An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

NEWS | March 16, 2023

A Child of the Soil: Kengara returns to Kenya

By Mass Communcation Specialist 1st Class Cameron C. Edy


U.S. Navy Lt. Paul Kengara, born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, is a target developer for U.S. Africa Command, and is currently serving as an assessor for exercise Cutlass Express 2023. The following is an excerpt of a conversation about his experience coming back to Kenya as an official representative of the U.S. Navy. This story has been edited to improve readability and context.

“I was born and raised in Nairobi, but I went through the British school system here – we have two, a Kenyan public school system, and the English private school path. That means a couple of things – I was almost guaranteed to go to university overseas, about an 80% chance to go to school in England when I was coming up. I fell into the 80%, and traveled to the U.K. But I was young, about 17 or 18, and didn’t feel like being where my parents were [his mother was in the U.K. studying daycare and nursery, and his father was in Nairobi working]. So I looked for a school in America, and went to Michigan where my aunt lived, and later Florida after I switched my major from business to Aeronautics. I’ve always been fascinated by airlines – not really the flying bit, really just the engineering aspect of aviation. I had about a year left on my degree when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

People ask me all the time why I joined the Navy, and it’s hard to tell them in a way that makes sense. You have to understand; I grew up relatively privileged – so I didn’t necessarily need to worry about money. I’d already traveled, so joining the Navy was not to travel, as I had no conception of the Navy being a force that sees the world. Also, I didn’t really have any conception about the military, or what it did – whether it was Kenya, the U.K., or the U.S., it was just a defense force. On top of that, I already had a green card in the U.S. – I could stay ten years and apply for citizenship. But even with that, I knew I wanted to forge my own path, without relying on my parents – I wanted to be my own person. It was a sticking point in my family too. In African culture, as the first born, I don’t have absolute say over what I do. When I want to make a major life decision, I check in with my parents. So when I wanted to join the military, my dad immediately was like “there’s no way.” At this point it was 2003, the Iraq war was in full swing, and I had all these resources and other options available. I fly back to Nairobi six months later, and tell him I still want to join. It was still no. And then I joined. I 100% went against the culture there – he didn’t talk to me for a while because of it. But I had a plan, I had a reason to do it – to carve a path, to finish my degree, and to commission. 

So there I was, an enlisted E2, because of prior education, and after bootcamp was sent to shore duty as a mechanic for a helicopter squadron in San Diego. It was hard, but I met some amazing people, and some of the worst people. But it was those interactions that almost confirmed that I needed to go officer, to make the change that I wanted to see. Because I’d only done shore duty at the time, my Master Chief basically told me that my commissioning package just wasn’t going to be strong – that I really had to do sea duty, to serve on a ship. So after two years I departed to my next tour on an aircraft carrier – the USS Kitty Hawk with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 14 in Japan. I applied for commissioning out of HSC 14, got picked up the first time up as an Aviation officer, and did that for about a year – learned that I just didn’t like flying. So I applied for intelligence, and jumped into that field – what I’m doing now. 

Once I commissioned, it was different than I expected – of course I was no longer sleeping in a 105-man berthing, but still. You’re the lowest at the totem pole in the officer community, but there’s more responsibilities on you, which was a steep learning curve. I was now responsible for the professional development of Sailors – I was one of them five months ago. I was an E5, did five months of Officer Candidate School, and suddenly I’m in charge of E5s. I’m being called Sir by Chiefs, who I was really scared of. So it all was just new to me. 

After 15 years, I got out. It was an emotional decision, and I wanted to go to school for something that didn’t tie to my community really well. So I got out, and went Reserves. Part of me regrets it – it hasn’t been easy in the Reserves. You know, active duty, your path is charted for you – when it’s time to rotate, your detailer tells you where to go; you have admin officers taking care of your records for you. As a reservist, it’s you –  even with a full time job, you still have to work annual trainings, keep up-to-date in the community, and observe your Navy requirements. There’s a lot of admin that goes in the background. But it has brought me back to Kenya.

I already travel home to Nairobi a lot – I wanna say when I was in school after getting out of active duty, I’d done about six trips a year to Kenya. My family is here; my friends are here. In an official capacity, I’ve come back a few times – specifically with Cutlass Express. It’s really good – I’ve established really good networks with Kenya Defense Force members. And what that’s done particularly is when the Kenyans run into difficulties, they will call me and say ‘Okay Pablo [Kengara’s nickname], you are one of us, but you are also one of them. Be our conduit.” So I was here as an assessor, but suddenly I become a liaison for Kenyans and Americans. There’s an inherent connection where individual Kenyans can feel more receptive to any collaboration with me – it’s good to have one of us, training by the American military is held highly, so there’s a pride and connection there. 

At the end of the day I’m a child of the soil, I will be buried here in Kenya, I will come back here. I can be American all day long, but this is home, and I want to see the Kenyan navy be as good as any Navy. I want them to think the grass doesn’t have to be greener – you can make the Kenyan military as good as anything, and there’s nothing as good as pride in serving your nation. I’m not sitting here saying ‘Hey I’m in the American Navy and its better.’ Make Kenya better! Because at the end of the day, this is home. You’re never going to carry your entire family to America. My Mom and Dad are here, my brothers and sisters are here, everybody is here. However well I get paid, I will always come back home. And if the military here is doing well because of collaboration and working with partners, that’s pride for me. I come back and see my Kenyan brothers and sisters in the military, and being proud to be in the Kenyan military, and not wishing they were in another military. That is, for me, the best thing.”