Rosalid Wairimu – Navy diver: Teamwork is a byword

Rosalid Wairimu is the first woman in East and Central Africa to become a diver, and is the officer in charge of Team Three, part of the Kenya Navy Diving Unit.

Born among five brothers in Karatina, Nyeri County, in October 1979, Lieutenant Rosalid Wairimu is used to playing in a male-dominated field. She is a mother of two – a boy and a girl – and describes her own mother as a strong woman who taught her children to believe in themselves and work hard to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves.

Her male siblings taught her to interact with men from a tender age, teaching her to do not just the chores traditionally viewed as the preserve of girls, but also those associated with boys. This, along with playing with her brothers from an early age, had a big impact on her career path.

In high school, Wairimu was an avid sportswoman who enjoyed volleyball, basketball and netball. After Form Four, she played volleyball and netball for Kenya Pipeline and Kenya Commercial Bank before representatives from the military came scouting for players for the Ulinzi volleyball team. She played as a civilian for Ulinzi, an all-female volleyball team, before it was disbanded.

Wairimu later applied and was recruited into the military in January 2003 as a servicewoman before undergoing training at the Recruits’ Training School.

The officer remembers her mother as a strict disciplinarian who kept her children on the straight and narrow. She instilled in them the virtue of obedience to their seniors. “This made a big difference to us, because the careers we chose are those where obedience is valued,” she says.

The fact that her grandfather, her father and two of her brothers had served in the Kenya Police influenced her to seek to join the armed forces. Her civilian participation in the Ulinzi volleyball team primed her for a career in the military, rather than the police force.

On completing her training as a servicewoman, Wairimu did clerical work that entailed managing records. Although she was kept busy, she felt the need for more physical activity. That is how she landed a voluntary diving course in the Navy. The six-month training programme captivated her and she decided to enrol into the Navy diving team – but not without a dose of discouragement.

“I was told that the course was difficult, especially for women,” recalls the Lieutenant; but she chose not to take the warning seriously. She plunged literally into the deep end and the rest, as they say, is history.

The officer suggests that people should surround themselves with positive thinkers; those who encourage them to achieve what they want. In her case, it was Warrant Officer Sarah Wambui who egged her on, urging her to ‘try it!’

Try she did, and at the end of the six-month training programme that started with 20 participants, only two being women, Wairimu was the only woman left among the eight survivors.

So, what is it about the course that ‘sank’ so many hopefuls, so to speak?

“Part of the training requires trainees to don full diving gear including oxygen tanks in the deep end of the swimming pool. They must stay afloat with their oxygen tanks visible. This was one of the tougher exercises, but I successfully completed that exercise after my third try,” the officer says.

This test, which can be tried only three times, is challenging because of the strain it puts on a person who is not physically fit; a majority of trainees drop out at this stage. That Wairimu was one of the eight survivors of the ‘killer’ course speaks volumes about her mettle.

Wairimu was commissioned as an Officer, a promotion from Servicewoman which is a rare feat in the military, after qualifying as the first woman combat and clearance diver in East and Central Africa. She is the Officer-in-Charge of Team Three, one of three teams in the diving unit comprising more than 12 divers. She finds it fun to belong to this team, as she enjoys the physical fitness that goes with diving. Her promotion was not just an honour, but also humbling. She thanks God and her family for their support and encouragement.

Various reasons lock women out of diving, she reveals. These include participation in timed physical activities such as push-ups, heave-ups and running laps. These and other activities are essential in ensuring that in case of loss of air or related oxygen shortage under water, divers can push themselves to the surface. The floating exercise that is done at the deep end of the swimming pool is particularly difficult, requiring that only your head and part of the 26-kilogramme gas tank be visible for a specified amount of time. The training is voluntary and can be dropped on request. One must be physically and medically fit to qualify for the training.

Joining this male-dominated diving team was no big deal for Wairimu, in light of her family situation having grown up with five brothers. “You have to learn how other people operate and try to deal with them at their level to ensure peace in the work place,” she says, admitting that the male members of her diving team are always helpful and cooperative.

Motivation to do her best comes from her children Vivian Wangari and Joseph Wanjohi. “Just when I am about to give up, I think about them. I am also motivated by my mother Mary Wangari,” the Lieutenant says.

The officer’s day begins at 5am with a prayer, followed by a run, after which she prepares for work.

Together with her diving team, she regularly performs exercises such as running and stretching to improve her physical fitness. Physical training is an important routine for Wairimu, and she exercises even when she is not feeling well.

Maintaining diving equipment is part of the team’s daily routine. They also repair boats and other machines like the decompression chamber, which is used to treat sea sickness. It is the only one in East and Central Africa. The period after lunch is taken up by maintenance of records and cleaning of the ship, especially the diving premises.

Training for clearance and combat diving is done locally, with further training in the US and India. Overseas training provides the opportunity to operate machinery that is not available in Kenya, for example the mobile decompression chambers that are used to treat sea sickness aboard ship, unlike the one in Kenya which is stationary at the Kenya Navy headquarters.

Although the divers belong to specialised teams, they can be called upon to assist during an operation or when additional personnel are required.

Lt Wairimu’s values include living and working in dignity, perseverance and facing problems head on. “My mother taught me to respect others and myself, and this value has enabled me to come this far,” says the officer, who looks up to her mother as a mentor because of her fortitude and the discipline she instilled in all her children. As a mother, Wairimu knows that parenting is not easy.

She mentions her brothers and Warrant Officer Sarah Wambui as her mentors and sources of encouragement. She views herself as a mentor to her children and her nieces as well as the younger women in the military.

The best advice Wairimu ever received was from Warrant Officer Wambui, who encouraged her never to give up. “Do what is best for you and what your heart tells you” is further advice she welcomed at a time she was being discouraged from joining the diving unit that she now heads.

The diving unit under the Kenya Navy Fleet is charged with doing combat, which involves fighting in water, and clearance diving, which entails demolishing explosives and disposing of explosive ordinances before the ship sets sail.

The divers are also charged with clearing the ship to ensure propellers are working smoothly. The diving usually takes place when the ship is sailing, although there are times when the unit is deployed by the Navy headquarters on other missions like rescue and recovery.

Diving training starts with learning about the various ships in the Navy before being posted to a diving unit.

Lt Wairimu juggles her official duties and motherhood easily. When she was expecting her son, whom she describes as ‘happy and energetic’, she trained almost up to her expected date of delivery. “I enjoyed it,” she says. “Training throughout pregnancy allowed me to have an easy birth and a quick return to my pre-pregnancy size.” She was entitled to the normal three-month maternity leave.

She shares that her children are proud that their mother is in the military. Lt Wairimu balances her home and work life so that “when I’m in uniform, I act very differently from when I am at home, otherwise my family would be scared of me. When in uniform, I can give orders, but in the house, I have to be kind to my family.”

The Navy is involved in various corporate social responsibility activities, mostly in the form of missions such as ferrying people to safety in situations of disaster such as flooding. During a recent Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination season, for example, when parts of the country were flooded, the diving team was called in to help the Administration Police ferry exam papers to the affected areas. They used boats from the diving unit as their means of travel to traverse bodies of water in the affected areas.

Wairimu has learned how to make staff feel comfortable in the workplace, an important factor in fostering teamwork and efficiency in her male-dominated unit. “I am the head of a team of men and I am also below a male Commander. It is a balancing act that could go wrong if badly handled,” she says.

She views the military as the best place to learn perseverance, face life’s challenges, be oneself and learn from others. This is wisdom she freely shares with women who want to join the military.

Although divers work on sailing ships, they are also trained to fight on land.

The greatest challenges for divers are environmental; they include pressure experienced while in deep waters, muscle cramps, loss of air and sharks. Wairimu does not shy away from these dangers, saying: “I believe in leading by example; therefore, when my team goes training, I join them.”

You have to learn how other people operate and try to deal with them at their level to ensure peace in the work place

Her goal is to build an all-woman team of divers in the next 10 years. This is a dream she hopes she has contributed to by showing women the way and giving them hope that it is possible. She aspires to be a Commanding Officer in the Diving Unit. The head of the unit is the Commanding Officer, a major with three teams under him. Two of the teams’ leaders, Officers-in-Charge, are captains, while Wairimu, with the rank of Lieutenant, is the Officer-in-Charge of Team Three.

All military personnel are provided with psychological training and trauma counselling to ensure they are healthy in all aspects. They also receive medical assistance when needed.

Military promotions follow a chain of command to ensure that one cannot be promoted if it means skipping someone else who joined earlier. It is, however, possible to outrank an older officer on account of educational and technical qualifications.

In her spare time, Wairimu enjoys playing volleyball and netball for the Ulinzi team, swimming, listening to gospel music and connecting with nature.

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