Two years ago, Faye Cuevas moved to Kenya with her two children to take her position as senior vice president of International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW). She is a lawyer and was a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force and has 19 years experience in the military. She is overseeing tenBoma, or 10 homesteads, a project which uses technology to predict and prevent poaching of elephants. She met JACKSON BIKO in her office on Nairobi’s Lenana Road.
How did you end up in the military?
I’d love to say altruistic reasons led me down that path of service but the truth is that after studying political science in a small town in Minnesota, I asked myself what I was going to do with a political science major. I had always wanted to go to Law School but I knew I wasn’t going to afford. I saw an advertisement for the military training programme and I thought it was a great opportunity to see the world, get scholarships, get a career after graduation that also appeared to be interesting at the time. I signed up and there after I was commissioned as a sergeant lieutenant 22 years ago.
Having worked in conservation, how would you say you and elephants are alike?
If I start talking about elephants we will stay here the whole day. For their size, they are incredibly graceful creatures. What drives me to elephants is that they are matriarchal societies, they are led by female matriarchs.
The appeal to me, I think both as a professional woman and as a mother because it comes with a lot of responsibility, balancing, relying on intuition and instinct. There is also a roaming sense of responsibility for the family and for the herd.
What have you learnt about yourself, doing what you’re doing right now?
(Long pause) I have a sense of humility working in conservation, a willingness to let my heart be broken by sharing time with people and animals that are suffering. You have to let your heart break because it’s the only way that you can be present with any being that suffers. And if you allow yourself that presence, it creates a space where you listen from a different place and learn from a different place and maybe lean in to act from different place.
You are white and a woman working with conservative communities. Has this impacted on how you lead, have you learnt anything about leadership?
Some of the communities that we visit are not used to seeing white people. I approach the interactions first with this idea of presence. How do we sit together and share together? And that means hearing from you; the challenges you face, the joys that you face, what is life like for you? We work with community elders, with warriors and we work separately with the women. But it is this idea to work with the communities by using the same social structures by which they organise themselves and listening that has been a massive leadership learning lesson for me.
Would you say that you have found your purpose?
Yeah. I found my purpose and I wasn’t looking for it. My purpose found me. But it’s also possible to have multiple purposes in your life, spread in different periods. It could be in the intersection of individual and professional growth.
What spirit animal are you?
I know it’s cliché but I definitely feel like an elephant. Otherwise, maybe a giraffe or so. I’m not tall but I tend to be a little bit clumsy like a giraffe, especially baby giraffes.
On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your happiness this moment?
A solid 8.4. I get to live in a place that cherishes children, which isn’t everywhere, doing what I love and fulfils me.
Has there been any other time in your life you’re happier than this?
When were you the saddest?
(Sighs) When I got a divorce.
Who is your alter ego?
Steve Jobs. I liked the way he thought, I liked the disruption he brought to the technology sector.
You studied law, have you found any use for it?
Well, much of the actual substance of our work, I find that I rely on my law degree. I was a prosecutor for eight years. But you know in Kenya, we work with the Judiciary and prosecutors when it comes preparing evidence for Kenya Wildlife Service or the police. But I also find that my legal training makes me a critical thinker.
What’s the most challenging thing you find in being a mum?
Honestly the pressure that we put ourselves under as mothers. It’s how we question ourselves and our decisions constantly. You know, at the end of the day when you are reflecting back and asking yourself did I do it right? Did I get it right? How can I improve? Certainly all these professionals go through that. But when it is your own children, there is a closeness to that questioning that I find to be my biggest challenge.
What would you say has been your biggest achievement so far as a human being?
Well, I’m a single mother of three children and two years ago I sold my house, my car and a lot of my belongings and moved to Kenya to work. When I tell that story to people, there are words like crazy or phrases like ‘ how could you?', ‘ how did you do that?’
But now I see how much my children love Kenya and as a mother, I see that as a great accomplishment. I have learnt about being in the moment, being present, something that I have learnt through my children. People ask, “ how did your children adapt?” There really was not any adapting for my children, they just got absorbed into it.
They are very elastic?
They are very elastic. So, now they have their friends, they have neighbours, they have their activities, they have a basketball, they have football group, they have their life here.
If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?
Something that really isn’t interesting (Laughs)