On the day it happened, Emily Korir’s life was pretty ordinary. She was going to be the emcee at a friend’s birthday party and was preparing for that when everything in her body went wrong.
“That was the beginning of a very long battle,” she says. It changed her life’s trajectory at 37, in ways she could never have anticipated, both negatively and, surprisingly, positively.
Despite being sickly while growing up and being raised in poverty in Nakuru, Korir says being brought up by two women who she describes as strong – her mother and her grandmother – made all the difference.
“This deprivation, our lack of material goods and facilities, was more than compensated for with heart. What we shared in the village was a real sense of family and an unshakable and undeniable sense of community.
Emily left Kenya in 1994 for further studies after getting a scholarship to Japan, and ended up in Australia, then moved to the US in 2002 to get married to her husband, Bernard Korir.
They moved back to Australia to raise their children. With a background and passion for human resource management, life was smooth. Two things in her life, though, were silent, ticking time bombs, but she never realised it.
“They say my stroke was bad luck, but in my researching stroke and what could cause stroke, it is a lifestyle. I was overweight and had high blood pressure, both big causes of stroke,” she says.
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She does not remember much about what happened at first.
“I was upset with God, I would cry and pray, ‘Why do this to me?’ I sank into depression,” says Emily.
She was working through the emotional turmoil with a psychologist and also a physiologist to get her body’s functionality back, but it took a long time. Her whole life and her family’s life had been completely upended.
“My husband was in shock because he became an instant single father with no job. It was very hard for my daughter who lost a lot of weight. She had to see a psychologist as well because for her, everything changed,” Emily says.
Her grandmother, who had raised her, died halfway through the process of helping her heal.
“For the extended family, it was really tough because I was the breadwinner for my siblings and my mum of course, and my grandmother, and when I got sick they had no one. Bernard could not even support our family let alone the extended one. It was hard for everyone,” she says.
It was also tough socially. Emily remembers an incident where at 38, a year and a half after her stroke, a friend was hosting a luncheon for some ladies and the reason she was not invited shocked her.
“She invited a mutual friend and asked this friend not to bring me along because at that time I was still drooling, being paralysed on my right side, and she felt that it would be unpleasant to have that happening at her table. I was hurt and cried for a long time,” she says.
When it was time to be discharged from rehab, their house needed modifications for it to be accessible to her.
“Rather, than do that, Bernard suggested that we find another home that was already suitable and then rent ours out until I had improved enough to come home. There was nothing available, either to rent or buy,” says Emily.
That was where the idea for their company was born.
“That became our dream - that people with disabilities deserve accessible housing, whether they want to rent or buy. It should be available for them,” she says.
Her family’s support and that clear purpose renewed her vigour. There was finally light at the end of the tunnel. “I decided I was not going to be a victim, but a survivor. Everything I have done since then is to show you that you can choose to be either a victim or survivor,” she says.
Impossibly, Emily decided to start her MBA at that time, despite the fact that she could not even sit for three hours and suffered cognitive fatigue. The school found ways to accommodate her she earned a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), majoring in Human Resource Management and a Masters in Disability Policy and Practice (MDPP).
Afterwards, she embarked on establishing the company she had envisioned together with her husband, BET Global, providing housing and support services for people living with disability. She is CEO of the company, while her husband is the Managing Director. The company is now the fastest growing and most innovative disability housing service provider in South Australia and Victoria.
The company has 230 employees, and Emily has received several awards, including Young Leader of the Year at the Celebration of African Australians (2014). She was inducted into the South Australian Women’s Honour Roll (2015) as the first African woman, and appointed Ambassador for the UN International Women’s Day Campaign #BeBoldForChange (2017).
“We have achieved so much that sometimes I sit back and don’t know what to say because God has given above and beyond what we could ever have dreamed,” says Emily.
“It was really tough for days, weeks, months and years, but we now call it a stroke of luck because of where we are.”
As a dual citizen of Kenya and Australia, she has never forgotten where she came from and seeks to build the first accessible respite home in Kenya for children with disability.
“We continue to give to girls in Kenya. We make sure the girls have sanitary towels, panties and bras, we want them to feel beautiful from the inside out with trying to stop FGM. I am the first girl in my family not to go through female genital mutilation (FGM) and I would like that to continue because so many girls in Kenya still go through the practise,” she says.
Emily still suffers from the effects of the stroke today, such as cognitive fatigue, but she uses strategies from her psychologist to deal with it.
“Cognitive fatigue can affect you instantly, but you also can feel it coming; so if I have had a long week, I can feel it coming, and my husband knows as well, and that is when we turn my phone off and I rest, staying in a dark room.
I still suffer from heightened sensory on my right side where I was paralysed. I do not have much feeling, but when the pain comes it is sharp, so even just a material of something I am wearing could really hurt. There is nothing we can do about that and I just have to talk to myself that it is just sensory. I still have a few effects, but I can manage, I have strategies from my treatment,” she says.
Emily has now documented her entire journey in a book, Against All Odds, in a colourful launch in Australia, and will also be launched in Kenya.
“The launch of the book will be on December 3, the International Day of Disabled Persons, and I am so excited that I am able to do this in Kenya. We will let everyone know more as time goes, but we are launching in Kenya in December,” she says.
With such a colourful life already, how would Emily like to be remembered?
“Oh my gosh, that is a big question,” she says. “I really want to be remembered as someone who came from nothing, got something and continued to fight for the most vulnerable people in our community. That Emily continues to give voice to the voiceless. That is how I want to be remembered.”