It’s amazing what spending a week with a group of committed, loving, passionate, brilliant, and hilarious people can do to renew your sense of purpose and get you into an introspective headspace. It’s also a really effective antidote to the post-holiday blues.
I spent the last week at the Global Health Corps Mid-Year Retreat in Gashora, Rwanda, reconnecting with all of the fellows in Rwanda and Uganda – as well as with why I’m here and what I want the final six months of fellowship to look like. It was SO re-energizing to spend time with this group and re-focus my energies on the things that matter to me most.
I fell off the blogging bandwagon for a little while (sorryyyyyy), but with this post I’m going to try my darndest to (1) fill you in on all the important goings-on in my life (or my head) for the past couple months, and (2) not take so long to do so next time. Ok, here goes!
The six weeks leading up to Christmas involved lots of scrambling to finish grant proposals, blasting out a holiday email campaign to friends and family in the US (thank you SO much for your support), and trying to squeeze in last minute meetings with potential Save the Mothers partners before the inevitable holiday absenteeism set in. We also visited Mubende Hospital in central Uganda, about 3 hours from Kampala, which we are excited to launch as a new Mother Baby Friendly Hospital in 2016 (program expansion, yay!).
But, to be completely honest, my primary preoccupation during those weeks was planning and preparing for holiday adventures in Uganda, Zanzibar, and Kilimanjaro…
Sometimes I forget where I live. Sometimes I get stuck in my little bubble here on the Uganda Christian University campus, walking to and from my office each day, zipping downtown on a boda, grabbing some fresh produce from the street vendors just outside campus. And then I look up from my grindstone and see the red dirt roads, the lush green palms, the brightly patterned kitenge, and I realize I live in the ‘pearl of Africa.’
After five months here, I think I’ve finally fallen in love with Uganda.
This may have something to do with my travels to Murchison Falls National Park and Fort Portal in mid-December. Cruising down the Nile River, spotting wild elephants and lions, and hiking through farming communities in the lush foothills of Africa’s tallest mountain range will do that.
It might also have to do with witnessing the thrilling showcase of Uganda’s many cultural traditions that is the Ndere Dance Troupe performance.
Each time I get to see more of my new home country, I realize that it is an amazing, diverse, complex, and stunning place. And I fall more in love.
Christmas on the Spice Island
Before I arrived in Uganda, I decided I’d spend the holidays here in East Africa, rather than fly home to the States and risk not wanting to come back — and I was pretty set on Zanzibar. Luckily, my best gal pal here, Jacqueline (Save the Mothers’ intern) was on the same wavelength.
So, we spent Christmas together soaking up the sun on the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.
I don’t want to bore you with details about all of the amazing seafood we ate, fancy cocktails we consumed, and hours we spent floating in the warm Indian Ocean or lounging on the white sand beaches—suffice it to say that it was the most relaxing and rejuvenating Christmas I’ve ever had.
Which is a good thing, because then I set off on the most challenging/fulfilling journey of my life so far.
New Year’s on the Roof of Africa
Cliché as it may sound, Kilimanjaro has been on my bucket list for a long time. So, when three amazing women – all Global Health Corps fellows in Malawi – told me they were planning to climb over New Year’s, I was totally in.
Several months – of obsessing, training, and planning – later, the four of us met at the chaotic domestic flights terminal of the teensy Zanzibar airport, and hopped in a ten-seater to fly to Arusha, Tanzania, where our journey would begin.
The following day, after hours of waiting for “registration issues” to be sorted out at the bottom of the mountain, we finally began our ascent through lush green forest to the first base camp. It was pitch black when we arrived, so you can imagine our surprise when we awoke in the morning to an incredible view of the surrounding mountain landscape—including a glimpse of the summit.
Over the next several days, we climbed for about 5 hours a day, through various climate zones –rainforest, moorland, and alpine desert. Sometimes it was as if we were enveloped in a giant puffy cloud (because, actually, we were), and sometimes it felt as though we were trekking through a pebbly, dusty moonscape.
Each morning our team of porters and cooks – 12 in total – cooked us breakfast, prepared packed lunches, filled our water bottles, broke camp, and still beat us to the next base camp to setup and cook dinner. These guys are amazing and must have the lung capacity of blue whales, because they literally run up the mountain with 20 kilos of equipment on their heads.
And then they still had the energy to sing to us when we arrived at camp!
The days leading up to the summit attempt were pretty much exactly as I had imagined they would be – moderately rigorous hiking. I had some mild altitude-related symptoms, including headaches and shortness of breath, but nothing a little Excedrin couldn’t fix.
And then there was summit night.
At 11pm on New Year’s Eve, we awoke in the biting cold, layered on four pairs of pants, four shirts, a winter coat, gloves, boots, hats, and scarves, had some biscuits and tea, and set off for the grueling six-hour trek up to Uhuru. But, picture this…
It’s pitch black, except for the blazing half moon rising over Mt. Mawenzi to the right, the sparkling stars burning through the expanse of blue-black sky, and the tiny string of lights snaking its way from base camp up to the summit – the headlamps of our fellow climbers from all over the world, with whom we’re sharing this magical experience. Off to the left you can see the tiny lights of Moshi, Tanzania and a thunderstorm in the distance silently lighting up the clouds in soft pink and purple. At midnight, the entire mountain erupts in cheers and woo-hoo’s in celebration of the New Year – and of the victory awaiting all of us just ahead. Tears. Lots of tears. And hugs. Almost there!
I honestly don’t remember most of the summit ascent. My head was clouded with a terrible migraine and the darkness and cold of the journey seem to have shaded out the memory in my mind. But I do remember reaching Stella Point – the point at which you’re basically there, about 45 more minutes, and no more steep uphill. Also the point at which I almost felt like I couldn’t make it any further.
We reached Uhuru Peak at sunrise on New Year’s Day.
More tears. More hugs. It was magic. Amazing. Stunning. Emotional. Gratifying. Painful.
Because the air is so thin (i.e., not enough oxygen), you can only stay at the glacial peak of Kilimanjaro for about ten minutes. Just enough time to snap a few (awful) photos at the official sign, take in the unbelievable views around you, and gather the energy to start the 2.5 hour descent to base camp.
Lacking any last adrenaline reserves and fresh out of energy, the descent was pretty rough. With the help of our steadfast guide, Danny (a.k.a. the ‘Silent Warrior’), I made it down to base camp, followed closely by the rest of my badass lady crew.
Over the next day and a half we completed our descent, and at the bottom were greeted with hot lunch, cold beers, and celebratory songs and high fives from our porters.
There are so many small details I didn’t include here that made this journey one of the most soul-filling experiences of my life. I didn’t tell you about Mr. Chong, the 65-year-old Korean man who traveled with our trek company, and hiked for 12 hours a day, leaving camp each morning before we awoke and reaching after we’d eaten dinner each night. It broke my heart that he didn’t make it to the summit, but when he joined us for our final lunch at the bottom, he couldn’t have been more pleased with himself for what he had accomplished.
I didn’t include one of my favorite memories – the two hours we spent composing and performing an a capella song for our porters – which, in the end, received mixed reviews from the audience. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.
Trail names, inside jokes, feminine energy, deep talks, deeper laughs, language barriers. The many parts of the whole that made this journey so full.
And something deep inside of me shifted.
There’s an obvious symbolism in painfully trudging through the cold dark night to reach the summit at daybreak. Freedom. Purpose. Connection. Truth. Illumination.
Needless to say, I was a bit sad to return home. Luckily, two weeks later, the ever-inspiring community that is Global Health Corps provided me with the perfect opportunity to reflect on my experiences over the past five months, and ground myself for the next six. At our Mid-Year Retreat we dialogued, journaled, reflected, danced, laughed, played, cried, and hugged a lot. No, we’re not a cult.
And because I’ve now become an adventure junkie, I decided to tack on a tiny little adventure with some of the other fellows—climbing up Mt. Nyiragongo, the most active volcano in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. OK, I’m done now! At least for awhile.
Expect my next post to dive deep back into the issues I’m working on in maternal and child health here in East Africa!
Thank you so much for reading. xo