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
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
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
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,
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.