Outward Bound Instructor Karen Woolmer spends a day with her group of course participants in Loitokitok, Kenya
A Day in the Life of an Outward Bound Instructor
I woke up just before 5.55 am – which we affectionately call triple 5! This has always been a challenge to me, not being a morning person – but the whole essence of what I was doing was a challenge. I had my running gear set out and ready to go; it saves vital seconds, and doesn’t require your brain to be awake yet! Once out of the house I was rewarded again with the lovely fresh air and a beautiful sunrise. It was always like this, varying beauty, but always welcoming the day.
We are at 6,500 ft on the slopes of Kilimanjaro – on the Kenyan side. Yes, I am a Kenyan volunteer even though Tanzania is only 800 metres away!
The other instructors emerge from their houses and the participants from their dormitories, and we converge on the grass surrounded by the Jacaranda, Red Flame and Cedar trees. Here we do morning exercises, and then head out of the Outward Bound compound for an early morning run.
Depending on the time of year, we contend with mud or dust – and anything in between the two. Today was a bit of walking. Looking up, we saw the amazing sight of the first rays of sun on the snows of Kilimanjaro. All this beauty, and the chance to get fit too! Back through the indigenous forest and the cawing of the colobus monkeys, and a plunge (or ’morning dip’) into the icy Kilimanjaro water of our swimming pool. Just in case your body hadn’t woken up, there was no stopping it now!
Did this all seem futile to our participants? Not to the active ones but what about the others? Well, part of being on an Outward Bound course is that you discovered that everything we did was done for a reason. No matter who you are or what your capabilities, the idea was to just do it – and then learn from the experience. So in fact the early morning dip wasn’t just to wake up your body and mind for the day, but maybe for some it would help overcome the fear of water. Shower time, and the group or patrol on duty would set the dining hall for breakfast. It wasn’t our turn this morning, so a few more minutes to shower. Now it is 7.15 am ... only! There is total participation in Outward Bound; it doesn’t matter who anyone is! In fact there is a very variety of people who attend the courses. The courses vary in length from four to 21 days, and include people such as corporate managers to school students, street children, international groups from Hong Kong, America, the armed forces, cadets, you name it, and anybody could come.
So to breakfast, and I ate a hearty, welcome breakfast. Also, you know the amount of energy you’ll be using up, so its necessary to eat well.
I arrange with my group to meet at 8.00am outside the library and remind them of their clothing attire which will be suited for the day’s activity. They have been here a few days, and before a more individual activity I want them to do a group dynamic activity to help bond them a bit more. I also want to observe some more of their strengths and weaknesses. The group I have is on a rehabilitation programme and is comprised of young women from the slums, adolescent girls who have been on drugs or trafficking drugs, or prostitutes and younger girls who may be mixed up in any of the above, and or living on the streets in Nairobi.
Now let’s see how they tackle the two planks of wood and adjoining rope, and work out how to manoeuvre it to a drawn line and back again. We will see not only how they manoeuvre these, but how they deal with each other, who emerges as a leader or has good ideas, who gets frustrated – or any other combination of possible human qualities or emotions!
The doing of the activity is fun, interesting and a leveller. Although we don’t like to compare, it reminds me again how humans are humans no matter what your background. The co-operation going on with this group may be more pronounced than with a disciplined, educated group of trainee bank managers.
The activity is one part of the exercise, but the second, and in a way more important part, is the discussion afterwards, sitting around in a circle which is a tradition of Outward Bound.
I facilitate a discussion saying as little as possible myself but encouraging and provoking them to say how they feel, what lessons they learnt and how to apply them to real life. The first few times they did this they found it difficult, but today they have really opened up so much. Words like co-operation, teamwork, leadership, co-ordination were used, and some of them were really seeing the point. They said how in their lives they need people, how they can work or study better through support, etc. I am trying to notice who is taking this in. The more they are honest in their feelings and application, the more we have to work with, and the more they will learn. It also gives me some pointers for our one-to-one chats as the course progresses. They were certainly having a lot of fun and ended up in hysterics when one of the girls at the back slipped off and the rest fell like a pack of cards. There was some interesting exchange of words in their mother tongue as they had to go back to the beginning and start again – that was one of the conditions!
With the trolley activity over they found out why I had asked them to dress in a certain way. We trotted over to some huge trees and they saw, excitedly, ropes and wooden platforms and wires hanging amongst the trees.
There were a few exclamations of "We’re not going up there are we?!" – and others who looked keen to get going straight away.
After a safety talk and strapping everyone into their safety gear, I gave them a brief ‘psyching’ on the lines of – "now this is an individual challenge, go for it, and see what you can do". This rope course was first built back in the 1950’s and has seen thousands of people through it, including prominent members of the Kenyan government. I have constantly met senior and older people in Nairobi who have very fond memories of their Outward Bound course, and can quote the course number and the year as if it were yesterday. One thing they always ask about is the ropes course. Just like in years gone by, there were lots of screams and also lots of wonderfully gratifying smiles. Our objective in this activity is for people to overcome fear and believe in themselves more. This need is so true of most people, but particularly so with this group. They need a lot of compassion and building up of their self-esteem. Society has dealt them a raw deal and we hope this helps to rectify it. Judging by some of the comments in the debriefing session, they were thrilled with themselves and started to say things like "now I know nothing is impossible, I can do anything now".
Share, talk, noise
It is now lunchtime and our turn to set the tables. Joel, the chief cook who has been at Outward Bound for over 30 years, and his staff (who match his number of years) have prepared another very good ‘uninstitutional’ type meal. For the rest of my life I will remember their unselfish and tireless dedication to this establishment; they have truly inspired me. What a lot of noise! The three patrols are back together and the volume has really increased. They are sharing stories of what they have been doing during the morning. We give the girls what they are generally deprived of, so food is in plenty. My group is washing up. This is another tradition – much to the amusement of some of the men who come on the course who haven’t washed up since childhood, if at all, but they still do it! Usually the instructors are there with their group, but we need to have a quick meeting to finalise the afternoon activities. PO (we all use initials) is the logistics co-ordinator and he reminds us of some of the details for the forthcoming expedition, and on the last bits of gear and food that need collecting. We have a brief discussion, led by the course director, as to how things are going, and all seems smooth. Problems are normal, and we know it is our job to work on them and keep getting the best from the participants.
Meeting over and we meet with all of our groups together and brief them on their final preparations. We had already started some preparation and had issued them their gear, rucksacks, sleeping bags and cooking equipment. I was impressed by their organisation and the swift way they undertook the last bits of packing. Within an hour we were ready to be off. With our map and compass, and a designated leader, we headed out of the centre. We waved good-bye to the other groups who were going off in different directions and who we would catch up with in a few days at the Rhino rock climbing site.
Our group, which incidently is called KIBO, after the highest peak on Mount Kilimanjaro, headed off towards town. By now it was mid-afternoon. The local people are used to us now but many still find it strange to see us carrying our rucksacks with us. I mean why would anyone want to do that?! Especially Kenyan women, with all they have to carry at the best of times! You mean you are doing this for fun?!
It’s very colourful, especially as there are so many Masai about. The Nairobi girls look inquisitively and the Masai return the interest, especially as the girls are wearing trousers! It isn’t long though, before we’re out of town and taking B-lines down the paths of shambas. Our map is 15 years old (although it is the latest one available) and where there used to be forest or bush we now have a lot of cultivated areas. We get lots of "pole", meaning "sorry", from the local people. The girls are excited as they are really feeling the thrill of being in the open country, something they are not used to. But a few are already dragging behind now and not finding it quite so pleasant, and complaining of heavy packs and blisters. A lot of the learning goes on as we walk, adjusting packs, treating blisters, talking about the environment – and also about compassion, which is needed now and is certainly something these girls have not had much of in their lives. Because we left at mid-afternoon the first day’s hike wasn’t intended to be too long, although if they had made mistakes with the compass and bearings it might have taken them longer. Even though I am with them, they have to learn from their mistakes, don’t they, and the next day I wasn’t going to be with them all the time.
Our destination was at the bottom of a hill. It was on a huge farm owned by a Somali who had been brought up by Masai, someone who was truly a friend of Outward Bound. Some bickering had started as some of the girls were tired, but they set about organising camp, the firewood, supper preparations, putting up the tents and getting some water. I had used the time on the way to have some individual chats, and continued this at camp.
As instructors we try not to do tasks because this takes the initiative from the group, and after all, it is their course, so I used the time to continue to chat, having given them some guidelines. The girl I talked to was really enthralled by what was happening to her. She said she had never been outside Nairobi, only as far as the airport, 10 kms, and thought that all this "stuff" was for tourists. She said she was having the best time. I asked her since when, and she replied: "Ever". She was about 26! Supper was cooked and I enjoyed one of the best Ugali (maize meal) dishes I have ever had. We reflected on the day and talked about what went well and what could be done better, so that tomorrow’s hike could go as smoothly as possible.
Of course, the main point is that they are learning something from it. They were all pretty exhausted, so retired at the earliest opportunity. I sat outside for a while longer and made some notes in my log book, as we were going to do a report on each of the girls, to help both them and their sponsor in the future.
That done, I looked up. I love the moon and stars, especially out here on the plains, and tonight was particularly clear. It is not uncommon to see shooting stars, and they always appear so magical to me. The day ended almost as it began, but this time with the moon lighting up the snow of Kilimanjaro.
The first Outward Bound school ("for short-term character training") was opened in 1941. It included aspects such as fitness, leadership, seamanship, and rescue. Lawrence Holt, chairman of a shipping line and financer of the initial project, saw it as "training for citizenship through the sea," and it was he who invented the title Outward Bound.
The service and rescue components were basic. The school’s second Warden, J.F. Fuller, believed that "nothing attracts the young more than the call ‘You are needed’."
Trevelyan baptised the school’s new sailing ketch, Garibaldi, saying:
"Without the instinct for adventure in young men, any civilisation,
however enlightened, any state, however well-ordered, must wilt and
wither." Since those early days of four-week schools for 15 to 19-year-olds, Outward Bound has become an internationally known adventure training