Ndoye, My Namesake


Faith Eidse

Florida State University, Tallahassee FL

Copyright © 2001 by Faith Eidse, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    The road will never swallow you. . . . Suffering will never destroy you, but will make you stronger. . . . Your life will always surprise you.
    --Ben Okri

  1. To ease the weight of water on the African savanna, my ndoye, Elèn, and I filled chitinous gourds from white sand springs, plucked fern fronds to stopper the splash, wound wire-grass head pads, heaved gallons onto our heads. We staggered, steadied and, buoyed by weightless chatter, swayed with the slosh a mile up hill.

  2. To ease the grinding of luba into flour we grunted counterpoint over oaken mortars, dropped and heaved pestles thick as our thighs, by the hour, until all that jumped back at us was manioc fine as talcum.

  3. To ease heat like sloths on our shoulders, we clapped under bladed palms, hands like fern fronds twisting. We repeated rhymes so ancient even the village girls no longer knew their meaning, knew only Ndoye, girlfriend-sister, namesake was a promise to ease the work until we died.

  4. Manioc leaves shivered, the savanna burned purple under revolution skies. White ash sprinkled among tight black curls, fern hands stopped mid-air. I, the white girl, fled to a refugee camp. Elèn, the black girl, ran on cracked heels to the forest, watched through saplings for flaming torches.

  5. I tossed under a scratchy UN blanket, knowing my ndoye had only the cool night to wrap her, a crawling forest floor to cradle her, yellow sand from the bottom of the river to fill her stomach, a false, aching full.

  6. A true ndoye gives small gifts, a ball of steaming chindu, bowls of thick, juicy caterpillar gravy. Beneath my flat army pillow I rubbed a red South African apple, imagined Ndoye crunching its sweet tartness. Ndoyes were supposed to hold their suffering together.

  7. After the Simba revolution, Elèn and I created a special handshake, our secret code whenever we met or parted. Hand shake, thumb shake, clap, snap, laugh. Back from the river, our chores done until supper, we stood in the sandy, palm-lined avenue, leaned into the syncopation, moved with the rhythm, perfected the chants, partner claps, self-claps, hand flips.

  8. Warmed up, we opened our partner-clapping to a circle game, letting in my sisters and their ndoyes, Hope and Marie, Charity and Sonji, Grace and Pauline. Like the women of the village we paired off, or joined together, a common sisterhood. Our work was play, but it pointed to the days when we'd need each other just to get through the hoeing, washing, water-carrying, pounding, meal-making and child care.

  9. I return to Africa's center from a far corner of the world. From Florida's bogs I come to feel solid ascent beneath my feet, to fill my ears with turaco call, my nostrils with sweet banana and deep coffee. There is war again in Congo and road blocks everywhere. I will not see Elèn, as I have in the past -- well-married, surrounded by old friends and new children. I have come to see my Swiss ndoye, Rita, from our child-bearing years in Boston. I come to keep a promise made ten years ago. The day Rita returned to Switzerland, we promised to meet each other in this year, on this mountain. Such a revolutionary thing, a promise kept between women.

  10. We had to resist locking ourselves in on frigid Boston mornings. We tip-toed past our sleeping children, plunged down Spring Hill, charged through Harvard Yard, strode hard along the Charles River, an orange globe rising in its murky depths. Each appointment kept with ourselves, helped us keep the next.

  11. She is my village girlfriend, the Elèn of me that makes me larger than myself alone. In the words of Carson McCullers, she is "the we of me." Kilimanjaro was the goal larger than ourselves that would make us more than we were apart-she in Switzerland, I in America -- far from my girlhood in Africa.

  12. In ten years she and I have each produced a son; she's been elected first woman president of her canton Rotary Club; I have earned a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. But we have not managed to replace each other. Rita petitioned a woman in her town of Friedenfels but the runner did not think her serious enough. I have run with women in Tallahassee who thought me too serious. Rita and I are exactly matched. We are for each other the way Elèn and I were -- to run to the river, to reunite, to face our most ragged moments ahead.

  13. In the central African Jungle, 1998, rebels murdered a dozen American tourists. These rebels still range central Africa. Rita signs us with a Swiss climbing club. We read books, learn Swahili, travel wise. Perhaps only travel will make us wise. "Travel teaches men their ways," says a Kenyan proverb, "their" operating for both traveler and host. But how can we address the poverty, 65 times greater in the poorest nations than in the richest, which leads to revolutions and dictatorships,?

  14. As I prepare for my trip, my family spins around me, heavy as centrifugal force. One day Philip worked late and I was listless. How habituated I had become to one person who was my evenings and nights. The pang caught me by surprise. My thirteen-year-old sat on my lap, anchored me. "Is it important that I summit?" I asked him, "Or just that I climb the mountain?"

  15. "It's important," he said, "that you come back."

  16. Kilimanjaro rises like an elephant among aardvarks where the earth ripped along a rift and shot lava from a dozen funnels. Under one of these, the conical Mt. Meru, angular Masai herd long-horned cattle with smooth sticks, fuschia blankets flung over thin shoulders. Beyond Mt. Meru is a bank of clouds and under those clouds, a massif rising into obscurity. It's a mountain 1500 meters higher than any around it. This is the world's largest free-standing mountain -- 5,896 meters (19,340 feet), capped by glaciers. Kilima, mountain, njaro, caravan -- a landmark for caravans.

  17. In the bus, a reverential silence descends. All around me, climbers from Scotland, England, Norway have come to scale this half-million-year-old volcano, still mildly active until the 1940s. August to November hundreds arrive every week. The mid-year rains have ceased and the year-end rains have not commenced. It is an auspicious time of blue monkey and turaco birth, a time recommended in tourist brochures, which have endorsed the trek to any "normal fit" person. Nowhere is "normal fit" defined and the brochure lulls climbers into thinking of kilometers per day. Not percentage grade, not oxygen molecules per breath, not fatality risk from High Altitude Pulmonary or Cranial Edemas. Warning signs include vomiting blood, blinding headaches, fingernails turning blue, the lungs or head cavity filling with fluid, then massive heart failure or stroke. There are a much-hushed fifteen to twenty deaths on the mountain every year. On Mellennial Eve, two climbers in their fifties dropped dead on the cone; thirty others were rushed to safety on one-wheeled stretchers. Entry costs to Kilimanjaro include a $20 stretcher-rescue fee.

  18. I am confronted by my limitations. Beyond training at sea level, my gear bag did not come through in Nairobi and will not reach Arusha before we climb. At the airport, I found Sam, a compassionate taxi driver, who took me to an outfitter downtown. Sam helped me barter down prices for jacket, socks, knit hat and gloves, sleeping and duffel bags. I felt I'd come home again. He fell silent at the $200 boots, perhaps comparing their cost to his salary. Living costs in the city are high, Sam said, which was why he and his teacher wife were raising their children and a niece in their tribal lands. Sam delivered me to the 2 p.m. Davanu shuttle for Arusha. At least Kenya was self-ruled since 1963, he added, and he had never known the hardships of colonialism.

  19. On the bus under Kilimanjaro, the 1996 Everest disaster is etched -- eight climbers dead at high altitude, one living without hands, his ear grafted to his nose. The British and Scots climbers on the shuttle have climbed in the Lake District and bought the short, five-day pass to Kilimanjaro. The British man's wife is pregnant and he plans to leave her picture at the peak. No one has to be reminded of Everester Rob Hall's last radio call to his pregnant wife before dying near the summit. Seeing the ice cap so close chills me like arctic wind through thin knit. I sip on my water bottle, oblivious to the ecoli bacteria I added in Nigeria.

  20. The two Norwegian women, like myself, have opted for the six-day pass. To increase our chances of success, we will spend an extra day acclimating at tundra level. But before the week is out, I will meet the Norwegians on their descent and find that they did not make it. They took ill at the foot of the massive volcanic cone, known in the local Chagga as Kibo, or Snow. There is a forty percent failure rate on Kilimanjaro but Rita has signed us with a Swiss guide who summits nineteen in twenty clients. In addition to the $600 gate pass, which includes Chagga porters, guides and cooks, I have paid again as much for the guide's store of knowledge and drugs. Including Iomodium and Diamox, a dehydrating drug that reduces chances of altitude sickness.

  21. Within days I will know the effects of high altitude -- I will feel surrounded by strength -- an aardvark among elephants.

  22. I am going to Kilimanjaro to climb deliberately. It's next door to childhood haunts in Congo where I roamed with my orphan friends, running to the river for water, to the forest for grubs, to the plains for edible field rats -- using my legs as wheels. Ever since, I have needed to run out the land. Even when I returned to Manitoba, home of my linguist parents, I jogged deep between prairie corn fields, transferred to college in Virginia, and ran five layers of Blue Ridge foothills. It was 1978 and I was the only girl on the men's cross-country team. My hero, next to the work-hardened mothers of Kamayala, was K.L. Schweitzer who that year sneaked into the Boston marathon and finished, though an official ripped off her number, tripped and injured her.

  23. Reports from the on-going war in Congo say that dozens of Ugandan soldiers lie dead along roadsides, killed by one-time allies. Journalists who tried to cross the border were shot.

  24. I pace for Rita at a hotel in Arusha, practice Swahili with the doorman, drink strong, local tea. Two night flights have left me ragged and we climb at noon. I shiver in the night breeze rustling through flame trees, and wonder if we will cross a decade in a glance.

  25. When Rita arrives, three hours late, she whoops and dashes to me, grips me in a lean, tight hug. She is a head taller than I am, and slender. Her brown hair is spiked, her muscles sinewy. At 47 she's as ageless and athletic as the weight-bearing women of Congo. I am thrilled to feel so little distance after ten years; I am embarrassed by my need of her. How can I tell her about my meager gear, the threat of failure and hypothermia?

  26. "My gear bag didn't come through," I blurt as we enter the lobby. "I restocked in Nairobi, but they didn't have long underwear, warm gloves. At least I got good boots."

  27. "New boots?" Rita looks worried.

  28. "Italian, they're probably better than the ones I packed." But her concern is valid and my Band-Aids are in my lost luggage.

  29. We haul Rita's bags to our room, sit on her bed and exchange family pictures. Back in our Boston days we leaped vacuum cleaners, rushed through dishes to be together, or to trade children and give each other solitary jaunts around the city. How could we forget each other? We might as well forget our own children. She gazes at my son Anthony, grown full-faced and meditative from the puckish three-year-old she knew. I can't believe the changes in her daughters. Ella Maria turned clear-faced and serious -- the mischief gone -- Selena still a freckled innocent. Neither of us has seen the other's youngest sons except in pictures.

  30. When we descend to the hotel dining room I am once again dependent on Rita. Our guide Walter, scrubbed and boyish, speaks mainly Swiss German and, despite my passing the German reading knowledge exam in grad school, Rita must translate. Next morning Rita sorts through her sack, counting, dividing. She has two of everything and yet she had planned to layer up.

  31. Kilimanjaro fills the windscreen as the bus climbs through the tree farms of Moshi and Marangu, past hillsides planted in coffee and bananas and dotted with brightly painted mud and tin-roofed huts. Along the route, women and children wave. Hodi? May I come in, I want to ask, rush into the arms of this open wilderness that must stand in for Congo on this trip?

  32. We climb from park headquarters, a collection of A-frames at 1,970 meters, shortly after noon. Rita and I hold each other in a happy gaze as we pull ourselves step by step up the steep mountain path. "Who else," she asks, "could I do this with? I have always wanted to climb it with you." Rita is a hugely positive person. Even during our years with babies in Boston she kissed each bottom she wiped.

  33. Our Chagga guide, Mark, points out Blue monkeys in wayside bushes. They stare out of blue-black faces framed by bushy whiskers. A black turaco with crimson flight feathers flashes from one dark tree to another, the unique Impatiens kilimanjari bloom along the path like red columbine. Sun filters through moss-draped trees and Rita and I catch up on our lives.

  34. She is about to enter the financial planning world, sponsored by friends in the Rotary club. One of just two women members, she is now president with bright prospects. Her life at home is lonely with her attorney husband Karl gone to Brazil four months a year but she has obliterated the obstacles in her path. Rita moves gracefully up the mountain, like a long-necked giraffe. She is a woman bred for the high-gloss world of banking and finance. Yet she is not too proud to hike Africa with me and sleep in primitive huts the way I used to as a child. "Karl," she says, "would never do this."

  35. She shakes her head in disbelief when I tell her how Philip has changed since she knew him -- or didn't know him-our husbands so outward-focused during our years as international wives in Boston. It came to a crisis, I say. I arranged to trade places, go to night school, get the Ph.D., while he watched the children he'd barely known.

  36. "Njia nusuu," half way, Mark announces and we stop at picnic tables for a lunch packed by WaChagga cooks -- yai, ni muchungwa, ni mkate -- a boiled egg, an orange, buttered bread. A "power" finger banana. All along the route the porters and guides teach me Swahili, its Bantu structure familiar from my childhood Chokwe. At one point they even try to teach me Japanese. This mountain is a reverse tower of Babel; all languages becoming clear to the WaChagga.

  37. We are fourteen women and seven men in the group, and Rita and I separate during the rest of the afternoon to meet the other climbers. Irma, a medical technician who has worked in the Cameroons, joins in when I speak Swahili with Mark. She is short, muscled. earthy. "The mountain is calling me," she says cheerfully.

  38. I look hard at her. "I've been hearing the mountain for weeks," I say. Like a Psalm, it comforts me. It shades me through hardwood forests, guides me along worn pathways, leads me beside silver heather. It showers me with dew, dries me with tundra winds. Yea though I walk through the valleys of loss, it rises out of fog, a present home in times of trouble.

  39. "I know a young man who claimed to hear the voice of his dead Grandma on this mountain," Irma says.

  40. I laugh. The sun is high, the shadows dark and bold.

  41. The path turns steep over slippery roots. My heavy, high-topped boots cut into my ankles and I shift weight to my arms, lean into my poles and pull up through my thighs. A tear rips through my groin and I fall backwards. Mark is right at my elbow to catch me. How quickly he acts! I limp on but have no time to feel sorry for myself. The porters, who started behind us, are catching and passing us. Some carry two gear bags at a time, forty kilos in a single sack on their heads. Their legs are bare and sinewed, their necks crushed. Some carry huge baskets for our supper -- fresh bread, margarine, rice. Several stop and rest beside unwieldy two-by-fours for repairing foot bridges. I am grateful for their caring labor. "Pole sana," I say, I'm sorry for you.

  42. "Asante," thank you, they reply.

  43. Mark says the porters must be at least eighteen and are permitted to carry no more than twenty kilos (44 pounds). But having carried lighter loads shorter distances, I doubt both age and weight. They are fourteen, carrying 80 pounds each.

  44. Ominously, an empty stretcher rolls by on one large wheel. I ask why the porters don't use wheelbarrows. Mark says they prefer to carry on their heads. I can see how the traditional method employs more porters and keeps the wilderness natural. Wheels prefer unbroken paths, which these are not. Every twenty paces, a drainage ditch cuts across dirt trails that soak up sixty inches of rain a year. Unbroken paths would lead to pavement, motorcycles, recreation vehicles, gas stations, convenience stores, souvenir shops, a lit boulevard.

  45. I ask Mark about his family. He has a wife who works their banana shamba and three daughters, he says. No sons.

  46. "Then you must educate your daughters," I reply. One thing I know from my childhood in Africa, is the desire of its women and girls to be educated. Elèn was orphaned before she finished grade six and that embarrassed her, but she made sure she married an educated man.

  47. Mark smiles and acknowledges this. "I am trying to save money to send them to secondary school," he says. "It will cost $400 a year."

  48. The moss-draped forest gives way to scrub woods, rises back into forest. We catch up with several Swiss hikers -- Marlene ("Like Marlen-a Dietrich," she says) and Heidy, both tall and lean and in their sixties. Marlene is a copy editor with wild blond hair and Heidy is a world traveler. I am relieved they speak English.

  49. We climb steadily, nine kilometers, and come upon the clearing that is Mandara Hut. Rita is facing the forest, waiting for me on a small bluff, her brown eyes lit. "Are you okaay?" she says in her long-voweled, Swiss accent, a sound like home in this mountain clearing.

  50. "Fine," I say in the African way. Jambo? Si jambo! Problems? No problems. For the first time, I silently acknowledge a steady pain in my groin and a sharp ache all the way down my right leg. It feels as though I will never lift it again. My ankles burn, turned mincemeat in my new boots. All during my childhood I ran the forests of Congo, barefoot, and I wonder wistfully if I wouldn't be better off climbing without boots.

  51. Christof, a father who reads novels in three languages, offers to lend me an extra pair of high socks and I'm thankful for my partners who over-packed. He suggests I tie my boots only to the instep. The partner game has opened to a wider circle that will help me up this mountain.

  52. I hobble beside Rita past two Eastern Red Colobus monkeys the size of pre-schoolers. Slender with silky red rounded backs, they turn away their small, white-tufted heads, editing us out of their world. Africa is the last continent to harbor such large numbers of wild mammals. I am pierced with the Colobus monkey of my childhood, with Jacko the African gray parrot, with Shamwana and Shamusenga the coyotes, and with a gazelle and bush baby, whose names escape me.

  53. Our communal cinder block house with tin roof, Mandara Hut, is a century old, probably the original Bismarck Hut, named for the Iron Chancellor who extended the German empire to Kilimanjaro only to be rebuffed by Moshi's Chief Mandara.

  54. We gather our gear bags from a pile left by the porters, long vanished, and Rita lends me hot ointment for my pulled muscles. That night, though the altitude is only 2750 meters, I cannot sleep. I have four attacks of intestinal parasites, and must rise and hobble across camp to the outhouse. My leg is stiff and painful.

  55. I gaze up into the clear sky, alight with stars, and plead for my crippled condition. I am a child again in Congo with nowhere else to turn. Please, I say, heal my leg, banish this diarrhea and I will proclaim your name from the mountaintop. That hardly seems sane. I revise the bargain. I will help Mark put his three daughters through secondary school.

  56. With sleep comes an ethereal light. I hear my dead Grandma quoting Jeremiah, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as the eagle, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

  57. I wake to crystal light pouring through the shutters. I should feel a wreck but instead I am euphoric. My leg is fine. My guts are silent. I announce to Rita that I have been healed. She looks at me sidelong, as though I've lost my mind.

  58. I find Irma. "I was healed last night," I gush.

  59. "You are hearing the voice of your dead grandmother," she says.

  60. I chuckle but wonder why I shouldn't? This is Africa where ancestors are oracles and death is not a door but a curtain that flutters open and permits spirits to hover. Dream is reality.

  61. "If you have Giardia," Irma adds, "only Flagyl will heal you, and you can't get it without a prescription."

  62. I know she is medically correct, and vow to eat only broth, bread, plain rice and bananas. I should quake for my health; instead I am feeling ecstatic. Delusional. I seem to be accepting far more on faith than I do at sea level. No wonder the Masai call the western summit of Kilimanjaro, Ngaje Ngai, House of God.

  63. On the second day we climb through open meadow, clustered with yellow and silver Everlasting and I realize that grade and altitude are tiring Rita. She takes ten steps and pauses, ten steps, pauses. It's a curious rhythm and I wonder if, as objects in motion, we should stay in motion, instead of stopping ourselves constantly. It is the very method Walter will criticize later. Steady marching, he will command, like the Swiss army.

  64. But Rita has many concerns. One is the narrowness of her chest and the size of her heart. A doctor has told her it is too small; she will never make an Olympic athlete. Also, she only recently gave up smoking. A certain balance is restored as I realize she needs me just as I need her. She tells me of playing cello for a close cousin at the memorial service his fiancée, lost in the Swiss Air 101 disaster over Canada.

  65. "Cello? You play cello?" I'm continually amazed by her ability to remake herself. When we started running together, she had to switch from rowing at the Harvard Boat Club, which was a switch from skiing in the Alps.

  66. Several porters pass in ragged shoes, calling, "Jambo."

  67. "Una nguvu," I say, using new vocabulary from Mark. You have strength.

  68. We climb shoulder after shoulder until the parchment-dry flowers give way to giant groundsels -- green-bladed cacti, fifteen feet tall. Heidy takes our picture beneath these other-worldly trees -- I in blue, Rita in red, the landscape in green -- a yellow sun haloing us. We climb on. Twelve kilometers feels like twenty.

  69. We come upon four men from our group watering the heather. Rita and I both reach for our cameras but there is no way to capture in pictures how intimate we've become in two days. Just meters off the path I pull off my tee-shirt and switch to long sleeves against the baking sun. There is no place to hide. Rita grins at my strip-tease as I drape my tee-shirt over my head. If we cared how much our faces would flake and peel, we wouldn't be climbing this mountain. We are women doing, not appearing. For six days we will not see a mirror and we will not miss one.

  70. We stop for lunch in full view of the vertical ascent of Kibo. It appears to rise straight up. Someone passes binoculars. The magnified view does nothing to diminish its precipitous grade. West of us the Chyulu hills roll, and Mark says his ancestors climbed them to make sacrifices for rain. "Did it work?" I ask, and he says, "Yes." Several men laugh, but I recall an egg balanced on a stick in Kamayala -- a fertility prayer, removed when answered. Science does not explain everything.

  71. Rita and I are alone again at the back of the pack, exhausted as childbirth. It is a pure fatigue, one you can't ignore and can't turn away from. You have to push through, though you know it could kill you. The birth of her son Sylvan was like that, Rita says. He weighed ten pounds, nearly ripped her in two.

  72. We are coming up a steep shoulder. Will Horombo Hut be on the other side? Rita bets it will. She is three steps ahead and whoops when she reaches the top. There is Horombo's central A-frame, one deep gorge away. The grade down and up are extreme, and it takes our last effort to pull ourselves up. Later I will realize this is the constant grade of Kibo cone, sixteen percent. "This is harder than childbirth," Rita says. We both know it will get harder.

  73. Afternoon and evening at Horombo Hut are the second day. Rita and I lie spent on a flat boulder above the rushing Last Water Stream, where we've soothed our aching feet. We talk about our sisters, our parents, our mixed feelings of closeness and estrangement. We have both traveled far from home, have left to find out who we could be apart. We could be more, we thought, only to discover that we have lost presence with our families. We don't wish this distance for our own children and we both invent new ways to feel close to them. We linger until supper-time, the sun plunging over a sharp escarpment into sudden equatorial night.

  74. Walter has put us in separate huts, perhaps worried we talk too much, climb too slowly. Nicole, my cabin-mate, lends me her heat-radiating silk sleeping bag liner. Her boyfriend Markus offers me his ski pants for the summit push, though each of his thighs is as big as my torso. This is about survival, not fashion. Unknown to me, all my cabin mates have agreed, my prospects for summiting are slim.

  75. At breakfast, day three, I sip my tea gingerly, bite my dry toast in slivers. I was up three times in the night, stumbling over boulders that had been washed down eons before from Kibo's twin peak, Mawenzi, when its crater lake broke. The surprising reward at two in the morning was Mweka village, sprawled under electric lights, asleep at my feet.

  76. After breakfast Rita introduces me to Franklin, a porter who is waiting for his entrance exam scores to medical school. His tennis shoes are frayed from carrying crushing loads up and down this mountain, but his smile wreaths his face. I wish him a true exit to the libraries and laboratories of Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam, Harbor of Peace.

  77. My stomach rolls and I find Irma who is willing to put me on anti-diarrhea medicine. But Marie-Theres, a climbing nurse, is cautious about giving me two dehydrating medications just as we hike into tundra air, where hydration is the antidote to altitude sickness. She halves the Diamox to one a day and Walter prescribes six liters of water instead of four. I can barely carry two liters, much less drink them, but I keep my inadequacies secret.

  78. Walter has announced that our day of acclimatizing will not be spent lying around. We will hike at least seven kilometers east towards Mawenzi and back again. There is general discontent in camp. Grey-haired Edith flatly refuses even though Walter insists that she come as far as she can. She will not, she says, and he finally gives in.

  79. Perhaps he's already counting his first failure as we cross the Last Water Stream and cover the tundra towards turreted Mawenzi. Its vertical dykes were formed from eruptions forced through old fissures, and climbers have died in its brittle rock falls. The goal on our day off is not to climb Mawenzi, but to reach its base and invoke the magical work of acclimatization.

  80. The hike is proof that I must find good bandages. Every step braises my ankles and I lean heavily on my poles. Rita and I seek each other's company again. She worries about finding healthy role models for eight-year-old Sylvan whose father is gone so often. Sylvan tends to boss his playmates, Rita says. I cluck but Rita says, "No, I like that. It's a sign he will take a leadership role even though he's surrounded by older sisters and women."

  81. Why can't boys model on women and why is bossing a good leadership strategy, I wonder? But I say nothing aloud. Rita does not share my view that boys can be beautiful and expressive, shirts open to their navels, fingernails long and clean, strutting for women who struggle out of a river valley with firewood on their heads. They need to express emotions besides anger, I say -- sadness, fear, anxiety, grief, loss. She seems to reject "weak" emotions, even for herself.

  82. Ahead of us, Stephan, a large, flacid-faced Swiss hiker collapses on a boulder. "Hertzkloppa," he says, racing heart. My instinct is to let him rest. We have Chagga guides who can return with him to camp. But Rita defers to Walter who is hurrying back, urging Stephan to get up. I see Stephan hesitate. I see Walter dismiss his anxiety. Stephan must come along to prove he can, perhaps to increase the oxygenation of his blood, I don't know. Put your feelings aside and march on. But Stephan's giving in is the beginning of an angry battle with Walter.

  83. At Zebra Rock, a wall striped by percolating calcite, Trudy, a beautician, hands out pamphlets, and the climbers ring out an exquisite Nightingale song. I inhabit the Zen pleasure of pure musical harmony echoing through mountain meadows.

  84. We reach the base of Mawenzi and look across the mountain meadow up the imposing Kibo cone. Mark points out a massive, red eland in the valley below. He estimates its weight at 400 kilos and I wonder what such a large animal is doing at high altitude. In "Snows of Kilimanjaro" Ernest Hemingway raised the same question about the frozen leopard at the crater rim: "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." The leopard's carcass has disappeared, hacked to pieces as souvenirs, since it was photographed in the 1920s, but the existential question remains. What is any of us doing at this altitude? Do we possess an animal drive for a God's-eye view?

  85. I gaze up the sheer ascent of Kibo and ask Walter how we will climb it.

  86. He zig-zags his finger like a pendulum, "Tick Tock," he says.

  87. Tick Tock, I think, how Swiss. But when I tell Rita, she says that Walter said tzig tzag, I just didn't hear him right. My effort to pick up Swiss German has failed. I attempt my Grandmother's sacred language, High German. But even the French I learned twenty years before in Congo is better and, with my cabin mate, Doris, that is the language I resort to. I'm grateful when the English-speakers seek me out. At Horombo Hut that night for dinner, two married men, Christof and Joseph, sit at either elbow and ask what I can write with my Ph.D. They suggest plots I might consider -- the one we're living -- and I feel known, as though we will help each other in crisis.
  88. Back at our cabins, Peter, whose daughter has brought him on this trip for his sixtieth birthday, produces not a Band-Aid, but a thick second skin, called Complete. His wife is wheelchair-bound from polio and he's a natural care-taker, down on his knees at my raw ankles. I love him instantly because I know the skin will adhere until I get back to the hotel and shower for the first time in a week.

  89. The next morning, Walter marshals us into two columns. There will be no more meandering up the mountain. The path has widened into a road interrupted by gullies and rock piles. For the next twelve kilometers to the masoned Kibo Hut we climb like a well-disciplined army. Before lunch we pause at the Last Water Stream where a weathered outhouse stands, permitting privacy.

  90. As we continue marching steadily uphill to Kibo Hut, Irma calls on Psalm 95 for strength, "In his hands are the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains are his also." Stephan lurches among us complaining of his heart and Walter gives us a half-hour lunch break and, later, a ten-minute rest under a high cave. Mawenzi guards us on our right and huge brown boulders loom ahead of us. Overhead, white-collared Kilimanjaro ravens cry, ushering us to Kibo Hut.

  91. As the sun sets I rove Kibo Hut without a hat, taking pictures of bright orange lichen and chatting with several young WaChagga women I hadn't noticed before. Mark says they're porters' girlfriends and that they, too, carry twenty kilo sacks.

  92. At the wooden table that has been portered up from Horombo, and will be portered back when we descend, I shiver uncontrollably; Heidy and Trudy-the-beautician cannot warm up either. We hug our soup bowls and wrap shaking hands around plastic tea cups. Finally Trudy wretches outside, pale, chilled, depleted. Walter decides that night to send her down. Heidy snuggles into her sleeping bag and falls asleep. I stumble down the hallway, heaving, heaving, Rita at my elbow, saying "Outside. Hurry outside."

  93. I vomit into a waste barrel outside the door -- watery tomato soup, the horse aspirin we were given against stroke. My eyes bug out; I am dull and empty. Marie-Theres takes my pulse. "Weak but steady," she says and ushers me to bed. I know this could be it for me. Walter may send me down. I'm given a replacement aspirin, which produces instant acid reflux. But like a woman in labor, I cannot turn the clock back. I must push through and deliver this ten-year gestation.

  94. Walter comes to tuck me in, looking concerned. He picks up my wrist and takes my pulse, his fingertips gentle on my veins. I pray my heart won't race.

  95. "One hundred," he says. "It's not too fast. It's strong." That is his decision to let me climb. Running five miles a day at sea level, running out the land in Congo, Canada, America, has paid off. I want to shout for joy. Rita signals her relief from across the room and we all turn in.

  96. I toss for two hours, aware only of my inability to breath through searing heart burn. Finally I prop myself straight up against the wall and reach nirvana.

  97. Two hours later Thomas, the chief guide, enters with a lantern and hot tea.

  98. "I never slept," says Rita climbing down from her bunk across the room, "for the second night in a row." Her face is lined and drawn. I worry for her as I layer on all my clothing. Peter offers to trade me his "handschuhe," thick gloves, for my thin ones. I hesitate; we are both hiking into arctic snows. "The cold doesn't bother me," he says. Later, on the crater rim, Christof will notice Peter's freezing hands and give him a pair of handschuhe from his own backpack.

  99. From Kibo Hut the ascent to Gillman's Point on the crater rim is 960 meters, or about three Empire State buildings laid end to end. But since climbers zig-zag up the cone, it's about nine Empire State buildings, with only half the oxygen of upper Manhattan. It is an agonizing climb, one you might not consider attempting in broad daylight. We were promised at least a green-bordered certificate for reaching Gillman's Point at 5,650 meters, a gold-bordered certificate for reaching the summit at Uhuru (Freedom) Peak, 200 meters higher and one and a half kilometers around the rim.

  100. In 1962, on the first anniversary of independence, Kirilo Japhet, a Tanzanian land reform activist, set the record for climbing the mountain. This is a piece of knowledge I owe to my postcolonial professor, Hunt Hawkins, who met Japhet in Tanzania shortly afterward. In just thirteen-and-a-half hours Japhet raced up thirty-five kilometers and placed a plaque at the peak bearing President Nyerere's words:
    We, the people of Tanzania, would like to light a candle and put it on top of Kilimanjaro where it would shine far beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where before there was only humiliation.

  101. Outside by 11:30 p.m., Walter calls Stephan, Edith and me to the front of the line. I feel stiff and dry and carry my water bottle in my belt; sipping every few steps. In a few hours, we reach Teleki cave, where Count Samuel Teleki turned back in 1887 with bleeding lips and a rushing noise in his head. My stomach rolls and I pop an Iomodium.

  102. Walter halts the whole group and divides us into three sections -- the first for experienced climbers, the second for intermediate climbers, and the third for the halt and the lame. He puts Rita in the second, me in the third group. We don't realize how drastically this will separate us in our bid for the summit. Our support has been each other but, for the next eight hours, our fuel will be individual will power.

  103. Edith turns back while it is still dark and cold. Stephan outlasts her, though he keeps complaining about his heart. Walter won't hear it. "Kom Stephan," he keeps saying, "Kom." Finally Stephan halts in his tracks. A porter turns him around and leads him down. Ahead of me Heidy crumples and dry heaves every few minutes. I stroke her back.

  104. To relieve our agony there is the spangled night sky straight above us. The headlamps of a hundred climbers zig-zag up the mountain like fallen stars. In the dark we can't see the sheer grade behind us, can't gauge the distance ahead. I concentrate on one step at a time, and just when I think I can't go on, the mountain bursts into song.

  105. I am not delusional. The WaChagga are singing a Swahili celebration song. "Unapendeze watoto Thomas ni Marika."

  106. "Why are they singing to you?" I ask Thomas.

  107. "It's a wedding song," he says, "Marika is my wife."

  108. "But you've been married a long time," I say. Thomas had told me that their fourth child was still drinking "mazewa," breast milk.

  109. "Because," says Thomas, "I have a desk and a chair."

  110. Where the porters get their breath I don't know. They continue in Swahili with, "To him that overcometh, a crown of life shall be," a hymn I weaned myself on at our mission church. Then followed the meditative, "O have you not heard of that beautiful stream . . . " It's a traditional German tune, my grandmother's favorite, and a promise to my parched throat. I am being lifted on the hard Catholic faith, of the WaChagga tribe. Finally Thomas starts "In Excelsis Deo," and even the tourists join in. "It's close enough to Christmas," he says.

  111. The sky is beginning to pale over the Serengeti and I can make out the boulders that dot the mountain. My stomach rolls and I light off across the steep, loose shale and begin sliding down the mountain. Walter calls me back, alarmed. "What's wrong Faith?" he asks.

  112. "What's my name," Heidy adds. "Where are you?" I feel feverish, desperate. The only person who understands is Thomas. He tells the group to walk ten meters ahead and bids me get sick behind a nearby rock. From then on I am only tired, my muscles are only cramped, my breath is only labored. My stomach is still.

  113. The sun rises an hour before we reach Gillman's Point. We pause to watch its rosy ball follow us out of the Serengeti and rest a moment on cotton candy clouds below us. The rugged spires of Mawenzi poke through, making a diorama of rock, clouds and sky. The sun keeps climbing and splashing gold over the brown rocks above us. Dozens of people lounge on the boulders at the crater rim, drinking tea, laughing, resting. We still have hundreds of rocks to climb and Irma is lagging, clinging hard to the Psalms, "God is the stronghold of my life." Thomas beams at the familiar recitations. Walter seems unmoved by our weakness, but it is his patience I notice. He could be running ahead with group one; instead he's plodding behind with us.

  114. As we near Gillman's Point, shale gives way to loosely piled rock. In the brilliant morning light I can see that a foot planted wrong could jar the stone beneath you and hurl you down the mountain in an avalanche. "He will not let you fall," I repeat as I climb gingerly to the crater rim.

  115. Gillman's Point is a narrow ledge that drops away into a gray volcanic crater patched with snow. The ledge is furnished with inviting rocks and boulders, all empty since the sunrise party has either descended or pushed on to the summit. We are waiting again for Irma and I sit down and fall asleep. It is a deep velvet oblivion that cares nothing about freezing wind, solar radiation or high altitude stroke.

  116. "Faith, Faith, wake up," Walter calls.

  117. I ooze back to consciousness. Irma has arrived and is trying to decide whether to descend with Heidy or push for the summit with Marlene. Walter is pouring tea from his own thermos and handing it out like sacrament. He takes a Cadbury bar from his day pack and breaks one square, wafer-like, for me.

  118. Irma announces, "I don't want a green ribbon. I want gold." She rises and strides towards the summit. Heidy heads back down to Kibo Hut, Thomas at her elbow. I stand unsteadily. I have no reserves, do not know whether I can make summit. I see myself struggling out of a ravine in Congo against a purple sky. I am with Elen, following my village mothers, water gourd on my head, guts hollow, legs taut. I push forward, borrowing their strength as they pull me towards home.

  119. Having met myself in the path, I follow Irma and Marlene. There's a hypnotic familiarity to this trek. I've hiked beyond my limits before and returned whole. My spirits are lifted as I measure the upward slope. My calf muscles have stopped pinching, my legs feel propelled by rubber bands. Is this the miracle of acclimatization or the triumph of early imprint in an African village? The trek is still arduous, like pushing through sand, but at least my head is light, my legs are steady.

  120. We meet group one, Nicole among them. She exclaims at seeing me on the rim and shakes my hand. We cross over the rim to the northwest glacier field, ice petrified in huge steps and pillars, sun shimmering off its sculpted surface. The sight is so stunning -- petrified water in variegated depths of white, green and blue -- that we sit on boulders and drink it in. It seems incredible that I should see my first glacier in Africa. The glaciers are perfectly sculpted by the zone of oblation. The area in shadow melts first, in sharp contrast to the area reflecting light, an icon of positivity. I raise my water bottle, draw hard on the nozzle and get nothing. It's all ice, my tea thermos foolishly abandoned at the hut below.

  121. Climbers descend towards us in bright jackets. My pulse leaps to see Rita, in bright yellow, a laboring giraffe. We can't be too far from the summit; surely she will turn back and we will stand together on the highest point in Africa.

  122. I rise to meet her and know, as she falls on my neck, that I cannot even suggest it. There's a quiet desperation in her eyes, deep lines in her face, agony in her voice as she says, "I'm walking in my sleep."

  123. "We've both made summit," I say. "You go on down."

  124. I feel both reconnected and bereft as I take the path. I wish I could change this moment, or a previous one. I wish I could change the nature of our exhaustion -- her sleepiness, my illness. As we push on I take one breath for every upward step. The summit seems to move further away, a north wind nips my ears, and I wonder how long I will last without water. Then, rising up on my left is the north glacier wall, sculpted by sun and frost into three tiers, each with meter-long icicles hanging from it. It's a three-story building with balconies -- turned upside down. I keep looking left, looking left, unable to tune out nature's opus.

  125. Each rugged pile of boulders should be the summit, but each turns into just another ridge. There is nothing smooth or round on the landscape. Even the snow fields are sculpted into axe blades. Mark has left group two and offers to carry my pack. I don't even protest.

  126. At last I see summit, a group of tattered penants, 50 meters up. I feel that if I don't cry out, the stones will. "Let freedom ring from the mountain top," I exult.

  127. Mark looks me hard in the eyes as if I'm raving.

  128. "That's Martin Luther King Jr.," I say, but my cultural markers are not his. He knows Mwalimu (teacher) Nyerere's struggle for freedom, and his own. Four hundred times he has ascended this mountain in seven years, he says, looking more pained than triumphant. Later, I will learn he has a glottal hernia that makes it hard for him to swallow fluids, yet he keeps climbing for his daughter's schooling.

  129. Each time he has reached summit, Mark adds, the glaciers have retreated a little more. In twenty years they will all be gone. He plans to bring his family up for the millennium so they can see the petrified snowfields before they are gone.

  130. Agony and joy collide as I gaze at the retreating ice fields. I have seen them while they're still here. I have arrived at this peak, this peerless moment, though I was cursed with parasites and altitude sickness. I have kept a crucial appointment with myself, because I was trained in a Congo village to endure and struggle together.

  131. I am empty and full, elated and exhausted as Walter orders us to line up for our picture. Irma, Marlene and I pull ourselves across frozen snow and stand together at the sign that says, "Africa's highest peak, World's highest free-standing mountain." There is a moment's pause, a triumphant smile for the camera. I wonder what the picture can mean without Rita beside me. Irma, Marlene, and I have made it together, and yet we will not be lifted magically on wings and set down in Arusha. Now we must turn around and march down on shaky legs.

  132. I pick up several gray rocks near the summit, but Mark says, "Not those."

  133. We descend past tattered flags and a metal box. Clustered around it are three Canadians. I too am Canadian, I tell them, and one says her husband took ill and turned back before Gillman's Point. They linger and I go down.

  134. Later, we will come upon the woman's husband being rushed out by porters. He is strapped into a sleeping bag, bumping along on a one-wheeled stretcher. His face is chalk, his eyes shut. The porters pause only to tip the stretcher up and dribble water into his mouth. All the way back to Horombo Hut I wonder whether the woman knows how ill her husband is.

  135. The method for descending Kibo is to take a giant step and slide. Mother may I? When Mark demonstrates for us, we stand on Gillman's Point and laugh. It's so graceless, as though we're children playing on the great shale pile in the sky. The goal is to do a controlled fall -- on your feet -- and avoid boulders, all the way down, the length of three Empire State buildings. At first the game is fun. You launch off the mountain, whooping, and plunge ten feet in one step. But after about twenty stories your calves scream and you want to just sit on the gravel pile, empty your loaded boots, and rest.

  136. "No," Walter says, "keep going."

  137. Irma and I resist and he slides on down with Marlene. Mark seems happy to lag behind with us. He picks up a plain brown rock and smashes it on a boulder. Inside it shimmers with igneous silicate. He lays the rock pieces gently in my day pack -- a gift from Mother Earth, from the House of God.

  138. It's nearly three o'clock when we reach Kibo Hut for lunch. Tomato soup has never tasted so good. But we can't linger, we must roll up our sleeping bags and walk. We are crippled from hiking non-stop since midnight, but we cannot rest. Deep sleep is not safe at high altitude.

  139. Walter helps me pack my gear bag and hurries us out the door. Then he begins to jog and finally races away, happy at last to be going his own pace. Mark and a porter friend accompany Irma, Marlene and me over the dry moonscape. We walk side-by-side at first, thrilled to have reached summit, congratulating ourselves over and over again.

  140. But as two kilometers stretches to six we all find our own pace. The path is open and there are no distractions -- other than my heavy boots. I long for bare feet as, first Marlene, and then Irma, take off ahead of me. Eventually, though, Irma tires of the needless pace and falls back with me.

  141. "Hakuna matata," she sings, and I join in, "It means no worries for the rest of our days. . . . " Mark and his porter friend are amazed at how much Swahili has entered Western culture. We leave the desert and cross the Last Water Stream. Empty water bottles litter its banks and I have just enough energy to be disgusted.

  142. Enervated, we propel ourselves over one shoulder after another. Mark teases us. "Those are the huts," but when we approach they are only peaked boulders growing golden moss.

  143. Finally we see smoke rising from a cooking hut. Irma and I reach Horombo Hut side-by-side at five in the evening, mind-numbed. Clouds have rolled in and we have marched steadily for almost eighteen hours. History is full of refugee treks that make more sense.

  144. I enter my hut, take off my boots, roll out my sleeping bag, and join my hut-mates in slumber. I am awakened for supper by Nicole's exclamation. I have made it.

  145. At supper, Rita is ecstatic at our achievement. The lines have left her face, her eyes are huge and bright. She has slept five hours since reaching Horombo Hut. My two Norwegian friends from the bus share a bottle of burgundy. They did not summit, but are drinking to the rest of their trip, the safari, their possible return.

  146. We take a collection for our own burgundy and pour the libation into orange plastic mugs. The mood in the A-frame is cozy. All of us have endured, some of us may return to try again. Others vow they never will. But in that respect, mountain climbing is exactly like childbirth. You remember the summit and forget the pain.

  147. Rita and I stroll together to Mandara Hut the next day. The sky is crisp and sunny with occasional scudding clouds. Four-striped grass mice ping across our path, though Rita never sees them. I wonder if I'm delusional with hunger. There one goes again, right across Rita's boots and still she does not see it. Before we reach the hut, a fine mist baptizes us.

  148. Should I tell you the porters did not let us go gently? Should I say that we kept giving them more, trying to redeem their suffering? Should I tell you how we squirmed, knowing we could never right the universe with a few sleeping bags, boots, jackets? Should I mention that I still had parasites? Confess that Walter and Rita still controlled my diet, even protested my ordering curry and custard at our awards banquet? Should I tell how Rita scolded when I agreed she was right; I couldn't eat them?

  149. Or should I race on to our wild dancing in the hotel lounge that night. "No Woman No Cry," the band played, and we could not keep our seats; "Labamba" and the floor gyrated. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth said that Africa was Europe's playground but Mark had begged me to send more Americans.

  150. Rita and I turned in at midnight and rose the next morning to shop in Arusha's central marketplace. We collected spices, sculpture, wax-print cloth, beadwork. We parted in a downtown square under purple jacaranda trees, surrounded by Masai women beading necklaces and boys who'd lifted my reading glasses right out of my wallet. Silly me.

  151. When I checked out of the hotel, my gear bag had arrived but my hiking boots and thermos were gone. A half-hour phone call home had cost me $440. But when I boarded the bus and drove under Mt. Meru with the opalescent Kilimanjaro shimmering behind it, a deep pensiveness settled over me at leaving the vast, newly spoiled wilderness. I was glad to have the seat to myself to contemplate my fleeting return and the Africa I was again abandoning. Its thorn and acacia trees, its Masai herders and WaChagga climbers. In towns along the road, musicians gathered with guitars and drums and crowds danced. A cheetah sat watch, a Thompson's gazelle with its black whoosh grazed, zebras congregated. Five giraffes floated across the yellow grassland. Rita. Ndoye.

    For photos, press here.

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