When Charles met Wambui at work and started a close relationship that saw him propose to her in less than a year after meeting, he did not know that the courtship was going to be the easiest part of their love life. The two, who proudly informed their sets of parents of their intention to settle down never knew they were about to experience a whirlwind experience of emotional pain and immense financial strain on their plans.
“Things were warm at first and we were welcomed from both ends. That was until we started planning for the wedding. Then the hate, pride and inflated egos from our parents kicked in,” Charles says over a drink.
See, Charles comes from a line of proud deacons of a leading Pentecostal church, that’s stretches all the way to pre-independence Kenya. One of the only few in the lineage to stay away from the pulpit, he was accustomed to travelling home every few weeks for family prayers and religious meetings. He grew up in church.
His new wife, on the other hand, is the daughter of a leading vernacular televangelist.
“They argued over which church should do the wedding. Imagine!” Charles explains of his parents and in-laws. “In fact, I know a few relatives who approached my wife to try to convince her to accept my family’s wish. But we were both okay with whatever church the wedding would be officiated in, just that no one listened to us. We were like extras in our own movie,” he recalls.
According to Charles, every planning meeting would end prematurely because of disagreements. Some family members would even compete on who from their side would lead the opening prayers.
“It was chaotic and there was so much bad blood. Our parents never intervened, because they were the ones fuelling the disagreements with their hard stances. There was so much pressure from them and from the churches. Eventually we had to do two ceremonies, in both churches, which cost us an arm and a leg, not to mention a lot of energy,” Charles says, of a situation that was never in their hands.
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Charles is not alone. He is among of hundreds of young people whose relationships have been affected, run or ruined by overbearing, religious in-laws. These old ones, in their pursuit of their religious piety, will go out of their way to ensure their kids stay in their lane, even if it means losing a potential son or daughter in law.
They will object, frustrate or cause constant conflicts to make sure it’s their way, or the highway.
Take the case of Ian Kalume. The father of three has been the centre of a family conflict that pitted his wife’s family and his. Reason? He comes from a devout Catholic family while his wife is protestant. The families have bickered over everything they can, with every religious ceremony a recipe for another conflict.
“We are always fighting when it comes to ceremonies like baptism or organising prayers for our children because the parents think each of their church is better placed to provide the right religious foundation for our kids,” the primary school teacher says.
“What’s interesting is that we (his wife and him) think the ceremonies are OK wherever they are held. The church is not a priority.”
He agrees with Charles that on such occasions, the couple’s opinion, beliefs or options are never considered.
“Most parents have this know-it-all attitude that never helps at times. It’s like we (children) are not even in existence in such scenarios. But what’s really behind all this frustration is usually a façade put up by our parents to make them appear religious and righteous, when they are not,” he says with contempt.
This façade has imploded in some cases, with devastating embarrassment. According to a lady who faced rejection from her in-laws, the religious front is just pretence, to give some families credibility and a higher standing in society.
“Let me not start on my mother-in-law,” said Grace*, who has not met or spoken with her husband’s mother in almost five years. “The b**ch could not even hold our child in her arms, like the baby was some contaminated creature from space.”
Grace’s in-laws refused to welcome their son’s girlfriend because the two had a child out of wedlock. The mother was a staunch believer and ranking member of the women’s association.
“She told my husband she could not allow me or the baby because we would spoil the family’s name. My father-in-law was caught up in her wave of hate, and he never raised a finger to object to her self-righteousness.”
With the husband choosing his wife’s side, the family, technically, did not accept the marriage. They refused to accept Grace as the mother of their grandchild, or their son’s wife, only referring to her in derogatory terms, if need be. They neither recognised her nor talked about her when in the presence of family and friends. But everyone knew their son lived with her.
“As it would turn out,” Grace beams with pleasure,” her daughter too got a child outside marriage. I’m still waiting to hear if she will disown her too.”
So eager are some of them to portray a good family image that they will go out of their way to hide family secrets that may damage how they are viewed by other church members.
When Moses* approached his mother asking for money to take his child to hospital, it was a secret wrought in shame. The child in question was not his wife’s but one borne by his side-chic, a girl who lived in the estate.
Instead of chastising him, his mother quickly approached her chama and got him the money. This little secret was conveniently kept away from Moses’ wife; lest it spoils the lily-white image the family has in church, where Moses’ mother is a prayer leader.
In another case, the tone of voice during prayers almost led to a couple’s failed marriage. According to the husband, his wife’s parents had a tendency of organising prayers and night vigils at their daughter’s house without informing the occupants of the house.
“They would just come in unannounced, and hold prayers as if they did not have a house of their own. And they would openly pray in tones that would portray me as insane and lacking enough faith,” said the man, not wanting to reveal his identity. “I was openly being prayed for because in their eyes, I was not worthy of being with their daughter.”
The man explained that his open defiance to the religious beliefs of his wife’s family was the beginning of all problems. Not a religious person himself, he pointed out that he was seen as the devil reincarnate.
“All those prayers and vigils were meant to frustrate me to either join their crazy gang, or leave my wife. It’s just that I have a thick skin,” he added.
Grace blames the society for all the trouble religious parents place on their children.
“These parents have an image they are always looking to protect. They are office holders in church committees, and they need their kids to be an extension of their (parents) impeccable religious commitment. Anyone viewed to be different is always treated like a leaper,” she concludes.