Personal Experience by: Yohannes Skoda
It was there in the cramped dining area of Kibo Hut, Mount Kilimanjaro, that I heard the story. In just a few hours I would be embarking on the final ascent to the rooftop of Africa, Uhuru Peak, elevation approximately 20,000 ft. above sea level. Kibo is where you spend your final night, or what really amounts to about three hours of tossing and turning, before beginning the climb at midnight. The altitude makes it almost impossible to sleep so you try to rest your body and keep your mind focused on warm and fuzzy thoughts.
Back to the dining room, where I sat across from Naigzy Gebremedhin, an eighty-year-old Eritrean force of nature. This would be his fifth time up Kili, but it was the tale behind his fourth climb that really piqued my interest. Tired, a bit loopy from the altitude as well as slightly wired on adrenaline and a healthy dose of fear, I tried to pay attention. I knew there was something to this story when a couple of minutes in, after being interrupted by Elias, the head guide, Naigzy carried on. Every evening after dinner, Elias would come round and brief us on the schedule for the following days climb. On each previous night Naigzy made sure everyone stopped their conversations and gave Elias their full attention when he arrived for the briefing. On this night however, he smiled, and with the utmost respect said, “Please Bwana Elias, if you don’t mind I’m telling a very important story, can you wait five minutes to do the briefing?” A surprised Elias nodded, backed away, and now I was really all in.
Naigzy had made his previous climb with an organization called the Kilimanjaro Initiative, a non-profit started by an Englishman named Timothy Challen. The story he told that night was how Tim started the Kilimanjaro Initiative.
While working for the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya in the early aughts, Tim enjoyed all the perks of a foreign diplomat; expense account, leisure travel to the coast, safaris, etc. Climbing Kilimanjaro was on his list of adventure to-dos. Tim’s African fairytale came to an abrupt end one night when an armed gang broke into his apartment and robbed him at gunpoint; shooting him in the process. He barely survived the ordeal and after multiple surgeries with a lengthy rehabilitation in Geneva, Switzerland he finally returned to Nairobi to be a witness in the trial of his alleged attackers.
The assailants were young men were from Kibera, a massive urban slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. The courthouse where the trial took place was located in Kibera. Upon entering Kibera for the first time, Tim Challen got a glimpse of what life looked like for the average Kenyan. The images he saw in Kibera stayed with him; abject poverty, open sewage and seemingly intolerable living conditions. In spite of what happened to him, Tim recognized the environment that the young men grew up in led them down the desperate path of crime. With the help of the United Nations and Kibera community leaders, Tim organized a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He insisted on bringing youth from Kibera on the climb, with the goal of raising awareness about the issues facing their community. The first climb was a great success and inspired Tim to start the non-profit, the Kilimanjaro Initiative.
In the wee hours of the next morning, still under the cover of night, we begin our ascent to the crater rim of Kilimanjaro. The process is painfully slow as the air gets thinner and your will begins to wane. So many thoughts passed through my mind, the primary one being, Why did I agree to this torture? Pole,pole;which is Swahili for “slowly”. That was the overriding mantra that had been drummed into our heads from day one. One step at a time, one breath at a time. It really becomes the ultimate exercise of staying in the moment. Ten hours later, I reach Uhuru Peak and burst into tears. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
The next day, having completed the descent to the bottom of the mountain, Timothy Challen’s story is still with me. I tell Naigzy as much and ask him if he would be so kind as to connect me to Tim. He gladly obliges. Upon returning to Los Angeles, I reach out to Tim, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, via email. Explaining that I just climbed Kili with Naigzy, I tell him that I am a writer interested in writing a screenplay about how he came to start the Kilimanjaro Initiative. Today I’m proud to call Tim my friend and I’m working on a script about his life called “The Ascent”. He even convinced me to sign up for more pain and join the Kilimanjaro Initiative for their Tenth Anniversary climb this past March. It wasn’t any easier the second time round folks.
For ten years now, KI has been taking youth from the slums of Kibera and beyond up the mountain and giving them an opportunity to have a transformational experience. The goal is that these youth can return to their communities as positive agents of change. What I really love about the Kilimanjaro Initiative is the way it strives to empower the youth and allow them to find their own creative solutions to their unique set of challenges. You can learn more about what they do at www.kiworld.org
I’ve recently launched a clothing line called VOV which stands for Void Of Vitriol. I’m starting with pop-culture and sports inspired T-shirts, as I am a junkie for both. $3.03 of every purchase made goes to the Kilimanjaro Initiative. Check it out at www.voidofvitriol.com