Sunday, August 21, 2011


      There are so many words that come to mind when I think of Engaruka. Dusty. Dry. Hot. Windy. Beautiful. Amazing. Inspiring. Heartbreaking. The five days we just spent in Engaruka touched me in a way nothing else has. We spent our first night in Engaruka Chini staying at the house of one of Kellen’s former students. As there is no cell coverage in Engaruka we simply showed up unannounced and found Mama Happy at her shop. There is something beautiful about a place where you can show up unannounced and be greeted with genuine enthusiasm and love. We spent the following day paying visits to people 

Daudi and Kellen know, as well as going to  Oldonyo Lengai Secondary School to talk with the headmaster about what day would be best to come speak to the girls and decide if an Empowered Girls Club was needed at the school. We then caught the bus up to Engaruka Juu just a short drive away where we were greeted by one of Daudi’s father’s oldest friends. Mzee Ismel Nakooyo and Daudi’s father shared a friendship stronger than any I have ever heard of or known. Their friendship stayed incredibly strong throughout the years and they were closer than most siblings I know. While listening to Daudi translate Mzee Ismel’s words about that friendship I realized just how rare that kind of friend is; how rare that kind of friendship is in our busy Western lives.

       The Empowered Girls club meeting at Oldonyo Lengai was the first time I have been present for the initial Empowered Girls meeting and it was a great experience. I really feel that Empowered Girls can do so much in both Oldonyo Lengai Secondary School and in Engaruka Juu Primary School. At Oldonyo Lengai Secondary School 5 girls were forced to drop out because of pregnancy. At Engaruka Juu Primary School, which is the equivalent of 1st grade through 7th grade, there were also 5 girls forced to drop out due to pregnancy. For me, those numbers alone are a sad reminder of why these girls so badly need what

 Empowered Girls has to offer. At our meeting with the girls at Oldonyo Lengai we had some time during which they asked me questions, which has proved to be one of my favorite parts of our talks with girls. They asked me how my parents felt about me being so far away for so long, what my parents would say if I brought one of them home with me in November without forewarning and if there are any cultures in America that practice female circumcision, among many other questions. 

          Saning’o is a 17 year old villager whom I got to know better than most.  He finished primary school but as his father married a second wife, the first wife (Saning’o’s mother) and her children were no longer supported and there was no money for him to continue on to secondary school. The desire this boy has for school, despite being told each time Kellen is in Engaruka that she still doesn’t have a sponsor for him, astounded me. He sat outside our house  for 3 hours each morning until we were awake and done with breakfast so he could ask if there was any news. As our visit was ending, Kellen and Daudi again told him no, not yet, but that they were still trying. The look on his face was one of unmitigated pain and longing, even tears. This would have been powerful in any setting, but when you consider how rare it is for a Masai man to cry it was heartbreaking.
Saning'o and family

      On our last day in Engaruka, Daudi and I were invited to Saning’o’s hut to get to know him a little better. It was an experience that made me realize how lucky youth are in countries where education until University level is free. He lives in two small huts with his mother, younger brother and little cousin. They take care of goats during the day, however they are not even their own goats. It is apparent that the family does not have as much food as they need to get by, yet they still gave us tea. That kind of warmth and selfless gratitude, though we had yet to bring them good news, floored me. Despite the apparent hopelessness of ever furthering his education, Saning’o was eager to find out how my Swahili was coming along and reminded me that the best way to learn quickly was to review all the things I had learned the previous day, each day. Seeing someone who wanted so badly to go to school, for whom going to school is the only hope for his whole family, was a painful reminder of how lucky I am. How many days did I not want to go to school, complain about homework and take my free education for granted? How much have I under utilized my ability? Saning’o is just one example of what so many youth in Engaruka and much of Tanzania go through.

The oldest son of the widow
      The last night in Engaruka we also met a man who was also asking if there were any sponsorships that were available. His daughter had finished Standard 7 (the last year of primary school)  the year before but he was unable to pay the school fees for her to begin secondary school. This father made the decision to send his daughter away to live with an Auntie in another town even though she wouldn’t be in school. He knew that if she remained at home and did not continue with her education, he would face immense pressure from his family and friends to marry her off quickly. This is the future of most girls unable to go 

to secondary school. This practice is one of the reasons that so many mothers are very young in Engaruka. On the family compound where we stayed, Mzee Ismel offered to let two distant relatives who are widowed build mud, cow dung, and clay huts because they had no where else to go. One of the widows has 3 children, the oldest of whom is almost 6. She is 19. Her children will in all likelihood nto receive any education. 

     That night in Engaruka, after all the visitors left, Mzee Ismel told me that he had talked with the elders and they had decided upon a Masai name for me. He told me my name is Namunyak and explained that it meant “someone who brings good luck and blessings with them wherever they go”. I have never felt as honored and touched as I did in that moment. Not every visitor who spends time in Engaruka receives a Masai name, but they felt that I deserved one. Once everyone else had gone back inside, I sat outside with tears silently streaming down my face. I met so many people who needed things that I had almost always taken for granted. Yet even though they know that the chances of receiving help are small, all of the individuals I met were unbelievably strong, happy and most of all grateful. They were so appreciative of the goals Empowered Girls wanted to accomplish and of the fact that we were dedicating our time to them. They were grateful that we were just trying to find a way to help them, even though we could offer no promises. 

     It devastates me how much need there is in this world. How does one choose where and how best to help? What action will have long term benefit to a community, a people? Maybe as I take full advantage of my college education these are questions I can start to answer for myself. For the time being however, I am going to forgo the gift I requested for my 18th birthday. With that money, I can fund at least two years of secondary education for Saning’o. I can’t save the world but I can change the life and future of this one young person and his family. 

Check out more pictures at Engaruka!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Kilimanjaro, part 2

    Day three was a welcomed respite with a much shorter hike to Lava Tower camp, at 15,180feet. This area felt as if we had left one world and entered another. Lava Tower is a lava plug rising 300 above the surrounding terrain, surrounded by a lava rock field- a reminder that Kilimanjaro is really just a huge, extinct, freestanding volcano. There is very little vegetation at Lava Camp: the elevation is too high to support significant plant life and by this time I was beginning to wonder just how compatible 15,000ft is with human life!  The stars from this camp forward were unbelievable. How could there be so many stars? I have seen stars away from light pollution before; in the South Pacific and in the mountains, but stars at 15,000ft are entirely different. So much light, so many galaxies- the universe is so full! I can’t tell you how cold we all were as we enjoyed the night sky but no one complained.  

      At Lava Camp we had a chance to get to know our porters better: to ask them questions and answer their questions. These 30ish guys are some of the most amazingly fit and interesting people I have met. As we made our slow way up the mountain, they briskly passed us, carrying all their gear on their backs and ours on their heads. By the time we got to camp each day they already had our tents up, tea ready and would greet us with a song.  One of the aspects of Roadmonkey that I respect (and there are several more) is that they use outfitters who follow the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) guidelines.  KPAP is a not-for-profit organization that works to improve the working conditions of Kili porters. Too often and for too long these porters were underpaid, forced to carry excessive weight, given insufficient food, did not receive their full share of tips and did not have appropriate clothing for the conditions. KPAP works to change that. And the porters deserve so much. Only a small fraction of Kili trekkers would make it even part way up without the assistance of the porters.
       Day four was happily an even shorter hike with an altitude increase of just a few hundred feet to Arrow Glacier camp at 15,796 feet. By this point we were above the majority of the clouds, and beginning to get out of breath doing simple tasks. Add this to the facts that it was getting very cold at night and that our mountain sickness medicine has the unfortunate side effect of increasing ones bladder productivity. It’s not a pretty combination! At Arrow Glacier we had a free afternoon to help with acclimatization. While most of the group spent it going on an additional hike- I chose find a comfy rock, read, and listen to music while watching the ever shifting clouds immediately above me. As an aside, if anyone questions the benefits of a Kindle? Its negligible weight and huge inventory of books is a blessing at 16,000ft where simple walking is an effort! 

       Day five was another tough day for me but in a more mental than physical way. Don’t get me wrong, climbing 3,360 feet over steep and very rocky terrain was no walk in the park: the Western Breach is not something I will soon forget.  That day I found myself wondering -What in the world was I doing? What possessed me to think that I could do this on my own without family or crazy friends from home? I kept repeating a never-ending stream of encouraging words in my head interspersed with “ OK, just one step at a time". Fortunately, our lunch break was one of the most incredible views I have ever enjoyed and did a good job of reminding me why I had undertaken this wild idea. 

       From day five on I gained a new appreciation for Kajeli and Melchior. Both were determined that I would be on that summit, even if it meant literally holding my hand many steps of the way. Just when some of us were starting to get sick of scrambling from rock to rock, we had Kajeli there to boost our spirits with random shouts of “I LOVE ROCKS!”. As I mentioned earlier, our guides were amazing and committed to our success. We finally made it to Crater camp, our final camp before our summit and we were really, really out of breath. While overnighting it to Crater camp makes for a much easier summit hike, 1.5 hours instead of 7, it is not easy to sleep at 18,796 feet. 

           Between the headaches, nausea and lack of appetite, we were a pretty sorry bunch at dinner that night. Mild acute mountain sickness was starting to affect some of us. Even the short walk to the mess tent left us all out of breath. And here, a small teaching moment- Mountain medicine recognizes three regions of altitude: high altitude, very high altitude and extreme altitude. The “extreme” is anything over 18,000ft and we were clearly there. Also, did you know that at that altitude: hair essentially stops growing, food doesn’t get absorbed, non-essential body functions shut down and the mind doesn’t function very well! Oh, there is one higher region- around 26,000ft it’s called the death zone. I won’t be going there- ever!

        Day six was a long day. We woke up around 4 and began the last leg of our journey to the summit shortly after 5AM. While the hike from Crater camp up to the top was relatively short, even the shortest distances left us completely out of breath. My body had never felt anything like that before. That moment when I stepped from the inclined trail onto the much flatter area just a 15 minute walk away from the peak, was the most exhilarating feeling I have had (in my brief 17 years!). I was greeted with hugs from those ahead of me, and congratulations flew through the air. From there we walked the remaining short distance to the highest point in Africa, Uhuru peak, the Roof of Africa. We all arrived in time for sunrise, and I don’t know of a better place to see a sunrise from than 19,341 feet, looking down on the clouds. 
        After the mandatory pictures at the sign marking Uhuru peak, we began our decent. It was a moonwalk of sorts through deep skree, and my knees were not happy. After a quick juice break at Barafu camp, we continued down to Millennium camp where we enjoyed a (mostly) headache free lunch, complete with soda and the two kilimanjaro beers that made it to the summit with Diana. We finished our day by continuing down to Mweka camp at 10,139 feet, back in the land of green things and some of the nicest toilets on the mountain, or for that matter, anywhere (it’s all relative isn’t it?). 

     Day seven, our final day on the mountain consisted of a beautiful 3 hour downhill hike through very damp rainforest. During this part of the hike I was was able to walk with a wide range of people, from one of our porters, to a guide with a different group, to our cook and finally one of our guides, Jerome. I loved getting to learn some new Swahili and hear the different life experiences each had. It was another reminder of how glad I was to speak at least some Swahili and be able to communicate a little more easily with our porters and guides. After reaching Mweka gate we headed back to our hotel for a meal and shower before meeting up with out porters and guides one last time. While we did get the promised meal, our hotel temporarily had no running water so our porters got to see us one last time, smelly and dirty as ever. 
            We ended this chapter of our journey with an impromptu dance party to a reggae cover of Phill Collins “One More Night”, all thanks to our guide Paul who had found the song and requested the bar play it. The nine Roadmonkeys then went to a delicious Indian/Italian restaurant (after finally showering!) and reminisced about the climb; still a bit in awe that just the morning before we had been on the summit. After Paul gave everyone their awards and Roadmonkey t-shirts (where I won the “I want to hold your hand” award - for holding our guide’s hand up to the summit...and for doing something few 17 year olds even think about), we headed back to the good old Sal Salinero Hotel for an amazing night’s sleep in real beds. We had a day off on Sunday that I spent with some missionary friends I had met at MS-TCDC. I loved seeing them again and partaking of their delicious BBQ!! Monday morning we flew to Zanzibar and began phase 2 of our “adventure voluntourism” trip...but that is an experience for another blog post! Which I promise to try and post soon, but I am at the mercy of the internet.

To see more pictures from the climb, check out my Picasa album! Kilimanjaro

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Climbing Kilimanjaro, part 1

Nora, Pierre, Lee, Nick and myself!
    Climbing Kilimanjaro is probably the greatest physical and mental challenge that I have ever attempted, but it is also the most rewarding. The emotions of standing on the summit of Uhuru peak, watching the sunrise with twelve individuals who had been strangers one week earlier, but now share a unique friendship, overwhelmed all the difficulties.

Kajeli and me
   First, I need to introduce the 12 people who climbed with me. I’ll begin with our fearless leader Paul, founder of Roadmonkey (see, who was summiting for his 4th time. He is one of those few people who has an idea to help make the world a bit better and acts on it. Then we have Pierre who is taking a year off (sound familiar?) with his wife to travel the world and was the co leader on our climb. Lee, my mom on the climb, always had some Listerine to spare and set a record for number of times getting up during the night. Nick’s stories of his well behaved childhood were the source for endless, puerile jokes. Thanks to Laura and her morning yoga, we were always limber and ready to climb. Senior Bob provided a modicum of sanity and maturity to our group. Diana never failed to cure all our blister woes. And of course there was Nora, who repeatedly told us that it was possible for her to be something other than happy, but convinced none of us. Our two assistant guides, Paul and Jerome put up with our bizarre requests and my attempts to practice Swahili with them.  Almost last but certainly not least are Melchior and Kajeli, our head guides. Not only did I have some great political and social discussions with these two, but I owe being able to say I summited largely to them. It was Melchior’s 154th summit and he still has an obvious passion for the mountain. Finally, our cook Salem kept us fueled for the trek.

Morning yoga, anyone?
   After meeting one another we had the first of many hilarious meals together filled with grade school humor and positive attitudes.  We ascended Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, starting on Sunday with a beautiful climb through the rainforest, with its attendant monkeys. Although we ran into some issues involving nettles getting into someone’s pants and some biting ants showing us how they really felt about us, we all made it to Mti Mkubwa, or Big Tree Camp, at 9,498ft relatively unscathed. A needed snack of popcorn and tea was followed by the first of many amazing meals and a good night’s sleep. No huts for us- tents and sleeping bags

  We began day two with more rainforest and after hiking two hours entered the moorlands. This was the hardest day for me, at least physically. Thanks to some blisters (Yes, I know Mom - I should have broken in the boots better), a lot of dust and a 14 mile, 3,000ft elevation climb, I ended up lagging a bit behind the main group. Pierre and Kejeli kept me company and our discussions about American politics, being a mountain guide and racism in different countries more than made up for the 8+ hour day. By the end, the amount of dirt I collected between my sock line and knee braces was quite impressive; I have a new appreciation for wet wipes! Their use extends far beyond baby bottoms and I now consider them a necessity for adventure travel. 

  We got our first view of the peak as we entered the Shira Plateau and realized just how incredible a journey we were on.  That night we camped at Shira 2, elevation 12,779 feet, and discovered just how possessive of toilets some groups can be! Over some of the best soup and (mountain) chicken I’ve had (I’m still not sure how Salem made such amazing soups even at 18,000+ feet) we formulated our plan for stealing the coveted private toilet. After dinner Paul and our head guides made the decision that our group was up to approaching the summit via the Western Breach. While this route has the benefit of shorter hikes each day, it also entails a more challenging climb the day before you summit as you increase in altitude, via large boulder scrambling, from 15,800ft to 18,200ft in about 5 hours with a mean gradient of 29 degrees! 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Out of Touch

    • Descending from Uhuru peak, above the clouds, at sunrise

      Being back in Kyela has been great, but not as amazing as seeing impact that the efforts of so many, from so far away, has had on the school. Even though my time here has been short (I leave tomorrow), it has been busy and productive! Kellen, Daudi and I have spoken to the students at the secondary school all 3 days and I greatly enjoyed being able to speak Swahili with the students and teachers. The internet here is very poor so I haven't yet been able to post about my time on Kilimanjaro and in Zanzibar but will do so shortly! Tomorrow Kellen, Daudi and I catch the bus for the 12 hour ride to Morogoro and then Friday we will go the final 9 hours back to Arusha. I can't wait to share my experiences - as soon as the internet decides to let me!