Good meals, fancy phones, clean uniforms…The new face of UPDF serving under AMISOM
It is seven years since Uganda sent 7,000 troops to Somalia under the African Union Peacekeeping mission (AMISOM). And for many soldiers, their lives will never be the same again.
After two days in Somalia, my worry for our soldiers was not about the possibility that they would lose their lives to the Al Shabaab terrorists. Rather, the possibility that our soldiers would return home too obese.
Our soldiers have good meals – a lot better than their counterparts back here. Breakfast includes milk, juice, bread, sausages, eggs and juice, margarine and honey.
There is also a variety of flavors for your breakfast – tea leaves, coffee, or chocolate.
Lunch and supper mainly includes posho (good quality) rice, chicken and beef and sometimes fish, beans and greens and mayonnaise.
There is also dessert – apples, yoghurt, and oranges. In fact during one meeting with their Commander Brig. Dick Olum one morning, one soldier said he had a complaint.
“How come I ate only five apples this week?” he asked. At another time, one of the chefs asked visiting Ugandan journalists to carry as much yoghurt as they could. “The soldiers are tired of it” he said.
Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda says soldiers are still required to work out to watch their weight.
“The people who are stationed at the exact battle points might not put on weight because of the nature of the work. Those who are stationed at our units and checking points we encourage them to work out as much as possible,” Ankunda noted.
The mess (dining room) has a TV screen where they watch the international news channels as they enjoy their meal.
There is also a refrigerator stuffed with fruits, juice and water.
Young ‘corporate’ women
On my first day in Mogadishu, I was shocked to see a feisty young woman, all groomed and dressed up in military uniform.
I was thinking she is just a secretary for the UPDF in Mogadishu.
She looked like any of those corporate women you see around town. But that was until I saw her juniors saluting her.
I later learnt that her name is Maj. Renee Mwesigwa. She was among the women that President Yoweri Museveni gave medals for their outstanding work during this year’s Women’s day celebrations.
She is a wife and a mother. Like Mwesigwa, the UPDF, now boasts of having so many women soldiers at the frontline. They look young, stylish and cool in their military gears.
The army has nearly every expert in them. There are lawyers, accountants, nurses, teachers, and IT professionals among others.
They have caterers to cook, they have doctors among themselves name it. Captain Betty Akello Otekat, the head of nurses under the AMISOM says she was an enrolled nurse under the ministry of health.
She decided to join the army and she has never looked back. She says serving in a risk zone has been rewarding. “After training, I have ably juggled family, school and my career.
I completed a degree in nursing and I am now doing my masters. Some people think being in the army is the end of your life. But for me, it has just the beginning,” Akello says, adding that the remuneration is also good especially if one has to serve in the risky area.
“A nurse working here earns over 800 dollars on average,” she reveals. Another UPDF soldier confided he was a lawyer. “Since I joined the army, my life has not been the same.
I can defend security at the same time; I am able to give legal advice to my people or colleagues within the army.”
Sleek phones and flat screens
If there is UPDF soldier in Somalia who doesn’t own a sleek phone, it is just that they simply don’t want to buy one. Or at least one who has not bought a flat TV screen for their families back home.
It might just be that they are rigid. The UPDF soldiers are earning in dollars. They receive part of their salary as allowance, while the rest is deposited on their bank accounts.
But still the allowances they get are enough for them to afford modern TV sets in Somalia, which they send back home when they can.
There was a time a UPDF soldier had to dress up in tattered uniform. Not anymore. According to Ankunda, each soldier now receives two pairs of uniforms every year.
One set of the uniform has smaller prints/sheds compared to the usual uniform we have known for years.
The gumboots are no longer the ordinary plastic ones which burn the feet under hot sun. They are leather boots.
They also have t-shirts backpacks, water bottles among other necessities.
Forget their mean faces. It is only part of their job. A UPDF soldier in Somalia does not shake hands with civilians or even get too close unless you are in danger and they are coming to your rescue.
You just might be the enemy they are looking for. This has earned them respect and admiration from the local Somalis so much that the Somalis now understand some Luganda.
Although sleeping is a luxury in a soldier’s life, once you are off duty, you are assured of a goodnight’s sleep.
The bathrooms have a shower and flush toilets. Around some of the designated military bases, you can access internet, although it is slow.
The rooms are improvised metallic containers. But they are painted and spotlessly clean.
Each room has four mattresses with bed sheets and a wardrobe.
There is also AC so you don’t even feel the heat even in this desert.
Electricity is mainly solar. Although the water from the sea is salty, the UPDF is trying to have it treated.