NOLS Decides to Close East Africa Program
By John Gans
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2003, Vol. 18,
1974, NOLS East Africa has given hundreds of students a
rare glimpse into the wilds of Africa. Today, the NOLS Board
of Trustees has decided that the region's political and
social future is too uncertain to continue enrolling students
On February 8, 2003, the NOLS Board of Trustees voted unanimously
at their winter meeting to stop enrolling students on future East
Africa courses and to close NOLS East Africa as of June 30, 2003.
This was a thoughtful decision, made with an understanding of
the strategic impacts on NOLS, and the profound impacts on many
members of the NOLS community. Many staff dedicated years of their
lives to our mission and program in Kenya. For most NOLS East
Africa graduates, their courses have been life-changing experiences.
Our educational outcomes have been important to individuals, and
to the countries of Kenya and Tanzania. We have built ties between
our students and the amazing wilderness areas and wildlife of
East Africa. We have also built ties between people, cultures,
tribes and countries, and in the process have dramatically enriched
the NOLS community.
There were numerous reasons for this decision. In the wake of
the November terrorist attacks on the Kenyan coast, we chose to
discontinue using the coast as a classroom. While we felt very
good about our contacts and friends on the coast, we also had
to respond to the news of the porous border with Somalia, arms
smuggling along the border, and the fact that there are two known
al Qaeda cells in Kenya. We developed an alternate plan for our
current semester, but we have areas of concern as we look to the
future. We believe risk management concerns are likely to escalate
in the future, given the unstable world situation. And NOLS East
Africa has faced declining enrollment (especially since 9/11)
and has been subsidized for most of the past five years.
Kenya is also facing major social concerns, economic concerns
and an ongoing AIDS crisis. In December, Kenya held democratic
elections and elected Mwai Kibaki as its new president. His election
brings hope and change to a country that was desperately in need
of both. Like nearly everyone in the world, I wish President Kibaki
great success – but I believe the challenges he faces will
take several years to resolve.
My first experience with NOLS was as a semester student at NOLS
Kenya in 1979. I had barely heard of NOLS, but I had always wanted
to climb and hike in Africa. The course, the people, my instructors
and the wilderness changed my life. I vividly recall the sounds,
smells, tastes and sights of that experience. Since that time
I have returned to Kenya a half a dozen times to work courses
and connect with staff. I have developed friendships spanning
decades and grown immeasurably from contacts with Kenyan staff
and alumni. The people and place have touched me deeply and were
of significant influence as we made this decision.
Of the many
NOLS grads in East Africa, John Gans says, "They are
doing great work and making the world a better place. I
believe they will play a key part in leading Kenya through
rough terrain to a brighter future."
This is not the first location where NOLS has stopped operating.
There was a NOLS New England, a caving program in Tennessee, a
section of a semester on mainland Mexico, a climb of Aconcagua,
paddling courses on Lake Powell and a branch in Smithers, British
Columbia, to name a few. I often meet alumni who took courses
in those areas. They have fond memories of their courses and still
benefit from their lessons in wilderness skills, leadership, expedition
behavior and conservation.
We have offered excellent programs in East Africa, and can be
proud of our talented graduates and staff. They are doing great
work and making the world a better place. I believe they will
play a key part in leading Kenya through rough terrain to a brighter
future. Over the coming months we will work with East Africa staff
and alumni to determine how NOLS might help them develop a local
program of their own, so that wilderness education in East Africa
continues into the future.
On the day of the board meeting, I found it symbolic that NOLS
students were backpacking for the first time in New Zealand. Beginnings
and endings and ongoing change are indeed essential to accomplish
our mission. We lament lost places and relationships, but we celebrate
our new horizons.
I want to thank all the students, staff, contract staff and volunteers
that made NOLS East Africa and NOLS Kenya happen. I so badly want
to start naming names of instructors, askaris, directors, supporters,
founders, cooks, etc., but with such a long list of dedicated
individuals, I fear for the omissions. There were so many people
that made such a big difference to our students, to the wilderness
of Africa and to our world. You all have my heartfelt gratitude.
The NOLS community also faced a sad day on February 1, when the
space shuttle mission STS-107 broke up on its landing approach.
The entire crew trained together in the Wind Rivers on a 12-day
course in August of 2001 through the Professional Training Institute
of NOLS (see story page 3). Their instructors were Andy Cline and
Commander Mike Anderson visits with John Gans during the
astronauts' NOLS training in 2001.
After their course, the crew spent a morning with NOLS staff,
their families and friends. Their presentation in the Noble dining
room is a precious mem-ory to many of us. Their mission patch
still hangs on the wall above my daughter’s bed. They spoke
of their passion for exploration, science and space, and also
spoke of their NOLS course and its value. Their stories were funny,
warm, personal, commonplace and inspiring.
They cited many commonalities between their NOLS course and
space flight. One of the astronauts, Dr. Laurel Clark, made the
following observation about her course. “I don’t think
any of us had any idea how many similarities there would be to
the space flight. We were out in the wilderness for about 10 days.
And we spent a whole lot of time together as a team, solving problems.
And without any other outside influences, which is similar to
the way it’ll be in space. So, there was some relative isolation.
And it was a very positive experience to work together and work
through learning more about each other and our differences, strengths
and weaknesses, and covering those for each other.”
The crew brought on the shuttle a topographic map of Wind River
Peak they had used when they climbed to the summit. Before they
left, Commander Husband said their NOLS course was the most instrumental
training to their development as a team. Theirs was a mission
of peace and one that was built on expedition behavior that any
NOLS graduate would be proud of.
John Kanengieter shared stories of the course and the crew at
a staff meeting, following the tragedy. We laughed, we cried and
we remembered. John and Andy went to Houston for the Memorial
Service. We sent with them our condolences to the families of
the space shuttle Columbia as well as to NASA.