SALT LAKE CITY — Could there be a better Valentine’s Day story than the marriage of Bayo Olayemi and Mariama Kallon?
Separated by thousands of miles and an ocean, they found each other in middle age, through fate and faith. Before that, she survived political uprisings, murderous rebels, starvation and the threat of violent death; he survived government threats and the upheaval of his personal life that resulted from his religious conversion. Olayemi once had an assassin show up his door in his native Nigeria. Kallon once stood in a line to have her legs cut off by rebels in her native Sierra Leone.
With all of that behind them, they married last fall and settled in Salt Lake City, where they endure this strange thing called snow and struggle to make ends meet while they hope and wait for citizenship to come through.
Olayemi, a 43-year-old former TV and radio journalist in Nigeria, sacrificed friends, career and his homeland to come to America straightaway and marry Kallon.
“I gave it all up for love,” he says, but that isn’t quite right, because religion played a big part in it, as well.
Kallon’s story was first told in the Deseret News in 2006. She had escaped civil war-torn Sierra Leone, but only barely. The rebels shot her parents as she and her siblings fled on foot. The rebels caught them a day later and placed them in a line to have their limbs severed with a machete as a message to the government the rebels were trying to overthrow. Mariama watched as her sister had her legs chopped off. Just as Mariama’s turn arrived, United Nations forces arrived and the rebels fled. For seven years, Mariama ran from village to village to flee the rebels. They caught her again, but she escaped again.
Finally, she escaped the country. She converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served a mission in Salt Lake City. Then she volunteered on Temple Square and took work cleaning homes, as well as the Salt Lake Temple. After her story was told here, she began speaking at numerous firesides around the valley, which led to more opportunities. She was retained to speak around the country as part of Deseret Book’s Timeout for Women series, and she also cooperated for a book about her life, “Delivered by Hope.”
More than 7,000 miles away, the story of Olayemi was unfolding. He was a journalist who took on the oppressive government of Nigeria. He used the airwaves to advocate free elections and citizen rights, which did not sit well with the government. He repeatedly defied their attempts at censorship. Urged to advocate the government’s position, he refused to play ball.
“They were trying to buy me with money,” he says. “I was educating people to believe in their power. That is where we had confrontations."
This went on for years until 2007, when two men showed up at his door, one of them carrying a pump-action rifle. They said they were there to “silence” him as representatives of a local politician who was notorious for violence. This might have ended badly, but then one of the men recognized Olayemi and expressed his appreciation for his advocation of free elections. Suddenly more sympathetic than he had been moments earlier, he offered Olayemi a way out: Leave town. If Olayemi didn’t, he said, he was certain other men would come for him.
Olayemi took the advice and found radio work elsewhere, but he continued to battle the government over the political positions he took on the air. Three years later he left journalism completely and worked for the public affairs department of the LDS Church in Nigeria.
Olayemi had joined the church in 2000. His wife did not join the church with him, and his membership became a source of contention in their home. Olayemi says he tried to make it work for a decade. “I thought I could win her over,” he says. “If I live my life right, she could see. It didn’t work. She cried every time I got ready for church.” As a conciliatory gesture, he agreed to attend her church while remaining an active and faithful member of the LDS faith. He did this for three years. Finally, against his wife’s objections, he went through the LDS temple for the first time in 2010, and when he returned home she was gone.
“I was stunned,” he says. “I was hoping it would work.”
They divorced and he lived alone for three years. As he puts it, “I had to figure out how to get out of this. I started looking for someone, but I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I wanted someone who is grounded in the (church).” In the summer of 2012, he flew to Washington for a business conference. While he was there, he went to the local LDS temple and broke down crying. “I wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to be in the house of the Lord with my wife one day,” he says. “This has always been my desire. I wept bitterly. I prayed about it.”
When he returned to his hotel, he called his sister Metus in Nigeria for commiseration. She told him about Kallon, whom she had served with as a missionary on Temple Square years earlier. As long as he was in the U.S., she said, why not call her? He called Kallon and they talked and continued to talk for the next four months. A friendship blossomed. They shared deep feelings for their religious faith and a long-distance courtship ensued.
“I told her it was my upmost desire to be married to a faithful woman and she said the same thing,” he says. “She said others had come around, but were not faithful. It worked perfectly for both of us. There was no point in waiting.”
In September, he quit his job, flew to Salt Lake City and met her for the first time at the airport. On Oct. 28, he married Kallon in a civil ceremony; they plan to marry in the Salt Lake Temple later this year.
“I waited (to get married) so long,” says Kallon, 41. “I had to find someone who would take the gospel seriously. I didn’t want to baby-sit someone in gospel. He was willing to sacrifice so much for that.”
They live in a tiny apartment in Salt Lake City. Money is tight, largely because Olayemi cannot legally hold a job until he obtains a work visa. Kallon is considered a permanent resident and is trying to obtain citizenship, which would pave the way for Olayemi to gain citizenship, as well. Acquaintances have suggested ways to circumvent the laws to obtain work and citizenship, but they aren’t interested.
“We can't compromise things," he says. "Heavenly Father brought us this far; he can take us the rest of the way. We don’t have to pretend there are no challenges. It’s not good, but we are surviving by faith.”
Says Kallon, “If he could just a get job and work but we want to do it the right way. There are so many things we want to do, but we don’t have the paperwork or the money.”
They struggle to pay their bills. They have benefitted from the generosity of others. Joanne Steveson bought Mariama a used car, and Tim and Terri Elmer watch out for the couple and help them.
Kallon once made her living cleaning houses and doing laundry, but the work dried up. She cleans the LDS temple several nights a week, but is looking for more work — ironing, cleaning, laundry, anything. Olayemi tries to stay busy while the official wheels grind slowly to produce the paperwork the couple needs. He accompanies his wife on whatever cleaning jobs she can get, studies, volunteers at the temple and takes a computer class at a youth center.
“(Mariama) is always scared that this is going to weigh me down and I’ll get depressed, but, no, my faith is too strong,” he says. “This is not going to deprive me of my spirituality.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.