In the late 1700s a Prussian-born military officer, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, joined General George Washington's Continental Army and revolutionized the notion of training a professional military force which utilized its noncommissioned officers as instructors. This idea became the cornerstone of the U.S. Army of today and the model for others to emulate.
In 2011 the small African country of Malawi sought this knowledge for its own military and sent Warrant Officer 1 Sally Mussa to the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy to be a part of Sergeants Major Course Class 62. Upon graduating in 2012, Mussa went back to Malawi and was able to convince leadership that the Malawi Defence Force needed a senior NCO course of their own.
"Since I graduated from the course at USASMA I found it very important that instead of sending one person (to USASMA) to get the knowledge which I have, it would be better if we could have a course in Malawi so that we could benefit other Soldiers," Mussa, who is now the 94th Brigade Command Sergeant Major, said. "I managed to (persuade our leadership) and the commander persuaded the U.S. government to send mentors to Malawi and we developed the curriculum and syllabus and we started the course."
In 2014 U.S. Army Africa sent two sergeants majors, Jerryn McCarroll and Timothy Watts, from their Security Cooperation Division as part of the Africa Military Education Program to help the Malawians develop a pilot senior NCO course. The first class of 30 students (including five females) graduated the course in 2014 and since then the Malawians have been seeking ways to improve and grow their academy.
In late January, members of the Malawi Armed Forces College, led by Maj. Alfred L. Matambo, officer commanding cadets wing and accompanied by McCaroll, traveled to Fort Bliss, Texas to get a first-hand look at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy and to gain some insights that they hope they could use back home. While at the Academy the group met with and discussed NCO education with members of the USASMA's Sergeants Major Course and Battle Staff NCO Course and rounded out their visit with a briefing and discussion with the Academy's commandant, Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese.
"What we want to know is how have we progressed and how are we developing as instructors," Warrant Officer 2 Charles Mbewe, Sergeant Major Course coordinator, said. "We also wanted to know how we could obtain (USASMA's) syllabus, because as what we are teaching is similar to USASMA."
Mbewe said coming to USASMA has helped them immensely and they already see things they can do.
"Especially in the instructor development,' he said. "Here (at USASMA) the instructors always plan and develop the syllabuses so this we will take back to Malawi so that our instructors will continue to plan and update our syllabuses and we can something that is good also."
Warrant Officer 2 Ethel Banda, the Sergeants Major Course senior instructor, said she has noticed how their course has made a difference and hoped she could find things during their visit to improve their curriculum.
"We want to see how far we can take the course, what our friends here at the academy are doing and how we can improve," Banda said. "I have seen some parts we need to include like developing the lesson plans for the instructors so that we have those materials ready for the course and the instructors."
Mussa said the way their military is in Malawi it was very difficult for people to understand the idea of a senior NCO course because the NCO is very behind, especially in academics. Because of that, most of the issues are taken care of by officers. So when the idea of the course was introduced some didn't see the need and thought the NCOs were trying to take over from the officers. With the help of U.S. Army Africa and its mentors, and the fact that they have graduated three classes, Mussa added, people are beginning to see the benefits.
"It was hard to start the course, but when U.S. Army Africa came to instruct, one-by-one they started to understand what the course was all about," Mussa said. "So with difficulty we have managed to gain respect from where we started. It was difficult to know the duties and responsibilities of NCOs -- some of the people didn't understand what the NCOs are supposed to be doing. So when we introduced the course we started on who the NCO is and what they are supposed to be doing."
Banda agreed. "Yes the growth is there and I believe there will be good change and that there is great change since we started the course."
"It is very beneficial. We are seeing some strides changing although it is very difficult (to measure) because most of us stay in different units," Mbewe said. "As we are talking though, the commander of our defense force is planning on having a symposium for all of the students, all of the graduates, to meet together and to look at what changes we have done in our units. It will be a look back on the plusses and minuses of the teachings at the academy."
If von Stuben were alive today, perhaps he too would have a positive outlook on their progress in training the "Backbone" of their military.
The Malawi Defence Force Senior NCO Course is a four-month long course of instruction that focuses on Leadership Fundamentals, Communication Skills and Operations. Each class holds 30 students and the course is currently offered twice a year.