Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro for women’s land rights

A tough undertaking but worth every effort!

I had worked on the Kilimanjaro Initiative from its nuptial stages, and I always knew that I would support women to go climb Kilimanjaro. But having to climb the mountain myself was the last thing on my mind. I had read a number of articles and blogs besides watching a couple of video documentaries and had come to the conclusion that I was not there yet in terms of physical preparation. It was not until one of my colleagues asked if I could volunteer to support with interpretation, as we were running tight on budget and could not afford contracting additional French interpreters.

At first I was hesitant but, for fear of not wanting to disappoint, I accepted on condition that this would be a last resort. And that’s how my name found its way into the list of climbers.

There were about 119 people in our troupe, including 30 rural women from different countries across Africa. Our guides did an excellent job in briefing the climbers on what to expect and how to conduct themselves during the mission. We augmented the guides’ briefing by showing some videos of previous climbs in order to prepare our climbers psychologically.

On Monday 10 October we hit the road destination Marangu gate at the base of Kilimanjaro. We were accompanied by a couple of other women, journalists and staff from various support organisations. After a quick lunch and registration we had a beautiful send-off that was marked by song and dance. The first few steps were taken with a lot of eagerness, with chants and jubilant conversations rending the atmosphere.

This excitement was not to last for long as the reality of the trek started to manifest. Barely a few kilometres on course, one climber broke out yelling and began to remove her protective gear, complaining that the clothes she wore were impairing her movement. Were these tell-tale signs of things to come? The guides had warned us against fighting with the mountain.

“Don’t die with your neck tie; if you feel you can’t take it anymore, just alert the guides and we will take you back to base.”

So this lady was taken back, but I was glad when everyone else made it safe to the first stop over, Mandara huts, where we were to put up for the night.

The hour of reckoning

The fourth day was the most challenging but equally fulfilling by all means. The troupe set off early in the morning towards the Kibo huts. It was a long trek through a dry rocky Alpine desert terrain that had barely any traces of vegetation. Occasionally, people would break away from the file to relieve themselves in the nearby bushes, and probably take a rest before rejoining the file. There were two guides for every group of five climbers. However, depending on one’s speed, it was not uncommon to find others breaking from their groups and joining the one behind and they would still be welcome.

When we arrived at Kibo huts at around 4pm, we were treated to some well-deserved hot soup and some warm water to wipe ourselves as it was now getting really cold. We had early dinner at 6pm and went off to bed in readiness for the final leg of the climb, which was to begin at midnight. In spite of the difficulty, it was very encouraging to note that we had a good number of climbers still going strong and exhibiting unwavering determination.

Then cometh the hour of reckoning! All climbers were woken up at about 11pm and were treated to some quick light breakfast. With the help of head torches worn on the foreheads, the groups set off into the dark trailing the experienced guides. This section felt like climbing an upright wall, but the route was designed in a zigzag way to ameliorate the intensity. Perhaps it worked out best that this section was negotiated in the dark as I guess others might have just given up seeing where they were headed.

It was dry rock section and the night cold was biting hard. It felt like I had reached my limit as there was no more rhythm in my feet. My heart was on overdrive. I kept gasping for breath and felt like giving up. But I had done my best to encourage the other climbers and appealed to them to soldier on, so I couldn’t be the one to say that it’s no longer tenable. This stretch lasted for about 6–7 hours before arriving at Gilmans point (more than 5,600 metres high), which was the beginning of relatively flat terrain again. As expected, some of the climbers had yielded before arriving at Gilmans point and had to be taken back.

From Gilmans point, you could actually see Uhuru peak beckoning. It looked so near yet so far! But the sight of it gave you the impetus and additional motivation to want to summit. Even those that could barely stand suddenly regained their energy and their faces brightened, beaming with excitement. A smile was inevitable. This coupled with the quickening rays of the early rising sun planted in the climbers a fresh desire to take endless selfies! I looked back at where I was coming from and wondered how I had managed to come all the way.

“Kilimanjaro is not your mom”

The penultimate stop was at Stella point, which was only a few kilometres away from the peak, but due to the exhaustion it felt like a whole day’s walk again. From here, we could see the joy in the faces of those that had summited ahead of us. They were busy hugging and posing for photos. So we also kept dragging our uncooperative feet slowly but steadily. And hurray, in a little while we were at Uhuru peak. The view was tantalising, the feeling inexplicable. I couldn’t help tears rolling down my cheeks like a kid who has not seen their mother for decades. The beautiful sun rays cut through the sky, illuminating the peak and silhouetting the adjacent Mawenge peak. It was breathtakingly awesome to behold. Again, if your phone was not properly preserved in some warm place, it would probably have lost all its power by now, frozen dead and hence denying you the opportunity to take some of those well deserving selfies and other memorable photos.

I froze at the peak in awe, dazzled for a few minutes, not so sure of my feelings. But for certain, deep down inside of me I was blazing with excitement and satisfaction: happy that I had finally made it to the roof top of Africa! Not a small achievement by any standards. I looked at the women around me. They all looked tired but the joy in their faces concealed their pain. I was so happy and proud of them all for having accomplished this great commission on behalf of the millions of women across Africa.

“We have come to deliver our petitions here. If the leaders will not hear us, our God has heard our cry this day as we have come closer to him,”

said one of them.

The next few minutes were spent taking photos, hugging and congratulating each other before commencing the descend back to Kibo hut. We began retracing our steps back one at a time. The stretch that had taken us close to 7 hours going up was now covered in just under 2 hours. But there was a trick to this: we did not take the zig zag winding route we used going up, but took a relatively straight stretch that allowed us to slide down quickly in an ice-skating-like movement.

Back at Kibo hut, we were met by the ever jubilant group of porters and guides who treated us to some hot soup and porridge to keep us warm. After a short rest, we departed for Horombo hut where we would spend the night. Under one of the beds were inscribed these words:

eeh! Kilimanjaro si mamako bwana, usiuzoee!’ (Kilimanjaro is not your mom; don’t get too familiar with it!)

And I could certainly identify with these sentiments from a previous climber.

Kaza booti mama eeh

We began our final descend on Saturday morning at about 7am. A few of the climbers who had sustained slight injuries and those that could not make it to the peak were loaded into an ambulance and driven down, while the rest of us trotted down, recounting our tribulations during the last leg of the climb. We walked for hours on end before arriving back at Mandara hut where we had spent the night on the first day. After a brief stop, we set off again, anxious to arrive at the designated time of 1pm. As we approached the base of the mountain, we could hear loud music and sounds of celebration as hundreds of women had gathered to welcome back the climbers. We could hear the Kilimanjaro signature tune being played and women shouting at the top of their voices. We were not sure what to expect, but what we came to was really amazing stuff.

Upon arrival, we signed out from the park and we were met by the huge crowd of very excited women. Most of the climbers were carried shoulder high by their country colleagues who praised and celebrated them through song and dance. Tears of joy welled in my eyes, perhaps announcing a sense of accomplishment. I made no attempt whatsoever to hold them back but let them render in ceaseless flow. It felt like everyone wanted to have a piece of me. I had to recount my experience and do repeat explanations to everyone who struggled to catch up with me. I think this may have been the case with every other climber. The mood was overwhelming: women were beside themselves with joy dancing, ululating, singing, shouting name it! To crown the moment, the brass band played an all-time classic (Ayee Africa, hee Africa…) and faded by the DJ’s replay of the Kilimanjaro song that moved the crowd like never before.

It was simply ecstatic. No amount of words can describe the mood and the exact feelings. You had to be there to experience it first hand to understand what I mean. The celebrations continued throughout the journey back to the venue of the mass assembly.

The next days were spent at the mass assembly sharing experiences and refining a charter of demands, with over 450 women from across the continent. The climax of the event was when the women handed over their charter of demands to the representative of the Chair of the African Union Commission for action. The women are also planning to attend the AU Heads of State Summit scheduled for January to follow through their demands. And yes, it always looks impossible until it is done. But just as in their chant ‘Kaza booti mama eeh..’ (Tighten your boots, woman), the women have now truly heeded the call. The trek was quite a challenge but through their determination and resolve, the women have shown that no hurdle is too difficult, and they will stop at nothing in their quest for secure land rights. It was tough but worth every effort.

All photos: David Barisa/ActionAid

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