JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
“I DON’T look at myself as a woman, but a soldier,” says Brigadier General Evelyn Mkakangoma.
Seated in a leather sofa in her office, she portrays an amiable personality, a disarming female figure in crisp green military attire.
But don’t be fooled by this façade.
Those who work with Brig-Gen Mkakangoma describe her as a tough, no-nonsense woman with a language as crude as they come out of the barracks, barking orders like the one-star general that she is.
You don’t want to cross her path from the wrong side.
Brig-Gen Mkakangoma is currently the highest ranking woman in the Zambia Army.
Two other female one-star generals are currently serving in Zambia’s foreign missions.
Brig-Gen Mkakangoma is chief of Communication and Information Technology wing. She reports directly to the Army Commander.
Yet, wind the clock four decades back, and you find a fragile girl.
Yes, when she was a little girl, Evelyn was a wimp. And she often got picked on by her older siblings, who nicknamed her chililalila (cry-baby).
And her mother always came to her defence.
“I was the weakest in the family and my mother used to protect me so much,” she says.
Evelyn’s father, Emmanuel Mkakangoma, worked as a mechanic for the police department, although he never had any rank and wore no uniform. Her mother, Valentina, was a stay-at-home mum.
When she was much older, Evelyn wanted to become a nurse.
But something happened on Independence Day, October 24, 1974, that changed the young girl’s heart, her destiny.
It was a significant year for Zambia as the young republic turned 10 years old.
Huge celebrations were planned all over the country. Many schools sent their pupils to participate in state-organised functions.
The future general was only 11 years old at the time, and she was “conscripted” into an army of child soldiers (if only the term did not have a negative connotation).
She and many of her schoolmates had camouflage uniforms made for them, complete with military-style boots.
“We were made to march from the High Court to State House,” recalls the general.
That sunny day, as the pupils marched down Independence Avenue, the wimp in the little girl died and a soldier was born.
“From that day I decided I was going to be a soldier,” says the general.
But Evelyn’s parents would not let her.
“My father didn’t want because he believed if I became a soldier, I would die,” she says.
But the young woman was undeterred by her parents’ opposition to her career choice.
And when she came across a recruitment advert for the Zambia Army, Evelyn decided to apply secretly and she was picked.
Her father reluctantly let her go for military training with a firm belief she would soon come back home, unable to cope with the harshness of military life. She never did.
Not that the training was not tough enough, but Evelyn had unwavering determination to become a soldier.
“It was tough, very tough, maybe because I was very young. I had just come straight from school,” she says.
The general recalls her daily routine as an officer cadet, waking up at 03:00 hours every day.
“The first few weeks I was almost giving up because there was no time to rest. I had to do physical training and I had to do class work and I had to pass,” she says.
Evelyn was only one of two women in a class of about 80 and she says competition was tough with no preferential treatment for women.
In order to keep up with the men during road runs, Evelyn would always run ahead as the pace-setter.
“I used to set the pace. When we went for a run for 20km, I would be in front, leading the men. And I would never give up,” she says.
But unlike the male cadets, Evelyn had an extra challenge to contend with – her menses.
“When you are having your menses you can’t jump because you have pains here and there,” she says.
But the general herself does not believe in preferential treatment for women, and she is opposed to any consideration for female cadets regarding their biological cycle.
“If that is brought in, you have to tailor the training differently for women,” she says.
She adds: “You know if you are feminine and you want to behave like you are weakly, it’s a challenge for the instructors because they can’t push you too much because of human rights so you end up lagging behind.”
Her other challenge was keeping her room spotlessly clean as required by her instructors.
“That was a big challenge, because when you come out of the room and the instructor comes to check the room, he should not find marks, which is not possible,” she says.
In 1985, Evelyn graduated as an officer cadet, and began her career as a second lieutenant.
But she says she never really saw herself becoming a high ranking officer because the military was still a man’s world.
“At that time, there were very few women in the army, I didn’t think I would rise to this position,” she says.
She wishes her parents, especially her mother who usually encouraged her, were alive to see what had become of the little fragile girl.
“They would have been proud of me,” she says.
When Evelyn joined the army in the 1980s, it was the dawn of ICT – in Zambia at least – and she gravitated towards it.
She first worked as a data control manager and she continuously trained to earn her ranks.
Initially, IT in the army was mainly used for financial records especially payroll.
The department had about 80 men with only three women.
The unit operated as a directorate for many years, but was expanded under the current Army Commander, Lt-Gen Paul Mihova.
The unit advises the army on latest equipment to acquire and also deals with policy issues related to ICT.
Brig-Gen Mkakangoma has also served in international peace missions.
In 2006, Brig-Gen Mkangangoma was deployed as a peace observer in the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) where she was in charge of communication under the United Nations (UN).
It was also her most risky mission.
At a place called Ngombe, her station was caught up in crossfire as government soldiers and rebels engaged in fighting just outside the UN camp.
Brig-Gen Mkangangoma and her team were trapped inside the compound. The team stayed in the compound for one week with no shower or change of clothes.
“The situation was so volatile anything could have happened,” she says.
“I felt like my feet were rotting inside my boots. The fighting was very heavy outside, a lot of people died, mostly civilians,” recalls the general.
The trapped soldiers survived on ready-to-eat meals.
“That was the biggest risk for me. Our offices were upstairs and I could see people dying on the streets below. Some civilians ran into the UN compound for refuge,” she recalls.
Although well-armed, the UN soldiers could not intervene as the UN rules only allow military force as a last resort.
Finally, the UN gave the blue helmets a green light to intervene in the fighting with fire power in order to stop the bloodshed.
A MAN’S WORLD
But working in a male-dominated field, also exposed the young female army officer to gender-based discrimination and even sexual harassment.
“Discrimination is there. As a woman, you have to work twice as hard as the men for you to be recognised, but with time, they are now accepting us,” she says.
The general thinks there is now a lot of political will and goodwill from the army command to promote women in the army.
“What I have seen is that for women to excel, there must be will power and political will. If you have seen of late, many women have been appointed to influential positions. That comes from the top. If the top doesn’t want women to be in strategic positions no matter how you try, you cannot get to the top,” she says.
The army now has women on the frontline as troop commanders, in artillery and in signals.
The general says there are also many cases of sexual harassment.
She herself once reported a senior officer for sexual harassment and he was reprimanded.
But she usually used her tough-talking to ward off any would-be sex offender.
“I can be very vulgar,” says the general.
Currently there are measures in place within the army to stop sexual harassment.
Erring officers can now be reported to the gender focal point officer within the army.
Despite her being tough, she says she tries to keep her womanhood play mum.
“We do what other women do, we want to look nice and we put on powder, but we have regulations. Our make-up has to be mild,” she says.
“When I’m here, I’m not a mother, I’m a soldier but when I get home I’m a mother, tender and loving,” she says.
The general also usually bares her softer side, counselling young female officers going through various problems.
Brig-Gen Mkakangoma was born in a family of 12. She is the fifth child.
She started her education in Kasama at Ituna Primary School and then attended Woodlands A Primary School. She completed her secondary school education in Livingstone.
She is unmarried and shares her life with her two children Sean and Dean.
When she retires, the general dreams of settling at her farm in Kabangwe where she rears goats, chickens and grows organic tomatoes too.
“There is good money in tomatoes,” she says.
But she is also considering obtaining her PhD and then lecturing at the soon-to-be-opened army university in Kabwe.
JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka