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Military's love-hate relationship with soldiers' wives

By Amos Kareithi | October 8th 2021

A security guard keeping vigil as women queue in a Mau Mau detention camp in 1950 [File]

For ages, there has been a love-hate relationship between the military and soldiers' wives or lovers.

Even in death, the love-hate affair continues as evidenced by the recent decree on soldier's pensions.

There have been instances when the military used women as sex slaves to entice young recruits into service, while others have been used as a source of cheap labour for young unmarried officers.

Echoes of stereotyping women and assigning them societal roles to suit the whims of the military high command reverberate through the ages. From the days when tribal chiefs rewarded their gallant warriors with the most beautiful women.

This demeaning treatment of women was somehow formalized when the colonial government was cobbling up Kings African Rifles in East Africa. Since the soldiers recruited by the government were at times deployed to work against the interests of their families and communities, the idea of isolating them in barracks was encouraged.

In the barracks, the government regarded allowing soldiers access to women as essential services although governing these relations sometimes proved too expensive for the Exchequer. In 1939, for instance, Timothy Parsons writes how KAR banished all soldiers' wives from the barracks because the government was spending more money to sustain dependents.

So dire was the situation that soldiers had to obtain permission before they could entertain their wives in the barracks. The government went to the extent of discouraging African soldiers from marrying.

The colonial government was also keen on who fratenised with its soldiers even when they travelled abroad. There were jitters in high places when some African soldiers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania went for a coronation ceremony in 1937. They later bragged to their white colleagues of the exploits with women in London.

The colonial authorities feared that if unchecked such exploits would give the soldiers ideas of White women in East Africa. When another contingent was dispatched for another coronation ceremony in June 1953, the Africans were isolated and closely monitored so as not to seek pleasure in London’s red light districts.

The attitude towards marriage in KAR seesawed yet again in 1946 when the big shots encouraged Africans to marry and keep their wives in barracks. This time the perception was that the African brides created a pool of cheap labour, especially for the young, non-commissioned officers. Perhaps this explains why the colonial authorities enticed married soldiers with houses.

A new rule that a KDF widow or widower who remarries will not get pension, is a reminder of this love-hate affair between the military and soldiers' partners.

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