Eight weeks back, a dear neighbor Dorothy confided that hiking Mt Kilimanjaro was on a bucket list of things to do before she turned 50. Never one to pass up a challenge, my family agreed to join her family. Last weekend, seven of us left the comfort of our Nairobi sofa sets and hiked the length of the Machame route to the Summit. In doing so, we smashed all pre-conceptions of our capabilities and learnt a little about the beauty and promise of our East African region.
Team Kili Kili, we called ourselves. The first Kili was for Kilimani, the Nairobi neighborhood we live in. The second was for the rooftop of Africa. We were mostly Kenyan, adults and children ranging from 15 to 50 years old at various levels of physical fitness. Over the next 60 hours of hiking, we were to see few other East Africans and no families.
Each of us had people or causes we were making the climb for. They ranged from the freedom for Palestinians and peace in Syria to our mothers and ourselves. I walked for my late father who had attempted to climb the mountain in the eighties. He, my mother and sister had to turn back after a bout of mountain sickness. As the climb got tough, having reasons bigger than ourselves became important. If the reason was only oneself, it was increasingly easier to give up. For me, it would be giving up on completing the journey my father started. There is a broader life lesson here.
The challenge of the mountain started in Nairobi. What clothes and equipment did we need? Done properly, the investment per person could easily be Kshs 40,000 (US$400) for materials you may never use again. Could we rent the equipment and buy the clothes cheaply. Nairobi has a few outdoor shops but by far the most popular and economically friendly is Toi Market off Ngong road. Here, our neighbor Joy, was able to get all they needed at a third of the costs in the Malls. Friends quickly came to the rescue. Great, but my question still remains, why can’t Kenyans rent most of the stuff? Moshi does have a few rental shops but it seems there is a business opportunity for a rental shop in Kenya. Until then, Tanzania will still dictate access and the ease of domestic tourists from the region.
The five day climb to the 5,895 meter summit was easily the most physically demanding exercise we have ever done. 60 hours of hiking over 52 kilometers across four ecological zones mostly upward but also down into beautiful valleys. We climbed between 8 and 15 kilometers each day and slept in four tented camps. Each of the camps had 200 to 500 hikers from all over the world. Their size and organization reminded me of some of the refugee camps elsewhere in the region. Yet unlike refugees, we had chosen to be there. Unlike them, wrapped very carefully in plastic ziploc bags were our national identity documents that allowed us to go back to our homes if it got too difficult.
Mentally, I found myself preparing for team meltdowns and personal tantrums. How could I manage them? How could I bring out the best in the group? Each of us grasped for oxygen that dwindled with every step from Barafu camp to the Summit. Mark risked hypothermia every time he lay down on a rock. Nyambura struggled to overcome mountain sickness. Robyn kept muttering, “Exactly why are we here?” My 16 year old son Cuba demonstrated the reason for his name by displaying a personal resilience and purpose that still inspires me to this moment.
With every step, I knew the team meltdowns and personal tantrums grew near, but they never happened. In the process I stumbled across an unexpected but important insight. Pre-judgements about others capacities have no reality outside the corners of our heads. While I spent time assessing and weighing each of us, each of them just got on with what was needed at every stage. No drama, just actions inside of their intention to summit, and then, all seven of us summited.
Kilimanjaro is epic in many kinds of ways. The myth of Kaiser Wilhelm demanding Kilimanjaro from Queen Victoria. The call by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere to light a torch on Kilimanjaro to signal hope for the total freedom of Africa from colonial rule. The fact that 25,000 people from seven continents attempt to climb it each year but only 66% ascend to the Summit. The fact that it is the highest point in Africa. All this, informs its majesty.
Foreign and domestic tourists also earn Tanzania upwards of US$50 million annually. Personally, the first time the porters sung the song “Jambo bwana, habari gani, karibu Kilimanjaro” I cringed inwardly. I cringed not because I have a problem with the tourism industry that has spawned this, but that hospitality falls short of the understanding and friendship that is possible on Kilimanjaro.
Rather than serving those of us that climb this mountain, the thousands of guides and porters own this mountain. Whether they have come from Nairobi, Singida, Arusha or Moshi like our guides Dickson, Nuru and Albert, Kilimanjaro belongs to them. As their temporary guests, we owe it to them to mobilise leaders and citizens to act and stem global warming. Should we succeed, our children and theirs in turn, will have the opportunity to also stand on the snow rooftop of Africa and see one of the wonders of the world.
For those of you yet to climb the mountain the local Wachagga people call Kibo (snow) and in Swahili “ngara” (to shine), we went literally from the couch to the mountain. Not for the fainthearted perhaps, but then again I don’t know what you are capable of. Do you?
Thanks to The East African for carrying the story in full on 14th September