• Anne Mbaluka, 37, is now a senior sergeant and a highly regarded avionics technician and with the Kenya Airforce based in Moi Airbase
• Her job is to repair and maintain military aircraft’s electronic instruments, such as radio communication devices and equipment, radar systems and navigation aids
The National Youth Service trainees sweltered in their heavy uniforms at the foot of Mt Kioko in Gilgil.
The worst was yet to come for the 35 young men and women. As punishment for lateness, they were to climb and descend the hill several times under the watch of instructors.
Among the trainees was Anne Mbaluka, then 18. The heat, the exhaustion and the spade she carried weighed heavier than she could recall. She thought of leaving and going back home to Makueni.
At that same time, her father, whose favourite she was, would be at his hardware selling construction materials.
Her mother would be in the farms weeding the maize, peas or carrots they grew in Kitise, her rural village. Any of her seven siblings would be helping on the farm or doing other errands.
Mbaluka turned to the only other woman from her home area and told her, “Today, I’ll do everything to go home.”
The other woman looked at her, then asked what she would go back to do in the dry village. “You would be such a fool,” she told Mbaluka.
Jolted, she asked an instructor for 10 minutes to rest. She said a prayer and resumed the punishment with the others.
That leap of faith was significant because five months later, she would be a military recruit in the air force wing. That was 19 years ago.
Mbaluka, 37, is now a senior sergeant and a highly regarded avionics technician and with the Kenya Airforce based at Moi Airbase.
WHAT SHE DOES
Mbaluka's job is to repair and maintain military aircraft’s electronic instruments, such as radio communication devices and equipment, radar systems and navigation aids. She has risen four ranks to her current designation.
No day is the same at the office. An avionics expert can work either on base or off it. On base, Mbaluka does before-flight maintenance, turn-round checks, ensures fly-away kits are available and enforces quality assurance for optimum flight safety.
At her rank, Mbaluka is sometimes in charge of the aircraft servicing crew. This gives her a supervisory role over other technicians.
“I’ll make sure they have required licences, a clean hangar, are using their manuals and ensure work to the deadline on any assignments,” she says.
Sometimes she works as an onboard flight technician, ensuring that communication and navigation instruments and equipment are serviceable. She has been involved in several missions, including medical and casualty evacuations and supply drops.
To transition from the NYS to the military, Mbaluka benefitted from a 2001 directive by retired President Daniel Moi. The President had ordered that the military recruit servicemen from the NYS.
She had just finished the basic training and was doing the mandatory nation-building service in Yatta when her cohort was recalled to Ruaraka for the recruitment. Her B-minus KCSE score and a successful aptitude test cemented her place as an air force recruit.
And then she was back for another basic military training for six months. This time it was easy, Mbaluka says with a smile. The only difference was the additional 4.5kg G3 rifle she had to lug everywhere.
ANATOMY OF AMBITION
We’re holding the interview at a small common room at Moi Airbase, Eastleigh, and Mbaluka is dressed in her green technician’s overall.
Her braided hair is pulled back in a ponytail. On her feet are beige safari boots. With us are two senior officers.
She gesticulates sometimes and bends her lean frame forward to make a point.
After the basic military training, Mbaluka studied telecommunications engineering at the Kenya Defence Forces Training School in Embakasi between 2002 and 2004, and spent a year on attachment with Kenya Airforce, graduating in 2005.
When she took the technician’s oath on graduation, Mbaluka says, memories of her younger self playing with other children in her rural village and seeing a low-flying aeroplane flooded back. She was perhaps eight or nine.
She can’t remember. But she promised her playmates then that she would one day fly that height.
She did not know it was the Buffalo aircraft, and never imagined her day job would one day be to service similar planes. It was also the first aircraft she boarded at Moi Airbase in the period just before she began her course at the military training school.
One day my son told me, Mum, if you could be a driver, you could drive our school van. We’d go with you in the morning then we come back with youAnne Mbaluka
It may have been just a promise to her peers that she would fly high, but to Mbaluka, God had made it come to fulfilment.
“I said thank you, God. You have raised me from that rural area, and now the government of Kenya, and precisely the Kenya Air Force, has entrusted me with the duty to maintain the military aircraft. You’ve bestowed honour upon me,” she says.
To upgrade her skill, Mbaluka has since received advanced flight safety training at the Flight Safety International School and the Bell Training Academy, both in the US.
She is also a certified onboard flight technician, having taken her course at Moi Air Base’s Dew Drop Inn facility.
In Mbaluka’s training cohort, there were only four women in the entire aviation sector. When she joined her section, she was the lone woman among 40 men. But she did not feel out of place.
“The men took us as their brothers so that we did not feel like we were misplaced. We worked together, we did it as a team,” she says.
Mbaluka says they did not feel like they were women, perhaps only when they were in skirts would they feel different.
“When you’re in the uniform, it’s a society and we’re working together,” she says.
Where heavy equipment required the masculine power of the male officers, they were always on hand to help.
This camaraderie is also enforced in the military practice. Opportunities to rise through the ranks, for training, and for duties are available to all commissioned and non-commissioned officers, regardless of gender.
Anne Mbaluka, 37, is now a senior sergeant and a highly regarded avionics technician and with the Kenya Airforce based in Moi Airbase
Mbaluka is a strong believer, and she returns to the Bible often to find motivation for her work. She does her job as if it were a divine duty. She believes she has to work ‘as if unto God’.
“This is a God-given job for me and this motivates me to do it to perfection,” she says.
Married with two children aged 11 and 12, Mbaluka says her biggest challenge is not the technical work she does to ensure her flying colleagues are safe but having her children understand her work demands.
“One day my son told me, Mum, if you could be a driver, you could drive our school van. We’d go with you in the morning then we come back with you,” she says.
Her bosses and colleagues are, however, supportive, and allow her time to be with her children when they close school. She also takes her annual leave days during the extended school holidays to bond with her children.
Her husband is a retired military officer and understands her job’s demands.
Opportunities abound for women in the military, Mbaluka says.
“You can further your careers in the military. It has everything under one roof. I tell women I interact with that it is possible. We’ve managed this far, and we’re sailing through,” she says.
While she enjoys flying and maintaining aircrafts, Mbaluka is also a preacher of the gospel. She is passionate about family life and encourages women that marriages work.
“You can be a career woman and let your family stand,” she says.
Mbaluka has reached the skies, but she wants to be remembered as a great woman in Kenya and beyond.