Dr Atieno Mboya and her trip to Antarctica

Dr Atieno Mboya in Antarctica

How old are you and how would you describe yourself?

I am a 59-year-old mother of two. I consider myself a global citizen as I have always had an interest in diverse cultures and countries. Whenever possible, I like to travel to broaden my understanding and experience of the world, of human history and the biodiversity of our planet. These interests motivated me to become an international lawyer with a special interest in the environment.

Looking back, what experience do you think has shaped the person you are today?

Travel, both within and outside Kenya. My first adventure trip in Kenya was to the Coast, in December 1982, with a group of youth that visited Magarini Village. We participated in a 9-day service project that included helping with a mobile health clinic and visiting homes to have conversations about the oneness of God, the unity of religion, and the unity in diversity of the human family.

What was your life’s most defining moment?

I would say the most defining moment of my life was the first time I travelled internationally. This was from March to August 1984, when I lived in Haifa, Israel, as a religious volunteer. I met and served with youth from over 10 different countries there. 

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Nairobi. We lived in Woodley Estate, then later in Madaraka and Ngei Estates. I went to Catholic Parochial Primary School, then to Alliance Girls High School for Forms 1 to 6. My six years at Alliance were transformative. Alliance taught me that the sky was the limit for anything I wanted to achieve.

What is your career and how did you decide to get into it? Was it your first choice?

I am a law lecturer. As a youth, I had wanted to be a university lecturer and I am very happy and fortunate that I have been able to fulfil this dream. I went into law because I enjoyed debating, reasoning, and writing, and it was one of the top choices for A-Level Arts students in our days. I was torn between studying law or music at university, but since I could stay involved in music as a hobby, I chose to study law.

Who has had the biggest influence in your life?

My mother. Despite having seven children by the 1960s, she enrolled at the University of Nairobi and got her Bachelor of Commerce degree in the 1970s. After she became a sole parent, I remember her saying that without that degree, she would have not been able to get the jobs that made it possible for her to provide a home and educate all her children. 

Who have you looked up to in the course of your life and career?

I have always looked to the example of hard work, perseverance, prayer and determination that my mother, who is now 88 years old, has shown throughout her own life. For my career as a lecturer, my PhD advisor, who is also my boss today, has been my mentor, encourager, and a gentle influence.

 What challenges have you had to deal with? 

My biggest recent challenge was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in December 2023. I prepared for months and arrived in Moshi with optimism. I chose the 7-day route. Unfortunately, by the end of the second day, I had caught a stomach bug. All I could have was tea, soup, uji and water. I could also occasionally eat some popcorn. This was terrible as not only was I feeling unwell, I was also not eating enough carbohydrates and proteins needed for this climb. Nonetheless, I was determined not to turn back before reaching the summit. I am glad that I had a very patient guide who encouraged me and walked at my very, very, slow pace. The key was to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When we reached Base Camp (Barafu Camp) on Day 5, we started the trek to the summit, Uhuru Peak, at midnight. Normally, climbers reach the Peak by 7 or 8am. Given that I was very weak, it took me 12 hours to get to Uhuru Peak – I arrived exactly at Noon. I was exhausted but exhilarated that I overcame this monumental challenge! And I met my goal of reaching the top of Africa before I turned 60.

Could you tell us a little bit about your family?

I have two adult children who are my pride and joy. They both live and work in the USA. Their father is a retired physician. We raised them to speak both Dholuo (my mother tongue) and Farsi (their father’s Persian mother tongue). While English has become their primary language, I am happy that they have the linguistic foundation of both their cultures, which they can build on if they ever decide to become fluent in either language.

What motivates you to keep going?

My Faith. I was raised in the Baha’i Faith, which teaches that God’s Message for today is for humanity to build a united and flourishing world community for the benefit of everybody; this is what motivates my physical life. Secondly, Baha’is believe that after death, the true believer’s soul will continue to live and progress towards God forever, and will reap eternal blessings based on the kind of life they lived in this world; this is what motivates my inner life.

What are some of your accomplishments and which one do you consider to be the biggest one?

Some of my accomplishments are: raising my two wonderful children; getting my doctoral degree in international environmental law; travelling solo to Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana in 1988 to teach the Baha’i Faith; climbing Mount Kilimanjaro; and setting foot on all 7 continents before turning 60. I consider reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro and walking in Antarctica as my two biggest achievements.

How did the trip to Antarctica come about? 

I have always wanted to visit all 7 continents. So in early 2023, when I saw a deeply discounted price online for an expedition to Antarctica in November, I jumped on it!

Can you talk about the preparations you made for such an unusual journey?

Oh, the preparations were many! I had to do a lot of research about the route to Antarctica and where I needed to go to board the ship. I first had to fly to Buenos Aires, then to a city called Ushuaia, both in Argentina. I had never heard of Ushuaia, which is where the ship left from. I also needed to find out what kind of clothing I would need. So I joined a social media group for the trip, and it was very helpful. I learnt that I needed to buy Merino wool base layers to wear, then warm mid-layers on top of those, then an outer-layer jacket that is stuffed with feathers, and a waterproof windbreaker. I needed a warm wool cap, and a face buff to protect my face from the wind. For my legs, I wore three layers, with the third one being proof trousers. I also wore warm hand mittens. It took me months to do the research and buy the correct clothes. Lastly, I needed to have a medical check-up to confirm that my health was good enough for a trip to Antarctica because there were no hospitals there. There are no people in Antarctica other than tourists like myself and scientists who do research there (we did not see them). 

Were there any challenges?

During the trip, I had to take nausea medicine to reduce sea sickness when we were crossing the Drake Passage. This 1,000km Passage connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the southernmost tip of South America to Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. On the first night that we were crossing the Drake, big, heavy waves were slamming against the ship and one of the wood beams in my cabin came crashing down! I awoke in shock, thinking someone had broken into my cabin. Fortunately, that beam was not over my bed and the next morning, the repair crew fixed it and all went well for the rest of the trip.

What was it like experiencing the extreme cold and isolation of Antarctica?

Since I had the right clothes for the weather, I did not feel cold in Antarctica at any time. The isolation gave me a feeling of pristine beauty and peace – it was magical.

Did you have any memorable encounters with wildlife? 

Yes, one memorable encounter was watching an orca (killer whale) hunting a seal in close view from the ship. Another was seeing humpback whales coming up from the water to breathe.

How did the landscape and environment of Antarctica compare to what you expected? 

During the five days that I was in Antarctica, I found the snow-covered landscape breathtakingly beautiful, especially at Lemaire Channel. The rocky mountainous terrain surprised me as I had imagined the continent as a flat, continuous, snowy landscape before I went. I was also surprised to see very little snow and warm steaming waters at Whalers Bay, which also has huge, rusting oil barrels that were left on the continent after whale hunting for oil was curtailed.

Were there any moments during the trip that were particularly awe-inspiring or surreal?

Waking up at 5am one morning and looking out of my balcony to see the magical landscape at the Lemaire Channel was enchanting! Taking my first steps on Antarctica at Damoy Point, where I was able to hold up the Kenya flag, was poignant.  My heart was filled with gratitude to have had this opportunity.

Do you have any advice for others who might be interested in visiting Antarctica or undertaking a similarly adventurous journey?

My advice would be to save for the trip and be patient as you look for special prices each year. When you find a deal that you can afford, buy it right away. Join a reliable social media group for the trip as a lot of practical information is shared in such groups. And last-but-not-least, stay fit and healthy so that when your opportunity comes, you’ll be ready to go.

Do you have any other unfulfilled ambitions?

Yes, I would have liked to become an astronaut and to walk on the moon.


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