Love Life is a Zikoko weekly series about love, relationships, situationships, entanglements and everything in between.
How did you meet?
Effiong: In university.
We didn’t attend the same school, but she was my immediate older sister’s roommate from ‘97 to ‘98, so we crossed paths a lot when I came to visit. Sometimes, I’d call my sister, and Maryam would pick up. I thought she was the prettiest person in the world.
Maryam: For the most part, our meetings were fleeting.
Sometimes, I’d go home with his sister, Ini, for a holiday, and he’d be there. We’d all chat for a while. He and his friends got along with our friends. It was all lighthearted university energy.
He had a girlfriend the first year we knew each other, but I never dated throughout university.
Effiong: Because there were so many people chasing you, and you couldn’t choose.
Maryam: Convocation day came for me and Ini, and he was there with his family. They got to meet my family, and everybody just bonded happily.
I look at the photos today with such nostalgia. It was a happier, simpler time.
Did you like each other at this point?
Effiong: I liked her a lot, but I don’t think I was aware at that time.
Once their convocation came and went, I regretted that I hadn’t initiated a personal relationship with her. She and my sister went off for NYSC in completely different states, so I couldn’t reach her through my sister anymore. Of course, there were no mobile phones then. I missed her, ehn? That’s when it became obvious that I liked her.
But for that one year, I just gave up and worked towards graduating too.
Maryam: Honestly, I don’t think I liked him like that because I never even thought about it. I was blissfully unaware of his own feelings. And I didn’t really get into any relationships during NYSC because I felt boys weren’t looking for long-term.
I spoke with his sister a couple of times, but we were mostly disconnected until after we passed out and returned to our home cities. My family lived in Kano, while they lived in Kaduna.
Some months after NYSC, Ini and I later moved to Abuja for work in 2001. And thanks to my relationship with Effiong, we’ve been together since.
Effiong: I’d go back and forth between Abuja and Ebonyi, where I served, just to see her. They stayed in this nice mini-flat, and I’d squat in a friend’s place for a few days on each visit. But it still took me about a year to tell her how I felt.
What did you do in the meantime?
Effiong: She probably thought I loved my sister too much; I’d come under the guise of visiting her, but Ini knew the truth. She’d often tease me about it when Maryam was away.
Maryam: But she never told me anything. She’d just make offhand remarks like, “It’s not me he’s really here for,” that didn’t make sense until much later.
Effiong: I tried to get closer to her. We’d talk. I got to know everything about her, and I’d take mental notes. When I got back to my service state, I’d think about her.
I visited them about four times. Then they surprised me by coming for my POP. That’s when I gathered the nerve to tell her how much I liked her and would want to marry her.
You went straight to marriage? What happened to dating?
Effiong: Of course, we’d start with that. But I wanted her to know my end game at once.
When they returned to Abuja, and I went to Kaduna, I gathered all the money I could, from my savings to handouts from my parents, and bought her a special gift based on something she’d told me she’d always wanted. I went to Abuja to present it to her and ask her to be my girlfriend.
She said she was still thinking about it.
Maryam: I still saw him as a brother. I was also concerned about our different tribes and religions. But I didn’t tell him this because I was touched by his gesture of buying me a gift to ask me out.
I didn’t think I’d date him, so I didn’t open the gift. I never opened it. It’s still wrapped somewhere in our house just as he gave it to me.
Effiong: At first, I was hurt that she didn’t open it when I found out many years later, but now, it’s one of those things we can laugh about as a couple. I’ve still not told her what’s in it.
When we got married in 2003, we decided to wait till our 30th anniversary to open it together.
Maryam: I’m surprised he’s never been tempted to just tell me what it is.
I’m more surprised you haven’t just opened it out of sheer curiosity. Also, why 30th?
Maryam: The number just rolled off the tongue. 30th.
Effiong: We could’ve just said 20th, and we’d know by now.
Maryam: I’m enjoying the wait. Once we open it, the journey is ruined.
I can’t even guess what it is because it’s in a box or carton inside the wrapping paper.
Effiong: The only thing I’ve told her is she won’t be disappointed whenever she opens it. It’s something she’ll appreciate no matter what.
I’m happy we’ve come this far to have something so special to look forward to even though it’s a small thing. I wasn’t always confident we’d get here.
Effiong: She never verbally consented to a relationship, but I kept showing up and being an absolute nuisance in her life.
I moved to Abuja, got a good enough job and sent her food or airtime anytime I could, even though a part of me thought I was wasting my time and money. I got used to doing things for her, so I just kept doing it.
Maryam: I always say I found myself in a relationship because I don’t even know how it happened. We got used to each other.
We didn’t even start going out together until mid-2002, but by then, it already felt like we’d been together forever. He made me very happy just by being there.
When he met my parents again, during one of our family gatherings, they accepted him fully, and that made me happiest.
Effiong: Her parents are so warm. I don’t know what she was worried about. They don’t like me so much now for converting their daughter, but even at that, they’re civil and easygoing.
Effiong: In 2002, she also started attending church my family’s Catholic Church in Kaduna with me. We went to Kaduna for about three weeks when we were both in between jobs.
I never set out to convert her, and I don’t think she attended because she was looking to convert either.
Maryam: I stayed at my uncle’s place. But I was in Kaduna to be closer to Effiong. He invited me there.
One Sunday, I wanted to see him, and he said he was in church. So I asked to come meet him there. The next Sunday, I followed him to morning mass. At the end of the year, when he asked me to marry him, we’d started attending a Pentecostal church in Abuja every other Sunday, and it was a comfortable routine for us.
Effiong: But neither of us was particularly religious or even spiritual.
Maryam: We did a court wedding in March 2003, and a mixed traditional wedding in May. My parents waited for a nikkah for a long time, but we just never did it. I didn’t feel Muslim any longer.
What’s life as a Christian married couple like?
Effiong: I’m not sure we can call ourselves that. For a long time, we were just casual Christians, attending church only on Sundays and pretty much minding our business.
We weren’t even loyal to a church: we’d switch anytime we moved. When we moved to Lagos, our pastor in Abuja expected us to move to the Lagos branch of his church. He was so offended when we didn’t that we had to block him.
We’ve mostly been focused on our family, career and getting our money up. I also think our introverted personalities stop us from truly getting into the spirit of religion.
Maryam: We’re non-religious now.
Effiong: We’re not atheists o. We’re just not affiliated with any religion.
Maryam: If not for COVID, we’d probably still be attending Sunday service. But since we stopped because of the lockdown, Effiong and I realised it really didn’t feel like we were missing much.
It’s much more important for us to be humanists, to be good and kind people, than to mindlessly perform rituals, and that’s what we teach our children.
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You don’t feel paranoid that you may be “leading your children astray”?
Maryam: Leading them astray by not compelling them to follow a religion because I say so? I think they should have the freedom to choose. They should have an open mind and be tolerant of people despite their beliefs or opinions. I teach them basic human morals.
Effiong: No one knows whether any of these religions is the true way to relate with God. We just go by faith. I don’t feel led to do that.
I do worry about our kids. Not because we’re not raising them under a religion but because the world is cruel — both the religious and the non-religious.
Maryam: Religion isn’t something that keeps us up at night as much as the crumbling economy, the terrible quality of life and standard of living in Nigeria today.
I worry about the quality of education our children are getting, the quality of food they eat.
Effiong: When I was their age, I used to have lots of friends over or go visit, have birthday parties, attend Christmas or summer holiday parties, go to a neighborhood swimming pool, to Bar Beach when we visited Lagos. My children don’t get much of that, and it’s not that we don’t earn well.
Maryam: Even the quality of basic biscuits have dropped terribly.
I hear you. What was your first major fight about?
Maryam: The most memorable for me happened two days before our traditional wedding in 2003. We’d agreed to do it in Gwarinpa, Abuja. The idea for a traditional ceremony came last minute, and we only had two weeks to plan. Then on a Wednesday evening, he started saying we should consider going to his hometown in Calabar instead. It was crazy. I was already stressed, so I didn’t take it well, whether he was joking or not.
Effiong: My kinsmen were calling to drop out saying they couldn’t make the trip all the way to Abuja. So my oldest uncle insisted that since it was supposed to be a customary Efik wedding, it shouldn’t be done in the North.
When I came to her, it was just to express my frustration. I hadn’t even discussed it with my parents yet. But she thought I was putting my foot down and asking us to go.
Maryam: He just said, “My uncle said we should move this thing to Calabar o.” I already started thinking of how we’d have to move the date, travel with all the things we’d already bought, lose money on the rentals, etc. I reacted badly, and he reacted badly to my reaction too. We almost called the whole thing off, but we were already married by law, so…
Effiong: Then my mum told me it was unheard of for the traditional wedding to be in the groom’s hometown at all. We should even be looking for her village in Kano.
I just calmed down, went to apologise, the ceremony came and went, and we could breathe again.
And what’s the best thing about being married for 20 years now?
Effiong: Twenty years just came and went like that. It’s been a journey. All the stories we’ve just told about our origin, courtship and getting married feels like they happened a lifetime ago.
Maryam: In a way, it’s saddening to think how time flies.
Effiong: We’ve grown together, had many ups and downs, seen each other in several different lights, and by some miracle, loved all the versions. That’s such a blessing.
It’s been great working as a team and generally having the same outlook on life and where we want to go. Growing up, I didn’t get to see that a lot with my parents. They were always at loggerheads.
Maryam: It’s been particularly great raising our four children together. Where I stop, he continues and vice versa.
And we’re partners in crime. We do both good and bad together. I never get to be ashamed with him. That’s all I’ll say. He knows what I mean.
Effiong: I honestly can’t believe it’s been 20 years.
Maryam: Our china anniversary.
Doing this, telling the world our love story is such a special way to celebrate it. I’m glad we did this.
Here’s to 30 years and to finally unwrapping our “day one” gift!
Promise to come back and tell us what it is?
Maryam: I will.
Effiong: Don’t promise until you know, Ma.
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