On the morning of June 1, 2001, a 19-year-old girl sneaked out of her home in Koola location within Machakos district to attend a Kenya Defence Forces recruitment exercise.
As she waited for her turn to present her documents, the nervous teenager wondered if her decision to attend the recruitment would come to fruition or it was just a waste of time. After all, no woman from her village had ever been picked to join the military.
Fourteen years later, that young girl, now a senior sergeant, is the second in command of Kenya’s most sophisticated warship. She can control the vessel from her station deep inside the belly of the warship in the machinery control room. As the chief electrical engineer of MV Jasiri, a lot rests on Snr Sgt Phoebe Makau’s shoulders.
The machinery control room is an air-conditioned cubicle two floors below the bridge with a stretching control panel and a huge glass window overlooking three massive humming generators from which numerous cables spread.
Senior Sergeant Makau watches over sweating young men in blue overalls, patting away at different types of electrical gadgets and monitoring the buzz of the generators.
Makau had always admired the disciplined forces owing to the fact that many of her male relatives were or are still serving members of the forces. Her uncle, who was a major in KDF, inspired her although when she decided to participate in the recruitment that June, she never confided in him.
When she was informed that she had been chosen to join the navy because she had performed well in mathematics at school, she was ecstatic.
“None of my family members knew where I was because by then mobile phones were not common,” Makau says.
Several months after her recruitment, Makau wrote a letter in which she inserted her pictures while at the Recruits Training School, Eldoret, to announce her whereabouts.
“When I joined KDF, there were no mobile phones and so no one knew where I was. It was only until I started earning a salary that I wrote a letter to my family in which I put pictures of myself and Sh2,000 for my mother. They came to the pass-out parade and since then I have never regretted joining the Navy because it has taken me places,” Makau says.
When she was given the opportunity to choose which of the three sections of the Navy she preferred, she opted for electrical engineering.
After the initial training at RTS, Makau then went to the Kenya Navy School for two years training before being posted to the field.
She started at the Kenya Navy Base Engineering Services, a unit at the base where was in charge of the waterpower. She later went to serve in the routine patrol boats.
“I was in charge of electrical functions of the boats and routine boats maintenance. I was privileged to work in the Navy commander’s boat then in 2010 I went to Lamu’s Manda Bay where I was for one year. There was no power at Manda Bay then and we mostly used generators to power the camp,” Makau said.
In 2010, she was promoted to the rank of sergeant then sent back to the Kenya Navy base Dockyard, where she dealt with level three maintenance on ships.
But her star rose in 2012 when she was picked to be among the crew that went to bring MV Jasiri warship from Astirello Gondan shipyard in Spain.
“I was elated to be chosen for the task. It was my first experience out of the country and we stayed there for three months as we were being trained on how to run the ship,” Makau recalls.
But the 21-day treacherous journey from Spain to Kenya — passing through choppy waters where three oceans converge — will forever remain etched in her mind. She was the second in command after the captain.
In naval circles, the stretch is feared for its uncertainty and it took the MV Jasiri crew three days of tossing, rolling and pitching to finally pass through.
“It is a small stretch but we spent three days rolling, pitching, yawning through the treacherous waters as we worked our way through. Despite the
sea sickness and vomiting, we did all we could to get the ship through,” Makau recalls.
The soft-spoken Makau was part of the team that sneaked a contingent of KDF Special Forces on the first ever sea-to-shore amphibious assault on the night of September 27, 2012 on Kismayu beach.
The MV Jasiri crew were tasked with sailing the warship close to the beach without attracting attention of al Shabaab fighters and launching the Special Forces in dinghies to the shore. By the time daylight struck, the insurgent fighters realised too late that the area had been overrun.
Makau has also been instrumental in destruction of two ships ferrying drugs — MV Al Noor and Baby Irish — in the deep waters off the Kenyan shore.
However, her most memorable experience is the responsibility of hosting President Uhuru Kenyatta aboard MV Jasiri during a 10-hour trip from Mombasa’s Mtongwe Navy Base to Lamu in December 2015.
“My most memorable trip while on duty is when we sailed with His Excellency the President as he was going to Lamu. We sailed with the Chief of Defence Forces General Samson Mwathethe and the Navy Commander Major General Levy Mghalu. Throughout the trip, it felt like a dream as I was on the bridge with the Commander-in-Chief with the captain. He was very interested in what we do and he asked me many questions,” Snr Sgt Makau recalls.
Makau, who is married to a soldier Benedict Mwanza serving in Sudan, says she has inspired many girls in her village to join KDF and other uniformed services.
However, the first Kenyan female navy warship engineer says balancing work and family, especially when your spouse is also away from home, has been challenging. The challenges, she says, make her work better because their son is at school most of the day.
“You must have a reliable house help and pay them well because they remain with your children most of the time. I have been with my house help for the last three years and she is good with my son. But most of the time,
my son is at school,” Makau says.
She encourages girls to go to recruiting centres and try their luck if they really want to join KDF, saying if one is cut out for a career in the military, they will succeed.
A staunch Christian, Makau is also a choir member and a member of the Mothers Union and congregates at the St Peters Church in Mtongwe when she is not on the ship that is usually moored at the shipyard or on call of duty.