In the days gone by, it was considered unfeminine for women to join the army. In fact, it is said that when the late Idi Amin was president, no woman was allowed to join the army
By Oyet Okwera
In the days gone by, it was considered unfeminine for women to join the army. In fact, it is said that when the late Idi Amin was president, no woman was allowed to join the army. However, for Lt. Col. Rebecca Mpagi, no amount of discouragement and stereotyping would keep her out of the army.
Her journey began in 1986, when she joined the National Resistance Army. Mpagi says she decided to join it simply because she loved the uniform that military aviators wore. Besides, she loved the challenge that military aviation presented to her.
Her ticket to the army was her qualification as an aviation engineer. Afande Mpagi, as she is popularly known, was the first Ugandan woman to join the army as a military pilot.
Background and education
Mpagi is the 11th out of 14 children born to Charles William Mpagi and Yunia Nakibuuka Mpagi.
She went to Kasanje Primary School from 1962 to 1965 for Primary One to Primary Four. She completed her primary education at Jungo Junior School in Wakiso.
In 1969, Afande Mpagi joined Nabisunsa Girls’ School where she obtained her Uganda Certificate in Education in 1972.
She studied her A’level at Kololo Secondary School from 1973 to 1974.
After her A’level, Afande Mpagi pursued a secretarial course at Kiyanda College in Nairobi.
From 1978 to 1982, she went to the East African Civil Aviation Academy in Soroti to study aviation engineering.
She has done a number of refresher military officer courses as well as short training in guidance and counselling.
Mpagi’s first job was at C.O Mooka and Company advocates in Mbale, where she was a secretary.
However, during the 1979 liberation war, her employer, C.O Mooka was murdered and she had to leave the firm. She then went to the flying school.
In 1986, Mpagi joined the National Resistance Army.
Two years later, she was promoted to second lieutenant and in 1990, she became full lieutenant.
She rose to the rank of captain nine years later before being decorated as a Major in 2002. In 2008, she climbed to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Mpagi is also the head of women affairs in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) at the directorate of women affairs. This Directorate has a mission “to improve, uplift and empower female combatants in UPDF by developing female soldier’s career and progression within the army with emphasis on gender balance, to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.”
Her role is to identify the female soldiers’ needs and address them. Her other mandate is to promote the professional and economic status of women in liaison with line ministries of the Government.
Mpagi says she is also expected to promote safety against sexual abuse and harassment at both training wings and workplaces.
The main challenge female soldiers face in the army is sexual harassment, which has greatly reduced with the functions of Directorate of women affairs.
Mpagi says many female soldiers find it difficult to heed to abrupt calls of duty yet they are with their families.
As she plans to retire, Afande Mpagi is grooming female combatants to take pride in being in the army. She also wants women in the army to have a bright career future.
Most vivid memories
Looking back at her career, Afande Mpagi was not admitted the first time she applied to enrol in the aviation school on grounds that she is a woman.
However, she persisted until was granted entry and while there, she impressed her instructors.
Afande also recalls how she has missed death by a whisker three times. The first was after the 1979 liberation war, where other aviation students were murdered at the Kenyan border as they attempted to flee from Uganda.
The second time was in Lira when the Lakwena rebels came towards her as she was refuelling one of the aircrafts under General Salim Saleh command. “Out of fear, we flew off forgetting one of the spare aviation batteries used for refuelling the aircraft,” recalls Mpagi.
Mpagi’s third brush with death was when the Lord Resistance Army rebels tried to trick her group into offering the rebels help. The rebels used the military signal of smoke. As Mpagi was drawing closer to offer food, the army intelligence informed them that a section with smoke was not a territory of Ugandan soldiers. They then swiftly changed course escaping death as the enemy was just waiting to pull the trigger.
Balancing work with home
Mpagi is a mother of four daughters and she cherishes her family.
She, however, confesses that her children suffered because of her busy schedule because she most of the time left them under the care of a housemaid.
One wonders how Mpagi balances being an army woman and a mother, given that in the military anyone can be called to duty any time. “In the military, we are trained to always be prepared for any thing. So, some times when I am with my family, my boss calls me for duty,” she says.
Mpagi says soldiers treat each other as family so they share challenges and when she is not at home, the neighbours keep her informed about what is happening.
Mpagi says she would glad if her daughters followed in her footsteps because the army is now a professional institution just like any other workplace.
Mpagi: Uganda’s first woman military pilot