THE vast ocean waters of Tanzania are not easy to maneuver on a ship especially during southern high winds.
Imagine a scenario where on high waves and opposing tough winds, the naval ship clashes with a gang of armed pirates. In the ship is a young woman, in her early 20s, tasked to take charge of the massive vessel while the gunners are fighting to protect the economic zone and territorial waters of Tanzania.
This is what often went through the mind of Mrs Perucy Nyangele Kaseja each time she imagined her daughter, Brigadier General Sara Rwambali, now retired, navigating a ship amid a hail of bullets. But despite these motherly concerns, in 1974, Rwambali stood her ground and went ahead to train as a military cadet officer at Sanga-Sanga and Kurasini Military Schools.
A year later, she joined the navy as a Second Lieutenant and Maritime Pilot. Following her graduation, she courageously began a journey that saw her dicing with death as a trainer of female Zimbabwean and South African combatants fighting in their respective countries’ liberation struggles during the late 70s and early 80s.
The experience she acquired during this time was invaluable in her becoming the first female Tanzanian officer to be selected a UN Military Observer in the Ethiopia and Eritrea Peace Mission between 2003 and 2004. Rwambali was also appointed Special Representative of the African Union Commission Chairperson to South Sudan in 2015 among some of her high-profile assignments.
She is currently supporting the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation and UN Women project, which is advocating for the development of a National Action Plan for the implementation of the United Nations Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.
Rwambali is also a Steering Committee member of the African Women Leaders’ Network, Tanzania Chapter launched in February this year through UN Women’s support. Looking back, Rwambali is thankful for her eventful career and has particularly fond memories of the times she spent days on the ocean handling the military ships.
“At that time, women were not expected to conn military ships and so I was one of the first few to take up such a position. It gave my mother sleepless nights,” she says.
And due to her courage and track record, Rwambali was respected as a leader, attributes which saw her rise through the ranks until she made Brigadier-General in 2012—a title she held until her retirement three years later.
The 65-year-old mother-of-five marvels at how she managed to conquer the negativity around her decision to join the military after she completed her education at Tabora Girls High School. With her never-say-die attitude, she became one of the first 38 Tanzanian women to be trained as military officers, defying all the odds and perceptions against females holding senior ranks in the army.
“Before 1972 when the first three women were recruited to train as officers in Canada, the Tanzania People’s Defence Force was not recruiting women. To make matters worse, back then, it was taboo for girls to even aspire to join the military; many parents and society at large, did not accept girls to become ‘soldiers’,” Rwambali says.
An excellent hunter chooses the best hunting dogs
The age-old argument that women cannot make good commanders or Ministers of Defence still rages in certain quarters of Tanzanian society. But Rwambali rubbishes this biased view, arguing there are many brave African women who have led battles throughout history although there is a worrying tendency of eliminating many such women in the African history.
One of them is Queen Nzinga Mbande who was an intelligent and powerful 17th-century ruler of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (modern-day Angola).
Around the turn of the 17th century, Nzinga fearlessly and strategically fought for the freedom of her kingdoms against the Portuguese, who were colonizing the Central African coast at the time to control the trade of African people. Yaa Asantewaa was the Queen mother of the Edweso tribe of the Asante (Ashanti) in what is modern Ghana.
She was an exceptionally brave fighter who, in March 1900, raised and led an army of thousands against the British colonial forces in Ghana who wanted to subjugate the Asante and seize the Golden Stool, the Asante nation’s spiritual symbol of unity and sovereignty.
Women also played an important role in Tanzania’s liberation struggle from the colonial rule. The Maji Maji Uprising in the then Tanganyika was the most significant African challenge to German colonial rule during the brief period when Germany had African colonies.
The Uprising lasted two years and women fought side by side with men. After attaining independence from the British rule in 1961, Tanzanian women continued to fight to reclaim their space in decision making and to be given equal opportunities to participate in developing their country.
In the 70s they had started to raise their voices and demanding their space in government institutions through various platforms such as the Women Network of Tanzania. Rwambali remembers how President Mwalimu Nyerere saw the need to include women in the military and not to only confine them to the police force, correctional service and immigration.
“He knew that there was more to leadership than mere physique or gender. Through my experience, I have learnt that it’s the strategy that makes or breaks a mission, if we can refer to a mission to protect one’s country. The intelligence behind the formulation of the strategy has nothing to do with whether one is a woman or man,” says Rwambali.
In the military, she explains, when planning such a mission as a commander, appreciation of the situation is important as that is what informs the amount of force and the tactics required. She also emphasizes the need to have the capacity to identify the best officers to execute the mission.
“You need to be like a good hunter who chooses the best hunting dogs for a good catch. You cannot go to war with old and sick soldiers, and the same leadership principle applies across the board. Good leadership demands competent people in strategic positions, irrespective of gender. Women are excellent strategists and especially now with new technology, I don’t see why we should continue to have less women at the top in the military,” she adds.
One of the three pioneers to train as officers in Canada was Retired Major General Zawadi Madawili. “President Nyerere then established new regulations to train women as officers here in the country,” she says. Upon completion of her training, Rwambali and other female officers had to double their efforts to demonstrate their capability among their male counterparts.
“I later noticed that some male soldiers would hide when they saw me coming, so they could avoid saluting a woman. It was not easy for them – remember they had been enjoying dominance in the space for years. But when changes started happening, that did not go down well with some of them. It took years before some could summon the courage to talk to me and confess that they were wrong.”
There is change but the struggle continues
The Government of Tanzania has put in place a quota system aimed at increasing the recruitment of women from all regions in the military.
However, Rwambali says striking a gender balance remains a challenge. Achieving a 50-50 recruitment in the military, she explains, would impact positively on the number of women deployed in peacekeeping missions.
“Men are still dominating the military sector, with a heavy presence at the top. That’s a major concern here in Africa. We need to do more in promoting the empowerment of women both academically and through specialized trainings to help them climb-up the leadership ladder.”
Dealing with an invisible enemy (Covid-19) Rwambali says the country enjoyed peace and unity for many years, until the arrival of the new coronavirus, (Covid-19). In the first week of May a total of 49, 352 cases and 1, 959 deaths were reported in Africa alone.
The virus continues to haunt the global community, and Tanzania has not been spared the devastation.
“I have served all five Presidents (Dr John Pombe Magufuli for two years) before my retirement. All our leaders have been trying to give all Tanzanians a better life and we have never experienced a real threat to our people until now.
The complexity is that we are dealing with an invisible enemy, which is the coronavirus; it sees us and can make us sick, but we cannot see it,” she says, adding all retirees have a role to play to help strengthen prevention measures being implemented by the government in partnership with the development partners.
In Kigamboni, where she stays, Rwambali is one of the female retirees promoting the prevention of the spread of the virus through measures including social-distancing, wearing masks and regular washing of hands with clean water and soap.
“We still have an influx of fish-traders coming here to buy some fish and many of them are women. It is important to ensure prevention measures to protect people using various modes of public transport.”
Together with other female pensioners, they are working with women in marketplaces and the rest of the informal sector to support protection mechanisms.
“As a woman who understands the need to keep peace and protect the nation, I think retirees have a bigger role to play in our communities to raise awareness and to protect the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly and children,” she says.