Four friends and I recently went to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. “Impossible Safari” is one of several translations for the mountain’s name. It is said that this is what a local chief told Hans Meyer, the first European to successfully reach the summit in the late 1800s. Also reaching the summit that day was Meyer’s African guide, Kinyala Johannes Lauwo. He was barefoot.
Since then some things have changed. There are now six routes leading to the top. The systems of moving ever-increasing numbers of trekkers and climbers are well organized. But in the end, for each, there is still a formidable authenticity of purpose when standing at Base Camp looking up through the equatorial rain forest, past the tree line and into the shroud of mist and wind swept, striated cloud that seems in constant movement around the dome. In that timeless moment the smooth white surfaces of glacial snow passively state to one and all in a voice from antiquity to our modern day, “I am here, I am more than any mortal that sets foot upon me. I am Kilimanjaro.”
The travel to this place of mystery and adventure became for me, and I’m sure for many others, bigger than the mountain itself. Kilimanjaro is a destination. The African experience, aside from the mountain, became the journey.
What can one say in a few hundred words about a country and a continent so rich in history? There is a constant voice running throughout each village and town, like a distant rhythmic drumbeat that carries a singular message that cannot be silenced. This beat is the heart of a continent. It speaking out across the span of time and distance to a world that has used it harshly, taken from it casually and for a period of time, abandon it freely. There is an abiding sense of destiny lingering on the breezes that blow from all corners of this place. The feeling emanating from this is that Africa’s time is now.
The children in the orphanages and schoolyards watch from behind the fences as the caravans of outsiders drive past with our cameras and our satchels stuffed with belongings too numerous for them to imagine. Their stares sometimes lock for a moment on ours; their small fingers point or their hands rise with a wave, their smiles wide. Then, one by one, they turn back to their lessons or their task at hand. The contact for them, probably soon forgotten. In that moment, in that glance, in that heart beat they can not know that some of us will come back; but this time it will not be for Kilimanjaro, it will not be for a photo of a lion or other souvenir. When we return it will be because of them. It will be for them. They cannot possibly understand as they stand alone and seemingly abandoned, the importance they have to the world beyond, and to so many of these strangers watching from behind the darkened glass. If the western world is the engine of the globe, then Africa is its conscience, and if this is so, then the children are its heart. One day I could not find my way and was offered help by a young man in his late teens. Afterward I thanked him and inquired about his life. He was a college student studying languages. This opportunity to speak English was valuable to him. We shook hands. I asked his name. He said that he had been raised in a Catholic orphanage and the nuns had called him, Innocence.
We went to Africa to find and climb a mountain called Kilimanjaro. We did this. While there we also found another mountain. One whose peaks could only be seen in the hearts of the mothers toiling in the fields with their babies swaddled tightly upon their backs, or in the determined fixed stare of the fathers pushing their crude wooden carts along the roadsides laden with goods or foodstuffs for the market. This mountain’s summit was reflected in the eyes and smiles of the children. We brought this other African mountain back within each of us. This mountain has no limit. It is called Hope.