If you want to go far, go together…
This was our mantra as we climbed Kilimanjaro. Me, our Intrepid group and 30 rural female farmers from across Africa. These farmers had travelled from across the continent to be here, to shout out about their land rights from Africa’s highest peak. For six days we’d climb together as part of the Woman Move Mountains initiative, and it was a trip I’ll never forget.
Joining these women were 17 Intrepid travellers from around the world, along with two of Australia’s finest AFL female footballers. We all shared a passion for gender equality, a desire to make sure these farmers’ voices were heard far beyond the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro. I joined the group on October 10, and from Day 1 the mantra was clear: “If you want to fast, go alone….if you want to go far, go together”. This is a well-known African proverb, and it reminded me of another favourite phrase of mine from this continent: ‘Ubuntu’. It means, ‘I am, because we are’. It was clear that this journey was not just about getting to the top, to that summit 5890m above the clouds. Just like the battle for land rights, this would be about a journey, a struggle, something we’d have to endure and accomplish together.
Completing this collective, this ‘family’ ready to Move Mountains, was our incredibly supportive Intrepid crew. A team of 134 guides, porters and cooks walked beside us, taught us songs, shared their stories of the mountain they had climbed countless times, held our hand or bag when we needed, sewed our shoes together, refilled our bottle (with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen), bought us hot water to soak our weary feet in at the end of the day, carried our gear, cooked our breakfast, lunch and dinner, and were there beside us every (pole, pole/slowly, slowly) step of the way.
For six days we walked through the stunning scenery of the Kilimanjaro National Park. While each day threw a tougher physical challenge at us – the air getting thinner, the incline a little steeper, the legs a bit wearier – the obstacles became easier when we tackled them together, swapping stories and sharing anecdotes. Or in my case, sharing my best cheesy jokes. It might have been a rural farmer from Liberia discovering her struggle is similar to the female farmer from Malawi, or a climber from Australia and an Intrepid guide learning about the challenges these farmers face simply because they are female, or our group discussing eachother’s backgrounds and what brought us to Kilimanjaro.
On Day 1 of the trek, I got talking with one of our Intrepid climbers, and she told me why she was here, walking in solidarity. Lynne was a 73 year old lady from California, and said when she read about this trip, there was no way she couldn’t join, “If these farmers have to fight so hard for their rights, then I can climb a little mountain in solidarity with them. I’m also not getting any younger so I thought why not”. Lynne instantly became my new hero, mostly for calling Mt Kilimanjaro a ‘little’ mountain, as well as being a fine example of age not getting in the way of a good adventure. On Day 1 we trekked from 1700m to 2700m and I learnt about Lynne’s work giving back to her community and her volunteer experience with her husband around the world.
On Day 2 (hiking from 2700m to 3700m) I spoke to Joyce, a small-scale farmer from Kenya about her fight to claim her father’s land after he passed away. Whilst her farm may be modest, there was nothing small about her determination. After her father passed away, Joyce’s uncles and cousins tried to claim his land, but that wasn’t going to stop this strong lady get what was rightly hers as the first born of the family. Joyce worked the land, produced food, sold the food at market and used the earnings to care for her mother. As we walked through the changing landscape of the National Park, from scrubland to giant heather, I learnt that Joyce’s father was a strong advocate for gender equality. His father and brothers often said to him “Why are you educating a girl – you’re wasting your money”. Joyce proudly told me he would respond with, “We should not discriminate against any child. A child is a child, despite their gender and everybody has his/her capability”. Unfortunately the family didn’t hold the same progressive views, and they picked a fight with Joyce’s father who ended up with a broken leg. Joyce smiled as she recalled her Dad taking her to the high school admission day with his leg in a cast. Joyce promised her father she would not disappoint him, and seeing how far she’s come in standing up for her rights, claiming what is hers, and supporting her siblings and mother, I’m sure her dad would be beaming with pride.
Day 3 saw us take a little breather (literally) and acclimatise to the thin air at 4000m. As a group (or family by this stage), we headed off together on an acclimatisation hike towards a point at 4200m, where we’d have a clear view of Mt Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peak. It was a surreal moment as we all scampered up the final incline to the lookout, and not one of us could wipe the smile from our faces having come this far, together.
As we descended back down to camp, I heard our AFL footballers discussing how this climb was a symbolic challenge. For each of us. Whether it be a personal challenge, to gain acceptance as professional athletes in a sport long dominated by men, as farmers demanding and claiming their rights to their land, or as regular travellers standing up for gender equality issues in our own countries.
Day 4 was upon us before we knew it. A big day (and night) that would see us reach the next camp at Kibo Hut, situated at a lofty 4700m, and then after a short rest, wake at 11pm and tackle the climb (or crawl) to the summit. It was at this camp that I met Susan, the Kenyan farmer who is moving BIG mountains in her own community. Susan had just finished the 6 hour hike up to Kibo Hut, and instead of going into the hut for some warm soup or to collapse on the bed – as I did earlier – she stood in the cold as the clouds rolled in for the evening, sharing her story with us. “I have come here as an activist fighting for land rights for the women in my country, Kenya” she said. “Kenya has a very good constitution, our rights as women are there [in the constitution], on owning land, we can co-own land, we can get land, but the problem is implementation. Those charged with the responsibility are so corrupt and it has been very expensive getting a title deed as a woman. The process is too long and too expensive because of corruption. Our leaders need to make sure we get what is our right, otherwise why should we have a constitution that has our rights when we cannot get those rights?” Susan also told us about land grabbing too, “They are taking land from our schools, where do they want our children to go? Where will we take our children to learn?”
Susan is a member of the Land Control Board in her sub county, the first woman to ever be appointed. “We are now asking 30% of either gender should be in the Board position, why is it that most of these positions are held by males?” she said. As I listened to Susan, I was reassured of the future of women’s rights in Keny. With someone like Susan at the helm, I feel anything is possible. I listened to her speak from the platform that was built to support a sign declaring the 4700m altitude we had reached, a feat in its own right. But it was her passion and leadership that filled me with a sense of pride, listening to this inspiring leader, an incredible role model for the women of Kenya and the world, pledging her never ending fight for women’s rights.
In the past month, 28 applicants came to the Land Control Board applying for title deeds, and Susan recognised these applicants were not coming with their spouses or children. “So as a woman, I had to stop 20 of these cases from going ahead and told them they need to come back with their wife, their right wife, and their children”. Susan told us that today was the day for the Board meeting, and maybe this perhaps explains why she was so adamant in sharing her story, regardless of fatigue and cold, “I told them I won’t be around for the meeting, that I’m going to fight, to climb Kilimanjaro, so I told my Chairman – if at all, that any of these 20 cases go through, that they are given consent without their spouses present, their RIGHT spouses, we will go to court!”
With this kind of inspiration fresh in my mind, summiting Kilimanjaro seemed like a pretty small step to take. One I was empowered to take, knowing that the women around me have achieved so much more.
Throughout the six hour night hike up the summit, in the light of the full moon, the mantra of ‘pole pole’, ‘step by step’, and ‘if you want to go far, go together’ ran over and over (and over) in my mind, and along with a supportive group taking every step of the way with me, this is what got me to the roof of Africa. While reaching the summit was one of the highlights of this momentous climb, it was the conversations up and down the mountain that stand out in my mind. They were the moments that made this trip such a unique and unforgettable experience.
Whilst the group was clearly exhausted by Day 5 and 6, the sense of accomplishment at being on the mountain together, whether we summited or not, brought us even closer together. As we descended the mountain over these two days, our mood and enthusiasm to share stories didn’t decline with the altitude. I could hear chatter between our diverse group in all directions, even those who were quite a distance away. The camaraderie was high, and I felt instinctively it was the mantra that was keeping us going: we had come this far, because we did it together. Ubuntu.
The Intrepid Women Move Mountains climb was a joint initiative with Action Aid. As part of this partnership Intrepid sponsoring the 30 rural farmers from across Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Want to contribute to the fight for gender equality and land rights in Africa? Click here to donate.
All images c/o Amy Bolger