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Zack Litaba, 53, and his wife Zenny, 49, both work in the youth ministry of the Navigators Kenya, an international inter-denominational Christian ministry. They have been married for 21 years. EDNA GICOVI chronicles the 21-year journey of this pleasant, young-at-heart couple.

“In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find, and continue to find, grounds for marriage,” said the late American playwright Robert Anderson in his play Solitaire/Double Solitaire.

Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of the ‘sometimes difficult’ adjustment issues many newlyweds experience early in their marriages is debatable.

In as far as teething problems in new marriages go, Zack and Zenny Litaba had their fair share as newlyweds. Zenny had fibroids, was anaemic and also expecting their first child soon after the wedding.

“The first few months when she was expecting our firstborn were rough. She was quite low on energy, quiet and irritable, all of which were unlike her personality. She was also very selective of what she ate as many foods did not sit well with her. I also had to do the cooking because of her sensitivity to smells.

Moreover, I had to do it at our neighbour’s house because the smell of frying onions made her sick. She also did not like certain colours so I could not wear some of the clothes I liked and my deodorant irritated her, yet she liked it before. I would come home to a moody wife who seemed not to want me around but also didn’t want me to go away!” says Zack with a chuckle. Zenny smiles at this too.

In the midst of all these difficulties, Zack felt lost. Was this what marriage was all about? Both he and Zenny are Christians and had known from the start that there was neither a quick fix for marital problems and opting out was not a choice, no matter how hard things got.

“I had to do what I knew was right according to the Bible – to be faithful and do the best I could to serve her. I made a commitment to her and I was in it for keeps. It was really a period of learning, endurance and perseverance,” recalls Zack.

The challenges continued after Zenny gave birth to their daughter Laura. The baby suffered from colic and for several months Zenny and Zack spent many evenings pacing back and forth the bedroom trying to soothe her.

“Some nights we slept very little because she would cry a lot. It would take us up to three hours to get her to sleep and even when she finally slept, it was for very short periods of time,” says Zenny.

“We eventually discovered three months down the road that when my wife ate any legumes, the gas brought on by these foods would irritate our daughter who was still breastfeeding at the time,” says Zack. Laura eventually settled down and started sleeping for longer hours.

Shared values and beliefs…
Zack and Zenny met in 1989. Zenny was working with the Navigators Kenya ministry at the time while Zack worked with Lonrho East Africa at EATEC Ltd, Eldoret, and also served at the Navigators ministry as one of the Eldoret team members.

They were both in other relationships at the time, which coincidentally ended around the same time. They interacted more closely when their supervisors at the Navigators asked them to plan a staff picnic together. A friendship blossomed. They would meet and visit each other often.

When Zack finally declared his interest in pursuing a relationship with Zenny, she was not too quick to say yes. She needed to know what he really meant by this declaration. Relationships in the past where things were not too clear-cut had left a bad taste in her mouth.

“I did not want to play around. I thought about it seriously and in prayers asked God for guidance before we started dating,” she says.

Among the things Zenny loved about Zack was his gentleness, love for God, and involvement in the church.

On the other hand Zack says, “I wanted a relationship with someone who was secure in herself and had a close relationship with God and I found these qualities in Zenny. She is also attractive, has nice, long hair and cooks great food,” says Zack.

He adds that he also felt they shared the same vision in ministry and would, therefore, be able to work well as a team. They were also drawn to each other because of their shared beliefs and values and their big hearts for children, hence their work with Navigators youth.

“Growing up, we were very closely knit within our extended family and I feel this prepared me to open up my home and share what I had with others in my ministry. I wanted to end up with someone who would be open to these same values and was happy that I found Zack. We host many people in our home and sometimes it’s full of children,” says Zenny.

During the year or so they dated and courted, it was important for them to put in place clear boundaries that defined their relationship before marriage. They preferred to have their dates in restaurants in Eldoret town and whenever Zenny visited Zack who lived alone, they would invite a mutual friend to join them. It’s now 21 years since they walked down the aisle in April 1993.

“Marrying Zack has allowed me to be myself. I laugh a lot and I laugh loudly. I remember some people telling me when I was newly married that I would become quieter after the children. I had seen it happen to people I know but having children never changed me. I still laugh as much as I used to. My husband has given me the freedom to explore myself and discover my strengths and weaknesses. I do not have to be pretentious. I have grown through these 21 years and discovered a lot about myself,” says Zenny.

Zack started working full time for the Navigators after they were married and after a few years were both posted to Mombasa from their Eldoret station. Zenny initially found living in Mombasa challenging. “Life was expensive and I found it too hot. Though I struggled with this move, Zack was very supportive,” she says. The couple lived and worked in Mombasa for 15 years before moving to Nairobi in 2010.

In parenting, more is caught than taught…
Zack and Zenny are parents to Laura, 20, Daniel, 18, and Jeremy, 16. They are also guardians to their nephew David, 22, son to Zack’s late older brother who died 10 years ago.

They have been through parenting classes and seminars offered by Navigators, which they say have been of great help to them. They encourage other parents to draw from such resources to enrich their parenting experience.

They have also been exposed to a number of Navigators couples whose parenting skills they have both admired and learned from. In addition, both of their parents played a crucial role through their upbringing in determining the kind of parents they have become.

Zack says that they both strive to do their best to live out their Christianity so that they’re not preaching water to their children while drinking wine.

“I believe more is caught than taught in parenting. I think it has made a big difference in our children’s lives that their parents are living out their faith and not just talking about it,” he says.

Zenny adds, “How you raise your children determines what they become. We realized early in our parenting days that our children would pick up whatever we represented.”

It is of great importance to the couple that they pass useful information to their children and also give them the liberty to make their own decisions, as they grow older. They are grateful to see their children making the right choices as they go along. Discipline is another important factor they have incorporated into their parenting. Firmness and consistency are critical with regard to this, according to Zack.

“Let your children know that you love them even after you discipline them. They will look back and be grateful for it when they are older. I feel that our discipline has borne fruit,” he says proudly.

Zenny says that they cannot take all the credit for how their children have turned out because they have received help from different people along the way. She also recognises and appreciates the fact that that their children have been willing participants in their own discipline as they could have chosen to rebel.

Conflict and romance…
“As we learned during our premarital counseling, if you don’t resolve conflicts they simmer and eventually explode. We often have dates where we have time to ourselves and address anything that needs to be addressed and this has been extremely helpful to keeping our marriage in balance,” says Zack.

Learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how each other deals with conflict helps in finding a middle ground adds Zenny. She also reckons that learning how to communicate is a couple’s biggest milestone, while Zack says that being vulnerable with one another renews and strengthens a relationship. The couple has also received a wealth of insight from older couples in their ministry who have been instrumental in building their marriage. They are also part of a couple’s Bible study group.

Zack and Zenny don’t only use dates for conflict resolution but also find them useful for catching up and touching base on where they are and where they are headed. On the subject of romance, Zenny says, “With age, romance changes and it may not be the perfect ‘happily ever after’ fairy tale expectations. That is not realistic. It can however get better as the children get older because a couple has more time to connect than before,” says Zenny.

Marriage brings out the best and worst in you…
“Marriage is good and I am enjoying mine. The key thing has been to depend on God and to work towards the people God wants us to be. I can testify that marriage works. If a marriage is handled in God’s way, it will last,” says Zack.

Zenny says marriage is not about spouses giving 50/50 but 100/100. “Marriage is a beautiful thing and it’s up to us to look for the beauty in it. It’s about being willing to be humbled. It sharpens you and brings out the best and the worst in you so that you can improve on different areas of your life.

Zack and I are not there yet. We face different challenges but we have to keep praying and working on our marriage. I am grateful to God because even though we have had moments of tears, our home has generally been a place of joy and laughter,” she says in conclusion.

Published in October 2014