Scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro proved elusive. But greater gifts lay in wait.
By SANDRA SUKHAN
Do you believe in Karma? Cosmic forces? Destiny? None of it? For as long as I can remember, I knew at some instinctive level that the stories my dad told me about karma were true. I wanted to discount them, but try as I might, some of them could not be denied.
Here is one of those times. In 2012, after I completed my doctoral studies at the age of fifty-eight, I decided to set another near-impossible goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I spent a year planning the trip with my second daughter Sunita (my other two daughters were not interested) and my sister Sabena. In January 2013, I put together a training plan and started walking, averaging about 70 to 90 kilometres a week. Part of the training included walking the Winnipeg portion of the TransCanada Trail for ten weeks with my oldest daughter Sharmila. Together, we bonded and spent quality mother-daughter time while covering about eighty kilometres. Those experiences were gifts that I treasure. By October, I was ready for my climb.
On our arrival in Moshi, Tanzania that month, we met two German men at our hotel who had just returned from the climb without making it to Uhuru Peak, the highest summit on Kili. They were very disappointed and had dreadful things to say about the lead guide on their team who they claimed behaved like a god on the mountain, ruling his crew of porters with an iron fist. That bit of news terrified us, because none of the six members of our team were experienced climbers, while the two Germans were.
So imagine our shock the next day when we met our own lead guide, and it was the very same man! His name was Godfrey, but he was very quiet and respectful toward us. Still, we were very uneasy, so we confided in the climb organizer what we had heard the day before and asked that another guide team be assigned to us. But it was to no avail; the organizer explained that Godfrey was the best guide he had and had been selected especially because we had no climbing experience.
Day one turned out as expected – lots of packing, organizing and getting to the foot of the mountain to start the seven-day climb on the Rongai Route. This was a longer path, more gradual and best for people with little or no climbing experience. It was rated as one of the routes that had the highest success rates for summiting. We watched Godfrey direct his team with precision at each stage: checking the weight of the luggage the porters would be carrying for each of us, ensuring all the essentials were in our backpacks, seeing to it that our water containers were the optimal size and looking out for anything else we would need.
Days one to five were hard, but Godfrey knew how to pace the group, so the days passed without incident. On the evening of day five, we arrived at our destination for the night: Mawenzi Tarn Camp. The campsite is located in a valley below the peak of Mawenzi, one of the lower peaks on Mount Kilimanjaro and well short of our ultimate destination: Uhuru Peak. The campsite is somewhat sheltered, but it can be bitterly cold at night. By the time we got there, we had ascended almost 12,000 feet – and we walked right into a raging dust storm, with high winds and dust so fine it felt like black baby powder on our faces and in our mouths. We ate dinner and settled into our nylon tents for the night as the storm raged on and the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling 5 degrees Celsius. It was my very first experience sleeping in a tent at any temperature!
During the night, Sunita succumbed to acute mountain sickness brought on by the high elevation. The only thing to do when this happens is to descend: ascending any higher could be dangerous.
By the morning, we were covered in a thin film of black powder. Sabena’s dust allergy had kicked in full force and she was having difficulty breathing after inhaling dust all night. After taking stock of Sunita and Sabena’s condition, we made the at once difficult and easy decision to turn back. But it was going to be easier said than done. To return, we would have to climb nearly another 2,000 feet to get to the descent path on the other side of Mawenzi. The highest elevation I had ever experienced was 13,000 feet in Cusco, Peru.
Prior to our journey, Sunita and I had agreed that if one of us had to abort the climb, the other would continue. When the time came to make that decision, Sunita insisted I carry on. But I would not go without her or my sister; so the three of us agreed we would go back together. I knew I would be sick with worry if we didn’t.
Godfrey had tried valiantly to convince me to go on, but my decision was final: if the three of us could not get to the top together, then the three of us would return to base together. So Godfrey decided to accompany us because, he said, the route would be very challenging. This was an unusual decision. Normally, if anyone has to turn back, Godfrey continues to lead the rest of the team forward. But this time, he made an exception. I don’t know why he did, but I was extremely grateful for it. As I followed his outstretched finger, revealing the path ahead, I wondered how on earth we would be able to climb even higher to get to the other side of the mountain.
Thanks to Godfrey’s skillful guidance, we did manage to get to the top of Mawenzi, almost another two thousand feet up. But when we looked down at the ground we still had to cover, I was more than a bit scared. Constantly and carefully assessing the path, Godfrey chose a longer, somewhat less challenging route back to the mountain base. It was a calculated move based on many years of experience; and while we didn’t find it easy, the alternative would undoubtedly have been more difficult. When we finally arrived at our evening’s destination, we were grateful for his skillful dedication to keeping us safe. It crossed my mind that we had entrusted our lives to a man who had been a perfect stranger to us only five days before. I thought back to how I had asked for a different guide team, but fate must have intervened on our behalf. I was filled with overpowering gratitude, especially when Godfrey encouraged Sunita and Sabena, who had no appetite, to have at least a bowl of soup at dinner.
On the long descent the next day, Godfrey and I had frequent conversations, some of them about life’s philosophical questions. There was no doubt about his skill as a guide, but he was far wiser than the impression he had made over the previous days. I asked him: if he could do anything with his life besides climbing, which was incredibly hard work, what would he do? He answered that he’d like to have his own business renting out quality hiking equipment so he could provide a proper education for his young daughter and meaningful work for his wife who was not well educated. Girls in Tanzania do not have the same educational opportunities as boys, so this was a noble thought. When I asked how much he would need to get started, Godfrey answered $2,500 USD. But after asking him a few more questions, I realized that while it was a laudable goal, Godfrey had no idea of how to start or run a business. A plan began to germinate in my head.
Soon after getting back to the hotel, Sunita, Sabena and I discussed Godfrey’s goal and we decided we would help fund his startup costs through a no-interest loan – but with some conditions. Donna, another climber on our team, offered to help Godfrey prepare a sound business plan, including how to repay the loan and grow his business. I didn’t have a clear justification for lending the money. And I while I hoped the loan would be repaid, I rationalized that if it was not, it would still be worth the investment, because we had placed our implicit trust in him to bring us safely down the mountain, and he did.
In March of 2014, we wired the money to Godfrey and he started his business. His wife and brother managed it, while he continued to lead climbs. Every quarter, for two and a half years, he paid back the amount he owed, always on or before the due date. Once, when I was in Nairobi for a business trip, I met him for a brief visit. By then, we had become friends and we shared family events and photos.
Godfrey’s business grew, and eventually the entire loan was repaid, except for the final payment which we asked him to use for this daughter’s primary school tuition. At nearly $1000 USD per year for room and board, the cost is almost prohibitive for most Tanzanians, yet somehow Godfrey had managed to save the money for it. He did not ask us for that favour. We wanted to do it as a way of applauding the effort he had put into improving his family’s life.
In the fall of 2017, Godfrey bought a mill. It’s run by his wife who employs a few people to grind maize for local farmers. The mill is a great service for their community. Previously, farmers had to travel many miles to get their grains ground.
Godfrey’s daughter is doing well in school, and I help fund the tuition costs for her education, which I hope will give her a solid future.
The decision to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro was a life-changing choice for me in many ways. Although I did not summit, what I received in return will last a lifetime. Bonding with my daughters was a gift. Spending time with my sister was also a gift. But perhaps the greatest gift was meeting Godfrey and becoming part of his family. The gift of a loan (which sounds like an oxymoron) has benefitted his wife, daughters, brother, and now the entire community. That is the true meaning of the Sanskrit word karma.
Winnipeg writer Sandra Sukhan was born and raised in Guyana. She recently published a cookbook of some of her favourite recipes, including traditional Guyanese food. To order a copy of Comfort Food From Sandra’s Kitchen: Guyanese and Other Favourites, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 204-488-2628.