Ex-military women praise Tonje for allowing them have children

Retired General Daudi Tonje gifted by Female of Valour Association of Kenya women who paid him homage at his Kitale farm. [Martin Ndiema, Standard]

Retired military chief Daudi Tonje is remembered for introducing sweeping reforms but one particular one stood out at a recent function -- allowing women in the army to lead and to marry and bear children.

Over the weekend, a group of women under the umbrella of Females of Valour Association of Kenya paid General (Rtd) Tonje a visit to his Kitale home.

There was excitement in the air as the women heaped praises on the General for entrusting them with leadership and allowing them to have children, something they never would have imagined while still serving in the military.

Rachael Akello, the chairperson of Females of Valour Association of Kenya and one of the first beneficiaries of the Tonje reforms, hailed Tonje for rewriting history.

"We want to thank General Tonje for he brought back the value of women in us, and you also brought lives that would never have been today for letting women in the military get married and have families," added the former senior sergeant.

Ms Akello was accompanied by her first daughter Gloria Chebet to the event. Chebet lauded the General for the reforms that directly touch on her life.

Chebet, a Kabarak University student, recited a poem to the applause of the audience who were moved by the message.

Retired and away from the confinements of military service, the good deeds of Tonje still lead biographers to reconstruct his life patterns.

Firm and masculine, with grey-short hair, and a charming face with unflattering but narrow eyelids, Tonje is still a reflection of his former self in the military service.

The former General of the Kenya Army (now Kenya Defence Forces) instituted reforms whose beneficiaries term as being cast in stone.

Over the weekend, his former juniors under the umbrella of Females of Valour Association of Kenya, now retirees too, visited the former General at his Kitale home to pay homage.

Their seven-point presentation was a summation of the many advancements the General made in service. The ex-military women heaped praises on General Tonje for recognising women in service.

Tonje served as Chief of Staff of the Kenya Armed Forces during President Daniel Moi's reign, between 1996 and 2000. He spearheaded great reforms in the military that are enjoyed to date.

He ensured promotions in the military were based on academic performance, disbanded the women's corps, paving the way for women's inclusion in mainstream army, and lobbied for the establishment of the Defense College and Defence Forces Medical Scheme.

The iconic officer also introduced service rotation in the Chief of General of Defence Officers among the three services, Kenya Army, Kenya Navy, and Kenya Air Force, thus enhancing harmony among them.

While the retired female military officers were impressed by these reforms, one reform appeared to have appealed the most to them. Repealing the rule that banned women from leading commands in units where men were based and allowing women in the military to marry, thrashing the notion that women could not balance work and family.

Akello showered praises on the former military chief for his enormous contributions to the service. She served in the military for 21 years after the successful completion of colour service.

She said embracing women and according them their deserved dignity helped improve service delivery and promoted cohesion among the genders in the service.

The retired military officer said she was privileged to serve as a Gunner at the 75 Artillery Battalion alongside two other Women of Valour who gave her a synopsis of the women's corps.

"Tonje rewrote history by abolishing the women corps, embraced education, introduced pillar five on resettlement as well as initiated Defense Forces Medical Scheme that so many retirees are beneficiaries," Ms Akello said.

She emphasised that while the reforms might not appear in the Guinness Book of Records, General Tonje's reform agendas that saw the light of the day are permanently inscribed in their hearts.

The indelible mark, she added, was enough to bring happiness to their lives and those of their loved ones, particularly their immediate families, more so their husbands and children who would otherwise not have existed in their lives. "We want to thank General Tonje for he brought back the value of women in us, and you also brought lives that would have never been today for letting women in the military to get married and have families," added the former military senior sergeant.

Ms Akello's first daughter Gloria Chebet who accompanied her mother to the event, lauded the General for the reforms that directly touch on her life.

With her mother among the first beneficiaries of the new rule that allowed females in the military to get married, courtesy of General Tonje, Chebet felt indebted to the ex-military chief for the advancement that gave room to life.

Chebet, a Kabarak University student, recited a poem to the applause of the audience who were moved by the message.

Margaret Gachanja, who joined the military in 1973, said women would sign three-year contracts and would be discharged from duty should they fall pregnant or quit service if they wanted to get married.

She gave an account of some female military women who would hide their pregnancy, deliver and leave their day-old babies with their mothers to resume duty, for they needed the job and family.

Citing that it was a big challenge, Ms Gachanja said some would re-apply for the job after giving birth, but chances were slim, and no one had the guarantee of returning to work after quitting temporarily to have a baby.

"It was so disheartening that you would work and whatever you earned would be consumed by either your brothers or relatives and you would eventually return home to find nothing," narrated the ex-military official.

Gachanja said she only raised the children she had before joining the military and never gave birth again.

She also gave a personal account in which General Tonje saw her promoted without undue delays.

Her sentiments were echoed by Christine Karanja, who joined the forces the same year. She said they knew the strict terms but wanted the job.

Ms Karanja said she gave birth to her two children while serving in the military but was discovered when she had her second born.

"I was however considered back on grounds that I was disciplined though I got my children through corruption since it was not allowed," she said, causing laughter.

Tonje said he was entrusted to ensure that women were enrolled, and the best idea thought at the time was to establish a female-alone battalion, which was affected.

"I just did my work as I thought it should be, but today I am surprised to know that did it well to the extent that some people would still trace me to give thanks," said an amused Tonje.

His wife, Mary Tonje, also underscored the importance of empowering women, noting that they have immense contributions to make to the well-being of society and that they should never be overlooked.

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