The shining trophies perched on top of a wall unit in the sitting room are testimony to athletics achievements spanning 10 years.
There are about 20 pictures of the momentous occasions when Mercy Cherono has conquered her competitors, in a career she started in earnest as a teenager in 2007.
A conspicuous image shows the athlete on the podium kissing the 5,000 metres gold medal she won during the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. She has also pinned some with President Uhuru Kenyatta in State House, Nairobi, ahead of last year’s Rio Olympics. Then there is one where she is sitting on the laps of her husband, Edmond Ngetich.
When Lifestyle arrives at their house in the outskirts of Kericho town west of Nairobi, the couple’s flat-screen television is showing Emmanuel TV, associated with renowned, if controversial, Nigerian televangelist Temitope Balogun Joshua — commonly known as Prophet TB Joshua — and remains on the channel throughout our three-hour interview.
She speaks with a smile, happy that her career has flourished since a demoralising 23rd place finish in her international debut during the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, Kenya in 2007 at the age of 16. Last year, she came fourth in the 5,000 metres in Rio behind her compatriots — gold medallist Vivian Cheruiyot, Hellen Obiri — and Ethiopian Almaz Ayana.
But Mercy, one of the most recognisable faces of Kenyan athletics, has in recent weeks been in the news for a different reason: a YouTube video showing her being prayed for and later giving testimony before tens of people at Prophet TB Joshua’s The Synagogue, Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria.
For the first time, Mercy opens up about her visit to Nigeria where she was captured on video telling the congregation about the challenges in her four-month-old marriage and injuries that have blighted her career and which, according to the clip, were caused by evil spirits. There were also images of the athlete in a trance before falling to the ground after being touched by the televangelist.
Standing next to her husband on the podium, she later said her marital and career problems had been resolved after the prayers.
That visit sparked off a vibrant debate with some fans wishing her well while others remained sceptical and expressed concern about her well-being. There were also suggestions that her husband was seeking spiritual intervention to be the Member of the County Assembly for Kaplelartet Ward in Sigowet-Soin constituency, Kericho County.
However, Mercy told Lifestyle she has taken it all in her stride. The athlete, who is a serving policewoman, says she has always been a religious person and travelling to Nigeria for prayers was nothing out of the ordinary.
She reveals it was the second time she was travelling to Prophet TB Joshua’s church after a similar visit last year, but has been watching his sermons on television for the last three years.
“I went there to seek spiritual uplifting. And when you are in church you pray for everything. What came to my mind immediately I was there was my career and my marriage. I wanted God to help me know the source of my injuries,” she says.
Look for help
She explains that persistent injuries before major races, including last year’s Olympics, were stressing her and she had opted to look for help.
“It is so stressing when you have trained for a major race and a few days to the event you get an injury and you miss out or perform poorly. There is nothing more stressful than that. I do not believe in witchcraft so the only place I could seek spiritual assistance was in a church,” she says.
Mercy denies there was a special arrangement for Prophet TB Joshua to pick her out, but was pleasantly surprised when he came to where she was and started praying for two other people next to her.
“I just began praying for everything: my family, my career and everything that came to my mind. The Prophet came back and picked me this time round and asked me why I was in the church,” Mercy says.
It was then that she talked about her injuries and the stress that came with them but also “thought it was important” to mention the disagreements with her husband. She is, however, surprised that some people, most of them strangers, have blown things about her life out of proportion.
“People out there are saying I was desperate to have my marriage fixed because it was going down. It is not true. We are okay apart from the normal issues people face in any relationship,” she says.
Mercy explains that she was first prayed for on March 2 at the Lagos church after travelling with a group of about 30 people from different parts of the country. She was joined a week later by her husband who had to travel after the televangelist asked for him to come. The entire trip, she explains, cost them $2,500 (Sh255,000).
“We did not pay anything more. People are saying we paid millions for the prayers but that is not true at all. We only paid for the air tickets and accommodation, nothing more. I wish those saying we paid millions could have bothered to ask us first before spreading lies,” says the athlete, adding that she does not regret visiting the church and having her story beamed across the world.
The original plan, she says, was to be in Nigeria for one week but there was a change of plans after Prophet TB Joshua asked for her husband, who had to travel from Kenya.
“We had planned to go with my husband but things changed because of his (political) campaign programme. I left alone but after the service, the Prophet asked me to call my husband to join me and we had to stay for another week,” she says.
The church accommodated her for free for the extra days.
Mercy and Edmond first met during a race in Nakuru, about 152km west of Nairobi, in 2008 and kept in touch as friends for two years before they lost contact only to bump into each other again in 2014 at a hotel in Kericho belonging to Edmond’s family.
Before they met for the second time, Edmond already had a child with another woman who he had parted ways with.
“I am proud to say I am a father of a four-year-old son. I was in a relationship long before I met Mercy. It did not work and we parted ways. During our first date, I told Mercy about the son and she was okay with it. She is still okay with it,” he says.
The aspiring politician is unimpressed by some of the things he has heard and read being said about him.
“People are saying that I have been seeing someone else besides her but that is not true. We have only been together for four months. It is not possible that I could have someone else and a child is born within that period,” he says.
Mercy says she has accepted the child. Even though for some time the boy’s mother used to make many phone calls, that had stopped.
Believes her story
“It was bothering me then but things are okay now,” she says.
But it is in the tracks that Mercy believes her story is eloquently told. In 2015, she got a silver medal when she participated in the World Championships in Beijing, China, where Kenya topped the medals standings for the first time.
Her schedule this year involves the Diamond League races from May as she prepares for the World Championships trials.
“I will be going for the Diamond League races in May and I will be using it as a build up for the World Championships. I need a gold medal before I think of retaining my title at the Commonwealth Games in Australia next year,” she says.
Edmond says he is committed to ensuring his wife succeeds on and off the field, adding that he usually accommodates her schedule.
“When my wife is in Eldoret training, I miss her very much but I understand athletics and that is why I give her full support by even visiting her,” says Edmond, who was in the news last year for winning $102,000 (Sh10.5 million) in a sports bet.
He adds: “She is a lovely person. She is charming and always ready to come home and be a good wife even after hours of tough training.”
By way of a parting shot, Mercy says she has forgiven all those who mocked her visit to Nigeria.
“I really felt nothing. Such negative talk does not stop me from moving on with life. There were a few who were trying to speak negatively about it. I have forgiven all of them. I have learnt to let God take care of everything,” says the athlete, who is, however, happy that there are many people who have been asking her how they can also go to the Lagos church.
(Article first published in the Sunday Nation's Lifestyle magazine)