From a donkey herder to lecturer in financial risk management

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

In this column Mesias shares some of the challenges he had to overcome on his journey to becoming an academic and how he rose above his raising.

I was born in Onamutai village in the northern part of Namibia. As a three-month-old baby, I was taken to the nearby village Ocadila to be raised by my late great-grandmother Paulina Kalomho WaNghondeli. That is also where I started primary school. My youth was filled with trials and tribulations, but my desire to achieve academically one day was far greater.

At the age of eight, I was taken to the farm Antoni to take care of my grandfathers’ donkeys.  A few years later, I was able to go back to school. At school and in the village I was bullied and called bad names. My great-grandmother played a significant role in helping me withstand the mistreatment. But, as she grew older and weaker, I feared losing her while I was still trying to navigate life and primary education.

I attended Mweshipandeka High School, one of the best high schools in the northern part of Namibia, and was selected as the head boy of the school just three weeks after my arrival. At Mweshipandeka, I surrendered my life to Christ. Although this decision made my family reject me, in my opinion, it was the best decision I have ever made in my life. It helped me to remain disciplined and focus on the important things in my life, namely my faith and my education.

When I went to the capital city of Namibia, Windhoek, for tertiary studies, I had nowhere to stay. I hustled for the first few days, slept under bridges and begged for money for university registration in shopping malls. Fortunately, I received a call from the ministry of education that I had won the overall prize for the student with the Best Namibia Senior Secondary Certificate Higher Level (NSSCH) in Mathematics. Shortly after that, I also received a scholarship from the Petro Fund to study engineering at the Polytechnic of Namibia (now NUST). Engineering, however, had less mathematics and I started to feel mathematically starved. My prayers were answered when I met Mr Veston Malango, CEO of the Chamber of Mines. He secured me a scholarship from the Mineral Development Fund (MDF) to study Pure and Applied Mathematics.

I studied Bachelor of Science (Mathematics and Physics) at the University of Namibia (UNAM) and received numerous academic awards from this institution, including the Dean’s Award. In my final year at UNAM, the abstract of my honours thesis, entitled “Approximation theory”, was accepted for the third Jean Conference on Approximation Theory held in Ubeda, Spain, where I had the opportunity to give a talk on my thesis results.

After UNAM, I received a sponsorship from the Namibian Financial Institution Supervisory Authority (NAMFISA) and went to Stellenbosch University for my honours in Financial Mathematics. The honours programme was very intense.  As far as I can remember, during the first three weeks of classes I could barely say a word in class and thought I had set myself up for failure. It was then that I decided to disconnect myself from things that bring distractions to me.  At the end of the year, I graduated with distinction, won a merit award from the Stellenbosch International Office and proceeded to do my masters’ by dissertation under the supervision of Prof Peter Ouwehand.  My master thesis concerns modelling interest rate derivative products using multidimensional pure jump processes.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

After Stellenbosch, I worked for NAMFISA for a short while. NAMFISA wanted me to pursue the Actuarial Science profession, but I thought financial mathematics is a more valuable profession that I should dive deeper into. After negotiating with NAMFISA, I found myself without a job for six months and the only nod to life was seeking for PhD opportunities. I was searching for the world’s best PhD programmes in Quantitative Finance, and I found the Quantitative Finance Research Centre (QFRC) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia. I was awarded an international research scholarship by the Australian Government research training program and went to Australia to do my Doctor of Philosophy in Quantitative Finance at the Business School of UTS. I had many opportunities as a UTS PhD student: I was co-organiser of the annual conference in Quantitative Methods in Finance (QMF) and travelled to many countries including the USA, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and most parts of Europe to present my research at prestigious conferences in Quantitative Finance. In 2018, I won the younger investigator training award to attend the Quantitative Finance Workshop held at Roma Tre University in Italy and to conduct  one month of research at the University of Padova, Italy.

I completed my PhD thesis, entitled “Stochastic modelling of new phenomena in financial markets”, within record time and with examiners’ recommendations for the best thesis in finance. I received a lectureship position at the University of Wollongong, which is a rare opportunity in Australia for someone without postdoctoral experience. In 2019, I got married and made a conscious decision to leave Australia and join my beautiful wife in South Africa. A few months after my arrival I received a permanent appointment as Lecturer in Financial Risk Management in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Stellenbosch University. I regard this offer as the top-notch opportunity and look forward to an amazing academic journey.

Since I was in primary school at Okadila-West, my only goal was to build confident personalities in mathematics, which has now evolved to aiming to discover something new in mathematics that will be useful for practitioners and have a real social impact. To attain my goal, I became single-minded and perhaps a bit overzealous. Most people remarked that I was going crazy when I emphasised that maths is “sexy”. I found the following personal traits helpful to remain on track in my academic pursuits: discipline, a sense of dissatisfaction, and  determination.

Dr. Mesias Alfeus

Lecturer in Financial Risk Management
Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science

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