She was 19; vivacious and totally besotted with a 22-year-old lad. And when he asked for her hand in marriage, she didn’t have to think twice about it.
“He just told me that he loved me and that I was the only girl that he had ever loved. That was enough for me. He is also a gentleman. He was gentle then and he has been gentle till today,” she says coyly, a naughty glint in her eyes.
Beth Mugo is as beautiful now as she was then, and Nicholas Mugo holds on to her hand as they greet their guests. He smiles at her, a man totally at ease with staying back and watching his woman in her element as a social butterfly. Beth is animated and cheery, never letting his hand go, even as her eyes roam the expanse. She carries herself with an elegant poise that is set off in a warm manner as she embraces her guests.
We are at Villa Lalibela. The venue is ablaze with warm lights, tables draped in white, chefs and waiters walking up and down to cater to the guests milling about. We are here to celebrate the couple‘s 61-year union.
The who-is-who of Kenyan high society are in attendance. Her cousin, President Uhuru Kenyatta, is expected later on, but already milling about and mingling with other guests are the Senate Speaker Ken Lusaka, Justice Njoki Ndung’u and former MP for Othaya, Mary Wambui.
Guests are seated in a tent adjacent to the main one where the feasting will take place, waiting for the celebratory service to begin. The couple looks regal as they finally walk down the red carpet. The guests rise to welcome them as they beam with smiles. They are in matching outfits of black and gold. Beth Mugo is 81, but hardly looks a day over 60. She is in a black skirt suit embroidered with gold patterns, while her husband Nicholas, 83, dons a tuxedo with a gold band across the waist. He uses a crutch to walk, which I later learn is as a result of a slipped disc he suffered last year; the reason they are having a big do at 61-year mark instead of the 60th.
The couple has four children and five grandchildren.
A union that long has definitely had it’s share of highs and lows too. Their vows especially the “In sickness and in health” has been truly tested.
In November 2011, Beth was diagnosed with breast cancer after undergoing a mammogram. Luckily, the tumour had been discovered early and after undergoing treatment, today she is cancer-free.
Her experience turned her into a cancer warrior, and it was part and parcel of the celebration of her 61st anniversary. Instead of bringing gifts, guests were asked through the invitation card to donate to the Beth Mugo Cancer Foundation. “We use the foundation to do free screening for breast, cervical and prostate cancer. We have screened more than 12,000 people. Out of that, many lives have been saved. We have helped people to know their status early, to seek treatment early and God has healed them. We also create awareness. So this celebration also includes cancer awareness,” she says.
Beth and Nicholas are a contrast of personalities. She is outspoken and a career politician who has always been at ease with the limelight. He, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken and unassuming man who has largely avoided the media for most of his life. Even after such a long time together, they still sneak glances at each other despite being pulled into different conversations.
They didn‘t really date. At least not in the conventional sense.
“Those days we did not do much dating. Our parents were very strict. We were not allowed to go out with boys to stay out there. My father was very strict. He would say he doesn’t want the neighbours to say, ‘I saw Muigai’s daughter standing by road somewhere.’ He always encouraged us to bring them home. He always told us, ‘If a young man is interested in you or you like him, invite him home.’ My father always welcomed them home. All my sisters will tell you the same.“
So any courtship that was to be had in the Muigai household was done in the family home. Essentially, their few ‘dates’ were chaperoned.
“Maybe that is the reason we married young,” she says, laughing.
Unfortunately, their wedding wasn‘t quite as hitchless.
“It was during the State of Emergency time. The evening before our wedding, Nicholas was arrested at Gathage Township. He told the European arresting him that he had a wedding the next day. He mentioned my father, Muigai, who was the District Officer of Gatundu then. And that is how he was released,” she says.
But even after the wedding, the young couple had to fight some odds.
“After the wedding, Nicholas had to go to Nairobi for work and I was left in the village with my mother-in-law. I had no passbook. Everyone, especially the Kikuyus, had to have a passbook to stay in Nairobi. So we had to wait until I could get a passbook,” she says.
But the next time Nicholas came home, she insisted she had to go back with him to Nairobi. She wasn‘t taking No for an answer, damned the strict rules governing the city.
“That first night in the city, we were almost arrested. They came knocking at our door. My husband told the man arresting us that we were newly-weds and even though I had no passbook, I had refused to stay in the village. The man relented and instructed him to take me to the offices the next morning and I get a passbook which we did.“
Under the circumstances, a honeymoon was out of the question because the young couple did not have the money, and thanks to the emergency, there was nowhere to go.
Thankfully, a reprieve came in the form of an opportunity for the couple to go to the US for further studies. And here they are now, aging together and still happy walking hand in hand through life.
Their eldest granddaughter, Wangu Nyachae flits by. She sports long faux locs and her big almond-shaped eyes are trained on her grandparents. She is obviously in awe of them. She instinctively notes my interest and mentions that she is thoroughly impressed that they have been together twice having long as she has lived.
“I think it is amazing. I have always admired their marriage. They are very close. They have definitely set an example for us when it comes to the types of relationships we want to have. They are very supportive and have been consistent that God comes first in everything,” she says.
So what does she think is the best thing about their union? I prod.
“They pray together. They dance together and take long walks together. They spend lots of quality time together. They may not be together 24/7 but they know how to spend quality time together.“
She points out that her granny is still quite the fox.
“I am hoping it’s genetic!” she says, laughing. “They have always taken care of their health and been very conscious of the things that they eat and have always been young at heart, and I think that has made them stay young-looking.”
What should we tell young in love?
God takes center-stage in their lives and she credits him for everything.
“In our 61 years of marriage, we have seen God. He has been our guide. What I have learned is that things change over time and you have to keep on changing with the times. You can’t remain where you were when you began. You have to accept the changes. But by and large, our marriage has been a happy one, full of respect for each other, communicating, because what we found is that no matter how big a problem is, if you discuss it , you can sort just about everything that comes your way,” she says.
She describes her husband as very caring, understanding and accepting of whatever career she chose. It probably helped that she has always considered being a wife and a mother as her first duty, and she says that her political and public life has never stopped her from fulfilling it.
“He himself also served as an ambassador and we have supported each other throughout. So there has never been a time where there was a question on whether I should do this; whether I should go into politics or I should give up. He always encouraged me and said, ‘If that is where your calling is, then go and I will support you,” she says.
Respect; what every parent should teach their child
Having nine descendants, she has some wise words on parenting too.
“Bringing up children is just like anything else in life. You will run into difficulty, so you have to keep on trying to educate them and yourself too. Not education as we know it, but social education on how to interact with other people. How to respect other people and especially the older generation. “We have always told our children, ‘Your parents are not just us, your biological parents. You should treat all older people with the respect you accord us.’
And she believes that respectful people make for a great country.
“I think that is what makes a good nation; respect for the older people by the younger ones.”