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Our love is tried, tested and true

By Maryanne Gicobi

There’s nothing about UK-based actuarial scientists Geylord or Mercy Asimba that says anything about the struggles they’ve overcome as individuals and as a couple to get where they are today.

The couple, who have been together for 10 years, were awarded scholarships to pursue their undergraduate studies at Strathmore University. They both received scholarships to pursue their master’s in the UK. But a life-threatening illness was looming on the horizon.

In June 2016, Mercy woke up paralysed from her waist down while working at Britam as she waited to join the University of Oxford.

“It was a Monday morning, and I could not get out of bed, I would try to get out and would fall back, I did not know what was happening to me,” she says.

She was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, caused by a viral or bacterial infection which made her body accidentally attack its healthy nerve cells. Her fate of joining Oxford University after winning the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to pursue her postgraduate studies hanged in the balance.

She bravely went through the treatment regime, but a little question kept nagging her: Would she be able to join her dream school?

“My doctor one day told me, Mercy, it is not the brain that is unwell, so you can still do you master’s, and that gave me hope,” she says.

She was admitted to the University of Oxford in a wheelchair, and for a whole year, in a new university, a new country, and a new medical condition, she aced it and got a distinction in her first year.

“However, amid the life-threatening illness, I sunk into a three-month depression during my first semester at Oxford. I questioned my suffering a lot,” she says.

Mercy believes she would be an Oxford dropout if it weren’t for Allan who miraculously joined her in the UK. He won a master’s scholarship to study at Cass Business School in London. He would often commute between London and Oxford, a 90-minutes bus ride to check on Mercy.
Life-threatening illness

“He missed orientation at his school because he was taking care of me, and he would miss his classes every so often to see how I was doing, I am forever grateful. In my depressed state, I asked Allan why he still loved me despite my’ inability to walk’, and he reminded me that when he asked me out on April 9, 2012, he didn’t tell me he loved me because I could walk!” says Mercy, as the conversation flows back in time to the difficult childhoods they both had.

Allan grew up in Mukuyu village in Migori County. Life was good but only for a short while. His mother was a nurse, and his father worked in the finance department at Sony Sugar.

“We were well off by the 1990s standards, we had two cars, both of my parents were working, until one day, things went south, dad suddenly lost his job,” says Allan.

At around the same time, his mother was involved in a road accident and broke her arm.

“Things changed for us. We went from people who were driven out for dinners every Friday evening to wearing torn slippers to school,” says Allan.

“I did not even have a chance to join a good private school like my older siblings, I had my uniform ready to join Sony Sugar Complex School, but just before I could join, dad lost his job, and I had to join Mukuyu Primary School, a public day school,” he adds.

His father was the school board chairman before he lost his job and therefore, the headteacher did not send him home for school fees arrears.

“It also helped that I was a top student,” he adds.

Allan explains how they had to put the TV back in the box it was bought in and stored because they could no longer afford to power the battery to run the TV.

“We used to power the batteries with the car but now with dad having lost his job and debts rising, people who we owed held onto our cars,” he explains.

University scholarship

The only luxury that remained was listening to the radio, but they had to dry the batteries in the sun during the day and bit on them so that they could listen to Pastor Pius Muiru at night.

He also explains how they used to burn old tires, to get the black residue that they would mix with paraffin and get a black paste which they would use as shoe polish.

“The tilling of land is also something I cannot forget. We would work on the farm for 12 hours, 7am to 7pm and we would go with a full kettle of tea and would take at least three cups of tea the whole day,” he says.

In many ways, Allan says this changed who he is. He is not afraid to do jobs that people would consider lowly. For instance, when they had a youth project in their church that required them to go to the market to source for vegetables to sell in the church, he willingly did that.

“People would ask me, Allan, even with your masters from the UK, and with your manager job at Continental Re, you can do such job, but it’s because I know life can change at the drop of the hat, I thus live a simple life,” he says.

“My parents valued education, and he would come to school and ask the principal if he can supply beans and maize as a substitute for school fees, the school head agreed. Sometimes, the school would send us home for school fees, and we would look around the home to see what we have, and dad would cut a tree at home, sell it as timber to get money for school fees,” he says.

Luckily for university, Allan got a partial scholarship to join Strathmore University. The balance he was required to pay was, however, still too steep for his parents. He joined Strathmore University after successful fundraising for his first semester fees.

He was taken back on a flexible fee payment structure and was later awarded a full scholarship from his second year of studies by I&M bank.

It was at Strathmore University that he met his wife, Mercy. Mercy had an almost similar story as she was also awarded a partial scholarship to join Strathmore. While she was keen to join Strathmore, she felt that pursuing her studies would be strenuous for her parents, both high school teachers, mostly because they had to take care of her younger siblings.

Job hunting

Mercy recalls that her parents encouraged her to join Strathmore despite the financial strain the decision would bring to the family. After joining Strathmore, she immediately started looking for opportunities to get a full scholarship. After many failed attempts and many closed doors, she was awarded a full scholarship just before her first semester exams.

Therefore, she dropped the plans that she privately harboured to join Maseno University from her second semester and focused her energies on her studies. She maintained the top position in her class for all the four years while at university.

After graduating, Allan and Mercy remember how tough looking for a job was despite the exceptional grades that they had both earned.

They would tarmac in Nairobi’s Upper Hill area to the insurance companies dropping their CVs and looking for work. They recall how they went to an office where they wanted to see their actuary, but the receptionist turned them away.

“It must have been our dusty shoes after hours of tarmacking that sold us out as job seekers and the brown envelopes that we were carrying because the following day, I had an interview in Upper Hill and after the interview, I passed by the same office to see if the actuary got the CVs the receptionist asked us to drop.

“I told the same receptionist that I wanted to see the same actuary, she did not even ask me if I had an appointment and she let me see him. The suit worked, I went and told Mercy to also dress up in a suit and go, and she was also allowed in.

“We did not get the job in that firm, but the tarmacking experience humbled us, and we pushed on and did not lose hope.”

Mercy graduated with a double masters from the University of Oxford and came back to Kenya. They got married on April 27, 2019, and later relocated to the UK when Mercy could not get jobs back in Kenya aligned with her career goals.

On December 17, 2020, the two earned their actuarial qualification on the same day, coincidentally scoring the same score in their final actuarial fellowship exam. This culminated in the many years of working hard together and the intricate balance they have learned to pursue to ensure that they can achieve their joint and individual goals in life.

Mercy and Allan feel very indebted to their parents, who have had to make considerable sacrifices to achieve their dreams. They attribute all the coincidences and successes in life to God’s Grace that carries them through their day to day life.

Maryanne.gicobi@gmail.com

This article was first published in nation.africa here.

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