Pictures for these posts can be found in my albums at picasaweb.google.com/aj.kumar
A little Elevation
In December, I travelled to Tanzania with my fellow PCVs and friends, Adam S. and Rebekah H. I had two goals, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and to see the home of my close friends, the Tanzanian priests of Tsoe. Both tasks ended up being more difficult than I’d imagined for various reasons and at various points, it seemed like neither might be accomplished. For a while it seemed like we might never even make it to Tanzania. In the end, I succeeded in one and came tantalizingly close to the second. Leading me to believe I will at some point return to Tanzania, to finish my business and explore more of that enchanting country. After Kilimanjaro, I was climbing again, but this time was rock climbing in South Africa with four friends, Ben and Susie BarrWilson, Ronda, and Craig. We had great food, conversations, and climbs for the week of Christmas before parting ways to return to our sites. Physically, mentally, and spiritually, the two trips ended up being just what I needed to rejuvenate myself for the new year ahead.
Schedule, what schedule?
After months of training and preparation, I was ready to go. Adam, Rebekah, and I met up in Pretoria after school closed for the holidays and we traveled down to the airport to board our flight. We wander the airport looking for the Air Tanzania counter and are told it won’t open for another hour or so. So we patiently stand around and wait for one person to finally come to the desk and tell us that all Air Tanzania flights have been cancelled and he can’t help us. Furious, we storm off to the Air Tanzania office. While haggling with the people there to get some service, I get a chance to check my email to see that they had emailed us late yesterday that we had been rebooked on Air Kenya on a flight that would leave in 20 minutes… I ran downstairs to the check in area again and went to the Air Kenya desk. They had been delayed but we might make it if we went now now, so I called Adam and Rebekah, who grabbed all our bags and booked it downstairs. We stood in line for about half an hour before finding out that the flight had been overbooked because of all the overflow from Air Tanzania so we would have to fly out tomorrow.
Thanks to Rebekah, we were able to land free meals and some hotel rooms. I called our climbing guides and rescheduled. The next day, we got to the airport very very early, only to find that our connecting flight might not leave until the following day. So I again called our guides and tried to work out the logistics so that they would pick us up from the airport and we’d go directly to the mountain. As we board our first flight we are handed our next boarding pass, leaving the same day. Confused we ask what is going on. Apparently so many people needed to get there that night, that Precision Air had added another night flight. So before we took off, I again called our guides to signal the last change of plans. We arrived in Moshi at around 10pm at night. As we drove to the hotel, the plains were illuminated by the moonlight. A white crown shined in the distance high above us; the snows of Kilimanjaro. I felt a smile creep over my face.
We spent 6 days on the mountain; entering through Machame Gate and leaving through Mweka Gate. We went with a great local travel guide group: AfriGalaxy Tours. Due to regulations, everyone must hire guides and porters. This is great for the local economy but makes you feel odd as a climber if you have any self-respect. Still, you take it for what it’s worth and I ended up really enjoying the company of our guides and had some really great conversations with our head guide, Alex.
Several groups were going up the route at the same time as us. There was one other American, Ryan, a marine, who quickly became friends with us. I had some great chats with him and we did a small day hike around Shire Plateau after one of our shorter days.
Each day, we’d wake up, have tea and breakfast, pack our bags, fill our water, and hit the road. After a few hours we’d stop for lunch somewhere and then continue to our camp. At the camp, there’d be hot tea, popcorn, and nuts waiting for us. We’d have a few hours to relax and then have dinner with a briefing for the next day. We’d pass the time chatting, playing Scrabble, and writing. Each day took us to new climate zones and breathtaking views. The hiking itself was not difficult at all. A little bit of rock scrambling but nothing strenuous. On the third day, we climbed higher to over 15,000 ft. Higher than I’d ever been. I finally started to feel the altitude in the form of a headache. I had been feeling good before which had me confident that the slow pace was working. On quick ascents in California, I’ve felt the headache start anywhere between 12-13,000 ft. After some sleep, my headache was gone though and I felt good about the rest of the ascent. The day before the summit attempt we climb to about 16,500 ft. My head was pounding and I took some Ibuprofen. After a few hours, the headache was gone. We rested up and went to sleep early, ready to begin the final ascent at midnight.
As we awoke, I felt fine. I could definitely feel some altitude but thought I could make it up the next 3,000 ft. We set off in the moonlight going very slow. One foot in front of the other. It was cold. Very cold. My camel back started to freeze up. I started to slow down. My head was not doing what I wanted it to do. Each step was becoming an ordeal of concentration. Rebekah and Adam went ahead with two guides and I went slower with Alex. After a little while longer, things became worse. The headache even started to come back and it hadn’t even been four hours since my last Ibuprofen. I talked to Alex and decided that it would be unwise to continue further. From previous experience, I knew that the next phases would be extreme disorientation, hallucination, and possibly worse. I was not going to put a fellow climber, Alex, in the position of having to take care of my bad choices. While I still had some clarity of mind, I needed to make the right choice we began to descend. Alex estimates we were at roughly 18,000 ft and would have taken about 3 more hours to summit at our pace. As we descended, my disorientation set in more strongly. At one point though, pride got the better of me. I stopped, turned around, and told Alex I could handle it and wanted to finish it. Fortunately, while I had still been cognizant, I had told him clearly that I needed to go down so he held me to that and convinced me that going back up was not the right decision. He was right as my earlier self had been right. The headache got worse. I stumbled a bit and at some points Alex had to hold my arm to steady me as we descended at a rapid pace. By 5am, we were back at camp. I collapsed into my tent, downed some water and got a few hours of sleep. At 7am I awoke feeling completely better. Physically, I was fit. Mentally, I was experienced. My body just didn’t have the disposition to handle high altitude at that pace. It’s a hard pill to swallow but that’s life. Perhaps thousands of climbers less experienced and less fit than me, have made it to the top of Kilimanjaro. I’ve had many lessons in humility over the last two years. I think I could have made it if I’d had a day or two to acclimate more.
I had tea with Alex and we chatted. He said I’d shown maturity and wisdom in calling my limits and thanked me for not pushing further. He’s had to carry down climbers that passed out in the past and did not enjoy that much. After tea, I walked around the high camp, snapped some photos, and reflected on the climb. By 9am, Adam and Rebekah rolled in, exhausted. They’d made it to the top and now were sore, tired, and hungry. They slept for a few hours. In the meantime, our friend Ryan stopped by to chat on his way down. At noon, we all had lunch and headed down to 10,000ft to Mweka camp. The next day we packed out and it was done.
Once back at the hotel, we passed out. I got up around noon and called one of my priest friends, Fr. Amandus. Both were back in Tanzania at the time. We arranged to meet at the hotel and it was wonderful to greet them in their own country. We were scheduled to fly back with Fr. Amandus in two days but we soon found all was not well. Air Tanzania was grounded indefinitely. We made some calls to discover we no longer had flights home and we had not been rescheduled. Apparently other carriers were refusing to take continue to clean up Air Tanzania’s mess. My guess is that Air Tanz wasn’t honoring any of their payments so no one wanted to lose more money. Unfortunately, that meant that we all lost money. Fortunately, the Fr.s were there and could direct us around Moshi and interpret for us when needed. With their help we were able to make a plan. All flights out of Moshi were booked until Christmas. Since I needed to be in SA for my rock climbing trip on the 21st, I was eager for other solutions. We finally came up with a plan. We got bus tickets to Nairobi to leave on the 20th and we booked a flight out of Nairobi early on the 21st. I’d arrive and catch a shuttle bus out to the town where I’d be rock climbing. In the meantime, we had some time to kill but no money to spare. Again, the Fathers came to the rescue. They got us free accommodations and meals at a convent in Moshi, with a gorgeous view of the mountain. We also got invited to meet their whole extended family.
I had gotten a bit of a cold after coming off the mountain and was feeling slightly feverish. I spent the day debating what to do. Adam and Rebekah had opted out of traveling anymore and just wanted to rest at the convent. I had given my word to the priests that I’d see their homes though and I knew it would be a long time before I’d get such an opportunity again. So I decided to go with it. The next day, Fr. Amandus and his brother picked me up and we drove 80km to the villages around Rombo. I met many families, ate lots of food (various types of bananas, and various parts of chickens, goats, and cows). I picked up a few Swahili phrases as well as a few Chagga phrases (Kilimanjaro is Chagga for “Our mountain”). My final destination was the home of Fr. Tarimo. Fr. Tarimo had returned to South Africa but had insisted I honor him by staying at his home. So Fr. Amandus dropped me off, I ate yet again, and spent the night with a bunch of people I’d never met, who spoke almost no English, but who were so warm and friendly that none of that mattered. I took a bath by kerosene lamp with water they’d warmed over the fire for me. I entertained the family with my digital camera. Late at night, one of Fr. Tarimo’s sister’s arrived. She is a nurse in Moshi and speaks good English, so she was able to interpret for me the rest of the night. Finally, I got to bed and slept like a baby. The next day, Fr. Tarimo’s other sister showed me around their compound. The village is on the foot of Kilimanjaro and that whole area is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. After tea and bread, we parted ways and I was picked up again by Fr. Amandus’ brother. We returned to Moshi and to the convent. After a night there, we headed out early in the morning on the bus headed to Nairobi. The bus ride itself was enough to convince me that I needed to return to Africa and explore East Africa more, as we passed serene savannah, Maasai herdsmen, and incredible mountains. We got to the airport by 2pm and our flight left the next morning at 7am. We couldn’t check in until 5am the next morning. So, we busted out our sleeping bags and slept in front of the check in counter. Traveling in Africa makes traveling anywhere seem easy. But soon enough, it was all over and we were back in SA. I got a move on to catch my shuttle and within a few hours, was in the quiet town of Waterval Boven.
During my time in Tanzania, I had reflected quite a bit about my life in South Africa. When we first arrived, I’d thought to myself: “This could have been my life.” Indeed, I’d really love to go out and spend significant time doing some work in a village like Rombo. However, while I was out there, even in the midst of all the beauty, I had a feeling deep inside of me that I was in the place I needed to be in South Africa. My service in SA has challenged me in so many ways unique to that country. I would have grown anywhere I’d been placed but I feel South Africa provides its own special challenges and opportunities that perhaps could not have been better prescribed for me. It made my arrival back in South Africa feel more like coming home.
Back in South Africa, I spent a the week over Christmas having a great time climbing in Waterval Boven. After two days of guided climbs, we shored up our skills, and I refreshed my lead climbing knowledge. On Chistmas we rented out our own gear and spent that day and the next two climbing on our own. We played in rivers, had an adventurous day hike, and a magical Christmas (thanks to Susie and Ronda). I remembered why I loved rock climbing so much. Not only is the sport such an incredible mix of mental and physical complexity, the people that do it are so interesting. I could write tons more but will leave it at this for now. By the end of our week, we were sore, but happy. I was able to climb a 5.9 but struggled on a 5.10a/b which means I’ve understandably lost ground since I was climbing in college. I hope once I’m stateside, I’ll get back at it more regularly and push past my previous limits. It was refreshing though and was a great way to follow the Kilimanjaro adventure.
(Stanford + Phi Psi + Peace Corps)^2 = ?
After the new year began, I received a visit from a good friend. Nick Chan was my HPAC at Stanford (kind of like an RA) and also a brother in my Fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. After graduating, he did AmeriCorps, City Year, and then Peace Corps. I remember writing one of his rec letters for Peace Corps and had him return the favor when I was applying. He has been serving in Ecuador and has extended for a third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator. When he came over, he told me, he wanted to see Peace Corps SA, so that’s what we did. After a few days in Pretoria and a day at the office, we headed to the taxi rank and began the long haul out to my site.
At my site, we ended up helping with the funeral arrangements for my host grandmother (more about that later). Nick got quite the cultural experience with all the people, prayers, and slaughtering going on. On our first day at my place, Nick and I ended up cooking lunch for all the visitors at the house.
We also made a trip out to some neighboring volunteers sites and saw one of my shopping towns. After that, we got to take a day with Fr. Tarimo to go on safari at the Molopo Nature Reserve, north of my site. We saw giraffes, wildebeest, gemsbok, and hartebeest. We also saw several tortoises and tried to keep one as a pet, but he got away… After the safari, we went out to a lodge near the Botswana border to get some drinks. Strangely, the only person running the lodge that day was a middle aged woman that only spoke French. “Wait, I know French!” was my first thought, but no, I don’t actually. Although I could understand her fairly well, when I opened my mouth, out came “FreTswana”. It was kind of embarrassing but in the end we communicated somehow and got some drinks.
Tsoe Youth Lifeskills Challenge 2009
While Nick was here, I took advantage of his Youth Development Skills, to put on another youth camp. We had sessions in the morning for young kids and in the afternoon for youth for three days. We used the library as the springboard as well as the sports grounds. We did reading, sports, chess, library skills and life skills. Overall, it went very well with over 70 kids total coming out. A nearby volunteer, Erin, also came out to help out. Strangely our afternoon sessions contained only teenage girls which would have made the whole HIV/AIDS sex talk a bit awkward had it been just me and Nick. Erin came to the rescue though and did a fantastic job spreading the message to the girls about how to take care of themselves.
Soon though, it was time to go back to the airport and bid Nick adieu. We took off early on Saturday and spent the night in Pretoria. The next day, I headed back to site as he headed out to the airport. It was great to share the my Peace Corps experience with someone that “gets it” if that makes any sense. I feel the two years we’ve spent have brought us closer together in some ways than we were even in college. I look forward to connecting with other RPCVs once I get back to the states because of that kind of understanding and comraderie.
Desert Flowers Again
When September arrived this past year, I looked out to the sky anxiously each day, anticipating the rains. When I first got to site, the rains quickly followed and they preceded a burst of color and life in the arid veld. September passed as dry as August and slightly warmer. October brought little relief as well. Finally, in November the rains arrived but not the deluges of 2007 that filled the salt pan. As a result, the land remained fairly parched, hungrily drinking in the little water the sky saw fit to spit upon it. By the end of December, the earth had finally had its fill and released the little yellow flowers I’d been waiting for. Some butterflies have appeared but not the vast clouds that appeared with the last blossoming.
Whereas the last rains had been bounteous and followed by an immodest burst of greenery and life, the rains of this summer have been niggardly and the plants and animals have had to scratch out what little life they could and stretch it out as long as possible. Strikingly, the one similarity between these two seasons of blossoming I’ve witnessed here is that they have been accompanied by death. Yet the difference in the lives preceding those deaths runs parallel to the markedly different manner of the two seasons unfolding.
Last year, I wrote about the death of a student. At 20 years old, she died of TB, which means she most probably had AIDS and TB was the opportunistic infection that ended her life. She had been born under Apartheid but grown up under the blossoming of democracy and relative plenty. The opportunities available to her were vastly greater than those afforded her grandmothers but her life was spent quickly, probably with exuberance, but quickly. As I wrote at the time, it was a life barely lived like the little butterflies that appear with the flowers only to disappear.
On January 7th, 2009, Selwana Edith Mabihi, known variously as Mma Thathi (Mother of Thathi), the Old Woman, Nkoko (Grandma), my South African Grandmother, passed away early in the morning. A few hours later, I received a phone call. I had been sitting in a taxi with my friend Nick, about to travel to my training village to show him different parts of SA and introduce him to other volunteers as we would wind back to my village. After the phone call, we got out of the taxi to Rustenburg and switched to the one to Vryburg. The taxi rank marshall’s at first were blustering and confused (it is kind of a cardinal sin to leave a taxi once you have chosen it). I just said “Mma wa me o tlhokafetse. Ke tshwanetsa go boela gae.” And they dropped all protest. If there is one thing the communities here understand, it’s death. About ten hours later, I arrived home, even beating my host mother who had been in Rustenburg at the time for the holidays. I’ve written a bit about the actual funeral preparations and ceremonies leading up to the funeral above. The real story here is Mma Thathi herself.
At over 70 years old when she passed away, Mma Thathi had lived through the darkest days of Apartheid. She had recounted to me about the hardships of working as a domestic servant, about the police driving through the village just to find people to beat, about how the past was a time of evil. She had lost many children to various causes and only had one surviving child, a daughter. Her husband too had passed away, leaving a matriarchal family amidst a still largely patriarchal society. And Mma Thathi was definitely the matriarch in a bounteous rather than gregarious way. She took me in as her own son and there was unique bond I felt with her that I will truly miss.
For my first few months in the village, I struggled with my host aunt Mpho, who speaks very fast and is a bit strong headed about doing things her way. One day, fed up, I confessed to Mma Thathi that I was just not getting through to Mpho. She nodded and with a slight chuckle said something to the effect of, “Eh, that Mpho, sometimes she just makes noise.” Mma Thathi did not speak much English but she knew some and was always kind and helpful in teaching me Setswana, gently correcting my mistakes and teaching me new things all the time. She taught me about the rains, about the culture, and about the family. When an old man came to the house and asked me to sell him some things she saved me from explaining that I wasn’t a shop keeper. “Ga se morekisa! Ke Kabelo wa rona, ngwanaaka.” “That’s no shopkeeper! That’s our Kabelo, my child.” Cultural boundaries did not bind us nor did any other boundaries. If I had a question that might be awkward to ask about the village or culture, I knew she’d give me a straight forward answer. Heck, once it got hot, we used to joke with each other about how we would just want to get naked.
Above all, she was an incredibly warm and positive person. She suffered from a chronic cough that would take her in fits, sometimes lasting several minutes. She claimed she had had it since she was a girl but I think it had something to do with the asbestos mines that used to be around here. She had severe arthritis that at times confined her to a foam mattress because it was too painful for her to move. With some help from my parents, we’d been able to find some meds that helped the arthritis so when I saw her in December and early January, she kept talking about how much better she felt and was moving around a lot more. Remarkably though, her face most often wore a smile. Not an artificial smile coaxed out to appear sociable, but a genuine smile, greeting me each day I came home, greeting the world around her.
FEBRUARY and now
Kicking into High Gear
-Crikey, there’s not much time left, I need to do everything now now…-
And now, I’m in over my head. I am at the point where I’m turning down opportunities and projects that first year volunteers would kill for simply because I do not have the time or capacity to do any more. I am teaching 12th grade mathematics, setting the library on its own feet, working on remedial mathematics and literacy intervention at a primary school, training staff members to use computers at all four of my schools, tying up all the work I’ve done on language, diversity, and for Peace Corps training, and trying to find time to stay healthy and happy. I've gotten to visit a few of my friends sites, play with monkeys, break up bloody fist fights, dialog with the provincial government, start setting up a children's corner in the library, spend two weeks training incoming volunteers on language, diversity, and volunteer life, put together a beginners Setswana manual, and begin reflecting on my overall service. It's been a wild few months.
I’m sorry these posts have been so long in coming. There is so much more that’s happened since then but I don’t have the time to chronicle them now. I will try to write more posts when I get a breather but can’t promise timely updates from now on. I may be resorting more to quick updates to my email list. If you are not on it, and would like to be, let me know. Otherwise, I hope all is well from wherever you are reading this. I am living and loving this experience. I’ve been humbled and crushed in more ways than I imagined but I’ve discovered so much more about what is important to me and who I really am. Now I want to give my all to my community and this country, to make at least a little ripple in this vast sea.