“How about we go for a walk tomorrow morning? I’ll tell you everything you want to know then.” Affiong tells me as I settle on a chair beside her, visibly ready to get our chat started.
She says this without turning to look at me. Her laptop is sitting beside her, and is opened to a page of a business magazine, where the headline, “Nine habits of successful business owners”, jump at me.
She had been in a videoconferencing meeting earlier when I arrived. And was in it throughout the time it took me to settle in and exhale the toxicity of the city’s stress.
Dinner was served shortly after, and we were joined by another couple who Affiong introduced as “friends from nought”. Her partner, who ushered me into the vacation residence, when I arrived, was proudly seeing to it that everyone had what they wanted. And the residential Chef came in at intervals to offer new treats, as we enjoyed the large table into the evening.
At the progression of dinner, the partners gravitated to themselves, reminding me that it was supposed to be a get-away for them, and I awkwardly sat un-coupled, then I was graciously saved by the thoughtful Chef, who nudged me to focus on experiencing the generosity of my hosts.
Now, as I sit at the porch beside her, I notice that the playfulness she had exhibited with her partner earlier had evaporated, and in its place was a faraway look. Her barn-red braids were fallen as they wished, with their curled tips dancing lazily, mid-air. She was wearing a light floral maxi, and laid facing the horizon.
It was a star-less sky, but an unknown distant light lighted it and gave it colors.
I took another look at her and wondered, if that moment she was having, had anything to do with the snippet of her speech, I overheard, when I first walked into the house.
“…I can respond to your submission with a thousand excuses, but I will rather give you, from the top of my head, ten lessons I learned from managing a failing venture”. I had heard her say.
In 1992, when Affiong was five, her grandmother arrived, at the first glimpse of sunrise, the intimate bungalow her parents and three siblings lived. The solemn air surrounding her visit, gave a clue to the seriousness of her visit. And Affiong with her three older siblings peered behind a curtain to watch the adults engage in discussions and rites for what a child will call a really long time. She does not remember any part of what was said that day, but etched in her mind is the visual of the transfer of statuettes of goat, chicken, cow, and other animals Affiong could not identify, from her grandmother to her parents. In that way, was the family’s livestock farm, handed over to the care of her parents.
They were the fourth generation of the business.
And their reign, Affiong told me as we walked along the shore, in the morning, as she promised, was marked by big gains and major expansions. They were the first management team to successfully add turkey to the poultry division, and expand into piggery.
As the business boomed, so did her parent’s financial capacity increase, giving them access to properties in choice locations and international education for all their children.
You may insert a story of kids who left home and never returned, here. But Affiong returned after her years of training and a little partying ended.
She told me she came back because she missed home. It was a deep longing she couldn’t ignore that brought her back. That, and a push by a short bad boy.
In the months that followed her return, she became a part of the business to the degree that her squeamishness would allow. Her mum, in particular, devoted her time to bringing her up to speed about the ins and outs of the concern. And she was having a lot of fun learning all about it, when things scrambled and spiraled out of control.
One minute, she was a princess with both parents doting over her, the next, she’s planning a funeral for both, at two months interval.
A lot of events took place before and after that, and Affiong told me that the fogginess and confusion that enveloped her mind throughout that period, is one feature of the time, she’s been trying to understand.
She said looking back it feels like she wasn’t in charge of her body and mind, up to the time that she took the reins and tried to continue from where her parents stopped.
We walked the rest of the way in silence because I could feel how debilitating retelling the story, while still trying to make sense of it, was on her.
Aroma of fries and beverage and pastries warmly welcomed us into the house. Her partner was waiting. As I ran up the stairs to my room, I heard him say, “I feel most contented when we’re like this”. I turned to look and they were tangled up in a hug.
Later, she showed me photos of her parents and their antecedents at different sections of the farm. The one photo of the woman who started it all, came last. She was in the photo with a goat and a fleeing chicken. And Affiong told me, her parents told her, she sold her wrappers to buy that goat and chicken, when her husband married another wife and she couldn’t get him to do anything for her and her kids anymore.
Both animals were female. The woman was astute. That is how it started.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask Affiong how it died in her hands, and she didn’t offer either. I asked different questions around it, to gain an insight, and she wouldn’t budge. It kind of felt like she was avoiding that part of the story.
Was it an act of God? Was it a case of mismanagement? An embezzlement? A scam? I pondered as we sat to eat.
She and her partner, who was sitting beside her, continued to text each other and giggle like pre-teens.
And ruffled, I blurted, “tell me about the last days of BLEEP”.
She collected herself before speaking. “I don’t know when her last days started. We were all just cultivating the animals. Supplying to our buyers. Keeping the books. Then, a key officer left to start an animal farm, too. Suddenly, we couldn’t afford the things we used to be able to afford. And I had to close our operations when there was barely anything to cultivate.”
“What are those ten lessons you said you can give from the top of your head?” I insisted, and she sang,
“Your knowledge of your business environment is everything. Passion is a determinant of success. Loyalty to the leadership affects growth. Don’t postpone hard decisions. Fashion your lifestyle around your business, and not the other way round. Pray for logic and when logic fails, pray. Alone-ness and the feeling of loneliness are fatal. Re-investing a big part of your profit is an act of fortification. You should never give up. And lastly, sometimes you have to let things die.”
The room fell quiet.
At noon, Affiong let me sit in at a meeting she was having with representatives of the investment company backing up her new challenge. I sat quietly as they talked agreements, strategies and goals. The meeting went on and on, and I escaped to Twitter. They weren’t talking about what I can include in this article, anyway. But I got the point, Affiong is working hard to build her new company and position it to succeed. She seems to have “everything” figured out and is confident she’s on the right track.
What makes this attempt different from the previous one? And she said.
“it is a few things. One, this feels personal. Two, I’ve learnt a few lessons…and tricks. Three, my emotion is sorted.”
“By that you mean what”? I inquired about the last part.
“My partner. Having him and knowing that he loves me gives me this sense of stability and faith? Or worth? I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. But having a solid person beside you, whom you can trust to a good extent, to watch out for where you may be blindsided, does something to your momentum. I don’t know if there’s a deeper layer to that.” She paused. “I was loved by my parents. I’ve been loved by a man before. Many times, actually. I guess I’m only just realizing how much of our career success depends on our emotional connections. And that scares me. Because, what if he ups and leaves? Maybe, right in the middle of a major deal? How will I navigate that?” she asked, wide-eyed. And, for a second, I wanted to stay out of it, but it felt like we were having a moment of sisterhood, so I offered,
“It isn’t what you can’t figure out and prepare for, if you take out time to do it…Maybe, as soon as today?”