Jambo Bwana — life lessons Africa has taught me


Video credit: Jaime Stein on YouTube

In December 2013, our team headed to Tanzania to interview social entrepreneurs for an impact investing project, as part of the MBA curriculum. Before the trip, Africa was a far, mysterious, and exotic place to me. Looking back, I couldn’t tell how much the trip has transformed me mentally and physically, well beyond my imagination.

On Dec 10th, 2013, after having an informational interview at 7:00am with a social entrepreneur we would meet up in Tanzania and submitting the take-home exam of Business Law, I spent 3 hours packing, called the cab, and met with my teammates. Without my nerve getting rested, three girls with nine luggage began the adventure in Tanzania.

At LAX on Dec 10th, 2013

The first glimpse of Africa after 20 hours’ flight.

At the airport of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Dec 12th, 2013

We changed our flight in Addis Ababa and arrived in Dar es Salaam in the afternoon. On the street, what struck me the most is how much this city looks like China in the 1980s. It feels like going back to my childhood. The scene, the sound, the smell, and even the touch of the hot and dry air, were all so familiar. What a Deja Vu!

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Dec 13th, 2013
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Dec 13th, 2013

The first two days in Dar were a bit tough. One teammate lost her luggage, and it took us lots of efforts to find it back — we called two airlines more than ten times, called our school at least two times, and called airport in Ethiopia and Dar several times. People were reluctant to help and said that losing luggage is really common. We were quite worried as the malaria pills were in the luggage, plus all the gears needed for the mountaineering. The breakthrough came when we found a very kind hotel manager and we begged her to speak to the airport. After the airport heard someone talking to them in Swahili, they started to track the luggage and it was sent to us in the afternoon.

Life lesson #1: When things are not getting better even after you’ve tried hard, reflect on the direction and the strategies, and keep trying. It will work out in the end.

After interviewing two entrepreneurs, we took a weekend trip to Zanzibar for a company visit. We were lucky to have a social enterprise there, which gave us the excuse to tour around the island. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania and an incredibly beautiful place. On Dec 14th, we went to Zanzibar by ferry. The place near the pier is stone town and it took a while to get to the beach. It is like heaven! The real view is much better than whatever pictures you can find on the internet!

In Zanzibar, Tanzania on Dec 14th, 2013

Since this was our first time to see the Indian Ocean, we woke up early the next day to see the sunrise. It was so breathtaking that the words would be too pale to describe it and we had to jump up to say hello.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania on Dec 15th, 2013
In Zanzibar, Tanzania on Dec 15th, 2013

Before we went back to Dar, we toured around stone town, which used to be the flourishing center of the spice trade and slave trade in the 19th century. The small lanes and the Christian and Muslim churches are quite interesting to me — they not only have witnessed the history, but also tell the everyday life of people on this island.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania on Dec 15th, 2013
In Zanzibar, Tanzania on Dec 15th, 2013

We spent four more days in Dar and interviewed many interesting founders of local social enterprises. They are dedicated and down-to-the-earth. We were a bit bothered by the traffic and other inconvenience in Dar. However, all of them show great patience and gratitude towards the life there and I could feel that they are really passionate about doing something valuable to local people.

On Dec 19th, we headed to Arusha to interview three more social entrepreneurs. Arusha is a small town and with fewer people. We met some amazing and respectable entrepreneurs there: a local couple running a crop processing factory that hires local people and sells the products to other parts of Tanzania; An engineer from the UK who invents tools to make farmers’ life and work more efficient; An MIT graduate whose startup produces solar chargers…Even though the working environment in Arusha is tough, and they have to deal with issues like power cut pretty frequently, they are still so devoted to what they are doing.

In Arusha, Tanzania on Dec 19th, 2013
In Arusha, Tanzania on Dec 19th, 2013
In Arusha, Tanzania on Dec 19th, 2013

Life lesson #2: If you are passionate about something and know your destination, difficulties won’t be your obstacles, but your motivation to make a difference.

On Dec 21st, we finished all our interviews by then and our next stop is Kilimanjaro!

We arrived in Moshi the day before the hike and rested in Zara Tour Company’s hotel. The company assigned a very experienced guide to us, as they were a bit worried about three girls who haven’t had hiking experiences before. Our guide had climbed Kili for almost 400 times…,which made us feel quite at east.

‘The next day, when we were getting ready for departure, we were told that our guide’s son got sick, so they had to assign another guide to us, who is younger. Though worried about it, we didn’t have a choice.

At the Machame route entrance (1900m) on Dec 21st, 2013

Life lesson #3: Always be prepared for the change of plan. It might not be as good as before, but it is what you can live with and still achieve your goal.

The mini bus took us to the Machame route entrance. During that time, we didn’t realize that Machame route was the toughest, so we smiled innocently. The first day was quite relaxing. We hiked from 1900m to 2700m. The porters’ work was really tough. They had to transport all the necessities for us to live on the mountain for the coming six days. Though they could walk really fast, and using their head and neck to hold stuff and find the balance didn’t seem hard to them, I could tell they were exhausted. Some of them go to trip like these more than 50 times a year, to make money for their families.

At 2700m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 21st, 2013
At 2700m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 21st, 2013

I was exhausted too. It’s just relatively relaxing (compared to following days). That night, I couldn’t sleep well. The temperature was around 60F during daytime and 30F during night time. The sleeping bags we rented were not of good quality, so we were too frozen to fall asleep.

Here are our lovely tents.

At 3000m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 21st, 2013
At 3000m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 21st, 2013

We were told that the second day would be extremely tough. We still didn’t realize how tough it could be, so we could still smile to the camera.

At 3000m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 22nd, 2013

And soon, we understood…

At 3500m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 22nd, 2013

Our guides helped us a lot, and we encouraged each other the whole way. The scene was indeed good, not only during day time. Before the sunset, we could see the scene like this, which expelled all the tiredness of that day. Standing up high let me see a different view, but at the same time, it let you feel nothing (frozen to numb).

At 3800m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 22nd, 2013
At 3800m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 22nd, 2013

Life lesson #4: Even in a tough journey, there will be something beautiful worth enjoying.

Having experienced Day 2, I was more mentally prepared for Day 3. Physically, I underestimated my body’s reaction to high altitude. When we just reached 4600m, I started to vomit. The guide told me that this was altitude sickness. However feeling weak, I was stunned by the mountain in the fog, like a beauty with a veil, and struggled to stand up and took a picture.

At 4600m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 23rd, 2013
At 4600m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 23rd, 2013

Machame route gave us lots of ups and downs. Every day, we spent more time on climbing following much steeper route, but it helped us with acclimatization, and because of the ups and downs, every night we were staying at different heights (sometimes the day after we stayed at a lower place).

Day 4 was even tougher. But when I woke up to this scene, I still had the energy and emotion to feel excited! The house in the picture is the toilet which I didn’t use because it’s a bit far way from our tent. Each step would make me catch my breath. So where did I go then? Well, when at night and it’s dark outside, who cares…

At 3850m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 24th, 2013
At 3850m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 24th, 2013

Every day, we were climbing using both our hands among those messy stones at 80–90 degree slope. I didn’t realize Machame route was this hard, as I hadn’t read the route introduction material sent by my teammate before the trip. How stupid I was. But if I had known earlier, would I give up already?

At 4100m of Kilimanjaro Machame route on Dec 24th, 2013

Life lesson #5: Sometimes not knowing/thinking too much about the challenges ahead can help us be more focused and courageous to execute.

Day 4 was much more tiring than the guide described. I was too tired to even say a word. But that night, we reached the base camp finally! And, this was the view from the base camp — it’s like heaven, isn’t it?

At 4600m of Kilimanjaro base camp on Dec 24th, 2013

My teammate let me stand or sit on the stone for this picture, but I wasn’t able to do either action — my legs were totally stiff, so either raising my legs or bending them would kill me…I was trying my best to bend my waist then, and my head felt dizzy.

At 4600m of Kilimanjaro base camp on Dec 24th, 2013

In the past few days, besides us, there were only two to three more teams nearby — few people chose Machame route. At base camp, all the teams gathered from different routes, so we could see so many tents in this picture.

At 4600m of Kilimanjaro base camp on Dec 24th, 2013

We were above the cloud:)

At 4600m of Kilimanjaro base camp on Dec 24th, 2013

My not reading the material before the trip gave me another surprise. I thought we would stay at the base camp for one day for better adaptation to the altitude by going short trips up and downs. However, before I was well seated in the tent, our guide told us to eat well and get some rest as much as we could, because we would start our summit at 11pm tonight. So it wasn’t planned by us to have the summit on Christmas day…

Life lesson #6: Always be prepared for something more challenging.

While my teammates were sleeping for two hours after dinner, I was fully awake in my sleeping bad and suffering from stomachache. I lost my appetite starting from Day 3 due to mountain sickness. My teammate gave me a bag of tomato flavored instant noodle, and the smell made me want to eat. I ate a lot but forgot to consider that at high altitude, the digest system works slowly. So the instant noodle got stuck in my stomach and made me want to vomit.

Before we went on the last march, the guide asked me twice if I would still want to do this. How could I quit just in front of it? I didn’t even think and pushed him to lead us to go.

Then there came so many times that I regretted and wanted to give up. The summit day was definitely the physically toughest day in my life. The 800m running test I had for six years in middle school, the first few days of Kili climbing, the migraine I used to have in life…none of these could be compared.

Life lesson #7: There will always be tougher days in life, mentally or physically. It sounds scary and makes you weak, but if you don’t try, you won’t know how strong you are.

Among so many mistakes I made in the trip — not having done any physical training before the trip, not knowing the difficulty of Machame route, not knowing when we would do the summit, eating instant noodle when digestion was weak…I made one right decision — bringing along the glucose pills. When I felt sick, even hearing the word “chocolate” would trigger me, let alone eating it. My stomach soon was empty, and I was losing energy. The glucose pills literally saved my life.

After 7 hours’ summit, it was sunrise time. Our guide let us turn around to take a look. You can tell it’s breath-taking, but I wasn’t in the mood at all, as I was suffering and thinking if I should quit.

At 5300m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013
At 5500m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013
At 5500m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013

With the daylight, we could see the route we had climbed, and started to understand why we had to start at night — one reason is that the snow is most solid at night, which is safer; another reason is that if we could see the route clearly, then we might give up without trying. I fell down and slipped down the slope twice, but fortunately got caught by our guide.

At 5600m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013
At 5600m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013

But the view was indeed like heaven.

At 5700m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013
At 5700m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013

Here are the iceberg, like Lady M’s cakes^^

At 5700m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013
At 5700m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013
At 5700m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013

Life lesson #8: Sometimes you have to try hard to climb the ladder of life to see a different view. Above all the difficulties, it’s beautiful.

For the whole summit, I could hear my breathing and heat-beating. My teammates were encouraging me, and the guides were helping me so much. However, I was feeling so lonely, as besides myself, there was no one that could really help with my mind. My mind was running at full speed — I cursed (don’t know whom), said some four letter words several times, regretted, felt disappointed and angry, missed home and my parents, wanted to have warm food and a good night’s sleep, didn’t know why I chose to do this, started to realize how precious normal life is…I cried once, and my face felt quite painful when the wind blew on me.

Life lesson #9: You can be lonely even when surrounded by people. The lonely journey in the heart can only be finished by yourself. No one else can really help. It is worth it and will be fine, though.

We decided to take a break and sat down. I was sweating all the way, but soon after I sat down, I was blown to numb by this 5F degree wind. Can you tell I was wearing five layers on top and four layers of pants? I lost 5–6 pounds in the past four days.

At 5700m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013

After more than 8 hours, so many about-to-give-up moments, I finally made it! I took out the iPhone protected by hand warmer and cashmere scarf and let the guide take a picture for me.

At 5739m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013

We stayed there for about 15 mins. It was too cold to stay longer. The downhill was very steep, slippery and dangerous. The road was covered by floating sand and rolling stones. My legs were not listening to me, but we had to get back to base camp to grab all of our stuff and head to 2700m before night. I even asked the guide if the helicopter could come over and pick me up and was told no (of course). If I still had a choice while heading here, now I was out of choice.

Life lesson #10: It’s hard to see which is better: having a choice, and not having a choice. The former gives you hope but makes you confused/regret. The latter makes you focused but also leaves you hopeless sometimes.

At 5700m of Kilimanjaro on the way of summit on Dec 25th, 2013

The journey going down to 2700m was challenging. Besides lacking strength and energy, we encountered heavy rain. In addition, our headlamps were all out of battery due to the low temperature, so we were stuck at around 3000m for almost an hour before the guide of another team went back to the campsite for help.

When we finally arrived, I felt my feet went back to the ground again. That night I had a very good sleep:)

The last morning, the whole team (guide, deputy guide, chef, porters, 13 people in total) sent us off. They were singing and dancing the famous <Jambo Bwana> to us.

At 2700m of Kilimanjaro on Dec 26th, 2013

I didn’t forget how painful yesterday was. However, I felt sad to say goodbye to this trip and the team. Without any one of them, we couldn’t achieve this far. They risk their lives for this job — sometimes they have to sleep outside even when it’s only 30F. These days, we worked as a team together to conquer so many difficulties. I will remember all of them and this experience!

At 2700m of Kilimanjaro on Dec 26th, 2013

Life lesson #11: It is always the people that arethe most important part of our journey. We cannot achieve without the help of others. It’s meaningless if it’s not for them.

The guy in the middle is our chef Karimu. He helped us so much — found us glass bottles as warmer so that we could sleep better, prepared warm water for us as he knew we were more used to drinking warm water, helped me going down when I couldn’t feel my legs in the end, etc. Can you tell he’s already 47? At this age, he has to climb Kilimanjaro with 15–25 pounds of stuff on his back every day and needs to climb very fast, because he has to set the tents and get the meal ready before the group arrives. There are many people like him being a guide/chef/porter on Kilimanjaro in Moshi Tanzania.

At 2700m of Kilimanjaro on Dec 26th, 2013

Life lesson #12: Whenever you think your life is hard, there will be people living a much harder life that you do, which is way beyond your imagination.

We were back to the foot of the mountain. Phew…

At 1700m of Kilimanjaro on Dec 26th, 2013

Our guides were giving us the certificate at the courtyard of the hotel. Can you see the weird color of my nose and cheek? My skin got sun-burnt and was peeling off. The scarf on my head was to prevent people from seeing my hair because I hadn’t showered for 6 days.

At 1000m of Kilimanjaro on Dec 26th, 2013

When going back to Arusha, we passed by this pole which is said to be the bisecting point of Tanzania and said goodbye to the trip.

In Arusha, Tanzania on Dec 30th, 2013

This trip lets me think a lot and gave me a different perspective on myself, others, and the world. This is probably the meaning of travel — to experience, reflect, and to find our true self. There were moments that I was excited, scared, surprised, proud, weak, brave, lonely, and touched. It was much more than I expected. But after all of these, I became re-born and stronger and got to understand the meaning of my life.

While at the top of Roof of Africa, I thought an ordinary life that could provide me with the warm food and a bed for a good night’s sleep is what I need the most. But after back to the city, I thought that there isn’t much more to be afraid of and chasing a much riskier and more challenging life is what I want. Such a good description of climbing on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:). No matter what, the purpose of life isn’t the final destiny, but all the experience we could have along the journey. It’s ok, as long as I’m still alive, on the way, and experiencing. This is the meaning.

Africa, the place that I’d waited my whole life to visit, made me full.

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