Beth Wambui and Nicholas Mugo saw each other often growing up, went to the same church and walked together home after service. These frequent bonding sessions culminated in a love story peppered with ups and down for 61 years.
“At first, Nicholas never did anything that showed me he wanted anything more than a friendship. But eventually, he put on a brave face and declared his intentions to marry me,” says Beth.
She was 19 years then and she gladly said ‘Yes’. Beth’s father, James Muigai was a teacher and a renowned District Educational officer (DEO) in Kiambu. He was Nicholas father’s good friend and was from the same riika (age group). The news of their engagement was received with great joy by the two families.
However, the day before their wedding in 1958, Nicholas was arrested while driving a limo, which was to carry his bride the following day.
“When I got to the trading centre near our village, a certain mzungu wondered what I was doing with a limo. This was during the State of Emergency, when all Africans were required to have an identification pass, known as kipande to control movement. When I said I was to marry Muigai’s daughter, he released me,” recalls Nicholas.
Wedding with no honeymoon
Their wedding took place at Ngenda PCEA church in Gatundu. During those days, there was only one studio in Nairobi and the newly married had to travel all the way just to document their memorable moment.
“It was called Nimi. After the photo session, we went back to Gatundu where the reception was at my hubby’s home,” says Beth.
And there was no honeymoon. They spent their first night at Nicholas’ home. And the following day, Nicholas had to leave for work in the city leaving his young bride with his mother and sister.
“I cried for close to a week. I couldn’t go to the city with him because I had no pass,” she recalls.
Beth went for a hunger strike, which made her mother-in-law to request her parents to talk to her. Her mother sent Mama Ngina Kenyatta, who is Beth’s maitu (a mother figure) in Kikuyu culture as she was married to her father’s older brother.
“Mama Ngina read the riot act to me and talked to me like a mother,” Beth says.
However, when Nicholas came home during his visits, she refused to be
left behind. The couple left for Nairobi.
On their second night, an officer came to check whether they had a pass.
“I explained to him we had just gotten married and that I could not leave my wife behind.
The man was understanding and requested that I go to their offices the following morning for her permit,” says Nicholas.
The couple had their first daughter, Mumbi in 1959. That same year, Nicholas opted to pursue further studies. Through Tom Mboya and Dr (Julius Gikonyo) Kiano airlifts, he enrolled at Warren Wilson College, US where he studied half day and worked half day. Beth and Nicholas would communicate via letters, which took too long.
“I found one family who were warm to me. I told them I left my wife
in Kenya and requested if they would sponsor her. They agreed,” he narrates. They also involved three other families to share the burden of sponsoring his wife. And hence in 1960, Beth travelled to the US to join him.
“I was elated. He had told me he was trying to find ways for me to join him, so I somehow had hope that I would one day join him. I was also trying from my end to get sponsorship, but his came first,” Beth says.
However, Beth could not travel with their child. “My parents in-law are wonderful people. They took care of my young daughter while we were away,” Beth adds.
Beth didn’t meet her beloved Nick immediately. It took three months before they finally saw each other during Christmas.
She studied diploma in business management at Godley Beacom College. During sum- mer, students worked to cater for their needs.
“People think we were born with a silver spoon in our mouths just because we are from the Kenyatta’s family. It’s by God’s grace and hard-work that we are where we are. We did casual jobs in US. I washed dishes while Nick was a gardener. We have grown together from one level to another. No favours or nothing of sort,” narrates Beth.
In their third year Beth was expectant with their second born child. Luckily, Nicholas had gotten a job at Lincoln University where he was also pursuing a degree in history and political science. Their daughter Ngina was born in 1963. The couple returned to Kenya the same year after the Prime Minister then, the late Jomo Kenyatta, sent a letter to all Kenyan students studying abroad to return and build the nation.
They stayed in Gatundu for a while before heading to Nairobi where they were hosted by friends before they rented their own home. While still in the USA, Nicholas had been recruited to work for the East African Common Services Organisation.
A year later, he resigned to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because of the nature of his job as a diplomat, he would travel a lot.
Beth worked with Voice of Kenya (VOK), now KBC in the production department where she would supervise the announcements and preview films before they were aired.
However, while still working for VOK, she went to the US again in 1966 to further her studies, where she took a media course at Syracuse University.
In 1969 she quit her job at VOK and started her first business— a salon business called Hannah along Kimathi Street.
In 1972, in partnership with others, Beth and Nicholas established Beth Ltd, which was situated along Kenyatta Avenue.
In 1976 they parted ways with their partners and established Beth International Ltd, which was situated along Mama Ngina Street. The company is still in existence even today and it operates retail outletsat Jomo Kenyatta Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and Moi International Airport dealing with jewellery and African artefacts.
As a career diplomat, Nicholas served as an ambassador to Ethiopia since early 1970s before moving to Paris as an ambassador to France covering the Vatican and Yogoslavia. He also served as acting High Commissioner to Britain.
And when Nicholas was around, Beth nostalgically recalls their bonding moments. The two lovebirds would carry parked lunch and head to Uhuru Park.
“I look back and say that while those days looked like we went through hardship, it was also a bonding moment. We’ve always been close in our marriage. We do a lot of things together and the children have never been the centre of his life or mine or anything else,” says Beth.
Beth also had interests in women issues. She became the founding member of Kenya Women Finance Trust.
She was also involved in the creation of Kenya Business and Professional Women Club where she became the national chair.
The organisation is an affiliate of International Federation Business and Professional Women (IFBPW) where she became the African region coordinator. She was named by United Nation’s Magazine in 1985 among 24 top women leaders drawn from the academia, business and professions. In 1985, Beth was elected vice chairperson of IFBW.
In 1994, she was elected president of the Council of Economic empowerment of women in Africa (CEEWA) in Senegal. She also participated in the Beijing conference, which took place in 1995.
In 2001 she was elected the President of Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) committee II on parliamentary, political, judicial and human rights. She was the second woman to be elected to a major IPU committee since the formation of IPU 1897.
Beth’s political journey had started in 1992 after persuasion from her friend Hon Phoebe Asiyo.
Beth’s excuse was that Kenya already had enough of her relatives—the Late Margaret Kenyatta who was first female mayor of Nairobi and her uncle, the late Jomo Kenyatta.
She finally said ‘yes’ and joined the Democratic Party where she was the only woman in the national executive committee.
By this time, Nicholas had already retired as an ambassador and was taking care of their family business. Beth opted to go for the Dagoretti seat.
“I campaigned during the day up to 6 pm to be home early with my family. My male opponents would tell me that my place was in the kitchen. They would tell other voters not to vote for me as I couldn’t buy them drinks,” Beth recalls.
Her husband was her greatest financial and emotional support.
“I felt that her success would be my success and we’d share the glory together.
It was also for the good of the people and that’s why I felt that I should support her,” says Nicholas.
Though she failed at her first attempt in politics in 1992, she succeeded in 1997 and became the first female MP to be elected in Dagoretti Constituency.
She successfully held the seat for three consecutive terms up to 2012.
In 2003, she was appointed the assistant minister for information and broadcasting- briefly before being switched to assistant minister for education. In 2008, she was promoted to the Minister for Public Health and Sanitation.
So, what has kept them together for 61 years?
“Of course God plays a major role, but it also takes patience, understanding, trust, caring and respect for one another. It doesn’t mean there are no challenges, but when you face difficulties, you have to decide you want to stay married,” says Beth
Nicholas adds: “Communication is also key. You don’t take things to heart and keep quiet while you are boiling inside.”
by Harriet James