Something stands out about Major General Fatumah Ahmed. It is her strong personality.
Her clarity of thought. It is the fact that, when she is delighted, she does not restrain herself from bursting into a good laugh—and she occasionally likes to indulge in laughter.
It is also the fact that, her animated demeanour belies an unshakeable military discipline and fierce loyalty to her country.
When she was appointed Major General by President Uhuru Kenyatta during the reorganisation of the Kenya Defence Forces last week, the new appointment was not only a personal triumph but also an incredible conquest for Kenyan women in public service.
Maj-Gen Ahmed, 54, is a woman of several firsts. In 2015, she became the first woman to be appointed Brigadier, the fourth highest rank in the hierarchy of the KDF.
On Friday, she broke the glass ceiling yet again to become the first female Major General in the country’s history. This new role, complete with two stars, is the third highest rank in KDF’s structure of power.
During an exclusive interview with the Nation, Maj-Gen Ahmed admitted that, while she was eyeing a promotion, she did not expect it to be this soon or to come in this fashion –it was a pleasant surprise.
She joined the military in 1983 aged only 19, and has spent virtually all her adult life in the service, rising through different ranks and capacities.
Her appointment came as a reward for a remarkable journey of 35 years in the service, where resilience and commitment have defined her work.
“I was born and raised in Meru County. I joined the military after completing my O-levels. Those days, the role of women in the KDF was mild and indirect under the Women Service Corps. Women then were performing mostly clerical work and other support duties,” she said.
The Women Service Corps was dissolved in 1999 and women reintegrated into the three services of Kenya Army, Kenya Navy and Kenya Air Force. This paved way for women to be deployed to the mainstream military services including training and operations.
A mother of three children aged between 15 and 30, Maj-Gen Ahmed argues that women’s appointment to top position of leadership should not be based merely on observing the two-thirds gender rule, but mostly on the fact that they have the capacity to make significant contributions to the country.
To her, planning and discipline acquired in the military is what has enabled her to navigate the often slippery family-work balance with considerable ease.
“I have mastered the art of careful balancing, such that none of my roles falls through the cracks. Service in the military is about discipline, focus and commitment. I have to demonstrate my qualities of a leader, a family woman and a professional at all times.”
According to her, badge, rank and her senior role in the military hold almost no sway at home: “At home, I’m a wife and a mother. I have to spend quality time with my family and to perform different responsibilities expected of me as a family woman.”
“My last born daughter is in Form One. At 15, she is at a critical stage in her life where she requires guidance and constant assurances. Despite my stiff schedule at work, I endeavour to do this whenever she is at home during school holidays,” she said.
She describes herself as an avid dancer, and when time allows, she likes to experiment with different cuisines. Hanging out with young women and mentoring them also features in her list of hobbies.
Maj Gen Fatumah reveals that her compact work schedule scarcely gets in the way of her religious rituals, which she observes fervently.
“I pray five times a day as Islam requires of me. I may be too held down by work, but I have to create time for this critical element of my religion,” she said.
She considers terrorism retrogressive, and emphasises that religion should not be used as an excuse for any form of destruction and barbarism.
Besides her military training, she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainable Human Resource Development from Tangaza University, a constituent college of Catholic University of East Africa (CUEA).
She is currently undertaking her Masters in Social Transformation (management) at the same institution. To her, duty and loyalty to country come first.
“My family understands the nature of my job. When duty calls, they know I have to fulfil whatever responsibility there is without failure. This understanding and support is what has helped to come this far,” she says.
She said that working under various commanders at various levels of the military service has been her main source of motivation.