Walk the World fever is sweeping Tanzania as thousands of people gear up for a five-kilometre charity walk in seven cities and towns around the country, ahead of Sunday's global march.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the most memorable experiences you can ever have in your life
The walks are Tanzania’s contribution to “Walk the World”, an annual global event launched three years ago by WFP and its corporate partner, TNT, global provider of express, mail and logistics services, to raise money for nutritious meals in schools for poor children.
This year, Walk the World will take place on Sunday 21 May in 90 countries, but here in Tanzania excitement is almost as high as Mount Kilimanjaro over the expedition to the summit by a group of 20 people who are climbing Africa’s highest mountain for the cause of school feeding.
Taking up the challenge
The climbers come from a dozen different countries and range in age from 15-year-old school feeding beneficiary Neema Seth, who laid eyes on Kilimanjaro for the first time the day before the climb, to 50-year-old Ulrich Doering, who has reached the summit four times.
At the forefront of the expedition is Samson Ramadhani, Tanzania’s gold medal marathon runner, who says that climbing Kilimanjaro is, for him, a “golden chance” to make a childhood dream come true.
Over the next five days, WFP’s Heather Hill will write an exclusive diary of the Kilimanjaro expedition for AllAfrica.com.
Day 1: 16th May
Everyone is anxious to start. Over the last 24 hours, the trek members have been trickling into the Marangu Hotel, the meeting point in the town closest to Kilimanjaro National Park.
They have been equipped with climbing gear, heavily briefed on what to do and what to expect over the next five days and introduced to one another and their chief guide, Stephen Kimei, who will do his very best to get them all to the snow-capped peak of the mountain.
Amid laughter, Samson promises everyone that he will go “pole, pole” – slowly, slowly – despite his medal-winning prowess as a marathon runner. (Taking it slow is one of the cardinal rules of the climb.)
A rare chance
Like the others, he is wearing an orange-and-white “Walk the World” T-shirt which in size large almost dwarfs his acutely slender frame. He, too, is raring to go.
“This chance to climb is very rare,” he says. “You don’t often get it.”
Samson lives in a military barracks in the Arusha area near Kilimanjaro (he is a corporal in the Tanzanian army, which he joined at the age of 16) and trains there, but this is his first time to venture up the slope of the mountain even to Marangu.
Neema Seth, who is in Grade 6 in Nguiki village in Monduri village and one of four school feeding beneficiaries actually participating in the expedition, has never seen Kilimanjaro before arriving, but like all Tanzanian schoolchildren, she has learned about it in school and seen pictures of it.
The mountain emerges
The previous evening, there is a shout on the hotel grounds that the clouds have lifted and the mountain is showing its face.
Neema is guided out to see it, and when she raises her eyes to the seemingly impossible peak, she is awe-stricken and drops her eyes.
“She can’t express herself,” chuckles one of the WFP staff, Christine Massiaga, who then presses Neema to say what she thinks. “I will make it to the top,” the shy teenager declares in her soft, hesitant voice.
Fulfilling a dream
Diana Matungwe, 22, an instructor in the National College of Tourism in Dar es Salaam, joined the expedition after seeing stories on television and in the newspapers.
“I was so excited when I heard about it,” she says. “When I was a little girl, I dreamed of helping orphan children. And I dreamed of climbing the mountain.”
Diana recounts that when she meets foreigners and tells them she is from Tanzania, “they ask you if you have climbed Kilimanjaro. It’s almost like if you haven‘t climbed it, you aren’t a true Tanzanian.”
The prep time is finally drawing to a close at the hotel, the guide company staff having spent several hours spent assembling packs, weighing them, pairing porters with climbers and distributing the walking sticks and water bottles.
The climbers are taken in minivans to the entrance to Kilimanjaro National Park where they register, buy last-minute snacks and get ready for departure.
Samson has a brief spate of picture taking, asking his new friends to pose with him beside the sign announcing the elevation of the three sets of “huts,” or resting points along the way.
First stop is Mandara hut (2,700 metres), today’s destination. And to the applause of the onlookers – villagers, porters, park staff and climbers who have made their way down – the file of sunnily clad supporters of school feeding set off on the first leg of their journey, passing under a wooden archway into the rainforest. Mandara hut is four long, slow, uphill hours away.
Day 2: 17th May
The previous evening, when the Walk the World climbers have successfully arrived at the Mandara huts (elevation: 2,700 metres) just after sunset, Diana gets very, very cold.
“I had to put on every piece of clothing I had,” she said. “But after I had dinner, I felt better. I guess this is a taste of things to come.”
But they have perfect weather on their way through the rainforest to Mandara, the first set of huts on the path upward.
“It was really sunny,” said Carmen Burbano, a WFP programme officer in the Tanzania office. “There was no rain at all.”
About 200 metres from the start, the landscape changes completely.
“It was amazing,” says Carmen. “At one point in the trail, the left side was tropical forest and the right side was more like a meadow, flat and with flowers. It was really very dramatic.”
“Everything is perfect,” she adds. “This morning for breakfast we had eggs, tomato and bacon, fruit and porridge. The food is fantastic. But they tell us the next stop (Horombo huts) won’t be as nice.”
Samson is again in the lead, with the four students from Nguiki village, among them 15-year-old Seema Neth, sticking together behind him like children to the Pied Piper.
Samson is setting the tone and the pace, always waving, laughing and smiling.
He has a brilliant, infectious grin, and the expedition at this point is fun for everyone.
If Samson is inspiring, he himself was inspired by a Tanzanian runner named Juma Ramadhani Ikangaa (no relation) whom he first saw in a documentary when he was a schoolboy and a teacher took the children to a local cinema.
Opening up to possibilities
“I saw a Tanzanian man running with the Europeans. I said to myself, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I’?”
Today, Ikangaa is the officer in charge of the army athletes, Samson included.
But even before he saw the film of Ikangaa competing internationally, “I copied from my uncle. He was the fastest runner in our village when he was hunting the wild pigs that wanted to eat the maize on our shamba.”
A beautiful and unique mountain
There is six to seven hours of walking from Mandara to Horombo.
“Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the most memorable experiences you can ever have in your life,” Desmond had told the group during their briefing.
“It’s a very beautiful, unique mountain. “Enjoy it. Don’t obsess about the summit.”
His counsel is borne out by Samson when he arrived with all the other group members at the Horombo huts (elevation: 3,720 metres).
A long walk upward
“In such a short time, only two days, I have never seen so many changes in the scenery,” he said.
“I have seen tropical trees and rocks and lichen and mountains and rivers and the clouds coming over us. That in itself has already made the trip worthwhile.” Carmen is already looking ahead at tomorrow.
“It’s going to be a very special day because we know that when we set out we don’t really stop until we reach the summit. Tomorrow it’s about one long walk upward.”
Day 3: 18th May
“It’s not about getting to the top. It’s all about finding your own rhythm. It’s that feeling of being by yourself and this is your own personal challenge.”
Carmen is speaking for everyone in the group. Each of them has their own unique reason for wanting to do the climb.
Mentally, it becomes very hard
Saskia Kramer, an employee of the TNT courier company who is doing a volunteer stint with WFP in Tanzania, saw it as a physical challenge when she arrived at Marangu village on Monday afternoon.
A tall, athletic Dutchwoman, she is a long-distance runner in her spare time and has the New York marathon among others under her belt.
Following the tourist trail
Rozmina Khatri, 42, an accountant who works for a food commodity supplier in Dar es Salaam, is one of those Tanzanians who wanted to see for herself what thousands of foreigners see every year when they devote so much time and money to trying to reach the top.
“If tourists are coming, why not we?” said the diminutive, soft-spoken widow.
“Till now, you don’t know what’s there. When you reach there, you will know.”
The destination today is the Kibo huts (4,703 metres), the last of the three rest points on the way to the summit. The huts sit at the base of a small peak that resembles the tip of an ice cream sundae adjacent to a long graceful saddleback leading to the top.
Here they have supper, rest until 11 p.m., when they rise and gather their gear
At midnight they will begin the excruciatingly slow zig-zag march across a swathe of small frozen stones called scree.
After some six to seven hours of baby-steps walking, they will arrive at the first summit, called Gilman’s Peak (5,685 metres), on the lip of a 2.5-kilometre-wide crater of ice and snow.
“Mentally, it becomes very hard,” Desmond warned the group three days earlier.
“It’s dark, you haven’t had much sleep, you don’t feel very strong. All of these things combine to make you think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ That is despair.”
Walking on the moon
After a day of trudging through the barren, lunar-like landscape that Kilimanjaro turns into at this elevation, everybody makes it to Kibo, although one of the students, Saibulu Tingide, is coughing from the effort and the cold.
A couple of the others have chest problems. Markus Hauser, the doctor in the support team for the climbers, examines them all and decides that Saibulu was not in a good condition to push on.
The others are told they can go ahead and give it a try. Markus, who works at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre in Moshi town, has served as the doctor for a number of Kili climbs and it was understood from the outset that his decision was the law.
Moment of truth
Then Markus and the chief guide divide the climbers into two groups – those who are more likely to reach the top and those who are less likely.
The first group will be in the lead. Samson, of course, is at the head of the first group, with a grin and an attitude of “bring it on!”
And so, after a spartan supper, the climbers go to the huts for a few hours of restless sleep and the moment of truth to come.
Day 4: 19th May
Sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s 7.30am at Gilman’s Peak, 5,670 metres above sea level. Here, from the roof of Africa, under the blue vault of the heavens, you can see a shimmering gold, green and brown continent stretching out towards a horizon too far away for the eye to fathom.
Samson is here, and so are Jenifer Saitoti, a 16-year-old student from the Nguiki primary school, and Jenifer’s classmate, 16-year-old Lemali Rokoine.
They are among the 10 climbers – exactly half of the original group -- who made it to the top.
It is like a miracle for Jenifer and Lemali. They will go home with a story which nobody else they know can tell.
The summit is the happy ending for them to the final leg of the climb, which started at 12.15am today and lasted for seven and a half hours.
Finding the resources
“It was exhausting, really, really exhausting,” said Carmen. “One foot in front of the other, over and over again. This must be what torture is like, when you are asking yourself, ‘When will this be too much for me?’”
The answer for Carmen and her friends, Pierre Lucas and Svenja Johanne, both WFP officers in Ethiopia, lies in your state of mind: “It’s not just physical, it’s a lot more to do with the mental and emotional side. If you think you should do it, you do.”
And all three of them made it, somehow finding the resources they needed within themselves.
Pushing onward and upward
For Samson, the final ascent was almost a breeze. “I just walked up,” he said.
It was a very rewarding experience to come up with other Tanzanians. We came up as one nation
He was very keen to go on to the higher of the two peaks, called Uhuru Peak (5,896 metres), but a decision had to be taken.
They didn’t have enough guides for those who wanted to go to Uhuru.
The clouds were starting to come in. And they were running out of time.
The long road home
The climbers needed to start descending very soon in order to reach Horombo for their last night on the mountain before the fifth and final day of walking tomorrow.
“I was disappointed,” said Samson. “But we had to make the safe decision.”
He enjoyed the expedition and would do it again “for fun” but as an athletic pursuit he likes marathon running much, much more.
What was most fulfilling for him was reaching the top with Jenifer and Lemali.
The night before, the two teenagers had been placed in the group that was less likely to make it and they proved that assessment to be wrong.
“Many parents and elders say that climbing mountains is not for the young,” Samson said.
“They say it’s too dangerous. But we have proven that it’s not. Jenifer and Lemali are physically and mentally capable. They have shown that it is possible.”
Samson, who has been winning gold, silver and bronze medals for Tanzania since he himself was a teenager, is well aware that he is a role model for his country.
But this time, he says, he was not alone in crossing the finish line: “It was a very rewarding experience to come up with other Tanzanians. We came up as one nation.”
Day 5: 20th May
“The mountain tells the truth.”
It is 3pm and the climbers are tramping downhill through the cool, green rainforest after having lunch at the Mandara huts.
They are exhausted – they have been walking with intermittent rest stops for some 24 hours – and their leg muscles are sore.
They are down to the last drops of their energy and strength. Yet they are happy.
When they emerge through Marangu Gate at the bottom of Kilimanjaro, they whoop, hug and clasp hands in celebration and camaraderie.
Journey towards personal awareness
The expedition to raise awareness of the importance of nutrition and education for children is over, and the bonus is that many of the 20 climbers have come away with a greater awareness of themselves.
Uli Doering, the team photographer, describes this as the power of the mountain to reveal you to yourself.
“There is such a difference between the expectations you have when you begin and what you discover you are capable of when you are on the mountain. Nature is stronger than we are and this is where you learn it.”
Pierre, a WFP officer in Ethiopia, talks about the hours spent trudging across the scree on the final ascent yesterday. Moving mechanically, taking small slow steps in the darkness, he simply could not see any end in sight.
The mountain shows you your own limitations, what you can and cannot do
“You really have to know why you are doing this. You have to have your own reason for not turning back.”
For Pierre, it was the long-held dream to stand on the roof of Africa.
Determined not to be beaten
Harry McLaren nearly turned back dozens of times. Every time the 17-year-old photographer’s assistant sat down to rest on the final ascent, he literally did not know which direction he would go in when he stood up.
It was the determination not to be beaten by despair that made him put the next foot forward. “There was always the voice in my head telling me to go back, that I wasn’t ready for this, but when I sat down I was somehow rekindled to find the willpower.”
But Markus, one of the group’s two physicians, says it is not just a question of willpower.
“The mountain shows you your own limitations, what you can and cannot do,” he said.
Know your limitations
“Many of us were determined to make it but it’s not only determination that gets you there. There are other factors, and the real challenge is to identify your limitations and know when to stop. The goal is not the summit, the goal is coming down safely.”
Rozmina didn't make it. About an hour after she set out from Kibo, a wave of darkness passed over her.
She sat down and waited to recover but she was still overcome. The guide told her it was time to stop.
"But my strength is still there," she replied. "I can still climb." It proved to be impossible. She had to turn back. "I was so disappointed," she said, recalling her earlier certainty she would get there.
Her spirits lifted only when a park warden told her that some people don't get further than Mandara, the first set of huts.
"He said to me, 'You are a lucky girl. You reached Kibo. So you don't have to be disappointed.' I am very happy now. It was a pleasure for me to reach just there [Kibo]. And now I have an idea of how to climb a mountain."
Samson, a superbly conditioned athlete, conquered the mountain with ease. But he had other discoveries on Kilimanjaro – at the summit, he found not brown rock but a level ice crater that resembled an immense running track.
Standing on the crater, 5,685 metres above sea level, he realised too that the tales about the dangers of mountain-climbing are wrong, like the belief that someone on the top of a mountain is vulnerable to a falling airplane.
But the walking not completely over yet. Tomorrow is the global Walk the World event in over 100 locations around the world to raise funds for school feeding.
Despite their fatigue and physical aches and pains, the climbers will be there for the five-kilometre charity walk WFP has organised for people living in the Kilimanjaro area.
They will join in because this climb is an invaluable demonstration to the schoolchildren the walk aims to help.
It shows them how it is possible to set goals and aspirations -- and by doing their own personal best to go as far toward them as they can go.