There's this feeling of immense joy you get when you graduate from university, after years of hard work. It's just up there; the thrill and relief indescribable. But then, the win is as much for your parents as it is yours. Maybe, they (our parents) even celebrate and feel it more. This I came to realize.
My name is Eunniah. Eunniah Mbabazi. A self-schooled writer, who went through campus to have the system chisel me into an Engineer. While I may not be practising engineering, I'd love to say that I still look in the mirror and have an engineer look back. Only that she engineers and re-engineers intimate words of poetry and stories, which ultimately re-engineer lives. Because storytellers wire human beings and power them up to see life from different angles, and like an efficient machine that makes work easier; turn their life engines. And this is my story. So sail with me.
I am seated on a blue plastic chair, facing my mother. We are in a small house that I have called home for most of the time I was a campus student. Mother looks at me. Her eyes are laden with happiness and excitement. It is the normal feeling to have when your first-born daughter has just graduated, a day ago, with Second Class Upper Division Honours, Bsc Electrical and Electronic Engineering. How fulfilled she must be to finally see her daughter achieve one of life's greatest milestones! And what's more, the next day I am to sign my first job contract. Mother beams with joy – real joy – and I beam too, but is my joy real or just another lie I wear like a mask?
“How did it go?” She asks me, about the job contract.
I am afraid to tell her the truth – truth does hurt sometimes, and doesn't a harmless lie soothe the soul? I dread letting her in on the truth. Because my life, throughout campus, has been a struggle. She has struggled to raise my school fees. She has also struggled to send money for rent and upkeep every other month. It is that thing they say about raising daughters; it feels like continuously throwing bundles of notes outside your window. In my case, studying in Mombasa while my mother was in a remote village in Western Kenya didn't make it any easier. And now to look her in the eye and say, mother, I am unhappy. No. It would be...breaking her heart.
This, the new job, was supposed to be the break-even. It was supposed to be our light at the end of the tunnel. It was supposed to show us that all the struggle was not in vain. This was supposed to be our ‘Kazi ya Mungu haina makosa.’
It is these thoughts that had stuck with me previously during the day, when my friends and I spent more than three hours poring over unsigned contracts, wondering why the pay was so low. See, life on campus has a way of pumping you up with golden expectations. You're in school today so that tomorrow you can take over the world in a whirlwind. With the determination and toiling that goes into your campus years, you deserve great pay, soon as that fancy gown hits the town. And then shock slaps you hard on the chin when you realise that the pay isn't what you expected.
It is these thoughts that had stuck with me when we went for lunch with my friends and tried to laugh at our expectations, earlier on in the day.
“They can’t offer us less than 80K, can they? At least, if all goes to hell in a handbasket, 60K will do. Nothing below that bar.”
It is these thoughts that remained with me even as I signed that contract, albeit begrudgingly. The pay was below my expectation; mother's too.
What will my mother say?
So when I get back and she asks me how it went, I bite down my disappointment and say, “I signed it. We start on January 2nd.” And I hope, pray, that a flurry of probing won't follow.
Two months down the line, I am seated in my small house, far away, in Malindi. I wonder, is all this worth it? This new life I've been thrown into that entails leaving the house at 5 a.m? This struggle to fit in at the workplace? This walking on eggshells around people because you know they are always talking about you? This begging for a different job description that challenges my mind, and satisfies my heart and soul? This getting back to the house at 8 p.m., and collapsing into bed; tired? The slaving on weekends and holidays, days and nights – all for, just 26K?
But again, what will my mother say?
I have to soldier on. So I bite down my frustrations. I keep dragging my body out of bed, dutifully, running myself cold showers, shuffling my feet to work, and sitting in front of a computer. When I have time on my hands, I pass it by writing my first book. To keep my sanity.
Well, it was not a book back then; just a little girl letting voices out of her head and onto a piece of paper. It was my little escape to sanity. The last kicks of a dying horse, if you may, trying to remain afloat.
Four months down the line and I can't take it anymore. I can't go on living a lie; giving up my happiness and sense of meaning. I sit at my workstation and ask one of my colleagues, ‘Do you have a template for a resignation letter?’
I still remember the shock on their faces. The widening of their eyes, the scratch of pens on paper stopping, and mouths falling ajar. I still remember their questions. Are you resigning? Why? Why don’t you think this is a fit for you? Do you have another plan? Another job? How are you going to survive? Don’t you think it is a shame to go back home? Do you know how many fresh graduates could kill just to be in your position?
I still remember their attempts at changing my mind. C'mon, be patient. Good things take time. There are no jobs in Kenya. Maybe this was your first and last shot at employment. We also started from where you are, and look at us now.
But I was looking at them, and not seeing anything I could wish for myself. While they were happy, I wasn't, because we are all wired differently and nothing is interesting unless you are interested.
I still remember the look on the human resources manager's face when I showed up in his office with a printed resignation letter. The phone calls that followed. Are you sure this is what you want to do? The big boss has asked me to talk you out of this. My answer came determinedly decided: Yes. I've paid it much thought and I believe it is the best thing for me to do.
Later when they failed at inspiring my shift of mind, HR said to me, "We accept your letter of resignation. You are now serving your last month with us."
To this day, I tell people those last words were the best thing I have heard in my life. I desperately wanted to leave. I desperately wanted to see where life’s boat, blown by winds of passion and courage, would take me. I was dying for peace of mind. There had to be something more for me, in a space where my passion intersected with my job.
Those words cemented the fact that in a month’s time, I would be out of employment, with no source of income. Now that was a big risk, and I wouldn't advise anyone to take one like it before thinking of a landing space. Ok, if you are truly convicted that you have to quit, that's fine, but anticipate a storm ahead that you must weather if you are to come out refreshed. I knew that I would be jobless in a month's time, and I had nowhere else to go. But I had an unfaltering determination to figure out something.
Was I afraid? No. Was I scared? Not even an ounce? Excited? A little too much. It was a time to challenge myself to be something more.
There is a thing about freedom that they do not tell us; that it rids you of sleeplessness. It rids you of anxiety. It rids you of a racing heart. Instead, it fills you with a warmth like never before. It reminds you that you existed, perfectly, before this whole mess. That you will exist, perfectly, after this mess. If only you keep your head up and be consistent at going after what you want.
A month later, I pack my luggage at the back of a massive lorry and set off to Nairobi. What will my mother say? This question has died a natural death and I've been set free by a new question: What brings my heart joy?
One week has elapsed. I am seated in an office somewhere along Ngong Road, a blinking cursor and a blank page staring back at me. I figured it out, and landed a job where at least I do what brings me joy: write. I should be writing business news. I should be counterchecking these figures and graphs and coming up with a news article. I should be writing something, so I don’t look as if I was just handed this job because both panellists at the interview were also non-practising engineers.
I should be writing, but what do I know about business? What do I know about news writing? All my life, I have been a mathematician, and engineer, and creative writer. The only thing close to business news is the sales of my debut book, which is just two months old in the market. While writing is my forte, business writing is a new game ball. But because the heart is there, I learn, and soon I easily type away and create amazing business news articles.
The salary? About half of what I was making at my previous job.
Also read: Is the Corporate Life Hijacking Your Dreams?
I know, you are tempted to ask, why. But there comes a time in life when money isn’t what drives you. Amazing how at first it's a lot of money I wanted from engineering, but then with time and experience, it was joy and peace of mind that I yearned for. It is that thing which your heart beats for. That thing that keeps you awake at night. That thing that brings you a smile, even when at the end of the month your paycheck looks like your marks in primary school. Ok, maybe I exaggerate, but you get my point.
It has been close to two years now of me writing business news. I learned while on-job. My passion for writing made it easier for me.
It has been a beautiful journey that has birthed me immense opportunities. Oh, I love the growth. I have crossed paths with the most brilliant in the industry and they have taught me and stoked my flames.
I am certain none of this would have happened had I sat, sulking, at my former workplace in the name of ‘there are no jobs in Kenya'.
So every time people ask me how I crossed over from engineering to business news writing and literature, my mouth runs dry. Because it is not something I can put a finger on. Because it is not something that was birthed overnight. It is not something that has come easy. It is not something that someone woke up and placed in my hands.
It is something I have worked for, for years. Even after my first book, I knew I was born to write, and this zeal birthed my second book, then there was a third, and a fourth.
It boils down to the force behind the beat in your heart. What is that thing?
Also read: My Search for Meaning