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Friday, August 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

From Malawi to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

"Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa"


The film runs tomorrow-Nov. 18 at the Pacific Science Center's Boeing IMAX Theater. Tickets, $8 adults, $7.50 seniors and $7 children 3-12, are available at the door or online at www.pacsci.org

For information about Save the Children's International Venture Philanthropy Delegations, contact Save the Children's Western Regional Office, 731 Sansome St., Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94111, 415-677-9050; e-mail lgonzalez@savechildren.org

A soft, gray fog hung over the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The magnificent 40-foot, blue-white glacier walls on the backside of the summit were barely visible.

The white snow was packed hard and, standing on the roof of Africa, in his yellow parka, practically surrounded in a white gauze, Jeff Ament looked as if he were standing inside a snow globe.

Four years earlier, at a Sonics' basketball game, I first mentioned the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro to Jeff. I knew he was as rabid a fan of the outdoors as he was of the NBA, and I knew that his band, Pearl Jam, had a sincere, generous and global commitment to people in need.

I told him the climb would be much more than an athletic event. It would offer him a chance to see a part of the world the rest of the globe often ignores. In addition to climbing the mountain, we would have opportunities to visit villages in several African countries that needed our help.

I climbed the Tanzanian mountain we call "Kili" for the first time in 2001, without Jeff, and seeing him at another Sonics game after my return, I told him, more than ever, he had to go.

This year he was able to balance the band's schedule with Tanzania's climbing season. In March we climbed to the top of Africa. But it was only part of a remarkable and life-changing trip.

Two mountains loom over Sub-Saharan Africa. One spectacular and one horrific.

One is the magical 19,340-foot monolith, Mount Kilimanjaro, the world's highest free-standing mountain peak; the subject of Ernest Hemingway's story and a magnet that has drawn climbers, both experts and novices, to its difficult, but accessible, summit for more than a century.

The other is HIV/AIDS, the pandemic that has ravaged East Africa for more than two decades.

I returned here, with a group of 14 friends and like-minded people, on a tour sponsored by Save the Children, to learn more about the charity's Adopt-A-Village program and to tackle Kilimanjaro.

Included in our group were six people from Seattle. Ament, bass player for Pearl Jam, and his partner, graduate student Pandora Andre-Beatty; software entrepreneurs Tom Miller, David Robinson and Bob Seidensticker; and graduate student Laura Mason.

This type of travel, called venture philanthropy, links donor groups with some of Save the Children's flagship programs. Each person in the traveling party raised $10,000 for the Adopt-A-Village Program in Malawi and also had to pay about $1,800 in airfare and in-country expenses of another $1,000, which included outfitter costs associated with the Kili climb, organized by Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco. After the trip, Save hosts fund-raisers where various members of the climb talk about their experiences. This one trip has raised approximately $145,000 and counting.

The hook for us was the challenge of Kilimanjaro. How would we handle the altitude? Would we succeed, scrambling up the difficult Western Breach, taking the brunt of the stinging sleet in our faces, looking for foot- and handholds, not daring to peek over our shoulders to see how far we'd fall if we slipped?

But before the climb we went to Malawi, a skinny sliver of land the size of Cuba, with 10.4 million people. Once known as Nyasaland Protectorate, it is a country still emerging from colonialism's politics. Asa, the driver who greeted us as the airport in the capital city of Lilongwe, welcomed us to, "The warm heart of Africa."

For each person, this trip was a personal fact-finding mission. Each wanted to see how Save was using the money raised for its African Adopt-A-Village projects. Each wanted to viscerally experience the strengths and the weaknesses of this part of Africa.

For me, Malawi was a reality check. Every sportswriter, from time to time, wonders what he or she will do when they grow up. There are times, no matter how passionate our love for sports, when the desire to write about larger, more global questions invades our wonderland.

And, as simple as this might sound, I wanted to help. I wanted people to know the enormity of the AIDS problem. I believe people need to care.

Tom Miller meets Foster Martin

His left hand holding tightly to his teacher's right hand, 11-year-old Foster Martin, wearing a teal-colored polo shirt and navy blue shorts, slowly raised his head and, for the first time, made eye contact with his American sponsor.

Gently nudging Foster, the teacher nodded toward Seattle's Tom Miller and firmly whispered to Foster, "Tell him your name." Foster, much smaller than most 11-year-old boys in the United States, extended his tiny right arm and proudly said to Miller, "My name is Foster Martin."

Miller invited three friends to share his journey to Mtosa village in the African bush. He and his wife, Terri, have sponsored children in Malawi, through Save the Children, for almost 18 years. They have given thousands of dollars to this country. But Foster is the first Malawian child Miller had met, and Miller was every bit as nervous as the boy.

The village is so remote it took us almost three hours to travel 70 miles. The ride was grueling. Most of the roads in Malawi are rutted and made of hard, red clay. Potholes, practically the size of dry lake beds, knocked us violently against the doors of our four-wheel drive.

In the afternoon, when menacing clouds fall so low in the sky they almost touch the ground and the inevitable torrential rains arrive, the roads become as slippery as luge runs and vehicles slip-slide drunkenly off the skinny roads and into ditches.

We left the city of Mangoche on Lake Malawi and passed villages that were somnolent in the early morning sun. Slowly the countryside crawled past our windshield. Tobacco cured on wooden racks along the side of the road. We passed giant baobab trees and jacaranda trees with their sunburst yellow flowers.

We witnessed scenes that to us seemed centuries old. Women carried supplies on the tops of their heads and broke into wide smiles when we waved to them. We were forced to stop as goats were herded across the road by stick-whipping children. Convoys of boys, pushing rickety bicycles stacked 5 feet high with firewood, looked up as we crept past.

None of us had an idea of the kind of celebration that awaited us in Mtosa. The children had been dismissed early from school. Eventually almost everyone in the village, more than 1,000 people, would fill the grass schoolyard in front of the concrete classrooms that had been built with money from Save and with labor provided by local villagers. They came to welcome us and to thank Miller. We were treated like visiting dignitaries.

What $28 a month buys

Here in Sub-Saharan Africa, where al-Qaida cells flourish, where the U.S. embassies in both Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, have been bombed, we found nothing but gratitude.

The average donation for a village sponsor is about $28 a month. The money doesn't go to the individual family — Foster Martin's family isn't the sole beneficiary of Miller's generosity — but is shared throughout the village. Five core programs — child development for ages 3 through 6; primary education; school health and nutrition; adolescent development; and HIV/AIDS care — are funded through sponsorship dollars.

The development of every child is tracked. Teachers are trained. Schools are built. Because of the eroding effects of AIDS, girls as young as 12 are the heads of some households. Flexible schedules are developed so those girls can go to class.

"Maybe I'm sort of naïve," Miller said, "but I think in the U.S. there is plenty of money to solve our problems. It's just there. But I want to see my money go to countries that don't have the money to solve their problems. Here there aren't enough resources. Coming from a country of affluence and as gifted as ours, I would like to help countries like Malawi which don't have that affluence but are willing to work to help themselves."

After their introduction, Miller visited Foster's home, where he was greeted by Foster's mother and the rest of the family, including eight children, three of whom were orphaned when their parents died from AIDS.

The setting at Foster's home was bucolic and beautiful. The three homes clustered at the end of the dirt road are quintessentially African — mud huts and thatched roofs. From the porch we looked across green hills. Cornfields served as back yards. Goats that supply the family's milk, and doves that supply the eggs, roamed freely in the hard-packed clay "yard."

Foster's mother, Aida Solomoni, supports the children growing corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and peas.

The family gathered on the front porch and listened as Miller read letters written to Foster by his two sons, 11-year-old Andrew and 8-year-old Charlie. The letters tell of their experiences in the United States. "I am writing to you because I want to learn more about you and your culture," Andrew wrote. "I want you and your family to be friends with me." Andrew and Charlie sent pictures with their letters.

"I think I'm getting more out of this than you are," Miller said after he had read the letters that were translated by one of the teachers.

Back at the schoolyard, we sat like heads of state under a canopy and were treated to a village variety show. The buzz in the schoolyard was remarkable, as if this were the most important day in the villagers' lives.

It was the same at every village we visited. We were entertained at each stop, and included in the entertainment were dramatic skits about the prevention of AIDS. After refusing for years to admit there was a problem, the people of Malawi now talk openly about the disease.

The trek up Kilimanjaro

At 55, I'm not ready to go gentle into the night, so when friends from Save the Children asked me if I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro for a second time, I said yes before they got to the third syllable. I wanted that feeling of being part of a team again. On a climb such as this, each climber takes care of the other. If one person is hit with altitude sickness, we all try to help.

I wanted to feel those gut-clutching, pre-climb jitters that hit me every day of the eight-day trip, like the butterflies I used to get before a high-school basketball game. And I wanted the rekindle the spirituality that comes once we get to the mountain. I wanted to see Kilimanjaro's beauty and feel its fury again.

There are people who think Kilimanjaro is nothing more than a long hike. It's the "climbable" mountain peak. It isn't technical like Everest. It isn't as minute-by-minute intense as Rainier. But unless you're legendary climber Jim Whittaker, it isn't easy.

The climb is long and testing. The air is thinning by the time we get to our first camp, in the forest at 9,500 feet. The weather changes rapidly, and there were moments every day when each of us wondered why we were doing this.

We climbed through five climate zones. At the trailhead, the temperature was in the 80s, but by the time we reached the summit, the temperature had dropped to single digits. We started in the thick, humid air of a tropical rain forest, then moved into the heather and moss.

We climbed over one ridge after another and across the Shira Plateau, landscaped with volcanic rock. We were on the Shira Route designed by late Seattle climber Scott Fisher, who died on Mount Everest and was the subject of Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air." The Kilimanjaro camp at 12,500 feet is named after Fisher.

Eventually, at Arrow Glacier at 16,500 feet, the terrain looked like the surface of the moon. At night, as the icy snow fell harder, we could see the lights from the town of Moshi flickering far down at the base of the mountain.

The next day, the penultimate day of the climb, we scrambled hand-over-hand, up and through the tricky, snowy Western Breach, grabbing at rocks smoothed over with ice. And that night, just 700 feet from Uhuru Peak, the top of Kili, we camped several hundred yards from the magnificent white monoliths at 18,600-foot Crater Camp.

"You look at how many different kinds of things we climbed over, and I'm amazed that not one person slipped," Pearl Jam's Ament said. "Physically, pulling this off is pretty amazing."

We were a team, and in the eight days of the climb we became close friends. We helped each other through bouts of altitude sickness — headaches and nausea and nerves — and all of us made it. Our guides and porters from Arusha, led by Victor Kinyonga, were smart and caring and insatiably curious. All of them carried at least 50 to 70 pounds of gear. We carried maybe 5 pounds each.

At 16,000 feet, Ament turned 41. Before we began the climb, Joseph, our cook, was told about the birthday and secretly baked a cake. Then the cake was carried up the mountain and decorated.

The night of Ament's birthday was cold, and snow and sleet was pelting our tent. The hardest day of the climb was awaiting us in the morning, and we sat silently and a little grumpily at dinner, hunkered against the cold.

Then, just as we were preparing to go outside to crawl into the shelter of our two-man tents, a dozen porters and our expedition leader burst in with Joseph's candlelit creation. They sang "Happy Birthday" in English to Ament and then sang their own Swahili birthday song.

"My birthday felt like a dream," Ament said. "Sixteen-thousand feet, a dose of [anti-altitude-sickness drug] Diamox and a tent full of Tanzanians singing to us some happy Swahili birthday song. I felt lucky to be alive, to experience the sort of pure joy you feel when you're 4 years old, not 41."

The two parts of our trip came together every night of the climb. Even on Kilimanjaro, we thought about what we felt in Malawi.

"There's a kid I still see from one of the villages," Ament said, "and I just think, 'Is there some way we can help that kid?'

"We talked about how important it is for us to come to Africa and be ambassadors from the U.S. and show people from that part of the world that there are people from the U.S. who care about them. This is a pure gift. We're not looking for oil. We're not looking to exploit resources. At this point with all that's happening in the world, I think it's really more important than ever that there are a lot of examples of Americans doing good things."

Why do people do this?

These kinds of trips are expensive. The plane flights are long — from Seattle, to London, to Nairobi, to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, some 28 hours of travel. The on-the-ground schedules are hectic. The visits to the villages are emotionally draining, and the climb is one of the greatest physical challenges any of us could face.

Ament knew that when he returned to his home in Missoula, Mont., people — friends and fans of the band — would ask him why he went Africa. Why help people there when there are so many problems in his own country?

All of us try to tell the stories.

We tell the story of Dedza village where, for $10,000, a water pump can be built that allows the girls of Dedza to go school. Without the pump, the girls would be enlisted to make the daylong round trip to bring water to their families. A well becomes a vehicle to educate and empower women. A $10,000 well becomes a weapon against AIDS.

We tell the story of how HIV/AIDS has devastated this country. It has eroded the workforce. Every month, for example, Malawi loses another 20 to 30 teachers to AIDS. So many teachers have died from the disease there are memorials in the cemeteries called "Teachers Graveyards."

For several blocks along Kamazu Procession Road, one of the main streets in Lilongwe, coffin-making businesses with names as simple as "Mac's Coffin Shop" are lined up one after another, mixed among the furniture stores.

"In the past we turned away whenever we saw a coffin," said Brenda Yamba, a program manager for Save the Children. "But now they are everywhere. We see them all the time. We have a saying here that if you aren't infected with the disease, you're affected."

Life expectancy in Malawi has fallen to 38.

"I take a lot for granted in this privileged American life I am currently living," Ament said. "I don't know that I'm better off than most of the people we met in Malawi. They seemed happier than most folks I know, despite the hardships of hunger and disease, not to mention having virtually no modern conveniences like electricity, cars and running water.

"I felt so much love in those villages and such a sense of community. And I still see their faces every chance I get to daydream. I still feel those kids' hands on me, still sending a surge of electricity through me. So much love and all of it existing in the midst of a horrible AIDS pandemic.

"Their hope and strength is stunning to behold. It still feels like a dream. The whole trip."

Steve Kelley is a Seattle Times sports columnist. You can reach him at 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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