Love made in Nyanza-A committed Mzungu no matter what
When entering a relationship, it goes without saying that sacrifices will need to be made, though usually they do not involve giving up amenities such as electricity and running water.
Nor do most people commit to living half a world away from their family and their friends when they get married.
Yet these are exactly some of the things Jocelyn Neysmith, a Canadian, gave up for her husband, Gordon Obado. She did so without hesitation and with great joy when she married her Kenyan love on September 1 in the village of Songhor, Nyanza.
The entire village crowded into the small Mennonite Church or outside the open windows to celebrate Jocelyn’s and Gordon’s union, punctuated by the traditional exchange of vows, songs, and the cutting of a large cake.
Speeches and prayers were delivered and translated in both English and Dholuo so that the proceedings could be understood by all. Though Jocelyn’s family could not attend the wedding, her father’s blessing and good wishes were shared through a local priest and family friend, who also stood in to give Jocelyn away.
By officially committing to Gordon, 39, Jocelyn, 38, also committed to caring for his three children; Valary (14), Effie (12), and Johnstone (10), living on his small farm in the lush hills of Nyanza, and undertaking the significant amount of physical labour typical of life in rural Kenya.
The special day marking this unconventional choice capped the equally unlikely story of how this professional in the environmental sciences came to know and love a rural Kenyan development worker.
It is thanks to her father and dairy goats that Jocelyn met the man who would become her husband. In 2008, John Neysmith travelled to Kenya seeking to set up an NGO. A friend informed him of a successful dairy goat project that was helping widows earn extra revenue.
Mr Neysmith wanted to visit the project and see if he could replicate it. He invited his daughter Jocelyn, who was pursuing a master’s degree in South Africa at the time, to accompany him.
Gordon Obado, a programme coordinator for the Kenya Economic Development Human Advancement Project, which operates in the Nyanza district, was also interested in the project and joined the group on their fact-finding trip.
During the three weeks they spent together, Jocelyn and Gordon got to know each other, their conversations growing increasingly intimate.
Even in those early days, Gordon, a widower who had not been in a relationship since his wife died from pneumonia, realised that he had met someone special.
“I felt that she warmed my heart,” he remembers. “We shared a lot, and then I realised this was more than just a lady from Canada and a man from Kenya meeting.”
A few months later, having stayed in touch through phone calls and email, Gordon visited Jocelyn in South Africa for three weeks. And it was after that trip that Jocelyn also felt that she had met the right man.
“At our age, you just know,” she says.
After completing her master’s degree and returning to Canada for a few months, Jocelyn came back to Kenya in 2009 to spend time with Gordon and meet his children
The Canadian was familiar with the region and the rural way of life, having lived in Siaya for nine months in 2002 while working for the Ugunja Community Resource Centre.
Still, Jocelyn had much to learn to run the household. Fortunately, she had the help of Gordon’s two daughters, Valary and Effie, who were 12 and 10 at the time.
They taught Jocelyn how to use the jiko and how to prepare traditional Luo food. They also helped her fetch water at the pump or at the river, though Jocelyn remembers with a laugh: “I actually helped them fetch water.
Valary could haul more water than me, even if she was only 12 years old!”
There were also personal challenges to overcome as Jocelyn felt isolated at times. Living in a rural area rarely visited by foreigners, she quickly tired of the cries of “Mzungu! Mzungu!” she heard whenever she went out.
With Gordon as her only real companion and friend in the early days, she missed the company of family and friends from whom she was separated by several thousand kilometres and a seven-hour time difference.
The couple also had to overcome some personal challenges, most notably bridging the cultural divide that separates them. “The first six months were pretty rocky,” Jocelyn remembers. “There were lots of ups and downs.”
So after this initial emotional rollercoaster ride, it came as a surprise to Jocelyn when Gordon asked her to marry him before she returned to Canada. But she said “yes” without hesitation, confident in their love for each other and their shared devotion to serving those less fortunate: “Our core values are the same, though our motivation may be different,” Jocelyn explains.
They have learnt to work through their differences. Gordon points out that communication is key: “There are cultural differences in how I was brought up and how she was brought up. Something that’s OK for me might not be OK for her. So we sit down and discuss it until we come to an understanding.”
Adjusting to life in Nyanza
Jocelyn does still miss several of the comforts she gave up. She would love to have running water, a fridge, an oven, and not to have to battle the rain and the mud on an almost daily basis.
And some days are more difficult than others. “If you are feeling sick, not really ill but you’ve got a stomach bug or whatever, at home (in Canada) you can just distract yourself. You can be on the phone, you can watch TV, even if you don’t feel like reading, there are things to do. But here, you are just sitting there, thinking ‘Wow, I really don’t feel well,’ because there’s nothing else to do. So definitely there are times when I think ‘I really wish I was in Canada’. But, in general, I’m getting used to it.”
Over time, the couple has made improvements to their home, such as the addition of solar panels which power cellphones, laptops, and a few light bulbs.
They now have two water tanks which collect rain water, reducing the time and effort Jocelyn spends hauling water. The gas stove, which she mostly cooks with, is much easier to use than the jiko.
These amenities also allow her to have some free time for activities such as reading the newspaper and keeping in touch with friends and family through email. Thanks to affordable international phone rates and a USB Internet stick, Jocelyn can also easily stay connected with the people she cares about.
But while these small comforts help her adjust to rural life in Nyanza, she does have concerns regarding whether she will be able keep up with the physical demands in the longer term.
“I don’t see myself lugging buckets of water around, trekking through the mud for 45 minutes carrying my groceries or luggage or whatever. I don’t see myself doing that in 20 years,” she admits.
Yet the family has no plans to move to a more comfortable setting in Canada, even in the longer term. Since her first stay with Gordon in 2009, Jocelyn has gone back and forth between Canada and Kenya two more times.