“Why do we as a culture hold on to toxic relationships?”
This, Dear Reader, was a question asked by my sister-in-law one Friday afternoon as we watched the lunchtime news. A news item came up about a woman who had hacked off her husband’s ‘transformer’ after many years of enduring his violence and drug abuse.
It was interesting that she asked me that question for at the time, I was carrying out research on this very subject. I had long pondered on the reasons and motivations that made us sustain, endure if you may, hostile passengers in the respective journeys of our lives.
My research question was “What motivates people to stay in toxic relationships.” The objective of my research was to establish the factors that motivate us to sustain relationships that are detrimental to our wellbeing. My research method was focus groups, wherein I had several groups of diverse Nairobi men and women discussing the topic and giving their experiences and perceptions on the research question.
My aim here is not to discuss the outcomes of my study but to share a few of the stories from the participants of the focus groups, of course with their permission. I have changed the names of the respondents to protect their identity, and so if you are of a nosy disposition Dear Reader, you will not be successful in knowing who said what during the focus group.
One of the most heart breaking stories I heard was from Janet. This is her story in her own words:
“I got pregnant at sixteen years old, when I was in form one. That was in 1992. My boyfriend was a form two boy named Daniel and he promised me that we would run away together and get married. As the months passed, I was afraid that the pregnancy would start to show before we ran away. I asked Daniel to do something quickly but he turned on me and said that I was lying and the baby was not his.”
“Left with no choice, I had to tell my parents. My parents were angry and disappointed but it is the disappointment that cut through my heart most. I spent my days and nights crying. My parents saw my sadness and my mother declared that such sadness was not good for the baby. They decided to go and see Daniel’s parents and inform them of their son’s misdeeds. They also demanded that Daniel marry me and look after me and the baby.”
“Daniel’s parents had great hopes for their boy and did not want marriage and fatherhood to obliterate his future. He was a bright student and a rising footballer who was already playing for the junior team of one of the local football clubs. I guess you all know Daniel as he is now the coach of one of larger football teams. Daniel’s parents agreed to pay a fine of 3 cows to my parents and let the story come to a rest.”
“Naturally, I had to drop out of school when my pregnancy started showing. I stayed home and delivered a beautiful daughter. She looked nothing like Daniel and I was happy about that. I named her Nambuye, after my father’s mother.”
“The three cows helped us with milk for the baby and we also sold the extra milk to get some money for our other needs but things at home were very difficult and were getting tighter with the brother who follows me qualifying for secondary school. I could see that my parents were really struggling to take care of my siblings and I had now added them the burden of my daughter. I spoke with them about getting a job and as soon as Nambuye turned three I was ready to leave her and go out to earn a living.”
“Therefore in January 1995, my mother’s sister, Aunty Lucy, who was a nursing assistant at St. Jude Hospital, Kakamega got me a job as the house maid of the hospital’s matron, Madam Julia. Madam Julia was a very nice and motherly woman. She had three children aged between nine years and three years and I had no difficulty looking after them. Her husband was a doctor at Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu and came home every weekend. They were a jovial couple and treated me like one of their children. I loved them.”
“Unfortunately, after, three years of working for them, both Madam Julia and her husband got jobs in a big hospital in Nairobi and had to move there. They wanted to take me along with them but I was afraid of going so far away from home and my daughter and I declined. They were unhappy to part ways with me but Madam Julia gave me the telephone number of her new workplace and told me to call her in case I needed anything or just needed to talk.”
“Through a good word from Madam Julia and my aunt, I was able to get a job as a kitchen girl at St. Jude Hospital. My job involved washing the dishes, cleaning the floors, washing and ironing the kitchen linen and occasionally helping with cutting up of the ingredients for the meals. We were three kitchen girls but due to my hard work, I was promoted to a messenger in two years.”
“It was at this point I re-evaluated my life and saw that I would not go anywhere without a high school certificate. I was twenty-four years old and saw eighteen-year-old girls coming for nursing training, graduating after two years and becoming my superiors. I had to do something.”
“In the year 2000, I enrolled in gumbaru and attended classes every evening. The teachers at gumbaru were really good and well qualified and in 2002, I was ready to sit for my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education. The exam was tough and I did not pass very well. I got a ‘D plus’ grade. This did not qualify me to train as a nurse. My aunt encouraged me to train to be a nursing assistant like her but I now felt that a hospital career was not for me.”
“I continued with my messengerial position at the hospital and took up a secretarial course in the evenings. The college was run by Catholic Sisters and they were very strict. Under their tutelage, I excelled in the KNEC examinations as well as the Pitman Examinations. I remember, back then, computers were just coming into the market. The college got donations of a few computers (five to be precise) and hired a computer teacher. The five top students who excelled got the opportunity to train as computerised secretaries and I was lucky enough to be one of them.”
“The computer secretarial course took only three months and with diploma in hand, I applied for a promotion at the hospital. The Human Resources Manager informed me that there were no vacancies at the time but the next week, I heard that she had employed her cousin in the typing pool. Angry and disappointed, I quit my job and went knocking on doors with my papers.”
“I stayed out of work for about two months and went back to stay with my parents. My siblings were now all grown up with the last born in standard eight. On the fourth month, Aunty Lucy came calling. She had seen a job advert for a computerised secretary at Ambassador Hotel in Kakamega. It was a big hotel and I felt unqualified and inexperienced for the job but through pressure from Aunty Lucy and my mother, I applied.”
“I went to stay in town with Aunty Lucy as I sent blind applications to many offices, schools and hotels. After about a months’ wait, I got a letter from Ambassador Hotel inviting me for a job interview. I was right in my perception of the hotel. It was very large, clean and neat and had many tourists. I felt intimidated.”
“On arrival, I informed the receptionist of my job interview and she told me to wait. As I was waiting, a lady came out of an office with a huge note pad of handwritten notes. She asked me who I was and why I had not been assisted. I told her I had come for the interview for computerised secretary. She told me to follow her, sat me at a desk outside her office which I assumed was her secretary’s desk for it had a computer, a printer and a telephone. She ordered me to proceed and type out the notes. It was urgent, she said.”
“I typed those notes with all I could put into them as I was convinced that this was the job interview. They were testing my skills. I printed them and went with them to her office for proof reading. She seemed pleased that I had typed them so fast and told me to take dictation for some letters she needed to send to suppliers. I did not have a shorthand notebook but quickly took the envelope containing my CV and certificates and took shorthand notes on it as she dictated. I went back to the secretary’s desk and typed out the letters.”
“She kept giving me tasks throughout the day. Type this, call x, dispatch these letters, file those documents. At four o’clock as the rest of the staff were leaving, she told me ‘see you tomorrow’ and disappeared back into her office. That is how, in 2005, I got the job at Ambassador Hotel and worked there for almost ten years, growing to be the executive assistant of the General Manager.”
“It was while in my second year working at the hotel that I met Ben. Ben was an electrical engineer and his company had been contracted by the hotel to overhaul its electrical cabling. He was constantly there with his crew and as my boss was the Assistant Manager in charge of Operations, he reported to our office. I arranged meetings between them, typed out minutes, filed invoices and generally liaised with him throughout the project.”
“After six months, the project was finalised and he came to tell my boss goodbye. On his way out he told me that he admired me and wanted to take me out for tea. I obliged him. That first date led to another and another and eventually to a serious relationship. Ben came home to meet my parents and ask for my hand in marriage. Things seemed to be moving so fast I saw them in a blur. The introduction quickly followed by the bride price ceremony, and then the wedding and finally the honeymoon. That was in 2008.”
“I was happy. My parents were happy. I never in my world imagined that I would work in an office, yet I was now working in the biggest hotel in town. I had given up hopes of getting married. I thought that men did not want me because I was a single mother. Now, here I was married to an engineer from a well off family!”
“Indeed Ben’s family was well known in town. I am sure most of you know them. He is the fourth child in a family of six. His father was a retired principal of Kakamega High School and his mother was a retired nurse. His eldest brother was an Assistant Minister, his two older sisters were school principals, one in a national school and one in the biggest provincial school in Kakamega, his younger brother had just graduated with a degree in medicine and his last born sister was studying economics.”
“The welcome to his family was not as warm as I had hoped and I later came to learn that being an engineer, they had hoped that he would marry someone with higher academic achievements than I had. They were also not happy with the fact that I had dropped out of school and given birth at sixteen. However, what bothered them most was the fact that I was two years older than Ben. I was thirty-two when we married and Ben was thirty.”
“I settled into married life and Ben was loving and caring enough. The only thing that unsettled me was his closeness to his mother. He consulted her on everything including the colour of curtains we should have in our house. This vexed me but I kept my cool. I noticed, anyway, that they were a close-knit family and always consulted each other on things. By this time, mobile phones were in use and Facebook was in vogue. Ben and his siblings had a Facebook group where they chatted about anything and everything!”
“One year of marriage turned to two and two turned to three and we did not get any children. The coldness from his family turned to open hatred and the quiet negative vibes turned into open insults. I would wake up to insulting messages from his mother and sisters, calling on me to be sensible and just walk away. Even his eldest brother’s wife joined in the insults. I was called a dried up old hag, a gold digger, a barren witch and so many other names that I cannot mention in this focus group.”
“I endured the insults and bore them quietly like a good wife should. At first I used to show Ben the messages and he would pretend to be upset but would do nothing about it. The day I stopped showing him the messages was the day he told me that they were speaking the truth!”
“Ben started coming home late and eventually would not come home for nights on end. I confronted him and he blatantly told me that his family had decided that he should marry another wife, a woman his own age, and so he was already dating and soon he would bring her home pregnant. This upset me and I started quarrelling with him. He slapped me hard and I fell to the floor in a heap, shocked more at the fact that he could slap me than at the pain of the slap.”
“By this time, my daughter had graduated from secondary school and she had performed well. I did not want her to witness the kind of violence I was experiencing in my marriage and therefore, after talking to Madam Julia, I sent Nambuye to Nairobi to live with her and take a certificate in accounting as she awaited her admission to the university.”
“I forgot to tell you this, but Madam Julia had remained a close friend and confidante throughout. I had discussed with her the issues I was facing in my marriage and after listening keenly, had advised me to walk out while I still had my legs intact. I panicked at the thought of being single again and decided that it was better to be a married woman, no matter what I was going through than to be single. I think this is because I had grown up in a society where marriage was a status symbol. I felt that my status would reduce and younger women would be more highly regarded than me because I was divorced.”
“After the second beating from Ben, I called my parents and told them what was going on. My parents asked for a kikao, gathered the elders from my home and came to meet with Ben, his parents and the elders from his home. At the kikao, my elders asked Ben what mistake that I had done to deserve the mistreatment I was receiving. Ben’s response was that I was barren and could not get him a child. My elders pointed out that I had a child from a previous relationship and that was proof that I was not barren. Ben was asked to mention any children he had got before or even during our marriage while he was out there philandering and he had nothing to show.”
“Eventually, it was agreed that we should both go for medical assessment and from the medical results, come for another kikao to decide whether the marriage should be dissolved or not. I called up Madam Julia and told her of these developments and she booked for us an appointment with a gynaecologist in Nairobi. Ben refused to undergo any tests but purchased for me a flight ticket to Nairobi to see the specialist.”
“I flew to Nairobi from Kisumu. It was my first time in an aeroplane and I was excited. Within an hour I had landed and Madam Julia, her son Otieno (whom I had looked after at 6 years old and was now almost a grown man of 22), and Nambuye were at the airport waiting for me. Otieno drove us home and I was glad of the warm welcome. That evening, I poured out my heart to Madam Julia and her husband. Her husband tried to convince me that a man who refused to undergo tests was not willing to resolve the problem. He had already made up his mind that he wanted to move on and I should also think about moving on.”
“I did not listen. I wanted to maintain my perceived status in society.”
Dear Reader, at this point, our focus group session ended and we had to leave. The focus room was available to us for an hour only, and another team was waiting to use it. We will meet next Tuesday, when I hope to tell you the rest of Janet’s story.