How we met: ‘After two weeks, we were living together’

As told to Lizzie Cernik
How we met: ‘After two weeks, we were living together’. Rachel Wade, 30, met her partner Stephen Lavenberg, 32, when they were working in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. They are now married and live in Myanmar

When Ebola swept through west Africa in 2014, many foreign workers were evacuated from the region. For Rachel, who had been working on an educational development project in Liberia, being sent home to Britain was frustrating. “I really wanted to support colleagues. I felt so helpless.”

In early 2015, she was given the all-clear to head back to the city of Monrovia. “I was meant to be meeting a friend for dinner and she told me she was bringing her new colleague, Stephen,” she says. After a tough few weeks, Rachel wasn’t in the mood to meet new people. “Plus, she’d heard I was American,” says Stephen, with a smile. “The worst.”

But the pair spent the whole evening laughing. “I was working for an NGO at the time and doing work for the ministry of health,” says Stephen. “It’s an intense environment out there, but we were being silly and joking around.”

Over the next few weeks, the pair grew closer as they organised events to distract their friends from the health crisis. “It was a tough time, so we needed some escapism,” explains Rachel. “We started the Monday movie club and spent more time together.”

After two months, the pair took the first step towards something more serious.

“He took me on a surprise date, but he needed me to drive there,” Rachel says. Stephen adds: “I think we were both nervous in the car. If something went wrong, it would have been a very awkward drive home.”

When they arrived at their destination – a park with a golf course – they sat down for a picnic. “It was such a lovely day – like no date I’d ever been on before,” she says. “Although we did have to dodge a few golf balls.”

Two weeks later, they were living together. “We hardly spent a night apart from then on,” says Rachel.

That year, they travelled to Stephen’s home in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, followed by a trip to Scotland for Christmas with Rachel’s family. In August 2016, they moved to the north of England to study for their master’s degrees. “I went to Leeds University,” Stephen says. “Rachel went to Durham and we lived in York. It’s a beautiful place.”

During their year in the UK, they got engaged. “We were on a country walk in Scotland and I proposed with two rings I’d brought back from Liberia,” says Rachel. For Stephen, it was a lovely surprise, although he admits it took him a while to cotton on. “She was holding the rings behind me in a selfie and I didn’t spot them at first. When I was realised, it was amazing. We basically pranced back down the hill.” Rachel says she planned the proposal because she had always wanted an “equal partnership”.

The pair married in the US in December 2017, before moving to Myanmar. “Stephen is now working with the same NGO, on malaria elimination, and I’m an international development consultant here,” Rachel says. When they are not busy with work, they enjoy cooking in their home in Yangon. “Going to markets and getting creative in the kitchen is something we love,” says Stephen. “I cook the basics and Rachel does all the details. I call her the spice to my rice.”

Rachel says she loves the way her husband treats everyone with respect. “He’s also very open about his feelings. As a Brit, it was quite overwhelming at first, but I love that he has helped me to talk more and open up.” Stephen has always been there for her. “In 2016, I was caught up in the Brussels terror attacks. I felt so supported by him. Any difficulties we have faced have only made us stronger.”

“Rachel makes everyone in her life feel special,” Stephen says. “She is so inspiring to me and I love her positive energy. She is like no one else I have ever met.” At some point, they want to start a family, but for now they are just happy to be together. “I’m from the US and Rachel is from the UK, so the most important thing is that we are able to live in the same country,” Stephen says. “We’re excited about all the adventures to come.”

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