Meet me

nphotoNaginder Singh Sehmi was born in Eldoret, Kenya in January 1937. He started his career in his hometown as a trained primary school teacher and Wood Badge scoutmaster.

From early age he was interested in science and mathematics. He considered other branches as general knowledge requiring little effort to learn. Kenya did not have an university then. His father could not afford to send him to UK to study for a scientific or engineering career. He earned a Kenya government teachers’ scholarship that permitted him to attend Trinity College, Dublin University, Ireland. In his effort to derive the maximum benefit during the four year, 1959-1963, he obtained a general degree in history, geography and experimental psychology and simultaneously passed a postgraduate Diploma in Geography and a Diploma in Public Administration. He also left a mark in sports and student societies, which enabled him to attend conferences in Europe as well as the 1961 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm and teach in international children’s summer camps in Switzerland and New Hampshire, USA.

He taught in a high school in Eldoret for two years and in 1965 joined Kenya Water Department as hydrologist. The following year he went to Prague, Czech Republic and obtained a Diploma in Hydrology. In 1969 he was appointed co-manager of Hydro-meteorological Survey of the Upper Nile, a multinational UN funded project.

At the beginning of 1970 he was selected for a post in the Hydrology and Water Resources Department of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the UN located in Geneva, Switzerland. He retired in 1997. During the last ten years in WMO he was responsible for development projects related to monitoring and assessment of water resources and flood forecasting in developing countries.

As a scout and then Scoutmaster he did not like wearing the uniform because he was conscious of his skinniness. But in scout guise he could to go in for an outdoor life of adventure at little cost and also in this way get recognition in his small Asian community by proving that he could do things that people do not normally do. People did not appreciate much his climbing Kilimanjaro in 1956: “Are you crazy; what if you got killed? What is there to gain?”   He climbed Mount Kenya (Lenana Point) in 1958 and Kilimanjaro three more times (last in November 2002) once as assistant trainer in the Outward Bound Mountain School. With a party of five he walked during the peak activity of Mau-Mau nationalists in 1956 from Nairobi to Nakuru in the Rift Valley a distance of over 160 km.

His mother died in India when he was not yet five. His father, took him and his brother, a year and half younger, to Kenya in 1948 and brought them up with meager resources. Father, a technician operating a flour mill in Eldoret, was a man of few words but gifted with remarkable practical wisdom. He could not read and could write awkwardly only his name and numbers to record the number of incoming grain bags and outgoing bags of flour. Boys remember the effectiveness of his simple one-time remark, “If you don’t want to study it’s your wish. You can do what I’m doing”. He could not help the boys in their schoolwork; but he kept their minds active by asking them rustic brainteasers that he carried with him from the Punjab. He shared every thing with them including housework. The boys did not notice that life was a struggle. They learnt to cook, hand wash clothes, and press them with charcoal heated iron. There was nothing else to learn at home. Family sentiments and love, social values and judgment in relationship with others remained buried deep down undeveloped. Whatever they learnt on these vital qualities was by watching others. Yet few others saw these deficiencies in them. On occasions when the two quarreled there was no one to mediate or separate them or advice.

At school Naginder learnt Urdu as second language. He had a good grounding in Punjabi from India and improved it without difficulty. At 15 or 16 he became a “Granthophilia” expert competing with adults in speed-reading.  By “Granthophilia” he means reading the Adi Granth (AG), the sacred book of Sikhs in Gurmukhi script but without understanding much of it. Uninterrupted reading of 1430 pages of AG within 48 hours is a Sikh tradition and trademark. At that stage he also learnt to sing Sikh hymns and play percussion drums.

Looking back at his life trail starting from a remote place in Kenya highlands to mountainous Switzerland, he is convinced that it is a product of a random process or chance. It just happened; there was no planning whatsoever. A mighty time flow carried him along.

From young age religion made considerable but unconvincing impact on him.  He found it difficult to write off the role of a supernatural hand. But that could not explain to him why so many others he knows took a similar path to other destinations. He concludes that it all boils down to the manner in which an individual reacts and adjusts to changing all-encompassing circumstances and conditions. For him the supernatural power we call God resides in the environment or milieu; we just ignore to see it.

With regard to body and mind he has complete faith in the saying “if you don’t use it you may lose it”. He never totally gave up sports. At the age of 58 he took up jogging, trekking in the Alps, Nordic and downhill skiing, and regular fitness classes. Jogging led him to long distance racing; graduating with age from seven kilometers to half Marathons of Lausanne and Geneva (2006). He is a competent all rounder and loves building work, woodwork, mechanical repairs, watch repairing, playing music and singing at religious and social functions.

At the back of his mind a remorse stings him, “Why didn’t I specialize in a specific branch and devoted all my energy to it?” To make for the late start of English in school and no possibility of speaking at home, at Trinity he opted to study English literature in the first two years. The little art of writing he had acquired was lost during 27 years spent on drafting technical and administrative reports in the UN. After a few unsuccessful attempts at writing he gave up.  His genes refused to accept that. The yearning to communicate with people would not go. Then it happened. To thank friends who had welcomed him so lovingly he wrote four e-mails recounting things they did together during his 10-day visit of London in 1999. Their unexpected flattering reaction gave him confidence. He feels that if he could spend a year in the English society without speaking French and other Indic languages he would relearn English and readers would understand his writings better!

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