Oct 19, 2021

Mawazo Writing Africa

Writing about the main

On the roof of Africa: Eight seniors’ quest to climb Mt Kilimanjaro

In August of 2020, steered by recreative and adventurous pursuits, seven of us successfully reached the peak of the tallest free standing mountain on the planet. The eighth member managed to get to Stella Point but could not go beyond that.

Rising 19,341 feet (5,895 metres) into the African blue sky, we felt, amidst tears and tiresome sighs, at one with the white clouds floating in the troposphere. During that summit night, between gasps for oxygen and burning lungs, I promised myself that would be my last engagement with this imposing creation.

But, as it is with the experience of going through multiple childbirths, I have learnt that a promise that a climb will be the last is never kept.

Upon our return, we had barely revitalised our depleted energies before we were off again trekking different peaks. From Ngong Hills to Mt Longonot. From the Aberdare Ranges to Mt Kenya. We trained every single weekend in preparation for trekking the multifarious climatic zones of Kilimanjaro.

Emboldened by a successful summit of Mt Kenya only 12 days earlier, we set off for Everyman’s Everest on January 23, 2021. This was my fourth conquest of Africa’s tallest peak.

For the former Colonel (Col) Hussein Farah, a vigorously captivating figure and a retired Kenya Air Force officer who was in charge of flying the late president Daniel arap Moi, and who the porters fondly nicknamed ‘Babu’, this was his second climb. Retaining the gait of a military band commander, Babu brought mirth to the mountain with his characteristic likeability and youthful demeanor despite his advanced age.

As the chairman of Kiligrit, retired Major (Maj) Hussein Unshur, an icon of discipline in the truest sense, surpassed his reputation of being a man with an indomitable spirit and appetite for adventure. With an unparalleled ability to galvanise the team into action and a laser-focus trait to accomplish the task at hand, Maj Unshur instilled the “win at all costs” attitude in the rest of us. Under his firm orchestration, the group marched forward. This was his third climb.

Retired Colonel (Col) Abdulbari Abdulrahman, who at first glance oozes a deceptive aura of lethargy but in reality possesses a powerful spirit of persistence, was enroute to his second summit. Challenged by his own children who bet on his failure to reach the summit, the retired Colonel used this progenic distrust to channel a power within him that subdued and silenced any urge of giving up.

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For my friend and fellow law practitioner Abdikadir Sheikh, the pioneer speaker of Mandera County Assembly and a man gifted with the capacity of sportive spontaneity, this was his fourth trip to the summit. Despite his susceptibility to altitude sickness, the ‘Speaker’ has never failed to reach the very peak in all his hikes.

Next up, Mohamud Duale, more commonly known by his sobriquet ‘Trocaire’, derived from the organisation he worked for. Having spent his entire adult life in the humanitarian sector, Mohamud has become an expert in incorporating survival mechanisms and handling all forms of crises in the most calm and composed manner. We called him the ‘team doctor,’ due to his preparedness in terms of medication and general survival tools.

Omar Adan, nicknamed ‘Sholly,’ is a gentle giant with an inimitable propensity to help others even at a risk to himself. Hiking with Sholly always worried me. He was ready to jump from one rock to another without even considering the probable repercussions. It was as though a sprightly teenage spirit burst forth out of him whenever he was outdoors.

Finally, Hassan Al Beity Shariff, the spiritual monk of the team. A gifted storyteller, Shariff never lacked a tale to uplift our spirits and break the wordlessness that would dominate our fatigued midst.

This particular climb was different. Unlike the previous leisurely hikes, this one would prove to be an eventful history for each one of us because it had a purpose behind it, a target that steered us all the way to the top, a motive that induced in us a mythic energy. We had declared a mighty promise to climb one of the seven summits to raise funds for the emaciated elders of Kakamega and Isiolo under the care of Mama Ibado Charity. This organisation is the source of livelihood for 650 elderly beneficiaries. Directed by this noble cause and humanitarian responsibility, each one of us packed up, knowing that we were doing this to ameliorate the living standards of senior citizens living in an overwhelmingly impoverished reality.

On the day of departure, before the sun ripened its glow upon the earth, we had assembled at the premises of Bluebird Aviation Limited, an airline run by retired officers Col Farah and Maj Unshur. Dressed in the branded red jackets of Mama Ibado Charity, we performed our morning obligatory prayers and proceeded to pack our bags in the heavy four wheel drive Land Cruiser that was to be our transportation vessel from Nairobi to Tanzania. The Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Heritage and Culture, Ambassador Amina Mohammed, also a director of Mama Ibado Charity, graciously flagged us off on our “Seniors for Seniors Campaign.”

Upon arrival at Kilimanjaro’s national park at Marangu Gate, we went through an elaborate process of registration and after weighing our luggage, the group trotted through the rainforest to Maranda Camp. Following an estimated five-hour trek through the lush humid rainforest, we were happy to find relatively decent accommodation — huts with bunk beds, mattresses and pillows instead of tiny tents dotting the open wild, as was the case with our previous trip on the Lemosho route.

Maranda is in the middle of the dense rainforest. The forest and the noises of its wild inhabitants were strangely soothing. This state of happy delusion endured until a cloud of coolness swept across the forest, sending the group to seek shelter and increase the layers of their clothing.

“Charity and giving to the poor increases your wealth,” Shariff was assuredly preaching and telling the group gathered in one of the assigned huts from inside his sleeping bag. These sacred and beautiful reminders would tarry throughout our journey.

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The infinitely compassionate and kind porters brought basins of warm water to wash and a flask of hot tea. I stood with my mug at the window to watch the clouds lazily drift past and the sun rays break through the clouds, forming a beautiful rainbow across the sky. As I adored this magnificent scenery and relished my tea, I could imagine Chui, our skillful chef, struggling to attain the correct measurements prescribed by Col Farah. The colonel was beyond particular when it came to his tea — an intricate brew composed of a cornucopia of tea leaves and spices, honeyed to the right taste and plenty of camel milk boiled to produce a brownish color.

The following dawn, as we prepared to traverse the mountain, the guides, with their shining morning faces, were already alert and eager to guide us through the paths of Kilimanjaro. The gracious guides carried all our luggage, sleeping bags, ration and cooking utensils.

We turned our backs to the rainforest and fixated our focus onto the alpine heath and moorland to Horombo Huts at 12,204ft above mean sea level. An hour into the ascent, Mawenzi and then Kibo peak appeared in the distance, giving us a peek into the mountain wilderness we all craved. As we floundered and fumbled to reduce the gap of the long miles ahead, we could hear Col Abdulbari unleash elegiac Somali curses on the mountain beneath his feet: “Balaayo kugudacdey!” which crudely translates to “Woe unto you!” Finally, the day-long trek came to an end in late afternoon.

Early on the third day, the group headed to Zebra Rock at the foot of Mawenzi for the purpose of acclimatisation. Once we were inured for the final assault on the summit, we returned to Horombo to spend the remainder of the day relaxing until the evening rolled in. That night, the thought of the base camp Kibo and the dreadful night trip to Uhuru Peak kept many awake.

Col Abdulbari was singing woeful ballads either in preparation or in lament. I couldn’t really tell. The saddle that lies at 14,500ft and divides the two peaks of Kilimanjaro — Kibo and Mawenzi — is distinctly dreadful to many. It slows down all biological systems and the altitude sickness associated with it reduces many to infants: mewling and puking all over.

On the fourth day, the arduous ascent took us into and beyond the saddle to Kibo, where the oxygen levels depreciated. Walking became laborious. Body metabolism reduced significantly and the taste of food altered. Even Mohamud, the mountain doctor, who would start dispensing a cocktail of medications including a daily dose of Diamox — a tablet used to help reduce altitude sickness — did not have a solution for the loss of appetite and the stomach ailments.

When my five-year-old daughter watched a video I sent home of us walking gingerly in the saddle, she innocently asked her mother why we were walking like penguins. “People walk in a line, pole pole sana,” she observed.

We walked through the clouds out into the alpine desert zone. Since the beginning of our odyssey, the esteemed retired military officers bestowed upon me the title ‘Jemedari’, Kiswahili for ‘General’. This attribute came in handy as I began encouraging my companions to repudiate any ideas of backing down and to maintain adequate levels of hydration by drinking at least three liters of water. Mountaineers always find in themselves a reserve of power after great exhaustion.

As the clouds broke and vanished, I had no fear that any of us would fail. From a distance, we could see our destination but the fluidity in our trek was significantly reduced. During this moment, each member began unfolding and discovering a deeply hidden fortitude that was sparked by the memory of why we were doing this in the first place. Several hours later, we reached the base camp at Kibo Huts and dropped into our beddings, too tired to even sleep. The unpleasantness of the voyage hitherto felt as though we just escaped the tentacles of hades, drifted through limbo and were now on our way to a deserved heaven.

At 11pm we began the final expedition to the summit in utter darkness. I have never been as cold in my life. I was wearing more layers than I thought possible. Of particular importance were the beanies and balaclavas to hide our cheeks and keep our heads warm. We carried goggles to shield our eyes from the glare that would later be reflected off the snow at sunrise.

At around 3am (you will know this because the coldest time on the mountain is between 3am and 4am), someone dolefully advised the guide that he was lost and got the confident reply:“I can walk to Uhuru Peak with my eyes closed.”

The headlamps bobbing up ahead kept on going higher and higher giving the sky the appearance of nearness. At some point, it was hard to determine the difference between the stars and the headlamps. Dawn seemed an eternity away and the walk a never-ending torture. Gilman’s Point, at 18,652ft, gave the impression of stretching away from our weak grasp. Unbelievably, the guides kept belching out merry yarns and melodious songs, trying their best to encourage us and uplift our hopeless spirits.

We continued to pull one leg after the other, each watching where his feet fell. Heads spun in dizziness and visions became blurred but the team pressed on. As the night dragged on, one team member or another would find a reason to call for a stop or to rest. Either to drink tea from a flask carried by the guides or to ask for an additional summit coat. Some would stop to adjust their gloves or add another set of warmers. Some would request to transfer a backpack to the guides or to drink from a bottle which they would meekly request the guides to open for them. At subsequent stops, I kept staring at the full moon that appeared to hover above the mountain and disappear into the crater. My hands were imprisoned in my gloves by the unbearable freezing temperatures, making me lose the ability to take photos.

The occasional bites and constant drinking would be forced into our mouths through an opening in our balaclavas. Although the body was bruised and numb, no one cried, crazed or gave up.

My colleagues would later narrate their experiences consisting of sensations of suffocation, burning noses, frozen water, dehydration, headache, legs that simply went numb and how close they were to giving up. Each team member spoke and gave animated narrations as if we were not together on the same mountain.

At 5:30am we reached Gilman’s Point. I have never been happier to sit down in my life. We required no reminders to pray to our Creator and ask Him to open the doors to His bountiful favours. We held our morning prayers as sub-zero winds whipped across the crater ridge and snow particles picked up by the wind pelted us. The purity and rawness of our gratitude to God was supreme.

As if to reinforce our consciousness of the Most High, the eye of heaven appeared from the east to brighten up mortals struggling against incapacitating temperatures of -20°C.

We all reached for our sunglasses to protect our eyes from the glare and brightness of the iceberg. We could hear the winds hissing at the summit. It felt like a thousand blizzards descended on us at once. Although the goggles protected our eyes, the pelting loose snow kept coming at us like diamond glints. Gusts blew at staggering speeds of 80 kilometres per hour. The natural flow of the hike was disrupted and one had to summon every last ounce of will in order to avoid falling on the snow banks and staying on the narrow white paths.

“This is the second time that I have ever witnessed this kind of wind in my 26 years working on this mountain,” the guide announced resignedly. The chairman, Maj Unshur, was already on his feet clamoring orders to the men to get up and move. There was no request in his voice but a command and all trotted towards Stella’s Point.

The narrow path to Stella clung perilously to the iced rim of Kibo’s deep, snow-sided crater. We used our walking sticks to prod into the compacted snow, many a times sending the hand into the snow, making the climbers momentarily lose their balance. The route was declared unsafe and the detour meant we had to walk along a rocky outcrop with a metal barrier built precariously along the cliff edge. After several near misses, body sway here and there, and shout outs, the group made it to Stella’s Point, torturously pushing on with baby steps to the big prize, Uhuru’s Peak.

At 8:01am we staggered to the billboard announcing that we were at the rooftop of Africa! There was no celebration, high fives or even smiles. Just a swift uplifting silent rush of feeling like we just conquered the limitless reaches of the cosmos.

The group had two distinct motivations to reach the very top of Mt Kilimanjaro. The first was our campaign to raise funds for the emaciated and infirm elders under Mama Ibado Charity’s seniors feeding programme; and the second was that the oldest member of our group, retired Col Hussein Farah, would turn 71 in two weeks’ time and we decided to use this as his birthday celebration. According to one of the guides who had been working at the mountain for over 20 years, our beloved colonel had achieved heights of hitherto unseen records. He was probably the first person of African descent to have summited the awe-inspiring mountain twice in six months at his age.

We hoisted the Kenyan flag and Mama Ibado Charity banner, took a few photographs and began our descent. The wind rose to the highest pitch of violence, whispering the rumors of the mountain, as though the mountain was sending a message to hurry us off its back before venting out fires from the deep. The gale blast laden with crisp, sharp snow seemed to crush and bruise and stupefy with its multitude of stings, and compel the bravest to turn and flee.

The further we went down through the clouds gathered below, the more the muscles readjusted. Access to a higher brain function was acquired. Four hours later we were at Kibo for a well-earned session of refreshment before staggering to Horombo. Shadowed by Mawenzi, which peered into the sky around us, we spent the night at Horombo Camp, where our sleep-deprived minds fell into a deep, quiet slumber which nearly felt like a total hibernation. On the sixth day we left Horombo to exit the park through Marangu Gate.

At the park headquarters, a parade of guides and porters engaged us in high-spirited celebrations with plenty of dancing and singing as a form of saying farewell to the mountain and its warm-hearted hosts. We sang along to a catchy chorus and left Marangu with their words echoing in our heads.

Clutching to our certificates, we headed for the border town of Loitokitok to cross into Kenya and head to Amboseli Serena Lodge at the border to recuperate and have a well-deserved shower and a celebratory dinner. Colonel Farah got to drink his favourite tea. Around a bonfire, we sat dressed in vibrant kikois and t-shirts, each with a mug of Col Farah’s brew.

As we sat there, contemplating on the release back into the life of everyday ordinary interactions and the dissolve into our material connections, all eight of us silently knew that this summit into the thin air of Everyman’s Everest would be etched in our hearts until our final breaths.

The celebratory laughter of accomplishment and the gratitude to the creator was infectious. Suddenly, all the animated narrations stopped. Maj Unshur was already putting down plans for our next return.

“Balaayo hakufusho!” which translates to “May the devil climb you!” was Col Abdulbari’s response to any suggestions of a return.

As the undeserved Jemedari, I decided to take charge and asked the team to enjoy the Colonel’s tea and to postpone the discussion to a later date.

Mr Abdiwahid Biriq (@ABiriq) is a law practitioner at Sagana, Biriq & Co Advocates.