All of the students study in Form IV, the final year of O-level, which means that in October, they will sit for their National Exams. If they score highly enough, they will continue their high school education next year by entering Form V, the first year of A-level. The following five students were selected principally based on their entries to an essay contest I held last November, but also on academic performance, character, leadership, and behavior.
Before this trip, only two students – Agnes and Stella – had traveled outside of Iringa Region. They had previously been to villages just over the border of Morogoro Region one time each, to visit family.
Standing: Agnes, Stella, and Patmos; Sitting: Norah and Hekima
Hekima Kaduma (19, male) – Talk about personality: This kid is a dynamo. Because of him, I think we had maybe one short hour of silence among the 40+ we spent in the van. He befriended everyone we encountered – our van driver, our mountain guides, our cooks, a coffee-seller on the street in Dar es Salaam. He wants to be a pharmacologist, so I told him he should visit New Jersey, the drug-making capital of the world.
Norah Mwipopo (18, female) – This girl should try out for Africa’s version of American Idol (yes, it does exist). She loves to sing, and can decipher the words to most American hip-hop and R&B songs. Except, notably, Akon’s old hit (Norah sang, “Nobody wanna see us togetherrr, but it don’ ma-atter no, cuz I tattoo.”) Academically, math is her strongest subject, and fittingly, she wants to be a banker.
Patmos Mbago (18, male) – Patmos’ English blows my mind; he knows all sorts of quirky words and idioms (and won’t tell me where he learns them). Academically, he consistently ranks second in the school. On his first Form IV Chemistry exam, he scored an 82, blowing away the competition (the second-highest score was a 58). He wants to be a doctor, and I’m confident he’ll succeed.
Stella Itala (18, female) – She’s the quiet one. It wasn’t often that I heard her speak; I think she’s still afraid of teachers, even white ones who refuse to hit students. But she often jumped in as Norah’s back-up singer, filing in pleasant harmonies that kept morale high even during the eighteenth hour of traveling.
Laura Mueller (24, female) – That’s me! The Peace Corps Volunteer who, at several moments during this adventure, had to step back and remind myself that these students’ parents had signed permission slips allowing their children to jaunt off across the country and up a mountain with me as their chaperone. Returning them to school in five whole, human-shaped pieces with no permanent damage was one of the most relieving moments of my life.
Other climbers, from a neighboring secondary school, were: Belina Kawogo (19, female), Esther Gavis (18, female), Emmanuel Nziku (18, male), Frank Emmanuel (18, male), and Nicole Scharko (26, female, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer)
Our journey started on June 6th, 2009 at 7:15am, and ended on June 19th, 2009 at about 4:30am...yes, we traveled through the night. During the trip, I kept a travel journal, and this blog entry is essentially a transcription of its contents (slightly revised, of course). I’ve tried to highlight the important, interesting, or exciting moments of each day and to leave out the less stimulating details. This was a difficult task, since nearly every moment had a buzz of delight or the unpredictable thrill of a kick.
Overall, the trip was outstanding, certainly my favorite experience thus far of Peace Corps, and probably one of the best adventures of my life. Now for the play-by-play:
Day #1, June 6th: Philip Mangula Secondary School to Njombe Town
At 7:15am, I met my students at the bus stop in front of the school. There were a large number – maybe thirty or forty – of other students hanging about, mostly in clique-ish circles, and I was confused to see that so many were leaving school mid-way through the summer session. But I had a lot on my mind, and the daunting task of making sure my five travelers hadn’t forgotten to pack anything, so I didn’t bother asking to see their permission slips. Fifteen minutes later, when the bus rumbled up our single-lane dirt road, pumping dust into the air and onto our clothes, the gathered students began to disband their huddles and weave among the six of us who were leaving. “Haya, safari njema,” they said, as they shook our hands. Ok, have a good trip. Some added, “Mungu awabariki.” God bless you. They weren’t leaving at all; they had come only to see us off. No other members of the school community –students, teachers, or anyone else – had ever embarked on a journey of this magnitude, which merited their presence as we boarded the bus and left campus.
On the bus, we sat with the school’s Academic Master, Mr. Kigobo, who is also the Form IV History teacher. He offered a prize to the first person to reach Uhuru Peak, Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit, which caused a rise of challenges, bets, and even some mild threats.
Once we arrived in Njombe, the day was relaxing. We settled into our hotel, had a preliminary meeting, and discussed the lessons that would be integrated into the trip (lessons: “Money Management,” “Culture and Tourism,” “Geology”). We distributed small notebooks that the students were to use as “bank books,” to keep track of how, when, and where they spent their daily allowances. Then, the female students presented a lesson at a girls’ empowerment conference organized by some of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Afterwards, Nicole and I set the students free to roam the town until dark.
Day #2, June 7th: Njombe Town to Moshi City
Today was our sixteen-hour ride from Njombe to Moshi. A cramped minivan, twelve full-grown adult bodies. Just two rest stops, one at Mikumi and one at Segere.
We crossed the entire diagonal length of Tanzania, which thrilled the students. They counted the regions and the kilometers. The first big excitement was Mikumi National Park, through the center of which the TanZam (Tanzania-Zambia) highway passes. The students spied their first antelope, giraffes, baboons, and elephants.
Next, a wave of screams erupted as we passed Mzumbe, the site of the best A-level school for boys in the nation. Apparently, it is Hekima’s “dream school,” as we would say in the U.S. Think Harvard or Princeton. Unlike an American student aiming for those schools, though, this drive-by sighting is the one and only glimpse of Mzumbe that Hekima will have before he applies and, hopefully, matriculates. The teasing of his classmates was good-humored, and even somewhat awkward, since they all know that he has a legitimate chance to be accepted at the school.
When we reached the Pwani (Coastal) Region, the students asked to borrow my phone so that they could text their Geography teacher, the Assistant Academic Master and a good friend of mine, Mr. Kamala. They wanted to tell him that they had reached the edge of Tanzania.
After that, the excitement dwindled. We were all starting to get tired. But I had come prepared with several decks of playing cards and travel Connect Four, which enthralled them. The game was a first for them, and explaining its rules in Swahili was a first for me. In the beginning, they sometimes wouldn’t realize when they’d won – they’d have four in a row, but simply continue playing. In no time, though, they were experts, staging tournaments and calling winners.
Following our second rest stop, at Segere in Tanga Region, the morale almost dropped. We were tired, our legs were cramped, and the rest stop had come at an awkward hour – 4:30pm. The question then was: Do we eat, or do we wait? Most decided to wait, which meant that when we still hadn’t arrived in Moshi by 8:00pm, we were tired, cramped, and starving. Hekima, as always, picked up the emotional slack. With his typical alacrity, he started a betting pool, the pot to be awarded to the last person to fall asleep in the car.
Overall, the journey wasn’t so bad, and the kids didn’t seem to mind the cramped space. But I guess they’re used to it. (If you’ve ever heard me talk about a daladala, this won’t surprise you.) We arrived in Moshi after 10:00pm, and took the students out for dinner before collapsing into bed.
Day #3, June 8th: Walk-Around in Moshi
The students’ first experience with a city. We walked them around town, keeping close tabs. The tour was more difficult than we’d imagined, since Nicole had never before been to Moshi, and on my only previous visit, I had focused on things which are only of interest to white people, like hamburger joints and wine shops. But the students enjoyed the city atmosphere, and we bought them ice cream, a white-people Moshi attraction we knew they’d appreciate (after all, who wouldn’t?)
The students, especially Hekima and Patmos, were very interested in discussing cultural differences between America in Tanzania. Is America more like Moshi than Njombe? they wanted to know. How about the prices? Are things more or less expensive in America? Why did that man just ask you for money? Do even you, as a teacher, dress like that in America? they asked, pointing to a white woman in tight jeans and a tank top. They were also very interested in my political affiliations and opinions. After I took a picture of a pick-up truck with Obama’s portrait on its rear windshield, they asked, Why do you think George Bush liked Tanzania so much, when Tanzanians like Barack Obama so much more? Why hasn’t the Tanzanian government repaired the roads, even after Bush gave it so much money to do so? Because of Peace Corps restrictions, I had to be careful about answering these questions, but I’m sure my democratic bias shone through just the same.
Back at the hotel, Hekima and Patmos approached a Belgian tourist named Geoff. One of the students’ lessons during the trip requires them to interview tourists, so I was pumped to see them doing their assignment. Afterward, they told me all about their conversation, which had gone on for at least half an hour. They were so excited about what they’d learned; they were all smiles. They really enjoyed doing their homework. Fantastic! (If you’d like to know more about what the students learned from these conversations, just let me know. There were other interviews that won’t make it into this synopsis.)
Day #4, June 9th: Moshi City to Marangu Village, the base of Mount Kilimanjaro
This morning was restful. We had a short meeting to introduce the third lesson for the trip, a geology scavenger hunt. Nicole and I checked up on the students’ bank books, reviewed mountain safety, and distributed the snacks our families had so generously sent – Powerbars, trail mixes, and packets of energy-boosting Gu.
We gave the students two hours to explore the city and to eat lunch. Nicole and I took the opportunity to gorge ourselves on white people food. (Moshi, a tourist city, is a haven for the familiar foods we’ve been craving for 23 months.) I ingested: a chicken & cheese “bagel” sandwich, a chocolate ice cream float (with Coke – unfortunately, root beer does not exist here, even in Moshi), and a cheeseburger with fries. It was a little too greasy to qualify as healthy, but nevertheless, I excused myself with the reasoning that it was my last “power meal” before starting the climb.
After lunch, we met the kids back at the hotel. We had borrowed fancy, outdoorsy backpacks from a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer with a “Youth Adventure Club,” so I showed the students how to wear the packs properly. Then we squeezed back into our van, and set off for Marangu. We stayed with a man named Honest, who has a lovely house just a five minute walk from the park gate. Honest is also the caretaker of all of the equipment that Peace Corps Volunteers’ students use when climbing the mountain. So at his house, the students had an absolute blast trying on and choosing hats, snowpants, boots, etc.
Next, we met our mountain guides: Thadeus, Bismus, Festo, Mark, and Thomas. All of them are a bit older, but then again, they have to be in order to have achieved the status of guide. Professional mountain trekkers start off as porters, with whom the paying climbers have almost no interaction, and then get promoted to cooks. Only after several years as a cook can a worker be awarded the title of guide, for which he must have extensive knowledge of the mountain, its routes, and its safety regulations…not to mention of Western tourists and their demands.
Immediately after settling down and packing up our borrowed equipment, we had our first trouble. The students broke one of Nicole’s and my seven rules – they went somewhere without telling us. With a girl name Glory, who lives at Honest’s, they went to a shop to buy supplies for our upcoming six-day hike. When they returned, we scolded them appropriately, and I told them that for their punishment, Nicole and I had eaten all of the food (which had been served in their absence), so they wouldn’t have dinner. It wasn’t true, of course, and since everyone was happy and they hadn’t really put themselves in danger, we let the whole incident slide with a warning.
Day #5, June 10th: Starting the Climb, Marangu (1860m) to Mandara Huts (2705m)
We strapped our packs on and set out up the mountain this morning. We were the first people to enter the park, so we glided through the registration procedures and started our hike.
The first stage of the Marangu Route leads through a rain forest, so we saw tons of interesting vegetation – vines wrapped around massive tree trunks, boulders blanketed by thick green moss without a patch of gray to behold. Blue monkeys were everywhere.
We hiked through the forest for about five hours, taking a short break for snacks at a picnic area along the way. This stage of the route was pretty posh, with metal picnic tables and a clean, indoor squat toilet (choo).
Once we arrived at and checked into the Mandara Huts, we went for a short hike to a nearby crater. This walk would help us to acclimatize, since it led to a higher elevation than that at which the huts sit, and when climbing, the adage is, “Walk high, sleep low.”
On our acclimatization walk, the students posed for pictures in the tall grass of the crater. They sprawled on the ground, crossing their legs and flashing peace signs while their friends snapped away with the disposable cameras my mom had sent them (Thanks, Mom!). During one of the photo shoots, Hekima’s cell phone rang. (Unbelievably, there is cell phone reception everywhere on the mountain, right up to the summit.) He spoke for a few seconds, and when he hung up, Norah asked, in English, “Who is calling you?” Hekima replied, “My…my young fa – no, no. My small father.” He had translated directly from Swahili, in which “uncle” – the brother of one’s father – is “baba mdogo” (small father) or “baba mkubwa” (large father), depending on whether the uncle is one’s father’s older or younger brother. It was an honest mistake, but Norah would not let him off the hook. She laughed relentlessly. “Just say, ‘my uncle,’ is it?” she asked, looking at me for confirmation. Before I could reply, Patmos took over and said with a teacherly tone, in Swahili, “Unless he wants to say that his uncle is very short.” It took several minutes for the students to recover, as they dropped into hysterical laughter. Norah quite literally laughed herself to the ground.
On the way back to camp from the crater, Norah made everyone laugh again when she said happily, “Wow, descending is so easy." It was mostly funny, but also a bit unsettling, since most of us don’t believe that Norah will make it up the mountain. She’s not in great shape, physically, which I didn’t realize when I chose her for this adventure. I’d only known that she’d promised me, “Sitakubali.” I won’t give in. Even our lead guide, Thadeus, noticed her lagging behind today. Just an hour into our walk, he asked me if I had arranged a place for Norah to stay at the base of the mountain if she had to turn back before the summit.
Day #6, June 11th: Mandara Huts (2705m) to Horombo Huts (3719m)
Today we got our first taste of real hiking. Within the first hour of today’s walk, the jungle vanished into vast stretches of bush-like moorland. We choked on dust. The path angled upward much more steeply than it did yesterday, which was to be expected, since we knew we’d end the day at Horombo Huts, 3720 meters above sea level.
Before we even left the forest, Norah started to struggle. Her pack is much too heavy for her. A guide, Mark, exchanged with her, since his pack is much lighter. It clearly helped, since Norah arrived with the rest of us to Horombo. I think we’re all worried about her, though. Of course, if she can’t make it, she’ll descend to Marangu and stay with Honest for a few nights, but we’d rather not have to resort to that.
There was one massive, steep hill today. I booked it up the son of a bitch. I had the energy, so I used it, and practically ran. My mentality is such that I find it much easier just to get it done, rather than taking my time and having the hill seem like it will never end. This might be a bad idea for acclimatization purposes, but mentally, I really just had to get up the damn hill. Patmos, Frank, Hekima, and I were the first to arrive at the day’s “halfway point” and lunch spot at the top of the hill. Emmanuel, Esther, and Nicole came next, while the other girls followed.
After the “halfway point,” we had about two hours more to walk. Through this stretch, there were lots of bridges over deep ravines etched into the curves of the mountains. The last bridge led directly to the Horombo Huts, where I’m sitting now, looking down. Tonight, for the first time, we’ll sleep above the clouds. The simple lodgings in the sky are a lot like the Mandara Huts – small, black, A-frame houses with two rooms each. Each room has four beds, which means the boys fit perfectly in one room. The five girls, like last night, have decided to sleep all together rather than banish one of their own to the teachers’ room. In fact, they use only three beds, doubling up as much as they can to “minimize the cold.” It’s fine with us; I think Nicole and I prefer to have our own space.
I have a slight headache from I don’t know what – maybe altitude, maybe lack of sleep. I’ve hardly slept at all these past two nights.
At least the students are having a blast. I’m listening to them outside our room playing cards, and they really seem to be enjoying themselves. They wear those hilarious hats, and they laugh a lot. Hekima has endless energy.
Tomorrow, we acclimatize. Then we hit Kibo Huts. Then we (hopefully) summit.
Day #7, June 12th: Acclimatization at Zebra Rocks (about 4400m)
While the boys were washing their dishes after breakfast this morning, they noticed the ice. Mostly, it snaked over the ground in thin, crumbling sheets, but in a few places, it had spread and frozen thickly, bumpily, in the congealing patterns of spilled paint. Hekima, Patmos, Frank, and Emmanuel broke off a few sheets with their bare fingers, cursing the cold, and ran off with their prizes. I don’t know what they did with them, or if they knew how quickly the ice would melt.
A little later, we hiked to Zebra Rocks, a smooth rock wall of natural black-and-white stripes. Of course, we had another photo shoot. The students found an alcove equipped with a boulder that served as a sort of elevated platform, on which they posed.
Then we hiked up another steep slope, minimizing the gradient with sharp switchbacks, weaving through boulders. At the top, we had a wonderful view of the saddle, stretching vastly between Kilimanjaro’s two peaks, Mawenzi and Kibo (our glacier-capped goal). We could see the rubbed-out line of sand marking our intimidating path to the summit. Straight up Kibo. The boys were really excited; the girls seemed bothered. I think most of the girls are feeling sick, either from altitude or exertion. I’d bet exertion.
On our way back to Horombo camp, Thadeus approached me again. “Some of the girls,” he said, “seem like they are not enthusiastic about this exercise.” He named Norah, Agnes, and Belina. “What are you going to do if they can’t make it?” I told him that we’d made arrangements, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Back at Horombo, we had lunch and relaxed all afternoon. I took a nap, and as a result, I feel rested for the first time in days. Hopefully that will help me out tomorrow. I’m terrified of getting altitude sickness. The climb is intimidating, and it’ll be tough, but if I don’t get sick, I’ll get it done. We’ve got a strenuous morning climb tomorrow, and then a grueling nighttime summit. We’ll give it our best shots.
We’ve set an 8:00pm curfew. It seems excessively early, but by that time, no one is left outside. We don’t want the students roaming around, waking up other trekkers who are paying the full fare.
Day #8, June 13th: Horombo Huts (3719m) to Kibo Huts (4713m), Sleep and Wake Up Again
We lost Belina today. As we started our climb, she was already struggling. She would take three steps and stop. Three steps, stop. She found it hard to breathe. Though she wanted to continue, Thadeus told her she was getting sick and must stay at Horombo Huts. And then there were ten.
The rest of us have arrived safely at Kibo Huts, though today was arduous. Not to mention freezing cold. The wind on the barren saddle is brutal. The whole day, during our walk, we were staring ahead at Kibo Peak and our path to its top. Every time I look at it, I can’t help but laugh because it is just so preposterous that any of us should want to exert ourselves in that way. It looks like misery. Except to Hekima, who says simply, “It looks like a challenge.”
I think we’re all surprised that Norah is still with us. We’ve been expecting her to turn back at any moment, as have the guides. She hasn’t carried her pack for two days now, and she huffs and puffs her way through each kilometer. Each time I look back at her, I think of my fellow teachers at our school, who knew sooner than I that she would struggle. “Norah is so fat,” one of my friends, Mr. Mhanzi, said to me two weeks ago. “All of the other students you’ve chosen are fit and strong, but Norah cannot make it up that mountain.” Well, she’s made it this far, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. We’ll see what happens tonight.
Back at Mandara Huts, we all agreed to participate in a Scottish study on altitude sickness. When we signed up, they measured our height and weight and took a DNA sample by swabbing the insides of our cheeks. (The students found the weight measurements hilarious; for two days now they’ve been asking each other and us, “What are your kilos?” When Nicole and I refuse to respond, Patmos, the skinniest boy in the world, says, “Don’t worry. My kilos are too high. I must decrease them.”) When we arrived here at Kibo, we filled out a survey (How well did you sleep last night? Do you have a headache?), and got our blood oxygen percentages and our heart rates tested. Right now, I have a blood-oxygen level of 88% and a heart rate of 102. According to the Scottish researcher, if I’d had this blood-oxygen percentage at sea level, I’d be in the ICU and expected to die quite soon. He was also interested to know that at sea level, my heart rate is typically much lower than average, since up here, it’s apparently pretty high. We’ll see what that means for tonight’s climb.
It’s 7:00pm, and we’re going to bed. Tonight, we’re all sleeping in one room of 15 beds. Patmos has already called Nicole and me out on our breaking of our Rule #1, “ABSOLUTELY NO co-ed sleeping arrangements!” We’ve decided it’s ok because we’ll only be sleeping for about four hours, until 11:00pm, when we’ll wake up and begin to prepare ourselves for the testing walk to the summit.
Day #8, June 14th: Kibo Huts (4713m) to Uhuru Peak (SUMMIT! 5985m), Begin Descent
(Unfortunately, I didn’t write a single word in my journal on this day. Instead, I’ll tell the story in retrospect.)
At midnight, we were all bundled into at least four layers of clothing, at least two hats, and as many pairs of gloves as we had mustered from the collection at Honest’s house, which we had rummaged through a full five days ago. Our flashlights shone, catching airy flakes of snow as they fell onto our frozen feet, walking so incongruously near to the equator.
We set out from Kibo Huts, 4713 meters above sea level. To reach Gillman’s Point, at 5681 meters above sea level, we would have to climb almost a full vertical kilometer. From there, the summit at Uhuru Peak would be just 214 meters higher, at 5895 meters above sea level. We’d been told that the whole trek would take somewhere between five and seven hours.
We began our final upward push in a single-file line, led by Thadeus and anchored at certain points by the four other guides. It was steep, and dark, and snowing. To be honest, my memory of the first few hours is shallow. We negotiated the sharp and precipitous switchbacks, following in the tracks of groups that had set out earlier in the night. We took rests, but only short ones, for our guides encouraged us to keep moving in an effort to combat the sub-zero temperatures. About every ten minutes, Thadeus would pause, turn abruptly, and bark, “Hakuna kulala!” or “Hamna usingizi!” which are both different versions of “Don’t fall asleep!”
I think I looked mostly at my feet for those first couple of hours, because the only thing I remember besides Thadeus’ urgent commands is the softness of the soil collapsing beneath my boots. I was walking on a narrow strip of black that had been carved out between short stacks of snow by the feet that had preceded me. The ground was so soft, so loose, that even my expensive hiking boots couldn’t grip it. The sandy dirt slid out so that where I would normally have taken one step, I took three or four to climb the same distance. Periodically, I looked up to check on the students, to make sure we still had everyone with us, but the most I could see were the beams of flashlights or the lumpy silhouettes of borrowed coats.
The last I remember seeing everyone together was at the halfway point, Hans Meyer Cave, at 5151 meters above sea level. We stopped here to rest, and thankfully, the cave also provided some shelter from the precipitation, which was now turning to sleet. (Here, Hekima took perhaps the most honest picture of the entire trip. He captured, in his photo, all of his fellow students collapsed against the wall of the cave, some apparently sleeping, some nearly crying. I wish I had the picture to post, since it was so real.)
After the cave, some of our group began to fall behind. I worried, but I was assured my anxiety was unfounded. Without our knowledge, the guides, led by Thadeus, had developed and implemented a master plan to get the remaining ten of us up the mountain, at least to Gillman’s Point, at 5681 meters above sea level, just 214 meters shy of the summit. The plan worked like this: All four of the boys, Esther, and I continued at the pace we’d already set, led by Thadeus. We painstakingly planted one foot in front of the other, ravenously sucking down the packets of Gu my mother had sent us (Thanks again, Mom!). The remaining trekkers – Nicole, Agnes, Stella, and Norah – each had a personal guide to push, shove, and encourage them up the mountain. While I was climbing, though, I was still unaware of the plan. I constantly looked behind us, trying to see if the others were still coming. Each time I looked back, I would break stride, and Thadeus would scold me. I tried to explain. “I just don’t want them to turn back,” I said. I was afraid that if I wasn’t there to encourage them, to keep them moving like so many teachers and coaches had done for me over the years, that they’d miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach the Roof of Africa. I was scared that they’d fail, and regret it. “They won’t turn back,” said Thadeus. “They’re still coming.” And I wondered how he knew.
That’s not to say that our lead group didn’t have its problems. My hands continually froze to the point where I feared frostbite. I smothered them in two pairs of gloves, the protective layers so thick that I could barely fit my hands into my pockets. Several times, after drinking water or eating Gu, I had to have Thadeus help me redress my hands and wriggle them back into my straining coat pockets. More troublesomely, each time we stopped for any reason, any type of break, Hekima collapsed onto a nearby rock and closed his eyes, prompting Thadeus to scream at him, “Hamna usingizi!” Rarely did Hekima respond. When we were scrambling up the final rocky ledges, close enough to Gillman’s Point to hear the whoops and hollers of hikers who had already arrived, Hekima collapsed onto a rock mid-stride. I took off my gloves and began to search Hekima’s pockets. I found the packet of Gu I’d given him at our meeting back in Moshi, removed it, and ripped it open. I commanded, “Hekima, eat this.” No response. Patmos slapped Hekima on the back of the head. “Hekima!” Patmos shouted. Hekima opened his eyes. “Eat this,” I said, and placed the open end of the packet in his mouth. Slowly, he sucked the gel out of its wrapper. He drank water, stood up again, and we all kept moving. After this incident, I mandated that we could not take any more rests, for fear that Hekima would “zimia,” or “turn off.” (This is the sort of thing I always thought was symptomatic of narcolepsy, but it’s fairly common among Tanzanians – they just pass out, lose all muscular control, and it’s impossible to wake them up. I sometimes wonder if it’s a lingering side effect of severe malaria.) Surprisingly, Hekima did not sit down again – not once.
It was Esther who gave us the next trouble. Just ten minutes from Gillman’s Point, she sat on a rock. She said to me, “Naishia hapa.” I’m stopping here. I probably don’t have to tell you that I nearly flipped. But on the outside, I kept my cool. Esther was the only female student in our lead group, and to validate all of the girls’ empowerment activities I’ve organized here in Tanzania, I needed her to finish. I told her, in my calmest Swahili, “No. You’re not stopping here. You’ve got ten minutes til Gillman’s Point. You hear those screams? That’s because the people who get there are so happy. You want to be that happy? You’ll never get this chance again. Get up. You’re continuing.” She sat, and she looked blankly at me. I breathed deeply, even more deeply than I’d been doing just to inhale an adequate amount of oxygen for my organs and limbs. “Don’t you want your certificate?” I asked. Immediately, as if at a magic word, her expression sparked. “We get certificates?” she asked. “Of course,” I replied, thinking that this had been common knowledge to all of us. She stood up and turned, resuming her spot in our single-file line without another word.
We arrived at Gillman’s Point on an adrenaline high, and as the pinks and yellows of the sun began to rise over the patchy net of clouds below us, we stowed our flashlights in our pockets. We took pictures. Through the slits between scarves and hats, we looked down, in the direction from which we had come. I was searching for the others, any of them. Most of all, though, I wanted to see Norah. Since the first time a fellow teacher scoffed at my choosing her, I had doubted her. Guiltily, I’d even second-guessed my selection. I knew she was tough, but could she make it, physically? Should I have chosen another student, who would have had a better chance of summiting? Because of this, because I felt I’d betrayed another student by choosing Norah, because I felt I’d betrayed Norah by thinking this, I wanted more than anything for her to defy my doubts, to prove me and everyone else wrong. I wanted her to give me and this mountain hell.
Looking down, we all expected, I think, to see Nicole, or Agnes and Stella, who had also fallen behind. Instead, we saw two figures, one supporting the other from the elbow. I jumped once, and grabbed Patmos by the arm. “Is that…” I started. I squinted. “Is that…Norah?” He affirmed. I whooped as Norah and her guide turned the last corner of the rocky scramble to the top. Nicole, whom I hadn’t seen because she had been too close and hidden under the jagged ledge on which I stood, arrived, and I shook her by the shoulders. “Norah’s going to make it!” I shouted, not caring that I was wasting valuable energy I might need to climb the last stretch to Uhuru Peak. Norah was going to make it to Gillman’s Point, at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I refused to leave for the summit until she arrived, wanting to congratulate her before she turned back to wait for us at the huts.
When Norah arrived, we gathered around her. We took more pictures. She was breathless, clearly more tired than the rest of us, and her fingers were so cold that tears were streaming from her eyes. As I rubbed her hands to warm them, I told her I was proud of her. Then Thadeus explained that Norah would wait with her guide for the two girls who were still climbing, and then they would all descend to Kibo Huts. The rest of us would meet them there after finishing our trek to Uhuru Peak. Norah hardly blinked. She didn’t look confused or undecided. She simply looked resolute. “Miss Laura,” she said, firmly, “I’m going with you to Uhuru.” I was not as astonished as the onlooking guides. I was proud. I had chosen Norah partly for her toughness, her mettle. In our math classes together, I had seen her unwavering determination to understand. I’d had my doubts this time, and she’d shot them down. I could not refuse her now. “Tuende, kwa hiyo,” I said, fitting her gloves back onto her hands. Let’s go, then.
As we all turned to start trekking the 214 vertical meters to Uhuru Peak, Esther put a hand on my arm to stop me. “Sorry, Miss Laura,” she said in Swahili. “If I get to Uhuru, do I get another certificate?”
Hekima turned back, saying that his heart was racing and he was too tired to continue, but the rest of us – Patmos, Esther, Frank, Emmanuel, Nicole, Norah, and I – walked on.
An hour and a half later, after a trek whose memory has been washed out by the sleet that pummeled my cheeks, the scene at Gillman’s Point repeated itself. I stood with Patmos, Esther, Frank, and Emmanuel near the sign at Uhuru Peak, snapping photos, as the vision of Norah, her elbow grasped in the steady hand of a guide, emerged through the glassy sleet and snow that was slicing into the scant millimeters of our exposed skin. This time, Patmos was first to comment. “Oh, Norah,” he said, and in perfect English he added, “Slow but sure.”
The rest of the day was a blur of descent. The students loved sliding through the loose dirt that had been a burden to climb, getting a matter of meters out of each stride. I wasn’t sure how their hamstrings handled the pressure of a constant half-squat at breakneck speed, since mine were far too burnt out to keep up with them. Back at Kibo Huts, Patmos explained, “But Madam, you get so much distance from so little energy,” and I saw in my mind the posted chemistry grade: 82%. No doubt his physics grades are just as stellar. (It occurs to me that as Americans, you might not understand that an 82% in Form IV chemistry is stellar. Trust me, it is.)
At Kibo Huts, we took a short time to pack our bags, and then descended to Horombo Huts, where we slept that night.
Day #9, June 15th: Horombo Huts to Marangu, Marangu to Moshi
(Back to a journal transcription…)
So, yesterday was the summit. I made it with two Gu packets, a lot of strain, but no real problems. Nicole made it after puking many, many times. Patmos, Emmanuel, and Frank all made it without a break in stride. Esther packmuled it to the top with the sole encouragement of a certificate. But the story of the day was Norah. Norah the Underdog. The Doubted. Who would have thought? The reality is: No one thought it. Not even me. Everyone thought it’s opposite. Even me. Everyone thought she’d be the first to quit, especially the guides who carried her pack. But that girl would not give up. She just wouldn’t let the mountain conquer her. She was the hardest-headed person I’ve ever seen, and in the best way. I’m immensely proud of her.
Today, we descended the mountain, from Horombo Huts to the gate. Thadeus asked that we all stay together, but our other guide Thomas was the pace-setter. Every time Thomas has set the pace throughout this whole adventure, he’s set it far too high. So Thomas ran off with the four boys, leaving Nicole, the girls, and me to find our own ways down the path. Soon enough, though, Thadeus and Bismus caught up with us. They took Stella’s pack and Esther’s pack, since both are complaining about being tired and sore.
When we arrived at the gate, at about 2:00pm, the boys happily informed us that they’d been waiting for over two hours. We all signed out of the park and walked the short distance back to Honest’s for lunch.
The girls were reunited with Belina, who had descended the mountain completely on the day of our summit. She was no longer sick, but very disappointed. She had had no problems staying at Honest’s; to our relief, she was safe and sound.
We piled back into our van, which had been waiting with its driver at Honest’s, and rode back to Moshi. Nicole and I set the kids free for dinner and celebrated our achievement with pizza and wine. (I swear, Moshi is the white-people-food capital of Tanzania.)
Day #10, June 16th: Moshi to Dar es Salaam
(I’d rather not let the end of this post be anti-climactic, but even after Mount Kilimanjaro, we still had some adventures.)
Another long day in the van. We’re passing through Tanga now, and it’s my turn to sit shotgun. The students are not as excited about crossing regions this time, but they’re still enjoying the sights. We’re listening to our driver’s Akon CD for maybe the sixteenth time, but we’re all still enjoying it. I think.
We arrived at the YMCA in Dar es Salaam at about 5:30pm. Since we can’t let the students wander around Dar by themselves (Dar is significantly larger and more dangerous than Moshi), we took them out to dinner at a restaurant called Summy’s (or, in Peace Corps lingo, “street chicken”), and bought them fried chicken and chips, one of their favorite meals. We were provided with four kinds of sauce, one of which was incredibly, mouth-charringly spicy. I made an offer: Whoever could eat an entire spoonful of the stuff in one gulp would get an ice cream cone. To my surprise, both Patmos and Frank took the bet. Neither even flinched as he downed the sauce. So I was out 6,000 shillings – 3,000 shillings an ice cream cone.
Day #11, June 17th: Around in Dar es Salaam
This was our day in Dar es Salaam: a walk around City Center, which included dropping off our photos to be developed and drinking street coffee with Hekima’s newfound besti; a drive to the ocean (more on that); a short walk around the campus of the University of Dar es Salaam (we thought our exceptionally bright students could use the extra motivation); and a jaunt to the mall so that Nicole and I could pick up some white-people groceries like oats and chocolate at ShopRite (yes, it’s actually called ShopRite, but it’s not the same chain as we have in New Jersey).
(For now, I’ll transcribe only the paragraphs about our experience at the ocean, which was by far the funniest and most exciting of the above.)
We took the students to Coco Beach, the only sandy, swimmable spot near the City Center. Before we left the YMCA, I asked each student specifically if he or she was going to swim, and I explained that if they were going to swim, they should tell me now, so that I could bring extra clothes. “No,” they all said. “We’re too afraid to swim.” They had never seen a body of water large enough for swimming, and the sheer thought of it terrified them.
Well, how they underestimated their own courage. It took some doing, but by the end of an hour, all nine students were dodging waves in the Indian Ocean. I, too, was neck-deep in the water, though I hadn’t brought those extra clothes I’d wanted. Wearing my long linen pants and cotton t-shirt, I’d led the shiest of the students, Belina, into the water by the hand. The highest of the waves (about a foot and a half, maybe) was barely over my hips when Belina, alarmed by the rise and fall of the water, suddenly and without warning jumped into my arms, her hands gripping fiercely at my neck. I nearly fell over. “Are you ok?” I asked, horrified. But I looked at her, and she was smiling. “I’m fine!” she shouted over the screams of her classmates. “Keep going!” Puzzled, I tried to put her down. I dipped her legs into the water, angling them toward the sandy bottom, but she just held my neck harder. “Are you going to stand?” I asked her. “No!” she said, laughing. I was nonplused. Dumbfounded. Meanwhile, Nicole was snapping pictures. “You have to stand,” I said. “You can stand, look. You don’t even have to swim. You just stand.” “What about the waves?” she asked. “You just jump over them,” I explained, and demonstrated a few times. Eventually, with much convincing, she put her feet on the ground. Still gripping my waist, she tried jumping a few waves. Thought she never fully let go of me, she talked for the rest of the day about how she had swum in the ocean.
(If you’d like to hear about any of our other excursions in Dar es Salaam, just ask!)
Day #12, June 18th: The Long Road Home
Back in the van at 6:00am. A chronological list of our car troubles: 1) We ran out of oil; 2) We put the wrong type of oil into the car; 3) We got a flat tire; 4) Our spare tire burst; 5) Our battery went dead.
One highlight of our final road journey was the mechanic’s shop we stopped at, of which you can see pictures, below. The mechanic himself had rigged a very clever machine to pump air into tires. He was extremely proud of the machine, which ran like an electric generator, and he was quite sure he’d been the first person to invent anything of the kind.
The other highlight was the Mama who took us in when our spare tire burst. It was nighttime, and the van was parked on the side of the road, with its flashers on. Our driver and Hekima had caught a ride on a truck to the nearby town, Mafinga, where they would repair the tire. Because the rest of us were sitting in the car, Nicole and I thought it best to leave the flashers on. How were we to know that within ten minutes, the battery would die? When the lights ceased to flash, Nicole and I insisted that everyone get out of the car and stand farther away from the highway. (If you’ve ever seen a Tanzanian road, you won’t doubt this decision.) But then, we were confronted with the cold. Here in the Southern Highlands, in June, the temperature drops below forty degrees Fahrenheit when the sun goes down, which may not seem cold to you East Coast Americans, but when all you’ve got is a skirt and a loose-knit sweater, it’s freezing. So, we piga hodied. This means that we went to the nearest house and asked for shelter. We stood outside and shouted “Hodi! Hodi!” until the Mama inside woke up, dressed, and opened her door to us. Mama Regina. My savior in concrete walls. For over an hour, she allowed eight high school students and two white teachers to sit on her couches, our heads lolling with near-sleep. She even made us tea. Mama Regina represented Tanzanian hospitality with a smile and a good heart, when my students and I needed it most. Wherever you are, Mama Regina, we thank you.
When I walked in the door to my house at 4:37am, on the morning of June 19th, I felt a magnificent sense of happiness. It was partly relief, to no longer be responsible for the lives and well-beings of nine high school students. It was partly sweet regret that the adventure I’d been working so hard for and planning for so long was finally over. It was partly pure thrill that everything, excepting that last bit with the car, had been so perfect. And it was partly an inexpressible knowledge that I didn’t do this by myself. It was thankfulness. For every single person who encouraged us, who sent us gifts, who thought of us or prayed for us. For every person who supported us in any way. You are the ones who made this blog possible, who made Norah’s trek to the highest point in Africa a reality.
Thank you, thank you, and thank you. Watch your mailboxes.
June 29th: A Text Message from Norah
It’s been ten days since our return, and the school’s summer session has ended. The students have gone home to their parents. A moment ago, I received the following text message from Norah:
Hi how iz holiday madam?iwant 2 say thank u alot 4 choosing me 2 be with u in
the journey am happy 2 tell that I enjoyed alot &I studied alot of things! Thank u alot may God bless u more and more!norah
If that doesn't make it all worthwhile, I don't know what could...
Nicole introducting an icebreaker at our first meeting in Njombe.
Obama truck! Obama Oye!
Trying on clothes at Honest's house. Try telling me these kids are not hilarious. (Right: Hekima; Middle: Esther; Left: Patmos)
Gillman's Point! The first group to arrive: Frank, Emmanuel, Esther,
Hekima, Patmos, and that's me, the white one above the sign.
The rest of us join Patmos' fun. On the left: everyone (except Nicole) who arrived at Uhuru. On the right: Patmos, Norah, and me. My school's representatives at the Roof of Africa.