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Climbing Kilimanjaro to save kids

George Mahaffey

Malawi’s wet season, still a few weeks away, had begun to rear its head. The humidity was breathtaking. Bands of ominous clouds were moving in from Mozambique to the west. As our Range Rover rattled south along the main road toward Lake Malawi we pulled into a little town called Dedza. A typical ramshackle country town, it was alive with activity. Its residents clogged the streets.I saw a shack along our route with a simple sign that read “Coffin Makers.” In front, working in the open, were a couple of barefoot men with wood planes, smoothing boxes and lids. Their rough-and-ready products were stacked nearby for sale.I had come to visit Mangochi and Balaka districts of southern Malawi as part of a team organized by Save the Children USA. We would also scale Mount Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania. Our adventure, dubbed “The Climb for Children 2004,” would raise money and awareness for the organization’s programs here. In a country known for its elegant and beautiful ebony woodcrafts, the coffin makers of Malawi have carved an essential niche. Appalling poverty and a pandemic of HIV/AIDS in Malawi have resulted in one of the world’s shortest life expectancies, a mere 37 years. This little coffin workshop was one of many I would see.Most Malawians live in remote areas, surviving by subsistence farming with primitive tools and techniques. If the rains are poor, as in recent years, then the result is famine, which fuels the spiraling death toll from HIV/AIDS and a fatal mix of malaria, tuberculosis, dengue fever and meningitis. With an adult infection rate of 16 percent, the effects of HIV/AIDS trickle down through every aspect of the Malawian economy and social structure. Every month, for instance, the country loses an average of 30 teachers.Lester Namathaka is one of the country’s pre-eminent educators, and coordinates Save the Children’s educational projects in Malawi. A young man during the Pan African movement of the late 1950s, Lester saw firsthand the rise of African nationalism as the colonial era closed. One night, over a bottle of South African cabernet, he told me the story of the development of modern Malawi and the suffering of its people.Toward a new school systemModern Malawi emerged in 1994 from a 30-year post-colonial period of corrupt, one-party rule that was known for horrendous human rights abuses. Africa’s newest democracy is beset with problems, many of which, including the educational system, are vestiges of colonial times. During that era, Lester explained, schools were designed to educate only a few elite males, mostly from Malawi’s northern tribes, needed to fill various positions in the colonial apparatus.Today, Save the Children is focused on the development of village-based primary and secondary schools that emphasize community involvement and greater female attendance. A key to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, the education of Malawian girls is a growing success story.Along with other members of our group, I visited several schools in the southern districts, and time after time we were greeted with excitement by hundreds of villagers. Their welcoming dances and songs, poetry readings and simple plays related changing values, the new female potential, and, in frank terms, the HIV/AIDS scourge and social stigmatization. Save the Children’s village-based schools have improved female attendance to near-parity with males, an astonishing achievement, and are yielding students with higher scores than government-run programs. Their successful techniques are having an increasing influence on pedagogical methods used in the country.Building communitiesOne afternoon we toured a tiny village in Balaka district as rain clouds gathered in the distance. Villagers sporting multicolored umbrellas followed us around while smiling children pressed in to touch our hands or say hello. Dark clouds swooped down upon us, dumped buckets of rain, then quickly moved on. Set along the edge of a field of maize, the country’s staple food crop, was a long “building,” really nothing more than a thatched hut. Inside was a group of 80 or so preschool-aged children. Despite eating just one meal a day, they seemed to be in good spirits, though a few bawled for attention. The littlest ones were toted on the backs of young girls only 4 or 5 years old themselves. Save the Children had started a series of Community Based Child Care facilities in the area. This was one.The CBCCs help villages cope with the dramatic and tragic trailing edge of the AIDS pandemic: orphans. There are an estimated 1 million of them in Malawi, part of a total population of 11 million. Despite modest facilities, these community-run programs offer preschoolers some early training, care and occasionally a simple meal.Near the CBCC, fields of maize, groundnuts and cassava extended toward a stand of giant trees that resembled sprawling sycamores, and as we meandered through them a light but persistent rain began to fall again. This farm represented a new technology that Save the Children had helped establish to add an auxiliary planting in the dry season and develop greater “food security,” an oft-discussed concept in Africa. It boils down to a simple proposition: Create the potential for a village to produce enough food to ensure its survival during periods of short rainfall, crop disease or the death of its farmers. Dry-season farming technology is simple, but nontraditional, requiring some education and demonstration. Save’s programs provided this. By fostering community planning and development, the organization is saving lives. Still, poverty and death were always near. In a clearing beside a grove of banana trees I was asked to enter a simple dwelling, the home of a man dying from AIDS. A village AIDS committee member explained to the wife of the gentleman dying on the mat before me that we had come from America to help the people of Malawi. For me, it was a moment of utter helplessness. A shy young child, the man’s daughter, huddled uncertainly in the far corner of a room, and she seemed to tremble as I approached her. “Mulibwanji,” I said in Chichewa. Though it is the country’s official language, I had no idea if she spoke it; there are more than 40 languages spoken in Malawi. As I took hold of her hand, she smiled. When I left, she smiled at me again. For me it was a sweet, though heartrending moment.The following day our 14-member team piled into a small plane bound for Tanzania to begin our Kilimanjaro adventure. I admit that the “mountain” of the AIDS pandemic faded from my mind. The image of the barefoot coffin makers and their neat stacks of boxes had also vanished. There was an equally compelling mountain in front of us now.KilimanjaroMount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, is a splendid sight. Rising 19,340 feet above the plains of northern Tanzania, the vast Ngorongoro and the Serengeti stretch endlessly to the west. It is considered to be the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, and the tallest capable of being climbed by nontechnical climbers. Kili is approachable and daunting. Every year people die attempting to climb it. Supposedly a “walk-up,” the mountain still has routes that offer great challenges, sustained rigorous hiking, and occasional free-climbing above so-called “no fall zones.” We were lucky to have an able guide, Victor Kinyonga, and his team of 40 porters, cooks and assistant guides. The sight of the porters trucking along at double speed over difficult and risky trails, rock or ice, while balancing 70-pound duffles on their heads was marvelous and a little humbling. Mount Kilimanjaro possesses amazingly diverse topography, and climbing it gave us the chance to experience most of the climate zones on the planet. Starting out in the lush, claustrophobic confines of the rain forest, we hiked up through heather, moorland, alpine desert and finally the summit zone, an arctic region. We worked our way along the less-used and westernmost Lemosho and Shira Routes, up and across the beautiful expanse of the Shira Plateau, the ruins of the oldest of the three volcanic craters on Kilimanjaro. Eventually we would summit by climbing the awesome and challenging Western Breach through the rim of the Reusch Crater on Kibo, the youngest of Kili’s volcanoes.Though not technically difficult, it was not easy climbing. It became more challenging as oxygen density thinned out at the higher elevations. Our goal was to summit together, as a team. Go slowly, enjoy the mountain, get there.The grandest aspect of the mountain was the varying beauty of the terrain and the astonishing weather fluctuations. Kilimanjaro was cast alternately in the late-afternoon glow of the brilliant African sun, or in the eerie creeping mists and low-slung clouds that would envelope us one moment, release us the next. Or in the dull gloom of an early-morning rain that might eventually turn into sleet, or higher up, into snow. The progressive and cumulative experience of the mountain was a mix of marvel, awe and joy. Often the barometer fell steadily hour after hour. A storm front would sail in, permeating the tangle of the forest canopy, or on other occasions, luffing up against the rise of the crater floor or the mountainside, eventually settling upon us. We would stop, change gear, then walk on again, over terrain that was always more beautiful than easy. Even our discomforts were enjoyable in odd little ways. It was a relief to crawl into our tents at the end of a long day; no matter that it was below freezing, with blowing wind and falling snow. There was always a great sense of anticipation. What about tomorrow? As I emerged from the tent one night near Lava Tower just below Arrow Glacier, I was treated to an indescribably lovely sky. Our campsite glowed under a barely waning full moon. The Southern Cross was easily identifiable in a dense patch of stars, and the snowy peak itself was so utterly clear it was shocking. Far below, the lights of the little town of Moshi seemed to float. Despite the cold, I stood for some time before I could bring myself to return to my sleeping bag. It was an extraordinary moment of peace, and I wanted that feeling to remain.Summit day was mildly anticlimatic. A steady snow fell from dense, overcast skies as we marched up the side of Uhuru Peak. It was unbelievably cold. Far below and behind us, the massive Fürtwangler Glacier dropped a sheer 10 stories down to the rich, dark, volcanic soil of the previous night’s camp in Reusch Crater. We cast jealous final glances, each hoping to hold onto that beautiful sight just a little longer. Would any of us ever come here again? We took our final steps up the face of Uhuru, emerging onto a slight incline. Everyone made it; there were kisses, hugs, handshakes, photos and many smiles.Our final day was a rapid and grueling descent of Kilimanjaro along the Mweka Route to the southeast. The monotony allowed our thoughts to wander, then come together again. One of the team members had come up with a poignant metaphor that seemed to reverberate with all of us: In Africa, there are two great mountains, Kilimanjaro and HIV/AIDS.Our journey had taught us that each of these mountains could be scaled, but only with preparation, planning and commitment.That final night in Africa was a restless one for most of us, and full of mixed emotions. We had climbed one mountain; the other remains unconquered. Meanwhile, the coffin makers keep busy.For more information about the Climb for Children 2004 contact gjmahaffey@earthlink.net or visit the Kilimanjaro link at http://www.savethechildren.org.


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