Vimbai Mutinhiri-Ekpenyong: On Marriage, Miscarriage & Motherhood!

The journey from singledom to marriage and then parenthood looks different for each person. Anyone who has experienced any of the above will tell you, no two stories are exactly the same and then factoring in a global pandemic, the stakes are suddenly much higher with an emotional buy-in that would rock any relationship. Television presenter and broadcast journalist Vimbai Mutinhiri-Ekpenyong said yes to the love of her life Andrew Ekpenyong when he asked her to marry him. Little did either of them know what fate had in store but this exclusive and very personal interview with DOWNTOWN Editor Latasha Ngwube chronicles the perfect wedding ceremonies that didn’t happen and the spontaneous one that did, a pregnancy miscarriage that wasn’t planned and the best-laid plans of the birth of their beautiful daughter that still went off-course and how they weathered it all together in love.

Transcribed by Kazeem Tilewa

Vimbai Mutinhiri-Ekpenyong

A relationship like what you have with your husband, Andrew, couldn’t have started out of the blue, it must have been brewing for a long time. So tell us how it all began.

Wow, Tasha? (she cushions that with a soft laugh) Ok. To summarise it, I was in Calabar for work a few years ago for the Carnival. It was my second or third time in Nigeria and my first time there and I wanted to go out so I reached out to a Nigerian guy I knew there and I hit him up… I’m in Calabar, I want to go out, where do I go? Blah Blah Blah. This guy now says he’s in Calabar as well and he’d connect me with a friend of his that owns a club. That friend turned out to be Andrew. He was a perfect gentleman and he was nice and all that but we didn’t click however we exchanged numbers. I went back to South Africa and life went on. He would text me and I’d ignore him, blue ticks all the way. (she laughs)

One day from the blues, he sent a picture of an article of myself in a magazine and I knew that magazine belonged to a hotel in South Africa. So I sent him a message saying are you in South Africa? And he’s like yeah, I’m in Jo’burg and I happened to be in Jo’burg as well. You know that thing where you are curious and you are just like who is this guy sef? It drove me to his IG and there I was,looking through his profile and I’m saying to myself like ah ahn, this is a fine boy. Why am I ignoring this guy, what’s going on? After that, I responded to him since you’re in Jo’burg let’s go out, let’s have dinner and he responded no problem. We went for dinner and that was our first date. From there, the rest was history pretty much.

When was the moment you knew that this guy could be the one?

I remember there was a time for his birthday, we had gone out partying and it was a bit debaucherous and I overindulged, drinking more than I should have. So, when we got back to Lagos I fell ill. He took me to the hospital and while I was just laying on the bed, drifting off, I opened my eyes and he had his head bowed- he was praying for me. For me that moment was it. You’re a great guy, kind, you tick all the boxes and to top it all off you’re praying for me? It was a wrap. He had my heart.

Wow, what an actual love story!

(Her voice swooning with love, she laughs and responds)

Kinda, I think so.

 

Funny enough as Africans, I don’t think we inter-marry enough compared to other continents. Did you ever think you’d end up with a none-Zimbabwean man?

Yeah, I was pretty sure of it. No offence to my Zimbabwean brothers, I just knew it was never going in that direction. I think it’s because my personality type is probably a lot more aggressive and outspoken than a typical Zimbabwean girl. So the expectation and compatibility was always off. Compounded with my choice of work, wanting to be in Nigeria and the markets where media and entertainment are happening. Already I knew it was going to be a disconnect so I made peace with that a long time ago. I didn’t know I was going to end up with a Nigerian but I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to end up with a Zimbabwean guy because of all those factors.

Did Andrew have anything to do with your decision to move to Nigeria?

No, no, no. See I had already moved when we started dating. I was about two and a half years in so I had already been in Nigeria for a minute and I had already sort of met, seen, and interacted with what was there as well. Dating in Lagos is WILD! I’m glad that by the time he and I reconnected I was a bit wiser and a bit more emotionally intelligent as well about the dating scene in Nigeria.

For most women, the moment when you are meeting your boyfriend’s parents is a game changer but since you were here, on his turf (Nigerian soil), who met who’s parents first and how did it go?

Oh my gosh! He introduced me to his mom about two months into our relationship in Calabar. He invited me to Calabar and I was gobsmacked when I asked him where I’d be staying and he said you’re staying with us at the family house. Hand on heart I was freaking out. One day he said please get dressed, you’re going to meet my mum and I responded stunned like Okay. That was very scary. I’m not easily intimidated but it was a very frightening experience. I was terrified because it was my first experience of that nature and especially with the different cultures and all the elements I didn’t know what to expect. I’d only known what I had seen and heard but I never experienced it first hand so I was petrified. Sweaty palms and everything but she turned out to be a lovely woman.

Let me quickly interject by asking, had you heard about the “Patience Ozokwor Mother-in-law stereotype”?

Exactly! That was all I knew and had been exposed to, and then also you know I was on Moments Girls Talk on Ebony Live and we did a lot of episodes on Monsters-in-law and all of that. So it fed the narrative that initially added to the feeling of intimidation I had.

Vimbai Mutinhiri-Ekpenyong

I’m happy to see it went well.

I’m so grateful it went well.

What was it like when he met your family in Zimbabwe?

Again, I was the nervous one. He came to Zimbabwe and I’d never really introduced anyone to them before. The expectation orbiting around it was worrying. He was flying in, it seemed like a grand gesture, I hope it doesn’t end up in tears, this better be it and all of that just ricocheted around in my head. But he came and got along with everyone so well. He loved Zimbabwe, everything happened organically and it was assuring.

I know that you lost your sister. Did Drew get to meet her before she passed away?

Sadly he didn’t. We kicked it off about a year after she passed.

What does it mean to you that Andrew got the blessing of TB Joshua, your mentor and father-in-the-Lord before he passed on?

For me, it’s bittersweet because as I was thinking about what my mentor kept saying to me every time I saw him he’d say where’s your husband, where’s your husband? and I kept on asking him which husband, what are you talking about? He’d always laugh at me and say Don’t worry, you’ll tell me. I’d sit there perplexed at what he was saying because I hadn’t opened up to him about Andrew. About two weeks before he proposed I saw my mentor and he said So, when are you bringing your husband? I remember this so vividly because I remember showing him my hand and I was just like Look, no ring. There is no husband, why are you asking me about a husband when I don’t have a husband and he just laughed at me.

Cue the two weeks after Andrew proposed and as we were preparing for the wedding it was so exciting when they finally met. It was at the beginning of March 2020 and I remember this one statement that stuck with me. He looked at the both of us and laughed and said You guys are running out of time. Andrew and I left there confused that day muttering, what time could we possibly be running out of ourselves and then boom the world shut down. We both were like oh, that’s what he was talking about. (She ends with a light chuckle)

Let’s speak on the time that ran out for all of us across the world. You guys got engaged and the Coronavirus happened and It literally couldn’t have come at a worse time. You, your husband (and the rest of us wedding guests) had plans to be at both wedding ceremonies from Zimbabwe to Cape Town. Aso Ebi sown, invitations gone out, plans askew. How did you deal with that? Emotionally and on every other level?

I’ll never forget the day, the South African President was about to address the people about the issue and in Nigeria, it was still calm at that time. We were just worried about the fact that we needed to travel. The South African President spoke about how there are no more events and all the new restrictions and we just sat in silence for about an hour. In our minds, we were wondering what does this mean? It was one of those “eh ehn, where do we go from here” moments. Especially because planning two destination weddings was extremely stressful emotionally, dealing with the family, we’ve been through so much and we were so close to the wedding. We were three weeks out from the wedding and we were so very close and we were devastated.

I remember his dad reassuring us that we shouldn’t worry that we’d still get married and we were wondering how that was going to be possible with the situation of things and he said something that planted that idea in our minds and kept us going. He said with a laugh, You don’t need those things to get married. The second biggest thing was deciding to be in lockdown together in Calabar. We all thought it would be a 14 days affair and life would resume as though nothing happened and I remember thinking to myself I don’t want to be stuck in Lagos by myself while he was in Calabar. So I called him and I said you know what, whether it’s two weeks or three or whatever it’s fine, let’s just hang out for those couple of weeks together. I’m telling you, Tash, that split-second decision probably saved our relationship because when the lights of the world flickered and eventually turned off we were stuck together. Think about how many months it ended up being.

It was the middle of March, April, May, June, and July. I think it began to ease up around July and August.

I think it was late July because I had my miscarriage the first week of July and then we had to wait a few days for me to be able to see a doctor in Lagos.

We’d come to that in a second. The wedding, although smaller than anticipated, it was no less special or incredible and it took place in Calabar. How did that day feel for you? Did you have anyone from your family there or even friends? Talk us through that period.

That for me was probably one of the bravest things I’ve ever done because I had no one there. No friends and no family. I didn’t have anybody by my side. I was riding solo and they are a big family and a popular one as well. I remember my dad asking how I did it all by myself. Even Andrew and his family were in awe because I faced his family all by myself. A friend of mine told me that I didn’t need anyone else to be there so far the groom was there, the minister was there and I was there that was all I needed. So going into that day, the 8th of May 2020, that was all I thought about.

The miscarriage…what happened?

I really can’t place a finger on what exactly happened because it was all unexpected. We weren’t actively trying to get pregnant. So it took me a while to catch on. Eventually, I decided to take the test and I found out I was pregnant. When I told Andrew he was surprised at how fast it was, we joked about it and we were delighted. Some weeks later I started experiencing cramps and a little bleeding. I was worried and afraid. This was happening during the lockdown so I couldn’t go to a doctor unless we were certain that something was indeed wrong with me or the baby. I called a friend of mine who has kids and told her what was going on and she said it was too soon to say but I should keep an eye on it. The next day it wasn’t getting any better. The cramps had turned it up a notch and the bleeding hadn’t stopped. I put a call through to my friend again and she said I should just try to monitor it. By the third day, blood had begun running down my leg. We hurried to the hospital in Calabar.

By the time we got there, the hospital lacked the required equipment to run the examinations and find out what exactly had happened. We were told to return home, get some rest, take some painkillers and return in two weeks. I was like So we have to come back in two weeks before we can find out what exactly was wrong??? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We returned home and Andrew said he was going to inform his parents if they could assist with getting a gynaecologist. We agreed, he put a call through to them and they referred us to one brashful old man who spent the first two hours of the examination talking our ears off about his accomplishments and when he eventually got to the examination he lacked every bit of compassion and empathy. He just kept on hurting me and when I squirmed he kept saying, “Do you want me to stop?” I just plopped there crying as this man unapologetically stabbed my insides. He lacked all the qualities of a doctor and while he was searching for the embryo he did mince his words saying things like “Ah! Nope, this is gone and Nope, this one is finished” as he dug deeper and deeper into me like a kid struggling to grab candy from inside a vending machine. Imagine hearing that from your doctor at a time when you are at your most vulnerable. He had not a single iota of decency, courtesy or bedside manner throughout the examination.

After it was done, he informed us that one of the embryos wasn’t of good quality and we should just thank God because if the situation had progressed we would have ended up with a deformed child and I told myself this is not happening. There were a lot of things to process in that one moment. Like how can you be telling me to thank God when this is happening to me right now you know. He told us we’d have to come back in two weeks and what to expect as regards the pain and the bleeding was the body flushing everything out naturally. He added that if that doesn’t happen then I’ll have to come back for another procedure and that just broke my heart and pushed me into tears because I was looking around this man’s practice and I saying to myself there’s no way I’m letting anybody in this place go into my insides with any device whatsoever. So it was a lot of trauma all at once and as the week progressed it all cleared up naturally. Throughout it all, Andrew was such a stand-up guy. He was by my side 24/7. Whether it was a hot water bottle I needed or food whatever it was he was there and as rough as the whole ordeal was it was consoling to know that my partner was and is supportive.

Vimbai Mutinhiri-Ekpenyong

Do you think you can speak about Andrew’s state of mind throughout all this because we all tend to focus on mothers but the dads, how do they really feel in times like this?

I asked him how he felt and he was just like well, it had happened and I think what he did was he shoved all his emotions to the back because he went into protective mode. He saw me in pain and helpless and to him making sure I was ok became more important than anything else and then following that when I asked him about the loss and so forth he says he barely processed it because it all happened so fast. It never felt real to him because of the speed at which it all happened. It was almost like a dream and he wasn’t sure whether it happened or didn’t because it all happened so quickly. I could relate to that as well but had I not gone through the motions physically I’d have been in the same state of mind, however because I felt the pain, I saw the blood,I experienced it differently. Also, I was only a few weeks in at the time and I had known for a couple of days so I hadn’t grown any real attachment whatsoever.

Congratulations! You’re a mum now.

Thank you (she replies excitedly)

What did the next positive pregnancy test feel like?

(She lets out a sigh of relief before answering the question)

It was… I’ve never felt anxiety like that in my entire life, Latasha. I was terrified and I almost wanted it to be negative because I was scared about whether or not it would work out. I wasn’t sure I could go through the roller coaster again. It was a similar cycle that almost happened again and then within hours, I started bleeding again. I was just like God, what is going on? I remember just going into auto-pilot and luckily, I was in Lagos and I had access to my gynaecologist. Dr Alabi is my gynaecologist and after the first miscarriage, he ran all the checks to make sure everything was clear, and after, he gave me his number to reach out in case anything happens. So, I sent him a text and he said, come to me immediately.

From that point, the only thing I did was pray; after that the rest was auto-pilot. I got in the car and I drove myself from Lekki to his office in V.I and I was at the reception sobbing. By the time he saw me, he asked why I was crying and tried to console me but I was like, it’s happening, it’s happening again.

So he takes a look and tells me everything is ok and nothing is happening. So I asked him but what about the blood? He says he can’t see the source of the blood and he doesn’t know where it’s coming from but he’s going to put me on some hormones for the whole first trimester. I was on the hormones for the whole first trimester and it made me sick, sick, sick! My first trimester was hell because I had the combined anxiety of “is this going to work out?” along with the hormone supplement making me go crazy. Then there is COVID. You don’t want to catch that so you have to be on antibiotics and there’s not wanting to be seen or speak to people or you don’t want to share the process you’re going through because you don’t know what the outcome will be. So I just spent three months hiding in the house.

Tell me, what is the biggest misconception about pregnancy, or what was your biggest discovery about pregnancy?

Everybody makes it out to be such a traumatic experience. Also, there are so many rules, especially where African culture is concerned and people just want you to sit down and eat. For me, going on a journey where I learnt that no, I can work out. While I was pregnant I was doing pilates and in the beginning, I was running my 5km daily and by the end was just walking my 5km. I barely skipped a day until it was my 9th month. So there were many rules and opinions of how hard it was and I’m not putting it down, it is tasking but I didn’t see it that way. It was more of a beautiful and joyful experience for me. Even with childbirth, my labour didn’t go as planned but I don’t consider it traumatic in any way, shape, or form because I was prepared, informed and ready. I was excited.

You gave birth in South Africa. That must have posed a challenge because of the restrictions that have been put back in place so Andrew couldn’t be there for the baby’s birth. Did that take anything away from it for you?

It took a lot from it. We both knew there would be restrictions and limitations but we never thought that it would extend to travel. We were beautifully optimistic and we just assumed that since we started planning so well in advance that we had enough time to navigate everything that needed to be navigated. So it was a shock to the system when the time was closing in and there were still restrictions. When I got to my third trimester I started making peace with the fact that he might not be there and it was so similar to the day we got married that the only thing I needed was God and my gynaecologist and I told myself if that’s what it’s going to be I’m at peace with it. I just want a healthy baby. I remember at some point some people were even saying to me do you want a natural birth or a cesarean and I was just like if you want me to vomit the baby out, I’ll vomit the baby out. I don’t care as long as the baby gets here safe and sound.

Do you know how we all have our wishlist and all the things we want to go our way? Well, Andrew being there was at the top of mine but there was nothing he could do that he didn’t and there was nothing either of us could have maneuvered so I just had to get into the right mind frame to be able to tackle the goal ahead of me. It wasn’t a time to sulk or throw pity parties. I just had to be grateful to God for choosing me for the process, focus on it and get through it.

When I think of the combination of your experiences and your reactions to situations from your wedding, the miscarriage, and your baby’s birth, it appears to me that you are a get on with it type of person. Do you think that is an accurate description of who you are?

Yup, that pretty much sums up who I am in every area of my life. Plans change or go wrong all the time and I’ve never been one to sit and complain. I don’t believe in playing the victim, it’s not my style at all. Whatever life throws at me that is beyond my control I’m immediately looking to make the most and best out of it . That is how I left Zimbabwe to move to South Africa to move to Nigeria. It was because I refused to sit down.

How is that working out for you now as a mum? I mean you’ve been a mum for all of two and a half weeks now?

(She begins her response after a laugh)

At the moment it’s a little different because I’m learning to be a little more gentle. After all, this little person is so vulnerable and fragile and she never asked to be here. You can’t have that attitude. You have to put the brakes on and realise that this person needs comforting and nurturing and all the other things I learnt to shut out or micromanage inside my head. So I’d have to say I have softened out the rough edges but I think I’m still a very protective mum. I will get on with it in terms of becoming a mum but regarding my attitude towards my daughter, I’m intentionally and consciously trying to be soft and gentle because I think we’ve got enough African women who have had to be tough and strong.

What is your daughter name.

Her name is Atumwanashe Eme Ekpenyong.

What does it mean?

It means The one sent by God.

Is it a traditional Zimbabwean name?

No, it’s not. I made it up from Shona- the most widely spoken language in Zimbabwe. It’s the first time I heard of it.

Where did it come from?

It came from prayer. The day that I was scared that I was having another miscarriage I called a pastor friend to pray with me and he kept on saying this one has been sent by God. As I kept praying I realised that you know what, that’s her name.

Beautiful. How did it feel holding Atumwanashe in your arms for the first time?

I tried to push for two hours and it didn’t work. I was rushed for an emergency CS and the first thing I heard before I held her was her cry. That exact moment changed my life and I started crying as well. I kept saying is that my human? I don’t know how to describe the feeling. It was overwhelming, it was magical and it was a miracle. Like an actual human being came from me and when they put her on my chest it was surreal. It wasn’t until I brought her home that I started accepting that this is my baby. I remember joking with the doctor and asking when her parents were coming. There was also a feeling of relief because it had been nine long months.

Has her dad met her yet?

Sadly, not yet! It’s so heartbreaking. She’ll need time before she can get the green light to travel and then we’re going to meet in Zimbabwe.

This is happening in the wake of you being appointed the Brand Ambassador for Girl Up Zimbabwe that came when you were pregnant. How fortuitous is it that you then have a baby girl? Tell me about that?

When the conversation started about Girl Up, I didn’t know I was having a baby girl. Tash, you know me, I’ve always been passionate about women-centric issues for many years. It has been something close to my heart but now it’s a bit more personal. Now I’m actively looking at the world differently.

You literally now have skin in the game!

Exactly. What world are we creating, what environment, what opportunities? So it’s just something for me that couldn’t have come at a better time. I also had a lot of downtime during that period so I was able to keep my head down and start doing the unglamorous work away from the photoshoots and photo ops. It was also a time for us to sit down, have our meetings, talk strategy, create plans so that towards the end of this year we’d start executing a lot of those strategies. It was timely and I became a lot more passionate about it than I probably would have been before.

Now that you are, in addition to everything else that you are: an amazing journalist, presenter, all of it, you also dabbled in a little bit of acting, a wife, and now a mum. How do you plan to balance it all?

It hasn’t kicked in yet. I think it will when I smell the hustle inside that Lagos air. This phase is so calm and relaxing but I know when I get back it’s time to get back to business. In anticipation of it, I’m trying to make sure I get the right amount of support to adjust into a new routine before going into the hustle and bustle that we all have to get involved in to get ahead. I’m excited as well. The other day I had to go to a doctor’s appointment without her. I was so sad to be away from her. So I’m a little bit anxious about that.

Separation Anxiety?

Yes, very real but if that is what it is I’m going to have to overcome it at some point but I hope work wouldn’t allow me to be away from her for too long.

Hand on heart, who does she look like?

Girl… this is his twin. I have literally no part whatsoever in the creation of this human being. She has my hair, that’s it. She’s a photocopy of her dad.

How is Vimbai feeling right now?

Vimbai is feeling grateful. So grateful and so glad as well. Seeing as there’s so much pressure on us as women to tick all these boxes by a certain age, I’m so glad this is happening at a time society considered it too late in life because I never thought I’d be this grateful or committed if I was 10 years younger.

Is it safe to say you are a feminist?

Yeah, 100 per cent.

Whew! I had to exhale because I was saying to myself, please Vimbai don’t fall my hand. I ask this because when a feminist gets married and has a baby, people quickly jump to castigate them. Give me a few words to set the record straight on what feminism is.

Feminism is a choice. It is giving women the agency, space and autonomy to make decisions that give them joy regardless of whatever those decisions look like and there’s no hard and fast way to do it. There’s no simple way. It looks different for everybody at different ages and in different seasons as well. It really breaks my heart that something so powerful and important has been reduced to man-bashing. It’s so far from it. I wish we would stop putting men at the centre of something that has nothing to do with men and everything to do with women.

It’s about Women and their empowerment, uplifting, emancipation, and equality.

Yup! And men are not even on the group chat.

 

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