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The Leader

From the Hills of Africa to the Steppes of Wyoming
By Mara Apple

Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2000, Vol. 16, No. 1

"I want to go see the wilderness in Boston and Washington, D.C.," Ojaji says to me.

Thinking he must be confused about American geography, I explain to him that wilderness is rather scarce in Boston and D.C., and that he's more likely to find it out here in Wyoming.

He corrects me by saying, "Oh no, your 'wilderness' is what we are used to in Kenya. To us, big cities are out of the ordinary. Therefore, I want to see what is 'wilderness' to me--Boston and Washington. I believe you call them concrete jungles?"

As have most of the people who have come into contact with Charles Ojaji and his friend, Albert Mitugo, part of the growing pool of NOLS instructors from other countries, I have just learned a lesson about perspective.

Ojaji, 35, and Mitugo, 31, hail from Kenya. They both come from teaching backgrounds in their native country; Ojaji taught outdoor skills with the Mt. Kenya School of Adventure, and Mitugo was a wildlife researcher who taught American college students studying abroad in Kenya.

Mitugo is the more talkative of the two and his energy seems to match his small, wiry build. Ojaji is taller and more muscular; I find him to be quietly introspective.

Although they were only distant acquaintances before coming to America, the banter between them today is quick and lively. "Be careful when you take the picture," Mitugo says. "Ojaji is so dark you might not see him." "No, she will definitely see me," Ojaji counters, "It is you she will not notice!"

The two men discovered NOLS at approximately the same time (spring 1999), Ojaji from his readings about wilderness education and Mitugo from his American college students.

Following inquiries into NOLS , which both say were met with enthusiastic replies from staff at the branch in Naru Moru, they both took courses in Kenya. Afterward, they became "instructors in training," and in late spring of 2000 traveled to the U.S.A. to take an instructors course. Mitugo completed his first course as an instructor in August and a second in mid-September. Ojaji also instructed two courses in Wyoming this summer.

The men agree that the experiences they have gained here have been well worth being some distance from their homes, which for Ojaji includes a wife and two young children.

Both men say that before coming to America, they spent a lot of time talking with other Kenyans who have made the journey, asking them questions "about every little thing!" They say that spending time with Americans at NOLS helped prepare them as well.

Ojaji says movies, books, and lectures give "only 40 percent or less" of the real picture about what America is like. The rest, one must experience first-hand. "Being here opens up my understanding of this culture more," Ojaji says. Furthermore, he believes his experiences with NOLS will probably help him gain employment closer to his family once he returns to Kenya this winter.

Kenyans assume everyone is wealthy in America. Mitugo says, "Everyone at home thinks I am flying around in airplanes and driving around in big cars--not hiking and sleeping on the ground. They have different ideas about what it means to be American."

Homesickness is aided by talking frequently with family in Kenya, and occasionally by simply being in Wyoming rather than in another part of the U.S. "When I am in the field (here in Wyoming) I sometimes forget I am not in Kenya," Mitugo says, because the landscape is very similar. The difference is more apparent in town, although Ojaji says people here in Lander are "friendly, relaxed, and curious," which helps a lot "to improve my comfort of being here."

American culture is not the only culture about which the two have been educated while spending time with NOLS, however. Ojaji talks of other students on his instructors course from Argentina, Chile, and India. Cultural habits were apparent even in the wilderness, Ojaji says.

Cultural differences became most evident on the instructors course during a class on sexual harassment. Example scenarios were navigated differently by Mitugo, coming from the historically unaffectionate Kenyan culture, than by fellow non-Kenyan students. "In Kenya, daughters do not even hug their fathers," he says, and affection between lovers is always a very private thing.

As for other Kenyan traditions, the two say most people in their towns (expecially Mitugo's town, Nanyuki, which is smaller than Ojaji's home of Nairobi) "tend sheep and goats, cultivate, and garden." They remark that at times they are ridiculed for not following Kenya's agricultural-based traditions. However, they point out they would not be working the land in the traditional sense anyway since they are teachers.

Kenyan society as a whole is adopting more Western habits and ways of living, which symbolizes a departure from the traditional lifestyle, Ojaji and Mitugo believe. "It's not just us who are doing that," Mitugo says. And when their Kenyan neighbors accuse them of abandoning their roots to come to a modernized America and "make it big," Ojaji points out, "Their ideas of what you must do to become modern are not always correct."

It appears that the notion of "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" is not strictly an American phenomena. Mitugo notes that it is interesting to him that people here in America seem to be striving to "go back to the earth," to reconnect with nature and simplify their lives. In Kenya, where connectedness with nature and the earth has always been at the center of people's lives, they are trying to modernize and disconnect. "They don't understand that where they've been is actually what the world is looking for," Mitugo says.

Ojaji and Mitugo are students, and now instructors, whose relationships with NOLS have been made possible by the NOLS Scholarship program. When asked if they would have been able to become involved with NOLS without the help of scholarship funding, Mitugo says, "No way in hell or heaven." They say they are "grateful" for the opportunity, and Ojaji even says he'd like to contribute to the fund at some point in the future, so that others may have the opportunity to have similar experiences. "It has deepened my understanding of the world--how things are done and why," he says.

Mitugo says, "It's been an experience I've cherished a lot, and it has continued to give me skills in both the outdoors and the outside world, such as with negotiating how to travel, meeting people, making friends, and seeing different lands. I am learning all the time here," he says.

As for Ojaji, "In my learning curve, this experience has been a huge developmental leap--culturally, skills-wise, and confidence-wise."

As many NOLS graduates have found, the lessons learned apply to outdoor skills and life; for Ojaji, that means life in the U.S.A. "I've always wondered how it could be and now I know," he says.

So will the people at home be suspicious of them and their submersion into the American culture, once they've returned to Kenya? Huge grins cross their faces.

"We are heroes!" Mitugo exclaims. "Children in Kenya want to be like us!"

For the most part, loved ones and neighbors in Kenya are very curious about what the American experience has been like. Mitugo says, "There will be a huge ceremony when I go home. The whole village will be there! They will slaughter a cow and there will be traditional beer. It will be wonderful!"

From the look in his eyes, I believe it will be.




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