Mount Kenya and NGOs - Kenya

Trip Start Jan 27, 2012
Trip End Feb 27, 2012

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Friday, January 11, 2013

The trek up to Mount Kenya's summit began pre-dawn, just past 3AM, in the dark and in freezing temperatures. Flashlights, especially the headlamps, were essential, as well as wearing lots of layers. There were only four of us summiting from the base camp; two guides, myself, and a young Swiss girl. Basically, there was only one direction to follow… over 3000 feet straight up! With these freezing temperatures, it was hard to believe I was only mere meters from the equator.

Still dark, we reached the ridge that would lead us the rest of the way to the summit. From this vantage point we could see the amber flame from a small brush fire far down the other side of the ridge. Coming from that direction, another hiker and his guide joined us at this point. They said the brush fire had come from an abandoned campfire, started by a band of poachers, negligent in their actions whether in regard to animal or man.

Mount Kenya was sacred ground, though one might not have known this by those poacher's actions. The local tribe in this region was called Kikuyu, and according to Kikuyu legend, the mountain's glaciers we had been hiking adjacent to, had carved out the throne of Ngai, the old high god of the Kikuyu.

As dawn’s first light flickered up above, I could make out the outline of the highest Mount Kenya peak, Batian, its sheer jagged edges beginning to warm in color under the new day’s light. Even still, it looked cold and foreboding from my current stance. Batian could only be scaled through the skilled use of mountaineering equipment, whereas Point Lenana, elevation just less than 17,000 feet and the third highest peak of Mount Kenya, was trekkable by foot and where my ultimate destination was going to be soon.

Finally, we had reached the Point Lenana summit, just before the sun’ bright orange globe rose above the jungle horizon. The wind, benign earlier, had increased at the summit’s rocky vulnerable promontory edge. "Success… yahoo!" we cheered. "Sunrise…magnificent… now, let’s go down!"

The journey to Mount Kenya began back at the Miliwani backpacker in Nairobi, where through my friend Kevin’s assistance I secured a local travel guide named David. As a way to support the local economy and the fact that Mount Kenya was within a national park, one could not hike the mountain without the paid assistance of a guide. Most travelers secured a Mount Kenya hike through a tour group service.

Kevin had put his trust in this young man David to properly provide me with a good guide service, as well as meal preparations, for a much more reasonable price than what the tour companies offered. David had been a hiking guide for other tour services. This was his opportunity to go independent and make a better living for himself, his wife, and his baby boy.

Like a patient father with his son, Kevin instructed David on how to create an itemized cost estimate and final price for the guided trip. If David succeeded here, there would be additional opportunities for more independent guide work as well as a job working for Kevin on his bamboo plantation project. David talked fast and apologized often. I had my doubts concerning David however I trusted Kevin’s judgment so I agreed to the arrangement.

Needless to say, David did squander the opportunity. He chose instead to squander some of my down payment money the previous night, ultimately increasing my cost when upon arrival to the national park entrance, David began creating lies as to why he didn’t have enough money to cover the entrance fee.

His one saving grace was the fact that he did hire a very nice gentleman to do our cooking for the four day trek. The other man, Lewis, was also a professional guide; very soft-spoken, intelligent, capable, and in confidence later, told me not to trust David, a conclusion I had already come to. I thanked him for his honesty.

Once the entrance issue was resolved with more money, the trek began and was in all essence a very enjoyable hike. Our journey's distance to the summit would be 34 kilometers, round trip 68 clicks. We trekked through several ecological zones, starting with jungle vegetation, then open savanna land, with incredible views of the shrinking expanding countryside as we gained in elevation.  Enormous cactus lined the countryside between 11,000 and 13,000 feet, probably the most unusual vegetation feature along the trail. The weather conditions were perfect; blue sky all the way!

We spent a total of three nights at two designated camps along this particular trail. The camps maintained two large basic hostel-sized huts, and a kitchen facility that serviced the trekking groups hiking the trail.

Two memorable conversations occurred at the first camp called Old Moses Camp. One conversation was with two young Americans, and the other with a Swiss couple.  One of the Americans was raised in Kenya. His father directed an NGO (Non Government Organization) that built infrastructure, like bridges, for local villages. After college, the young American had been doing volunteer work in South Sudan.

The Swiss couple had just completed four months volunteering in the Mombasa region, applying their ecology/ biology degrees to work helping with sustainable environment / living projects for that community. They were still feeling very excited and satisfied about their recent work, as well they should.

These lovely young people, as with many other foreigner NGO volunteers I had met through the Nairobi and Arusha backpackers, were the unsung courageous heroes of the African experience.

For the good-hearted young foreigner, Africa offers hope and possibility. Whereas America’s and Europe’s social ills may appear more convoluted for an immediate resolution, Africa’s difficulties are more obvious and urgent. In this African environment, an individual may more likely see a tangible positive impact from their assistance. At least that is the hope. Their volunteer work in East Africa was a chance for them to pay life’s good fortune that they’ve had in life thus far, forward, to give back to those less fortunate.

Others I met with this same unselfish generosity included:  my Safari buddies, the Australian couple, Craig and Jenna, and the Dutch couple, Baus and Marina, who after our Serengeti safari were going to do some volunteer work at a Tanzania orphanage.  There was also the Austrian lady going to work with children in W. Kenya, the Australian young man spending some of his travel vacation volunteering in an impoverished town near Nairobi, and the young Israeli who started his Africa journey by working at an orphanage in Ethiopia for one month.

I had heard a truly inspirational story about a young British gentleman who worked in a hospital in Britain. He decided to move to India and open a clinic for cataract eye surgery for the poor. He was the organizer/administrator of this project, securing funding, and doctors he knew would go and work at the clinic. No NGO or government organization would do this benevolent task. He did this on his own with his friends and through much hard work, was most successful

My experience in East Africa also raised some troublesome questions.  Were the local Kenyans and Tanzanians grateful for the unselfish contributions by these foreign volunteers? I wondered this after hearing stories such as the one from an American girl, trained to work with AIDS patients, who was volunteering in Nairobi region. She was robbed in the house she was staying at by her Kenyan sponsor family as well as in a Matutu bus by a coordinated effort between the bus driver and passengers. Her co-worker with his laptop was also robbed as well as another girl co-worker robbed in her sponsor house.

Yet, these courageous individuals who after having been violated by some act of theft still came back to work for the same NGO. In these cases often the inspiring spirit of a child or children they have been working with outweighs the negative aspects of African society.

I wondered why the daily tasks that were being accomplished by these foreign volunteers at so many schools and orphanages were not being done by the numerous idle Kenyan and Tanzanian men. These men could easily be paid for their work by, in Kenya’s case, the well-dressed National Ministry politicians and bureaucrats, in charge of well-financed government funds, that came and went through downtown Nairobi in their brand new Mercedes.

A Belgian journalist I met who worked for a major news outlet also had some provocative questions, questions that led him to an eleven month investigation concerning the overgrazing or perhaps alleged overgrazing by the Maasai with the cattle. He was also working on an expose on the multinational pharmaceutical companies that were suppressing the cultivation and distribution of locally-grown natural herbal remedies needed for malaria treatment… all good questions and keen observations that lead to more questions and observation of East Africa life.

I wondered why European university graduates were needed to implement new western ideas on biodiversity and sustainable living farming techniques when Kenya was East Africa’s leader on modernization progress and had a fabulous modern university system.

A humorous example of Kenya’s modernization was told to me by an older British gent named Robert. At the Miliwani lounge area, a Maasai man dressed in traditional clothes started to ask him a question about his cell phone. Robert began talking, assuming the question concerned how a cell phone worked. The Maasai man politely stopped him, withdrew his cell phone from his robed pocket and asked Robert specific function and service questions about Robert’s particular phone, comparing his phone model to Robert’s.

Yet, to demonstrate how vulnerable Kenya’s economic and modernization expansion is, a recent accident happened in which a freighter’s anchor severed the main trans-Indian Ocean Internet cable for all Nairobi, severely setting back businesses reliant on fast internet service for improved business operations.

After a wonderful month experience in both Kenya and Tanzania, my final question was this: Whom and what governing philosophy will guide the future for Kenya and Tanzania.  Will it be found in the young boy who walked up the cliff from his village to our Panoramic camp site, hoping to find someone who could give him a pen or pencil so he could finish his school lesson and make a better future for himself through personal hard work and study, or through the conscientious professionalism and kindness of my second hiking guide Lewis, or will it be the way of David, age 30, my Mount Kenya guide, who squandered long term opportunity for short sightedness and short term gain.

Maybe the best social and spiritual philosophy for East Africans to apply for future success comes from the traditional Hadzabe tribe. Their big smiles and happy chatter says it all!

Hakuna matata!

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