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The Leader
NOLS Decides to Close East Africa Program

By John Gans
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2003, Vol. 18, No. 2

Founded in 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 there.

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.

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."
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.

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.

Columbia Payload Commander Mike Anderson visits with John Gans during the astronauts' NOLS training in 2001.
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 John Kanengieter.

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.

"The cross-cultural experiences offered at NOLS East Africa have been the highlight for many semester students," says former East Africa Operations Manager Pip Coe. "Through them they have gained a greater understanding not only of other cultures but also of themselves."

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.

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