears to listen. Words that come out of your mouth should build and if words that destroy come out, be quick to take them back and build. Smell the perfume and if it turns out to be sweat, deal with it.

How many children do you have and how was it raising them in America?

Hellen: We have two boys – Garrie Okello, 21, and Prince Okello, 14. It’s been difficult for them to adjust to Kenya because they grew up in America and understand that life. Up to now they still don’t know our mother tongue and yet we used to speak it at home all the time. We’ve tried to instill in them that all humans are the same and should be treated equally. Family is the centre stage where we mould the future generation. What we say often forms the stereotypes we have of each other.

Sam: Our children are more American than Kenyan and we are more Kenyan than American. There are always two cultures in the house. For me the fundamental things to teach them were honesty and the basic decency of the human being and what God created us to be – our brother’s keeper.

Any last words?

Hellen: When people come to weddings they say a lot of things, but it’s not about what they say. Chart your own path.

Sam: Be like a person given a truck in the desert and you have to move it from one oasis to the other. Be creative and get to the water source because that is where life is. There is a context for marriage advice on the wedding day. Listen to it and leave it there. Go out and walk your journey.

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