Updated: Jul 9
| This is the 116th story of Our Life Logs |
I survived 16 years of military life through premonition, an instinctive survival gift that enabled me to make life saving decisions for my team and myself. Unfortunately, it never forewarned me of my future outside of the military.
I was born to a disciplinarian couple in 1972 in North Kakamega, Kenya. My father was a polygamous man with five wives and a total of eight children. We lived in our house on my father’s homestead. My mother had two of her own children, and I was her first born. She helped run my father’s shop in Busia Town, while the rest of the family stayed in Kakamega. Without the supervision of my mother, at 10 years old, I was sent to live with my stepmother, my father’s elder wife so my dad could keep an eye on me too. She lived in a village in Kakamega where I was tasked to herd cattle. I was a hands-on child, always emulating anything I saw or visualized. As a go-getter, I grew up respecting my parents and adults alike. It was expected of me. I did not talk much, and when I did, it often sounded like blubbering. I didn’t make myself clear enough to be understood, but I did my best.
I was a happy child, and I was well provided for. I did not feel that I lacked anything. However, living away from my biological mother did make me feel neglected. I remember with horror the year I had to endure a jigger infestation. It took a year before anyone took notice of my plight. The situation was so bad that other children would allocate themselves one of my toes to learn the process of removing the jiggers. The worst part was that no adult bothered to try and rid me of the painful scourge. Due to my speech struggle during that period, I suffered in silence. Looking back, it breaks my heart that I couldn’t speak up about my problem.
When I visited my mother a year later, she was aghast and openly expressed how unhappy she was about my health. Mothers are a gem. Mine was. She nursed me back to health by dousing my feet in paraffin to rid me of the bugs. Two weeks later, I could once again walk and not waddle. I could play with the rest of the children without being the center of attention. Life was better when my mom would come in to save the day.
I started school late because my parents wanted to create a gap between my sister and me. This was to allow my father a chance to better plan his finances. He had a huge family and was the major breadwinner, so giving all of them an education was expensive. I finished primary school in 1987. During high school, I had fallen to peer pressure, and I developed a taste for alcohol. In secret, I binged. I also picked up smoking. It did not help matters that my favorite uncle was a smoking chimney. I began regularly joining him in the smoking chambers. I was lucky to complete high school without getting expelled. Since I was sent to school later, I did not finish high school until 1992, and all the pressures were egging me on to fail, but I made it.
Growing up along the Busia border, I came face to face with war in 1987 after Uganda soldiers attempted to take over Busia town, a Kenyan territory. Being a young man of 15 years and old enough to help, I volunteered to assist our border police in the fight. Doing so was putting my life in the line of fire, but it was worth it to protect my country. I was lucky to have never been shot while I volunteered. Through this experience, I developed an interest in joining the Kenyan Army. When I finally got accepted in 1994, I was the proudest man alive.
The recruitment is usually competitive, and many youths turn up to try their luck at joining the army. The probability of getting through recruitment training is usually 50/50. Recruitment was rigorous for me. I woke at dawn and lined up for the test that all recruits go through during this process. They checked my dental and physical fitness. Criminal records, medical fitness and citizenship were counter-checked. When I was finally cleared to join training, I sighed with relief. It was time to begin the next phase of my life.
After successfully completing the training at Eldoret, I got deployed in a number of towns and cities including Mariakani, Nanyuki, Eldoret, Nairobi, Garissa as well as El Fashir in Darfur. It’s during one of these deployments that my family expected me to introduce them to someone that I wanted to marry.
Unknown to them, I dreaded the very thought of getting married. I had witnessed how a cousin of mine endured abuse and neglect from his wife when he was sick. My opinion of women and marriage took a beating after seeing what he went through. He could beg for a simple thing like a glass of water, and she wouldn’t get him one. If no one else was around, he would spend the whole day hungry, as he had no energy to fix himself a bite. I wondered why they were married in the first place. I was not going to get myself into such a situation. When it became apparent that I would end up with an arranged wedding if I didn’t find someone, I decided to set aside my fears and find my own bride. And I found one. We got married in 2000. I didn’t realize until later in life that this would be the most major regret I would ever have.
Life in the army was not the easiest. It requires a blend of humility, bravery and perseverance. A strong heart helps you survive very morbid situations. You spend your life witnessing death and desperation all around you and have to accept it. When my fellow soldiers would die in the line of duty, I would have to bear the grief and quickly get over it because my own life was on the line. Dwelling on grief just clouds the mind and you can lose your sound judgment. It’s a good recipe if you want to get yourself killed.
Whenever we neutralized an attack, I had no sense of pride. Maybe because it’s not a matter of accolades, rather, a situation of life and death. It was all purely survival. You either kill or get killed. When I left in the morning, I did so as if I would not return at all. Somehow it became second nature to expect to lose my life.
We would spend a whole year, or more without seeing our family, and life continued as if we never existed. It was tough for me as a married soldier. Loneliness and prolonged time apart are two things that best described my love life while in the military. On top of being away from loved ones, we lived in extreme conditions with many desert storms. The sun would be blacked out for a whole day because of a dust storm. On those days, the rations resupply plane couldn’t land because of visibility, so we had to survive on juice for weeks until the plane could deliver again.
I even had ‘Troy’ as my military code name, derived from the movie Troy. The reason I earned it is because I lived and operated like Achilles. I was always being my colleague’s keeper, and I was always on the lookout with very peculiar instincts. If I detested something, my fellow soldiers believed I was right. If I advised against going a certain way or route, they felt I was most certainly right. I couldn’t explain why or how I always knew. Instinct just kicked in. Some of my colleagues hurt in battle were most likely those who ignored my warnings. They were the ones who thought I was just some weird, paranoid soldier.
Still I lived for my country and my people. I felt that I’d surely be a misfit anywhere else. I always thought this was true until I fell into some trouble that I could not get out of. While at an operation in North Eastern Kenya, some colleagues of mine used my pay-slip to commit a fraud. They secured a loan facility from Harambee Cooperative Sacco using my details. Even today, I do not understand how they pulled it through. When it was discovered, I found myself in the mix of things and I felt like the blubbering child from my youth, unable to explain myself. In 2011, I was fired from my military service and sent home without a penny other than my small savings.
Being a soldier was what I knew best how to be. Becoming a civilian after such a life was pure torture. I lost what I loved doing. My wife of 11 years could not accept my new state of living, and she deserted me, tagging our three children along with her and all the household items. I felt like every eye judged me. I questioned my ability to be a husband, a father and a soldier. This feeling drove me into a depression to a point that I was considering suicide. The anger, the feeling of betrayal and losing the job I loved was all too much for me to bear. I no longer had respect among my peers. I was a disgrace to the country I served with my life. It made me feel useless.
When God has a plan for you, He never lets you go until He fulfils it. Salvation came to me when I was a broken man. I met a pastor at Pentecostal Church Valley Road Nairobi who listened patiently to me and gave me my first counseling session.
My mother called, asking why I wanted to commit suicide when it wasn’t my time to go. She was not the type that talked just to talk, so when she called me, I knew she meant business. My mother always had my back. She showed me that I was still her son, and that she loved me with or without the soldier title. She did not want to lose me over a lost title. Nothing of me was truly lost in her eyes. I was still her son. Her questions brought sanity back into my life. She and I talked for several days afterwards. She asked me if I had all my limbs, and if I could still work. Luckily, I left the army without any broken bones. She called me back home, so I could rebuild my life with her help.
“Your dad left big pieces of land lying idle, why not come till them? Guys are doing well in the village through farming,” she had said.
That was my turning point. I went back home and started farming.
God has a way of redeeming the lowliest of people. I was born again in a new profession. In my transformation, I also quit drinking and set myself on the right course. I stopped eight years ago, and I am still going strong. It’s funny that my major triumphant moment was after my military days. In 2006, while on a peacekeeping in Darfur Sudan I managed to quit smoking too. The ability to cleanse my own body and keep it clean for the Lord is the best thing I ever did for myself. Now farming has brought me lots of joy and peace.
I remember my ex-colleagues who survived the “El Adde Somalia” (an Al-Shabaab attack of our Kenyan army base in 2016). After it was over, they told me that had I been present at the camp on that fateful night, the fight would have been won. I was overcome with emotion. Knowing that a fellow soldier felt this way about me long after I left the service was just something I could not fathom. It’s in moments like those that I do not regret my time in the military.
Looking back at my life. I realize that I was always driven by a strong will to survive especially after the experience of losing my job. I lost everything that I had worked hard to achieve the past 16 years and watched it all fade right before my eyes. Through the support of loved ones, I was able to rise from that low point in my life and find joy again. I did not sit on my bum and wallow over my bad luck forever. I did not allow the blight to determine how my life would be. I live by the motto, “Phoenix shall rise again.” I have risen from my struggles to make a life for myself. There are times that I regret going to the army, but then I realize how much it shaped me. I now know that I could always fit anywhere regardless. One career doesn’t define me. I can find happiness from more than a career path. I find happiness through loved ones in my life.
This is the story of Martin Otieno
Today, Martin tills his farm in Busia, Kenya. Martin witnessed an invasion by Uganda into Kenya’s territory when only 15 years old and decided to join the army with a desire to defend his county and soon became a dependable member of his unit. When a misunderstanding got him fired, however, he was driven to a point of depression, deserted by his wife of 11 years. His mother brought him back to life, and God gave him a chance at a new life. He was able to get his children back, and they all now live in a healthy space, even without his wife. He likes to share with others his salvation and experiences. Despite everything, he is proud to have served his country.
This story first touched our hearts on July 16, 2018.
| Writer: Opondo Maureen | Editors: Kristen Petronio|