We left base camp at 3:15 a.m., dressed in warm layers of trekking gear and a headlamp to guide us through the dark. The ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro, 19,344 feet above sea level, began with fearful scrambles over giant, moon-like boulders and tentative zig-zagging up the steep incline.
Our progress seemed painfully slow, but I found my footing in step with the rhythm of the warm, nervous air pulsing through my diaphragm. In moments of uncertainty, I held my breath and kept my faith. When we stopped for water or to fuel our bodies with a tiny piece from an energy bar, I gasped relief.
Months of training had brought me to this place of challenge and fear, resilience and hope. I felt alive and free. After 6:30 a.m., the sun rose, warming our cold steady walk and the 9 hour journey to the Uhuru Peak. But as the oxygen in the air thinned and fatigue seeped through my tired legs like an unwelcomed guest, I didn’t care. All that mattered was to live in the moment, to stay present and to pole, pole, as the Tanzanians say.
I whispered, ‘Go slow, keep going’ – pole, pole. Don’t look up to see the end in sight. It will be there when you are ready to meet it. Instead, I sip water from the 2 liter bladder stuffed in my backpack. It’s my pipeline, replenishing hope and thoughts of beautiful Ava and her sister, Clara. Ava knows pole, pole, because of Rett’s Syndrome. Every day, every breadth, is a gift. Failure isn’t an option for her so it can’t be for me.
Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Millions of years shaped this dormant volcano and still does with the billions of travelers on this road we call life. When I finally reach the top, I cry. I am the sum of everything beautiful, all things broken, and the face of humanity looking for freedom. I am in awe of God’s spectacular feast as I look out over the rooftop of Africa, witnessing Mother Earth’s wondrous nature in the puffs of clouds that sail past me.
This is one of the most challenging and satisfying things I have ever done in my life. I am grateful to experience it and more humbled to share it. Ernest Hemingway never climbed Kilimanjaro but wrote about it in his short story, “The Snows of Mount Kilimanjaro.” It showed me you don’t have to climb a mountain to understand what’s it like. We humans do it every day, some better than others because the mountain is not so high.
Days after completing my descent, I still felt the sting of my bruised butt and swollen fingers, injured after falling down the scree hills and the slippery, mud-drenched paths a few kilometers from the park gate. I throw out this silly indulgence when I am invited to sit with the Maasai people in their village the day before I fly back home.
The Maasai tribe are nomadic people that herd cattle and goats. Their ancestors came down from Egypt hundreds of years ago and settled in Tanzania. I see them everywhere: in the roads of Arusha and Moshi, and in Serengeti National Park, living on lands set aside for them by the government. They dress in traditional, bright sari colors, dawning modern footwear and even carry cellphones. Ancient facial tattoos are not as common but Maasai children begging by the roadside is. They prefer American dollars to shillings in exchange for a photo.
When the jeep I’m traveling in pulls into the entrance of a Maasai camp, I am greeted by Wally who tells me I have a nice face. I smile as the tribe performs a traditional welcome dance; it’s filled with cow sounds, jumping men and big cheers. Wally invites me to see the small village schoolhouse mandated by the government, before I’m allowed to visit inside a small smoke-filled Inkjijik. I duck my head to pass under the small, opening of this tented shape nest that’s made from mud, grass, sticks and cow dung.
The stench smells mostly of manure and assaults my nostrils, as does the smoke from the small fire burning in the middle of the dirt floor. There are no luxuries here, not even a bed as my eyes gradually adjust to the dark. I see only a few pots and blankets in the main area. There are two very small rooms to the side for sleeping, one for the parents and the other for the children who may number as many as twenty!
Sitting inside, I meet two wives sitting next to their shared husband. Polygamy is part of the Maasai culture even though more families are embracing monogamy. The women are as curious about me and my “sun” hair as I am about them. I tell them where I’m from and that I climbed Kilimanjaro. They tell me they are happy and want for nothing. The women build and maintain the home, cooking, milking cows, getting water, and collecting firewood.
I have Wally translate my English into Swahili, sharing how honored I am to visit as I offer my thanks. Our last stop will be a long circular cart in the village center for me to buy a beaded craft – a necklace, a trinket box or some earrings. I do. After I hop back into the jeep, I take one last look at the village of a few hundred people. I can’t imagine a life so simple and solitary.
The tribe will stay here for about a year before resettling somewhere new. I keep thinking about what one of the women inside the Inkjijik said, “This is a place of happiness.” Even though I think of the flies swarming around children’s bodies, the daily miles to get clean water, and the shepherds herding their animals all day in the hot sun, who am I to say what happiness is?
Maybe all that matters is what we believe, the way we feel and how we are loved. Five days after I returned home, the World Health Organization declares the coronavirus a global pandemic. I am grateful for my home and the fires that burn within.