Being Kenyan in the U.S. Military
When we think of Black people and their contributions to America’s armed forces (after the initial shock of realizing that African Americans in the armed forces have helped to shape this nation), what typically comes to mind are images of The Tuskeegee Airmen or the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, memorialized in the movie Glory. Yet few of us imagine recent African immigrants as a part of this history, despite the fact that a number of today’s U.S. service women and men are, indeed, African. Actually, African people have a long history of serving in armed forces the world over.
Nabwire Butali, a producer at The Africa Channel, is one such person. Hailing from Nairobi, Kenya, Nabwire shares four universal lessons she learned while serving as a Public Affairs Specialist in the United States Air Force. Although Nabwire emphasizes her amazing and unique experience and her lasting friendships, she also discusses her wish for more of an American awareness of the fact that many immigrant groups in general, and African immigrants in particular, serve in the armed forces. “Given the significant military presence of the United States around the world, and its influence in world affairs, I wish more people paid attention to world affairs and saw how it affects them.”
1. Doing Your Homework
“If there is one thing I could go back and redo,” Nabwire shares, “I would have more thoroughly researched the Air Force before signing up. I appreciate being in the Air Force because I got to do amazing things throughout the four years I served, like meet the president, but I wish I would have gone in with more of an appreciation for what the military actually is.” She notes that she would not advise a young person today to enlist, as she did, for the primary purpose of education, because “there is a lot more involved in this experience.” Laughing while recalling her memories of basic training, Nabwire says her experience taught her how to investigate proactively, but also to be curious in many other areas of her life.
“Coming in as an African woman, I stepped into multiple cultural arenas: American culture first, and then the military.” She explains the difficult process of deciding to enlist while still getting acclimated to the U.S. “Many often deal with opposition by family members to their joining, in addition to navigating spaces where people interact based off of stereotypes about you.” On top of these cultural shifts, Nabwire also talks about just dealing with the rigor of military training. “It is a complete challenge to be your best every day. You learn that you should never be comfortable, and I now live my life this way because of this lesson.”
3. Lifting While She Climbs
Responsibility, not just for one’s self, but also for those around one, is a hallmark of the military, according to Nabwire. “When someone failed on the team, the leader was in trouble because you failed to help the person most in need. I met one other African woman while I was there, and because she really needed help in training, we would all work together to make sure she made it through our drills.” She emphasizes her appreciation for this type of communal teamwork and says it was one of the most effective lessons she learned during her service in the Air Force.
Determination may be the perfect word to describe how Nabwire became a Public Affairs Specialist in the Air Force. She says there were only three positions open, and she was lucky to be one of the people chosen. “In high school, I promised myself I would pursue media, particularly journalism and T.V., because it was something I was passionate about. So to have been chosen for one of the positions, I was really excited knowing I would be working in an area I really would learn from and enjoy.” She says that prior to obtaining the position, she worked extremely hard, earning some of the highest scores in testing and making sure she was doing the best she could do. “You learn to really live and to try your best every day.” Clearly, her determination paid off.
Though the life lessons she learned were universal, such experiences do not happen in a vacuum: People experience service in different ways and are also perceived differently by both service members and the larger society. This Memorial Day, we take a moment to recognize one Kenyan woman’s Air Force experience as a way to remember all African contributions to America’s armed forces.