Major (Dr) Stella Mwangi was the first woman to be posted to Gilgil Military Garrison Regional Hospital as a medical doctor, and the first doctor to handle surgery while on missions. She is a patriot who serves tirelessly in the Kenya Army and is wholly committed to defending her country.
Major (Dr) Stella Mwangi comes across as humble, soft-spoken and articulate when you first meet her.
Born and brought up in Nairobi, her family was instrumental in mentoring and encouraging her to work hard in school and aim high.
Growing up in Dagoretti, she was touched by the afflictions of the poor in her neighbourhood. This prompted her to volunteer in children’s homes and the children’s cancer ward at Kenyatta National Hospital during school holidays.
Joining the military was the last thing on her mind.
She took her studies seriously and eventually excelled in her KCSE exams.
“I chose to study medicine at the University of Nairobi,” she says. After her graduation, she was posted to Kitale District Hospital where she worked before she decided to join the military.
“The military bug bit me as a young adult when my friend, who had joined the Kenya Defence Forces, told me about her experience in the military,” Mwangi discloses.
The doctor recalls how her friend had just returned from a tour of duty in Lodwar and Isiolo. Her captivating stories were always about the great prospects and diversity in serving both at the barracks and the mission field.
Mwangi learnt from her friend that soldiers are frequently called upon to help communities in need, for instance during national disasters.
“I also came to learn that as a soldier, one can serve in other countries during peacekeeping missions.” She was convinced that being in the military was more about working with communities and not necessarily waging war.
She joined the Kenya Army and underwent the four-month basic military cadet course. The training exercise was gruelling, but doable.
“The increased number of women in the military is proof that anyone can succeed as long as they’re determined,” Mwangi says proudly.
After her training, she was posted to Gilgil Garrison and was later stationed at the Forces Memorial Hospital as a doctor in January 2011.
Some commentators from the region had long dismissed the Kenyan military as a ‘career army’ as the nation had never gone to war since independence. They were proved wrong when Kenya went to Somalia in 2010. The role played by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in Somalia was the game-changer in pushing back Al-Shabaab terrorist networks.
During the military offensive dubbed ‘Operation Linda Nchi’, Mwangi coordinated the operations catering for the health of soldiers in the field.
This involved repatriating injured soldiers and administering vaccines since the soldiers were being deployed to foreign terrain.
Mwangi expresses her regret that terrorism remains a threat to Kenya and the region. “Our forefathers fought and shed blood so that we could be free, therefore, no one should subject peace-loving Kenyans to terror.”
In the fight against terrorism, she lauds the government’s community policing policy, dubbed the ‘Nyumba Kumi Initiative’.
“People should get to know their neighbours and be wary of the activities and movements of strangers in their midst,” she says.
“It’s imperative for Kenyans to report suspicious members of the public to the authorities. This policy has been successful in other countries in averting terror and improving security.”
A diehard patriot, Mwangi calls on Kenyans to love and guard the nation jealously. From a security point of view, she urges Kenyans not to spread speculation and propaganda that would only strengthen the enemy in the event of a tragedy.
Together with the staff in her department, Mwangi has worked to facilitate free cervical cancer screening for all women in the military.
“As a military doctor, I encourage women to regularly go for breast and cervical cancer screening because of the rising cancer cases in the country.”
“My long term goal is to grow in my career by specialising further in the area of public health and psychiatry,” she says.
She also wants to see improvement in the health policies within the military, in order to have mentally stable soldiers, who are well prepared to carry out their duties.
Mwangi points out that although healthcare is free for military personnel and their immediate family members, sometimes they have to outsource specialists such as radiologists.
“I would want to see a more comprehensive healthcare infrastructure for the military and all Kenyans,” she says.
The military doctor is eager to see more women join the armed forces, as the terms of employment are good and flexible and include maternity leave for nursing mothers.
The officer notes that some women fear joining the armed forces because of the gruelling training, but encourages them not to be afraid. “It is no walk in the park, but I can assure them that it is achievable,” she says.
She adds that women are respected and well taken care of in the military. There are good structures that ensure their dignity is maintained during training and service.
Previously, women served in the Defence Forces under the Women’s Service Corps (WSC). This was up to 1999 when the servicewomen were integrated into the military to serve alongside their male colleagues. Now, male and female military personnel are employed and promoted based on merit rather than gender.
Women serving in the KDF have comprehensive health covers and are allowed to get married and have families of their own. They are entitled to prenatal and postnatal care, and when on maternity leave, they are encouraged to take the time they need to breastfeed their children. “The Kenya military is very progressive in promoting women’s issues and should be commended for that,” she says.
There are many opportunities for professional women from various fields to serve in KDF: doctors, lawyers, nurses, clerks, cooks and engineers, she says.
Mwangi is happily married, with a daughter. She says: “I am a major and doctor in the office, but when I go home, I am a loving mother and wife.”
At home, she relishes the role of homemaker and doesn’t delegate her duties. “I take care of my daughter and serve my husband dinner.” She tries to make time for her child as much as possible. Mwangi recalls how at the onset of ‘Operation Linda Nchi’, she had to travel to Somalia at short notice. “My husband, who is a civilian, was very supportive in helping our daughter adjust to my absence.” In Somalia, she tried to call home at least twice a day to be in touch with the family. She would also pray with her daughter just to reassure her that all would be well.
“As a committed Christian, I have come to learn that prayer is very important in everyday life. Every Sunday I take time to attend a church service.”
The doctor’s typical workday begins with getting her daughter ready for school before she herself heads off to work.
“My first duty is to check the office activity matrix, which details duties to be carried out during the day.”
Mwangi currently works in the department that coordinates HIV programmes in the military. The department also manages training of health personnel and often liaises with military programmes from other countries regarding training in best practices.
“The military also has chaplains and priests, who minister to the spiritual needs of the soldiers,” she says.
On specific days, they gather in one of the churches where a speaker gives a motivational talk to inspire the soldiers.
Mwangi loves spending time with her daughter and regularly takes her swimming on weekends. Her husband has been a pillar of strength, holding the family together.
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