By Wanja Njuguna-Githinji
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2001, Vol. 17, No. 1
It was two a.m. We had set camp at Simba Turn, not too far away from the Gregory Glacier on our way to the top of Mt Kenya. My feet were freezing, my bladder was full, and I was sure I had heard something like the roar of a lion and I was not about to take a chance of being eaten alive. I held on to my almost bursting bladder but soon I knew I could not do it any more. I was sleeping in the far end of the tent with four others and everyone else was in dreamland. I decided to get clever - I quietly unzipped a bit of the tent at the bottom, felt the grass and the rest is history.
This was an act (as much as I was ashamed of) that I was to repeat thanks to my cowardly soul and the stories of what lions, leopards, hyenas and buffaloes are capable of doing to a human being. But that was at the beginning of the NOLS Semester in . By the end of the first week, I had gained enough courage to move on through the forest in spite of the roars, hauls and mooohs of the animals.
I had known about NOLS for a long time, but it was not until Muhia Karianjahi, a NOLS employee, told me what the courses entailed that I wanted to attend. I wanted to go like yesterday, but in Kenya the process of getting enlisted is rather long as one has to get sponsorship first. Few people in Kenya can afford the $7,000 required for the course, especially since environmental courses are not as well appreciated here as in the U.S. I was working as a senior prison officer, and the long leave that I had been accumulating in anticipation of a NOLS course had to be approved. I also needed a reliable person to take care of my house. I had another reason for wanting to get away from my daily life - I wanted a change in my life, my job, my college life (I was pursuing an MA in journalism then), and my personal life.
I finally got my chance. On June 4, 1994, I joined 28 other students, including one more from Kenya and set sail. I had never been in a large group of much younger people - I was 31 then and the oldest student in the group turned 21 when we were up the mountains. It was to be a challenging experience but one that I am proud to have been a part of.
We were divided into two groups and our first part of the course was to take us up to the third highest peak on Mt Kenya. Pt. Lenana is 16,355 ft. and from there we would go to the furthest end of the Kenyan coast - Kiwaiyu and its surrounding islands - and then to Nguruman in the Masai Mara game reserve. The other group followed in the opposite direction but were to meet us at the Mara a few days before our graduation in Nairobi.
Looking back at my NOLS course, I realize that it was the most difficult thing I had done in my entire 31 years. I had thought that my military training after working in the prisons was tough, but it was nothing compared to the first part of the course. We were traveling in freezing conditions where my feet were permanently wet, learning how to climb over boulders in preparation for climbing up the mountains, learning how to take a dump (that was tough) and survive without a shower for almost four weeks, and how to leave the environment clean.
The next part, which involved lessons in diving on the Coast, was also very significant to me. I had never anticipated being able to see the underworld without being thrown out by some boat that had capsized. I had never thought such beauty existed under water.
In the final part of the course, going through the Masai Mara, which I had done previously in the safety of a four-wheel drive vehicle, was a lesson in courage. I had always imagined that out of the vehicle you were dead meat but not so - we were not armed and never were.
I never knew how important NOLS was to become until after graduation on August 7. I could not believe the courage I had to get up those mountains, and it was only later, when I started making decisions I previously found difficult, that I realized where my guts had come from.
Suddenly, everything fell into place. I went back to my office at the prisons having made a number of decisions. In Kenya, government jobs until recently have been the most secure ones but it was easier for me to make a decision to leave after my experience at NOLS. I resigned a year later after working for the government for 13 years and decided to go into full- time journalism. But that didn't happen until after 13 months with the UN Habitat as a security officer.
NOLS was the beginning of my real life, one full of challenges that I was able to tackle - unlike previously when I avoided the difficult parts. The most gutful and rewarding of my experiences after NOLS was when I decided to enter a competition that I previously was scared of. In 1999, I entered for the first time our African Pulitzer, the CNN African Journalist of the Year competition. I gathered that no one would know that I had entered the competition, even if I didn't win any of the 11 different categories. But I cannot explain my shock at not only beating more than 1,100 entrants and winning the General News Print category, but also the overall award when it was announced last March. This is the most prestigious competition in Africa, and what excited me most is that I won the award on my entry on a very critical issue in Kenya - domestic violence, a major women's killer. According to the judges, what was unique about my story was that I had not featured the common Kenyan woman but the rare women leaders who many do not expect undergo such abuse, including a former member of the Kenyan cabinet and others.
For a print journalist (the award was shared for the first time with a broadcast journalist), the award included a cash award of about $10,000, five weeks training at Time magazine in London, attending CNN World Report in Atlanta, a lap top, a cell phone and numerous other prizes. I did all this while in my last stages of my first pregnancy. The award gave me a challenge to pursue a doctoral program on `Women as Peace Builders,' which I hope to do next year either in the U.S. or Britain.
I cannot imagine that other NOLS graduates around the world have not been positively affected by their course. Any time I face a challenge, I always look back to NOLS and tell myself, `if I did it then, what's this challenge to me now?