Eva Biegon-The Unconventional Woman
At half past one, I dart past Fairview Hotel’s quintessentially British reception. I then make a sharp left turn -almost skidding on the tiled floor-as I scamper through the marble walkway. It is punctuated with palm trees and a million other plants, and for a moment, I want to stop, close my eyes and take in a lungful of the fresh air. But my subject is waiting by the poolside, and she’s been waiting for about 15 minutes. I don’t struggle to spot her once I get past the stairs to the poolside because she’s strategically seated across the pool, within eyeshot. She’s a lawyer after all, so all her moves are well thought out.
She stands to give me a hug. Her hair -black medium-sized two strand twists- is neatly pulled back from her face. On her even chocolate-complexioned face sits stunning cobalt blue eye glasses which I find surprisingly eccentric for a person in her field. She has on a white long-sleeved chiffon blouse fastidiously tucked in her charcoal grey pencil skirt and black pumps to complete the look.I am afraid that she will send me away, first for showing up late and secondly, for coming to interview her while shabbily dressed in a beige see-through bullet sleeved blouse, black ripped jeans and grey oxfords on my feet.
“Your glasses are stunning!” I exclaim as I lean in for a hug. “Blue is my favourite colour.”
“So are yours.” She says of my new teal coloured ones, a priced possession that I have only had for all of two hours now. By the way, thanks to my Instagram fam for helping me choose them.
“You look really elegant in your formal wear. I am almost embarrassed of my dressed down look.” I say as we settle into our seats.
“Oh no, this is my casual look.” She smiles and takes a sip of her orange juice. “On Fridays, we dress down. Every other day I am in a suit.”
“Well now I am definitely embarrassed!”
A waiter walks over to us and hands me a menu. I ask for sparkling water as I hurriedly scheme through it.
“What’s the quickest thing on the menu?” She inquires as she looks at the menu for a split second and then leans towards the table to steal a glance of the time on her phone. It’s already twenty to two. She’s pressed for time and I have to make it snappy. She had made it clear to me that she could only have this interview during her lunch break which runs for an hour. As per the waiter’s advice, we both settle for Murg Makhani, which is chicken in a mildly spiced curry sauce.
Eva Ogila-as she was known to me back in High School- was a year behind me. She is now Eva Biegon. At 32, she is a Senior Associate at Kaplan & Stratton and has a brood of three boys-her husband and two sons aged 4 and 2.5 years. I remember her as an A student whose passion for and mastery of the queen’s language was enviable. In retrospect, I should have probably asked her to write her story because she would have told it better. It came as no surprise to me when in 2011, many years after high school, we bumped into each other at the ground floor lifts waiting area of ICEA building, she heading to the law firm HHM and I to a stockbroking firm. I always imagined she would be a lawyer.
Interestingly though, she now tells me that law was never her first love and that she always wanted to be a doctor. Apparently, she only settled for law because, in her words, she failed. I don’t delve into that though as am not here to discuss her choice of career. I am here to understand what it takes to make bold moves in life, such as the one she made towards the end of 2016. For close to a year, Eva was away in Pretoria, South Africa pursuing a Masters in Law. I know you are seated there staring at your screen feeling short-changed. You must be thinking that this is such a dog-bites-man kind of story. Well, it is not, because Eva left behind her two sons, the older one aged three years at the time and the younger one eighteen months. She left them in the care of her husband who has an equally demanding job that sees him travel oversees quite often.
I found out about Eva’s decision from her Facebook timeline in March last year and I was dumbstruck. At that time, I was burning the candle at both ends at the expense of my family. I would wake up at 5.00am to either run or go to the gym five times a week and at the end of the day, I stayed behind at the office until 10.00pm to study for my exams. For a long period of time, I barely interacted with my kids and my husband.
One morning as I was leaving the gym, I found a long Whatsapp message from the mister that read, “You really need to reorganise your life. One day you will wake up to find your kids all grown up and you never had a relationship with them.”
My first reaction was rage. How dare he attack me for wanting to have it all? But then, as the day progressed, I saw the truth in his statement. My family did not need to be at the bottom of my pyramid. I needed to prioritize family time as much as I did my fitness, work and studies. So, I made a promise to myself that I would always have dinner with the family no matter what. Every evening I would go home at 6.00pm, spend time with the kids and go back to the office at 7:45pm to study after putting them to sleep. And so, when I saw that Eva was in SA pursuing her Masters while her kids were back in Nairobi learning new words, growing tall enough to step on a seat and put on the light and asking questions like “where does the sun go to sleep”, I knew I had to interview her.
“You know you are an outlier, right?” I ask her as I move my recorder close to her.
“Why do you say that?” She questions me as she adjusts her seat to move closer to the table. We are seated in the open space underneath a tent. A gust of air swooshes past us and instinctively, I lift my gaze to the sky. It is overcast with a promise of rain. The waiter comes over and places the cutlery on the table, hands us hot towels and acquiescently steps aside.
“Listen, it wasn’t easy, but I had to do it. I was at a point in life when I wanted more out of my career and I knew that pursuing a Masters would give me the gratification I sought.” She wipes her hands and hands over the dishevelled towel to the waiter and goes on:
“And with all the horror stories I have heard about our local universities, I had to make the sacrifice and earn my degree abroad. See, I was lucky to get a job at a prestigious law firm right after graduating from Law School and as I went along, I wanted more.”
However, from the details she gives, I realise that it wasn’t really luck but a combination of strategy and going the extra mile. While pursuing her Law degree at Moi University, she would assist her lecturer with some of his research work and when she was done with the coursework in April 2009, he gave her a job at his law firm in Nakuru. She also sent countless job applications to several law firms between January and April, something she thought was an exercise in futility.
Except that in September 2009, while still working for her former lecturer, she got a call from HHM-one of the law firms she had sent an application to. Her boss had a court case in Nairobi and when she told him about the interview, he offered to give her a ride. It was her first time in Nairobi. She got the job and when she broke the news to her boss, he was furious. She questioned his reaction given his initial support, to which he responded that he only helped her because he was sure she would not get that job. (I forgot to ask Eva whether she punched him in the face)
Our meals finally arrive. The chicken is served in a small black porcelain pot that sits on a wide black ceramic plate, which also holds a pile of rice and Naan. I lift the lid off the pot and a wonderful aroma wafts out of it. I fork a piece of chicken from the pot and blow over it to cool it off and then nibble it. It tastes as good as it smells.
“This was an excellent choice.” Eva says about the chicken. Halfway through the meal, I notice that she has barely touched her naan, which explains her slender figure. I spot her looking at the time on her phone and I realise that I have limited time to get the answers I seek.
“At what point did you feel the pressing urge to further your education?”
“I got admitted to the bar in November 2011 and from then on, I specialised in the legal aspects of Real Estate. I got married in 2012 and had my first-born son in November 2013 at the age of 27. In 2015, six years after joining the firm, I had made my bones as a Real Estate lawyer and I wanted to learn new skills.”
In May 2015, she decided to pursue the Certified Public Secretary accreditation, something which saw her attend classes between 6.00am and 7.45am every day before reporting to work. Her older son was one and a half years old then. At the same time, she made the decision to apply for her masters at the University of Pretoria. Her application was accepted in June 2015.
“Unfortunately, I was pregnant with our second child when I received my acceptance letter. I actually considered going to school while pregnant, but there was a very clear warning that it was an intense course and they advised against pursuing it while pregnant.”
I ask her if she made the application secretly and only broke the news to her husband when she got accepted. She throws back her head and roars with laughter at the ludicrousness of my question.
For a split second, I imagine how many sleepless nights I would have as I rehearse how to break the news to the mister if I were to decide to further my education abroad. He is very solution oriented, and would therefore present fifty other alternatives that would see me meet my objective without leaving the kids behind. I wonder how it was for her, toying with this idea in her head for days, its weight tormenting her as she sought new perspectives to validate the decision.
“Was it hard, informing your husband that you were thinking of going to study abroad and he would have to be both mother and father to your kids?” I ask her.
“Not at all.” She says. “My husband is a scholar. He did his masters at the University of Pretoria in South Africa right after completing his undergraduate degree and he is also an extraordinary lecturer at the same university. So, the idea that I wanted to pursue a Masters in Law in SA was music to his ears.”
If you are like me who thought an extraordinary lecturer is one has outstanding capabilities, let me edify you. These are lectures called for teaching engagements in their areas of expertise once in a while and they are paid for it.
“He got this gig recently but before then, he still made frequent trips to the University of Pretoria because he was pursuing his doctorate and also because he would get work engagements from his employer, Amnesty, which has offices in SA.” She adds. “He is a Human Rights person.”
“Okay, I am beginning to think you are married to a really old guy, Eva. How old is your husband?”
She laughs and tells me that he is only 35. Eva is extremely witty alright, yet, she speaks of her husband as this whip-smart person. She tells me he was a scholarship child all the way from lower primary education to his masters and doctorate. I make a joke that he has such an interesting story and I should have interviewed him instead. I would love to be a fly on their wall to get a snippet of the kind of conversations they have. I bet they are so structured in their discussions and arguments alike, which they probably run on power point presentations.
The waiter comes back and clears the table.
“How was your meal?” He asks.
“Excellent choice. Thank you.” I offer. “Please bring the bill and a PDQ”
I catch a waft of petrichor and look towards the pool. I light drizzle sends ripples across the surface.
“We need to wrap up before the clouds burst open.” I tell her
“Yes, we have actually stretched this lunch really far.”
She tells me that after she got her child in late 2015, she submitted another application and was accepted, amongst 22 other students out of thousands of applications. She told her employer that she wanted to leave to pursue her masters and they offered to give her a sabbatical, an offer she turned down. She did not want to tie herself down to the firm because who knew what opportunities would present themselves after she was done.
When it was time to leave in January 2016, she remembers asking her husband how they were going to survive without her because like every other wife and mother, she was the linchpin of their home.
“We will be fine, no doubt.” He said to her. “The real question is how will you survive without us?” She laughed that statement off, but its truth revealed itself a few weeks after settling into her school in Pretoria. The first time she walked into a store that had baby stuff, she broke down and cried like a baby. It never got easier, much as they would all have Whatsapp video calls every day. It broke her heart that the younger one could not talk. He would grab the phone from the brother and stare at the screen, flip it around as if hoping that the mom would come out of this phone she was hiding in. Eventually, he would get so frustrated and cry.
The waiter comes back with the bill. I run my VISA card and turn my attention back to Eva.
“In April, three months after I went to SA, I had to make an emergency visit back home.” She sighs, as if the memory of it still haunts her. Her older son who was then slightly over three years old became suddenly recalcitrant: defying authority both at home and in school. Her numerous attempts to correct his attitude over the phone failed and on one Friday, she took the next flight home. Luckily, her brother works for Kenya Airways and has Eva on his buddy pass list, which means she only paid a fraction of the normal flight cost.
I ask her how the kids reacted when they saw her and she says that they were like shadows, following her all over the place including to the washroom, afraid that if they let her off their sight she would disappear again. She had a lengthy chat with her son about being respectful and also spoke to him about her imminent departure throughout the weekend. She dropped him at school on Monday morning, kissed him goodbye and flew back to SA later on in the day. Her son never had any further incidences of unruliness.
A raging cloudburst suddenly takes centre stage. Two waiters appear with umbrellas to usher us and other diners to the main restaurant. We seek shelter at a lounge area and sit at the bar section on some long wooden stools.
“How did your husband cope with your absence, running the house, taking the kids to the clinic and having to now deal with the house girl directly?” I ask her.
“Joy, I would not have pulled this off without him. He filled my shoes, took over all my roles and handled them with perfection, including doing house shopping and handling house girl drama. There were times he had to travel because of work and my mom or his mom would move in for a week. Those two were also very supportive.” She says then adds, “Would you believe he sent me a success card when I was doing my exams? Not to mention that he visited me twice in SA.” At this point, I am hoping that as many men will read this feature and hopefully borrow a leaf.
She finally cleared her course in October and came back home. She sent job applications to numerous firms including Centum who are yet to respond to date. (I don’t know why Eva chose to highlight Centum but I guess she really thinks highly of the organisation). James Mworia, if you are reading this, you missed out on a gem. The reality of being jobless rattled her and she almost regretted not taking up her former employers offer. Luckily, she got a three-month contract at CBA Bank and towards the end of the year she was interviewed by Kaplan & Stratton. However, she did not hear back from them
In January this year, she had an ectopic pregnancy and underwent surgery. While she was admitted in hospital, she got a call from Kaplan & Stratton informing her that she got the job and that she should find time to go pick her contract. She was not amused with God’s sense of humour. Her husband picked her letter for her and they were both ecstatic upon learning the terms and her new role; one she took up in February this year.
It’s been slightly over a month and so far, she is happy with how everything has played out. I ask her what she loves most about her job. Without missing a beat, she says she loves the people that she works with and the fact that they have diverse personalities and are all very respectful of each other.
“Would you then say it is possible to have it all?” I ask her as I wrap up the interview. “Because obviously you have a loving husband, amazing kids and the job of your dreams.”
“It is possible, but the main question is whether it would make you happy” She says. “Yes, you can have it all, but you don’t have to. Pursue things that bring you happiness.”
After putting this story together, I send her an email and ask her what’s next for her to which she responds:
“As I mentioned, I just resumed working post the LLM in a new area of legal practise. So, my career focus is to grow myself in this area. I am fortunate to be working with the best legal minds in the field. Outside of work, I am a part of a group of very smart and strong young lady lawyers -a sisterhood of sorts- whose focus is, among others, on empowering ourselves and the younger female lawyers through our experiences in the various fields. We are also working on charitable projects as a way to give back to the society in which we live and thrive. As a personal motto, I resonate with Shakespeare’s words: ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances….’
With the world as your stage, the possibilities are endless. Once you’ve made your entrance, it’s up to you to make sure that you’ve explored all opportunities before your exit.”
I told you that she should have written her story. If Eva does not leave you wanting more for yourself as a woman, I don’t know what will.
P.S If you know any ordinary woman doing extra ordinary things that I can interview, please shoot me an email on email@example.com.