Uhuru Means Freedom:
CLIMBING KILIMANJARO

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Life has taught me to give my way through challenging times, to give of myself and be of service. When Dr. Debbie Chong invited me to join her team for a fundraising climb of Kilimanjaro to benefit Medicine In Action, especially in the midst of this recession, I made the commitment to go or, as they say in Swahili, twendie!

Our twelve brave and generous climbers were Debbie Chong, MD, Stephanie Chen See, Shagufta Yasmeen, MD, Derec Shuler, Camille Hoffman, MD, Amy Gagnon,MD, Jennifer Hyer,MD, David Handley,MD, Lise Rehwaldt,MD, Ambereen Sleemi, MD, Saira Sleemi, and myself, Heidi Zawelevsky.

The altruism of fundraising and the adventure of climbing Kilimanjaro has generated over thirty-five thousand dollars for Medicine In Action, as of this writing, with donations still coming in. The money raised will go toward the Patient Care Fund and The Sugar Scholars Endowment for medical students to join Medicine In Action on its missions and gain a better understanding of global health issues.

The seven day climb was September 16th-22nd, 2009 which followed the five day medical mission in Mwanza, Tanzania, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Medicine In Action performed fourteen surgeries and saw approximately one hundred-fifty patients in clinic. Volunteering for both the mission and the climb were Debbie Chong, MD, Shagufta Yasmeen, MD, Derec Shuler, Camille Hoffman, MD, Amy Gagnon, MD, Jennifer Hyer,MD, David Handley,MD, Lise Rehwaldt, MD and Ambereen Sleemi, MD. Jenny Keen, MD also volunteered for the mission itself.

The Tanzanian people are warm and welcoming. We experienced this directly through our outfitter for the climb, Vesna Glamocanin, of Pure Afro Travels, www.pure-afro.com, and our Kilimanjaro guide, Jeremy Rweyemamu, and his crew of thirty-five assistant guides, porters, and cooks.

Our climbing team met in Arusha on September 15th. After a review of the trek with Vesna and Jeremy, we rested at Le Jacaranda Hotel, amidst the spacious gardens and charm of the hotel, painted with figures of tribal people and wildlife.

We departed the following morning for the Machame Route on the southwest side of Kilimanjaro. Also called the Whiskey Route (as opposed to the Marangu Route or the Coca Cola Route), Machame is considered one of the most scenic of the mountain’s routes.

The bus rumbled through the first of five eco-zones, the cultivation zone, with banana trees covering the rising slope of Kilimanjaro, lush and equatorial. We arrived at the Machame Gate, at 5,997 feet, and would trek through the next four eco-zones: Cloud rainforest, moorland, alpine desert, and the glacial summit at 19,340 feet.

The porters carried all of our gear, except for our daypacks, and had our tented camp set up ahead of us. Their efforts lightened our load and helped conserve our energy. The pace of our ascent, like a chant in Swahili, was pole pole, slowly, slowly, to minimize the risk of altitude sickness by a gradual adjustment to the elevation. Thus, in the rarefied air, we measured our days not in distance but in directed time, with most days averaging six hours of hiking.

The trek was during the cold, dry season, at the junction of winter and spring in the Southern Hemisphere. Jeremy informed us that Kilimanjaro is warmer now due to the effects of climate change, the summit glaciers receding, but that was not to minimize the reality of cold or variable weather known to Kilimanjaro. Indeed, we experienced a sudden snowfall at Lava Tower, in the 15,000 foot range.

For the MIA climbers, it was a privilege to make the journey with Jeremy’s guidance and crew. Ranked in the top five-percent of Kilimanjaro guides, the mountain is, in his words, his life. But it was as much his compassion and humor that saw each of us succeed at the summit, a leader capable in skill and in spirit.

With Jeremy leading the way, we scaled the Barranco Wall on the third morning of the trek, a vertiginous section of the Machame Route, traversed by steep switchbacks and scrambling over rocks as the intensely scenic Barranco Valley opens below, a waterfall distant and rushing in the vertical landscape.

I walked out of the mess tent after lunch, relaxed and empowered by the success of navigating the notorious Barranco Wall, and tripped over a rock. A small rock. Jeremy, naturally, was standing deadpan to my right, for the one time that I tripped on the trek, and we burst out laughing.

On the moonless nights of our climb, stars, sometimes shooting across the vast sky of Kilimanjaro, drew us higher, toward the Uhuru peak. We struck out for the summit itself at midnight on the fifth night from our base camp at Barafu Huts, at 15,358 feet. We would ascend to 19,340 feet , the terrain illuminated by our head lamps one slow step at a time, a chain of lights winding up the mountain and into the early morning light. Before sunrise, our guides sang to us, including the Tanzanian National Anthem , and their voices uplifted our morale in the frigid, exhausting night.

Everyone in our group made it to the Uhuru summit. Our fundraising, by the generosity of each climber and each individual donor, has allowed Medicine In Action, at its heart, the freedom to really help people by providing quality medical care in the third world. Uhuru, afterall, means freedom, freedom not only at 19,340 feet, but freedom in the journey, for ours was a journey of giving.

Heidi Zawelevsky
Oakland, California