Naginder Singh Sehmi.
I was born on 23 January,1937 in Eldoret, the chief town of Kenya’s Uasin Gishu district located in the high “White” highlands on the western edge of the Great Rift Valley. This region is the home of the famous long-distance runners not known then. After school there I joined the Asian Teachers’ Training College in Nairobi for two years and qualified to be primary school teacher and Wood Badge scoutmaster. I started teaching in my hometown in 1957.
From early age I was interested in science, mathematics, and technical matters. I considered all else to be general knowledge requiring little effort to learn. Kenya did not have a university then. Some of my schoolmates went to the UK to become medical doctors, the preferred career in those times above law and accountancy. My father, uneducated but a good technician, could not afford to do the same for me. Studying own my own, I acquired the Cambridge Higher School Certificate. Mr. J. C. Loadman, my college professor and scout commissioner, was instrumental in acquiring me Kenya government teachers’ scholarship. He arranged for me to study in Trinity College, Dublin University, Ireland.
Driven by a desire to achieve the maximum during the four years (1959-1963), I graduated in history, geography and experimental psychology. Simultaneously I passed a postgraduate Diploma in Geography and a Diploma in Public Administration. I left a mark in sports and student societies, the latter facilitating my participation in conferences in Europe and the unforgettable 1961 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm and becoming a guidance counselor in an international children’s summer camps in Switzerland and in New Hampshire, USA.
On return to Kenya, I decide to be near my father in Eldoret and started teaching in my old Uasin Gishu High School until 1965 when I joined Kenya Water Ministry in Nairobi as hydrologist. The following year I went to Prague, Czech Republic and obtained a postgraduate diploma in hydrology.
In the early years after Kenya’s independence in 1963 many scientific and technical British staff decided to leave the government and migrated to other white countries. Being the only Kenya citizen in the Hydrology Department, the government seconded me to the Hydro-meteorological Survey of the Upper Nile, a multinational UN funded project. In1969, I became the project Co-Manager at the headquarters in Entebbe, Uganda.
Early in 1970, as luck would have it, I was selected to join the Hydrology and Water Resources Department of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the UN located in Geneva, Switzerland. I had very satisfying last ten years of work there up to 1997 being responsible for projects in developing countries to improve their capacities to monitor and assess water resources and to set up flood forecasting services.
I liked the scouting activities very much; but not wearing the uniform. I was conscious of my skinniness. Nevertheless, this guise enabled me to enjoy the outdoor life of adventure at little cost, at the same time proved to my introvert small Asian community that I have done things that people do not normally do. I climbed Kilimanjaro in 1956, a mixed expedition organized by Boy Scouts and Girl Guides headed by my professor Mr. Loadman. The Kilimanjaro record book shows Gertrude Benham being the first woman to reach the peak in 1909. It does not show that it was in our expedition that the first two Asian women (Surinder Grewal and Santosh Verma) reached our objective Gilman’s Point, a few metres lower. I was crest fallen when Indian friends in Eldoret reacted: “Are you crazy; what if you got killed? What is there to gain?” Not listening to their advice, I continued my adventures and climbed Mount Kenya (Lenana Point) in 1958. Again, Surinder Grewal was the first Asian woman to reach that height. I climbed Kilimanjaro three more times, the last in November 2002 at the age of sixty-five up to Gilman’s Point. The second time (1958) I was an assistant trainer in the Outward Bound Mountain School at Loitokitok near Kilimanjaro. With a party of five I also walked 160 km during the peak activity of Mau-Mau nationalists in 1956 from Nairobi to Nakuru in the Rift Valley.
My mother died in India when I was not yet five. My father took me and my brother, a year and half younger, to Kenya in 1948. He brought us up with meager resources. He operated a flour mill in Eldoret. He was 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. We 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 us in our schoolwork; but he kept our minds active by asking us rustic brainteasers that he carried with him from the Punjab. He shared everything with us including housework. We did not notice that life was a struggle. We 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 emotions involved in relationship with others remained buried deep down undeveloped. Whatever we learnt on these vital qualities was by watching others. Yet few others saw these deficiencies in us. On occasions when we two quarreled there was no one to mediate or separate us or guide us.
At school I learnt Urdu as second language. Having acquired a good base in Punjabi in India, I got on with it comfortably. At 15 or 16 I became a “Granthophilia” expert competing with adults in speed-reading. By “Granthophilia” I mean reading the Adi Granth (AG), the sacred book of Sikhs in Gurmukhi script but without understanding much of it, even less following its teachings. Uninterrupted reading of 1430 pages of AG within 48 hours is a Sikh tradition and trademark. At that stage I also learnt to sing Sikh hymns and play “tabla,” percussion drums.
Looking back at my life trail starting from a remote place in Kenya highlands to mountainous Switzerland, I sense that I am a product of pure luck or chance. Everything just happened; I did not plan anything. The mighty time flow dragged me along.
From early age religion influenced me much but I remained unconvinced. Yet I found it difficult to write off a role of some supernatural hand. That did not explain why so many others I know took a similar path but to separate ways and destinations. I concluded that it all boils down to the way an individual reacts and adjusts to changing all-encompassing circumstances and conditions. For me, the supernatural power we call God resides in the nature, environment, or milieu; we just ignore to see it.
With regard to body and mind I believe in the saying “if you don’t use it you may lose it”. I never totally gave up sports and outdoor activities. On reaching 58, I took up jogging, trekking in the Alps, skiing, and regular fitness and now x-fit classes. Jogging prompted me to run long distances. I often ponder what made me take-up running at the age of 60. I could think of only reason: I was born in the land of Kenya’s world greatest long-distance runners. I wonder if there I acquired a runner’s gene that decided to manifest itself in me only late in life. Over 27 years I have graduated from running seven kilometers to half Marathons. You can imagine my delight when Leman Blue TV broadcast my exploit in the 2021 year-end Geneva race finding that I was the oldest (doyen) to cross the finish line.
The activity I enjoy most is handiwork. I never tire of all sorts of house repairs, be it building work, woodwork, mechanical repairs, watch repairing, playing music and singing. I try not to miss year-round weekly singing practice in Geneva’s oldest choral group, Cercle Chorale de Genève. I adore joining my voice with sixty others in concerts in Switzerland and other countries in Europe.
Behind all this happiness lurks one remorse in my mind. “Why didn’t I specialize in a single branch of knowledge and devoted all my energy to it?” I was twelve when I first started to learn English in school. To catch up, I opted to study English literature in the first two years in Trinity. The little art of writing I had acquired was lost when drafting technical and administrative reports in the UN for 27 years.
After unsuccessful attempts I gave up reviving my writing skills. My yearning to share with people my wide-ranging experiences and my thinking became persuasive. Luck struck again. In 1999, I wrote four long e-mails to my ex-Eldoret friends and fellow teachers living in London to thank them. They had welcomed me lovingly and took me around for ten days. We talked about good old days, things I could not have talked about elsewhere. In the e-mails I recounted all what did and spoke. I received lot of unexpected flattering reaction from them. Believe me, this gave me the confidence I needed. Since then, I have published books and articles. (see https://bigbangyoga.org/ ) Now I need to improve my English writing. This I can do only if I could live in the English society to relearn the language people speak now. Surely, readers would understand my writings better!
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