Off Exit 13 on Thika Superhighway is a kitschy looking mall called the Spurs Mall in Ruiru. You might miss it, if you aren’t looking. On the top floor is a newish hotel called Verona Hotel. The restaurant, with its cozy cushioned chairs and expansive glass wall, overlooks a burgeoning Ruiru, a cluster of sprouting real estate at the end of a wide field, new money jostling for space. It’s in this restaurant that I’m meeting a 53 year old man with a bullet in his left hip. He’s neither a gangster nor a man of the law, though. 22 years ago he found himself at the right place at the wrong time and got himself shot. But he isn’t here to talk to me about that day; he’s here because he’s a man who has been married for over 26 years. His age is perfect because he’s not from a different era where a woman’s place was in the kitchen. If he knows who Fresh Prince is then he’s not too old.
I’m here to ask him to give us men advice about marriage, to wrap this series up. His brand of advice is based on his experience as a man married for over two decades who is happy and content. That’s what I had sold to him for this meeting. He isn’t here because he has a perfect marriage or because he holds the secret to a happy marriage. He’s here because he has endured and thrived in marriage in a way that has worked for him. His daughter – Grace – who had attended one of my writing masterclasses had written me one of those emails you wish your own daughter would write to someone about you. A bleeding letter full of respect and admiration for this chap, a man who has gone the full circle. His last name is Wachira and he’s here, with his slight limp, studying the menu keenly.
Here is what I know for a fact. One day, after the big trumpet has gone off and you have been asked to stand in the long winding queue, you will finally show up before an angel at the Pearly Gates and you will be asked, “…and what did you do with your time?” You will mumble, “Uhm, I…would volunteer at a children’s home…you know, bathing the babies…stuff.” The angel will look into his file with a creased brow. “Children’s home, huh?”
“Well, that is definitely true, but this file also says something else.”
“Let me see that…”
“Do. Not. Touch. The. File!” the angel will hiss. “And please step back. Personal space?”
You will step back and put your hands behind your back.
“From this file, it shows that you spent a lot of time studying menus…”
“That can’t be poss-”
“I’m not done.” The angel will raise his hand, giving you a stare. “It says here that you spent an equivalent of six months, studying menus. Six months! A time you could have used to help humanity or take care of other living things belonging to God.”
“I took care of things! I had a houseplant…,” you’ll protest, “doesn’t that count?”
“What kind of plant?”
Anyway, Wachira takes his sweet time studying the menu then disappointingly settles for herbal tea.
He got married in 1992, a normal year really, only it’s the year Bill Clinton got elected and Kriss Kross’s song “Jump” was on top of the pops.
“I courted my wife for only two weeks,” he says.
He says it’s because he was sure of what he wanted. He knew he wasn’t looking to just swing it and wing it. He didn’t want a girlfriend, he wanted a wife. He saw her in church and liked her and he made contact. For two weeks he took her out for tea and lunches, and in that time he decided that she was going to be his wife.
“You have to know what you want, although knowing that alone is not enough,” he says. “You have to let the other person know what you want. So after two weeks, I told my wife that I wanted to marry her. She accepted. I was looking for someone with good behaviour.”
“But you can’t tell someone’s behaviour in two weeks,” I say.
“Neither can you after five years,” he counters. “People can pretend for as long as they can. So do you court someone for five years to know their true behaviour? Perhaps. But I wanted someone I could fashion and mould into what I wanted in a partner. Someone who was like me.”
“Mould,” I say.
“Yes. Like sell an idea,” he says. He then gives me a forest analogy of marriage. “Let’s say you have three types of men who get into a forest; a Kikuyu, a Luo and a Kamba. The Kikuyu will fetch logs for firewood or makaa, the Luo will fetch logs to make nice furniture and the Kamba will fetch logs to make curios that people will admire and buy to decorate their homes. Who would have made good use of the logs?”
He slowly sips his tea and makes me wait, perhaps to reconsider my choices in life.
“The Luo?” I say. He smiles.
“So, marriage is like a forest. Most of us will have to get into this forest but how you use the log is up to you. You can turn it into anything you want. It’s a mentality thing. I went into that forest and I knew what I wanted to use the logs for. I didn’t need three years to decide.”
“So you are saying you shouldn’t go into the forest if you are not sure of what you want to use the logs for.”
“Exactly,” he says. “So from the get go, I had expectations of the kind of marriage I wanted and because of that I knew the kind of woman I wanted. And I never hesitated. Also, it was in my best interest to tell her my intentions early because there were other guys in church who were eyeing her. I had to move fast.” He chuckles.
They had a wedding. He was 28-years old. Then a child after the wedding; Grace.
“Why do you think younger men don’t want to commit quickly to marriage?” I ask him.
“Because they fear responsibility,” he says. “When I proposed to my wife I had nothing. I was working as a clerk for this West African chap who sold herbal medicine. I was earning Sh, 1,500 in 1992! I didn’t have money, but I was ambitious and I knew I was never going to settle for the life I had been dealt. And indeed I went to school and studied accounting because I was very good at math and I took opportunities to even train in audit firms. I worked as an accountant, financial controller and even a general manager.”
“So one shouldn’t wait to make money to get married?”
“What for?” he asks. “Money doesn’t make marriage.”
“Yes, but I have interviewed a ton of chaps whose marriages went sour when they lost their jobs or businesses.”
He leans back and says, “Let me tell you about money.”
“Five years after I married my wife, who I had roped into the business I was in at Gikomba, I got shot by thugs. I was moving money from the house to the bank and they carjacked us. I resisted because that morning I had read John 1 which said that darkness and light can’t go together. They shot me here on my chest and the bullet went through. I fell down, bleeding. One of the other thugs stood over me and shot me right here. [He points at his hip.] I was left for dead but I didn’t die, instead I got paralysed from the waist down. I stayed in the hospital for a month, then was in a wheelchair, had physiotherapy, then moved to crutches. This was the perfect time for my wife to leave me. I mean, I was supposed to be useless as a man. I wasn’t making any money during this time and because I was paralysed waist down, my manhood was dead! I was not able to perform my manly duties. I was a liability. She was young, she could have left me and started afresh.”
“Why did she stay?”
“Because she knew my potential even when I was in that wheelchair. She had confidence in me and my strength to overcome,” he says.
“How did you inspire her confidence in you?”
“I had always shown leadership. The man is the head of the family, even the Bible says that. But being the head of the family doesn’t mean you give orders, it means you offer leadership. I have always included her in my financial plans because I believe married life is not about money, it’s about good understanding. There are men who can die today and their wives will never know some of the properties they owned. What use is this property if you have to hide it from the person you share a bed with, the person your children call mother? I don’t live a secret life. My wife knows where all my money is, how much I’m making and how I’m spending it. And should we lose it, she won’t be shocked and I won’t have to pretend that we still have money.”
The second time he ran into trouble was when his business went under. His partner screwed him over and he found himself dead broke. That was in 2000, three years after he had been shot. Grace in her email to me had written: “We relocated from Forest Road to Ruiru. Culture shock hit us hard, our second born; he never recovered. Dad struggled to raise us in our unfinished house that had no perimeter wall, no plaster, no electricity etc, a house that was nicknamed Fort Jesus because of how long it stalled. We transferred from Aga Khan to a relatively nice school in Ruiru. Such dark times.”
“You can move from a lot to nothing,” he says. “I had to move my children to an unfinished house with a toilet outside. I learnt that people don’t relate with you, they relate with what you have and when you stop having, they stop relating with you. I have old friends who don’t even know where I moved to. I have a policy, something I have always had; to sit down with the family and tell them what is going on. No matter how bad or good it is. You have to sit down and talk as a family, tell them this is the situation and let everybody express themselves around that table. Every opinion is important, every feeling important and they have to be listened to. When I lost everything and was still disillusioned, my wife said the first thing we had to do was downgrade and move to Ruiru. It was my job to sit my kids down and tell them that their lives were about to change drastically. Grace was 12, Kwasi 7 and Miracle 3.”
“He’s called Miracle?” I ask.
“Yes, I got him when I was paralysed waist down,” he smirks.
I want to press on and find out how but Grace will be reading this and that’s not cool.
“For 12-years I tried to get back on my feet. Twelve years. I tried many businesses. I tried rearing chicken. It failed. I tried pigs. That also failed. I tried selling timber in Gikomba, that also failed. It’s only a few years ago that I got into real estate and it worked. But for 12-years I was broke. My wife never left my side for a day because we were struggling. This is because I have always been open with her about money. You have to be. She’s your wife and you have to offer strong leadership because we as men confused leadership for money.”
“What is leadership?” I ask.
“What is leadership?” he repeats, looking for the right answer. “It’s sitting down at a table and influencing your family. I never make a big move without sitting my wife down to sell her the idea. Not tell her I’m doing this, but sell her the idea. Because she has to buy it first.”
“What if you know the idea will work but she says she doesn’t like the idea at all and she thinks it will fail?”
“Then I don’t do it. Because the reason behind sitting down is to discuss, not to give an order or directive. The Bible says that where there is unity, God commands blessings,” he says. “There have been times when my wife said no and she was wrong, but most times she has been right. Women have that sixth sense and it’s often good to trust it. I also turn down some ideas that the family has. For example, I drive a 22-year old Toyota. It’s a very old stick shift and my children have always wanted a new car for the family. I have always said no, we’ll use this car.” He chuckles mischievously. “Recently they called a meeting and said that they think we should buy a new car and let go of this one. We had a discussion around it and eventually I said I’m not going to remove two million from the business to buy a new car. It didn’t make sense.”
His herbal tea looks cold now. The room is full. I suspect that there is some sort of political meeting going, or perhaps some grassroots politicians having lunch with their wives. There are lots of boots and a few stetson hats. If someone stood up and started a train-dance I wouldn’t be too shocked.
“What is happiness in marriage?” I ask him. “When can you say you’re happy”
“For me,” he says, “it’s when one is appreciated.”
“And how do you feel appreciated? What has to happen?”
“For me, my wife always buys me clothes. It doesn’t matter if I have given her money or she is using hers. She always buys me clothes. I feel appreciated when she buys me clothes. She also acknowledges me, especially in public, as her husband. I can tell she is proud of me. I like when she’s proud of me. She never wants to shame me.”
“And what’s the worst mistake you think you have made in your marriage?”
“Sometimes I don’t listen to her. Those few times I have not listened to her I have regretted it,” he says.
I want to talk about sex but I don’t really know how to start talking about sex, because he’s going to use his names here and I also don’t want to embarrass him. When speaking about having his child – Miracle – when he was supposed to be paralysed, I had pushed it a bit and I could tell that he didn’t want to go there. Sometimes when I struggle to ask an uncomfortable question, I use one trick that works perfectly; ask a blunt question. So I ask him how his sex life is at that age and how important sex is in marriage.
He blinks and touches the handle of his teacup as if he wants to rub that cup for a genie to come out and tackle that question.
“Sex is very important. After all, a man is a sexual being,” he says. “God created sex to bring people together. When making love there is a covenant, something has to be kept pure.” He pauses. “Of course the kind of sex you will have with your wife at 28 is different from the kind of sex you will have at 53. There are different expectations, different needs at different times. It’s easy to also stray if you think that you can find exciting sex outside. But that is deceptive sex and deceptive sex doesn’t last long; it’s based on ego and money and it has little affection. So why do it? Why have sex without affection?”
I want to press on and ask him if it’s possible for a married man to have affection outside the marriage and have sex outside that marriage and if that kind of sex, as deceptive as it might be, has affection and creates a covenant. But just as I’m about to the waitress comes over and asks, “Will you have mineral water or water from the tap?” I say mineral, then when she’s gone I completely forget what I wanted to ask because I’m a scatterbrain. Instead I ask him about the male ego in marriage.
“Well, if you know what your role is as a man, your ego should never be an issue,” he says. “It’s when you are not sure of your role that your ego will become an issue.”
We had a good conversation. He said some things that were useful and some that I didn’t agree with. But all of those things work for him even though they might not work for you or the next guy. Happiness in marriage is a mixed bag. I will offer my closing commentary of what I have learnt these past few months interviewing men and marriage in the next blog post. Then the bell will ring and we shall all go for a small mandazi break.
Closing the Writing Masterclass on Friday. Taking the last few folks. Please email email@example.com