Grace Ajierh – Graceful lawyer with eyes on the prize

Captain Grace Ajierh is a lawyer who won a medal for drafting and implementing the Kenya Defence Forces Act, which superseded the Armed Forces Act, in the Constitution of Kenya in 2013.

Military training might be tough, but Captain Grace Ajierh would not have it any other way. The lawyer considers herself even tougher than the harsh training for, as she says, a soldier’s survival depends on it.

“The enemy is not soft… The training has to be tough, the soldier even tougher,” she says.

As she describes a recruit’s lot, it becomes clear that military training is not for the fainthearted. “Sometimes after a routine march, the soles of your feet are blistered; you remove your socks and your skin peels off, but you don’t give up; you soldier on – literally.”

“You will never meet a military man who is not proud of having been able to achieve that… Training is meant to make you strong, not to kill you. It pushes your body to work,” says the officer. Ajierh considers serving in the military to be her greatest accomplishment, even though she enlisted in the Army against her parents’ wishes. They wanted her to become a medical doctor, but she always wanted to be a lawyer. “At school, I was in the debating and theatre clubs because of my proficiency in English.”

Ajierh joined the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in October 2011 and underwent training for six months. “You have to be in their (soldiers’) shoes to advise on legal matters,” she explains.

The fact that there are only four women lawyers in the entire military is a matter of pride for the officer. She considers her position prestigious, although prestige is not what drew her into the Army; it was love of the uniform. “You just want to wear that uniform, though not fully appreciating what is behind it.”

Before she joined the military, Ajierh practised law in various firms at the coast after graduating with a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Nairobi. She was admitted as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya in 2011 upon completing a mandatory Postgraduate Diploma in Law from the Kenya School of Law.

A taste of the battlefield was needed for the officer to become a competent adviser on legal affairs. She therefore spent three months of her military training in a hostile environment to acquaint herself with battle. She had a stint in an army barracks to understand the work of a general service unit away from her specialist unit of professionals such as lawyers, doctors and communications experts.

“Because of the number of years you have studied, you are given an exemption of four years, so you become a Captain once you are done with training and internship,” she explains.

As a lawyer in the Army, Capt Ajierh works closely with and advises Service Commanders. She describes her role as critical. “If you misadvise the Commander, there are dire consequences. Therefore, you have to work hard in a pressure cooker environment, and most of the time you have to give an opinion that is reasonable and well-informed in times of emergency.”

A dedicated officer, Ajierh puts in a lot of overtime hours, reporting to work earlier than everyone else. Given the magnitude of her work, putting in extra hours of research is more of an imperative than an option. “You must be an avid reader. You must always be one step ahead, otherwise you will not make it.”

Ajierh has had to grow up fast in her profession. She literally had to hit the ground running, without the luxury of learning at leisure. The legal department is small, with only 13 staff members serving the entire military, which incorporates the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

“You have no right to delay work. We have a policy where you can only delay work for up to three days. I had a baptism of fire, but I managed,” Ajierh says, adding: “I have had numerous meetings with many delegates, stakeholders and senior government officials. When you speak to them and they take your word, it is a great feeling.”

Military lawyers do more than just sit in offices; they are also put in the line of fire. Lawyers are posted to missions to give advice on legal matters, including operations and humanitarian law. They can be deployed to any mission in the military and they cannot be excused from responsibilities just because of their gender. One is an officer whether male or female. So, while the military is male-dominated, the opening up of space for more women does not mean special treatment for them, more so after the Women’s Service Corps was scrapped in December 1999.

Ajierh won a medal for drafting and implementing the Kenya Defence Forces Act from the Armed Forces Act in the Constitution of Kenya in 2013.

Military work is male-oriented and can pose challenges for women from the outset. “My child was very young when I went out for training. When I came back, the mother-child bonding was very emotional. Fortunately, things just fell back into place for us.” Service Commanders may exempt expectant soldiers from certain duties on humanitarian grounds, but this is a private arrangement, she explains.

“You must realise that your family comes first with you, but when duty calls, you must be willing to separate your personal life from your private life. It can be mentally challenging even if we are up to the task. It is more challenging for women when they have to leave their family, especially those with very young children.”

She also explains that a woman recruit must be comfortable with having to shave her head clean, and understand that feminine beauty, as she knows it, is non-existent in the Armed Forces. The military dress code tones down women’s feminine side and forces them to become comfortable training alongside men.

Has she suffered discrimination as a woman? “There may be an element of male chauvinism, but I have not encountered it,” Ajierh says. “In my training, I was put in a position of command and men obeyed me. It is about the ranking, not about being a man or a woman.”

While training may be tougher on women, allocation of duties in the military are gender-blind. “Training is the same for men and women, which is good because you feel like an equal.” Ajierh maintains that her training was not difficult, but necessary, and that she has faced bigger challenges in the battlefield. “Some basic needs that we take for granted are unavailable: water, good food, a warm bed… You sleep in a tent or a trench. You don’t have the comfort of everyday luxuries.”

On coming home for the first time after joining the military, Grace was no longer the simple girl from Kakamega, the shy second-born among four siblings. She was no longer the little girl who dreamed of becoming a lawyer against her parents’ wishes. She was tough as steel, and often rubbed people the wrong way.

“One is trained to be orderly in every task, no matter how mundane or ‘simple’ it might be. Maintaining such high standards can cause problems at home,” she laughs, adding that military training helps her manage her life, enabling her to properly apportion time in her demanding life.

Ajierh’s day starts at 5am with a run. By 6.30, she is in her office and rarely leaves before 6.30pm, often working up to 7pm.

Her father and her civilian fiancé are her greatest supporters. The latter is an active parent to their five-year-old son.

After a work-filled week, the officer spends most of her weekend with her son, but she makes a point of visiting her parents often. Weekends are not necessarily free in the military, though; one can be called upon at any time. A free weekend is viewed as a privilege, not a right.

Ajierh exercises a lot to maintain a positive attitude towards life. “When you go for a morning run, you get a lot of energy for the day. In the military, you don’t have much time to think about things; when you are given a task, you know you have to deliver.”

The officer is currently in charge of legal affairs at the Kenya Defence Forces Headquarters in Nairobi. She sees a long future in the military ahead of her. “I still have a long way to go,” she says. She foresees more and more women becoming Commanders, or at least taking up higher positions in the military. Convinced of this, she declares: “I will make it in the military.”

Looking forward to such great things has inspired Ajierh to mentor girls in her former high school, following advice that she was once given while in high school. “‘Do your job and everything else will fall into place’ is the best advice I have ever received from an Air Force lawyer, Lieutenant-Colonel Kirui, who has been in the military for a very long time.”

Ajierh is glad she is not motivated by money. Contrary to popular belief, there is not much money to be made in the military. The money comes as one rises through the ranks. “Most young people think one will be paid a lot in the Army, but when you get in, go through the training and start working, you realise that it is not about the money but about the calling.”

Words of Wisdom

  • “Articulate your points very clearly.”
  • “I get home very tired and I don’t even want to talk to my son, but I remember how much I love my job, and remember someone out there who may be wishing they had what I have.”
  • “The happiest man is the one who works hardest.”
  • “Don’t relax when you get a job; you must always go out of your way to grow.”
  • “When you join the military, don’t try to out-work the men. Don’t fight them; work with them.”
  • “They don’t look at you as a woman but as a professional.”
  • “You are not supposed to show that you are angry or that you hate your job. You must always be in high spirits.”
  • “If you cannot make it through the door, you can make it through the window.”
  • “You must always be one step ahead all the time otherwise you will not make it.”
  • “This is the only place where even if you are very angry at somebody, you still have to say ‘Hello’. A lot of discipline is required.”
  • “If you are not prepared to kill, you will die in the battlefield.”
  • “In the battlefield we all need each other. You don’t fight alone.”
  • “Many times you will be the only female in a meeting. You can’t shy away. Do your work to the best of your ability.”
  • “You are getting into a lucrative place, the highest position in Kenya when you join the Army? You must be a joker.”
  • “Military discipline means you have to do the work you are given. Even if you don’t know how to do it, you would rather do it first then ask. But do not fail to do it.”
  • “You must be able to live within your means. You are not allowed to be financially embarrassed.
Share this post

Comment on post

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *