Kenya’s first female brigadier joined the military purely by accident.
When she finished secondary school at Aga Khan High School in Nairobi in 1983, Brigadier Fatumah Ahmed was not sure what she wanted to do or what she wanted to become in life.
But she needed an identity card and thus a journey to her home district, Meru, was inevitable. “At that time, the military had advertised for recruitment.
Getting an ID used to be quite a process. There was no Huduma Centre and such things so I had been going back home for a week to follow up,” she said.
The offices were near the stadium where the military was recruiting and a day after she got her ID, she decided to go and try her luck. She was selected.
There was no long-held dream of being in uniform for the petite woman, who earlier this month became the first woman brigadier in the Kenya Defence Forces and the managing director of the Defence Forces Medical Insurance Scheme.
“It’s just an opportunity that presented itself and I decided to go for it,” said Brigadier Ahmed in an interview with the Nation.
She speaks softly, gesturing with her hands when necessary and obeying the photographer’s instructions with a smile. But there is no mistaking the military steel behind the gentle manners.
After she completed basic training along with about 30 other women, she was posted to the Women Service Corps, the automatic placement for women joining the military at the time.
The corps had been set up to provide support services for the men, who were in the three services — the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. It was the military’s administrative tool and had about 350 women at the time.
“It was conceptualised that the men would be free to go and fight at the front and we would remain at the rear to man the establishment. So once you joined, you would be trained in various areas of specialisation …clerks, secretaries, nurses … diverse professions so that you are able to provide effective service to the units but at the rear,” she said.
It was there that she met Lieutenant Colonel Esther Wamboi Njombo, the first female officer to be appointed Commanding Service Corps. Lt-Col Njombo was among the first people she looked up to in her career in the military.
“She was a real role model in terms of training, in terms of empowering the girls at that time … she was a commander and we learnt a lot from her,” said Brig Ahmed.
The deployment of the Women Service Corps was limited. There is only so much a clerk or a secretary can do and it was hard to go up the ranks with such a constrained mandate.
“Providing a supporting role and actual engagement in the military, which is supposed to provide the security of this country, was different,” she said.
Members of the Women Service Corps were not allowed to get married or to have children. It was either the corps life or the other life.
In 1984, Brig Ahmed went back to the Kenya Military Academy for cadet training and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.
She went right back to the Women Service Corps and served in various command and staff appointments as she worked her way up the ranks.
Things would only get better for the women in the military in 1999, when the Women Service Corps was dissolved and its members deployed to the three services.
KENYA AIR FORCE
Brig Ahmed ended up at the Kenya Air Force.
There, she served mainly in the human resources branch.
It also opened up an opportunity to start a family and she now has three children. Two are grown and one is 13 years old.
“I established a family after the dissolution of the Women Service Corps,” she said.
Still, the children live with the reality that their mother is not a civilian and has a responsibility to the military and in effect the country.
“It’s a matter of balancing. You ensure that you perform your role as a mother. You know what priorities to set. Our personal engagements and interests are second to the military so when duty calls, they know,” she said.
With the dissolution of the service corps, women could also compete on an almost equal footing with the men (though they still can’t get into units such as the Rangers Strike Force of the Special Forces and no woman is fighting in Somalia).
MINIMAL WOMEN CHALLENGES
“The challenges have been mitigated because the military has incorporated gender perspectives at all levels,” said Brig Ahmed.
The challenges for women are now minimal because they are able to venture into different fields.
“Maybe some of them might have challenges when it comes to work-life balance but I know that with training and commitment, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Before her promotion by President Uhuru Kenyatta on the advice of the Defence Council, she was the principal staff officer supporting the Air Force commander.
Among the memorable moments in her career was serving at the UN secretariat in the department of peacekeeping operations as a training officer and on a peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001.
She also considers her last posting, where she advised the commander on staff issues, a great privilege.
“In the military, promotion is on merit. Merit is the overriding principle. I believe, and that’s my personal view, that as I was doing (my job), the members of the Defence Council, my commander being one of them, were watching. What else can you do for a committed worker? You reward them,” she said.
“It’s been an exciting journey, very good experience … good exposure,” she said.