The Big Interview

Gladys Odillo

The military fortress is an out-of-the-way place with secrets that sometimes lead those outside to speculate about what goes on inside. Samuel Chibaya caught up with Gladys Odillo, wife to General Henry Odillo, and talked about life in the barracks as a wife to a soldier and the foundation she founded to help other army wives, orphans, and vulnerable civilians.

Briefly, tell us about yourself?

I am Gladys Odillo, a last born in a family of eight, of Mvula family. I come from Kasungu. I was born in the early 60s. I went to Dharap and Limbe primary schools in Blantyre. I did my secondary school education at H.H.I Secondary School and Chichiri Secondary School. I later on went to United Kingdom where I studied health and social care. I then did a higher diploma in child psychology.

Back in Malawi, I did HIV and Aids management at Lilongwe Technical School. I am a member of the Roman Catholic Church and have four children: two girls and two boys between the ages of 30 and 18.

What does it mean to be married to a soldier?

Ironically, I never dreamt of being married to a soldier. We got married in 1987 at Cobbe Barracks in Zomba. I remember, that time a number of people thought I was going to have a tough life being married to a soldier. But it is not different from any other men in other professions.

Is it true that when one is married to a soldier, she has to go through a special initiation ceremony?

There is no special initiation, however, what I know is that like in any other institution, every person is advised on how to live and behave in that particular place. Here in the military, we expect women to respect the importance of discipline and oneness. Everyone, regardless of being in the military or not has to respect the hierarchy.

How true is it that in the army a senior officer’s wife is superior to junior officer’s wife and even junior soldiers?

That is not true. If we start behaving in that way then we are not going to live appropriately. It is not even true that wives of senior officers are superior to junior soldiers. We live that to the soldiers themselves. We are not soldiers.

What role do you play as the commander’s wife?

I know that my husband’s responsibility is huge and I have to be flexible, understanding, reserved, and confidential. I also play an advisory role to him and that’s the kind of support I can give. This doesn’t mean I am a military adviser to the general. Don’t confuse the two.

How have you contributed to the welfare of the army wives?

I founded a grouping called Malawi Defence Force Spouses Association. It is an initiative whose activities started long time ago. However, it is not just limited to the army.

What is it all about?

It is a philanthropic association whose works are geared towards uplifting the social well-being of the army wives and their children. For example, we take care of the orphans or those children who had their parent as a soldier but are no longer with the army. Some of them are in the schools within the barracks. Just this month, during commemorations of soldiers who fought in the World Wars, we donated assorted items to the ex-servicemen. We also help those outside the military bastions. For instance, we donated to an orphanage at Kawale in Lilongwe; we also donated to areas around Mitundu. At the time we started the association, we had no money but I am thankful that the soldiers and others outside the barracks are supporting us.

Is it true that soldiers violently discipline their wives?

When we talk of domestic violence, we should know that it happens everywhere and the military is not an exception. And know that the soldiers don’t practise their military exercises in the houses. In fact, if the soldiers were cruel, then I wouldn’t have been in the military for all these 25 years.

The military has a court martial for disciplining their members according to military law, do army wives have a similar structure?

We are a one big family and we also help each other. We know how to handle such issues and deal with them as internal matters.

Can you describe a day in your life as the general’s wife?

When I wake up, I make sure to prepare my husband for the job. I take care of the home and the children. I also get reports regarding lives of fellow army wives from different army units. If it is an issue requiring my attention and I can’t go there, I delegate to senior officer’s wives such as the commanding officers’. I go to the camp hospital and cheer the sick, both soldiers and their spouses and whoever is in the hospital. I also take part in handling funeral arrangements should such a thing befall us.

What is happening to the army wives who did not complete their education?

They have the opportunity to pursue their education aspirations. For example, here in the barracks, we have schools where women are free to enroll. Surprisingly, you will find that the women are doing well in class.

Why?

Probably because they have felt the impact of not going to school and now they have reclaimed the chance to go back to school. Some women were forced to drop out of school due to pregnancies but now they are able to go back to school and this is commendable.

Any other plans the association is working on?

One of our plans is to build a daycare nursery school. Early childhood education is a requirement for every child. They have to be taught and trained at an early age. That way they will grow to be better and caring human beings.

What is your favourite food?

Over the time, I have stayed in different countries and got exposed to variety of foods. So, I feel like I don’t have a particular food I like. However, when it comes to local food, I prefer nsima with nkhwani.

What about hobbies?

I like reading magazines, cooking different foods and playing around with food recipes. When it comes to music, I like any type of music.

What advice can you offer to girls and young women?

I urge them to be prayerful because God guides us in our everyday life. They should also learn to persevere, be understanding, tolerant and flexible because these virtues make one’s life easier. They should also be affable but if you start choosing who to associate with your life becomes miserable and harder.

To my fellow women, you should go further with school if you did not; there is nothing like I am late, I can’t go to school. Even at my age, I am still going to school. I rubbed shoulders with my children in the corridors of the colleges in the UK. In fact, they got encouraged seeing a mother going to school.

Your final remark?

Let me take this opportunity to tell people that the army is like any other place. It is not proper for people to think that it is a place where women are beaten or mistreated simply because they are married to soldiers. Don’t be afraid or have misconceptions. We are a one big family and a happy one for that matter. I love my husband, General Henry Odillo, my children, family and the army family.

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