The Roof of Africa

BY
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Mt. Kilimanjaro
10 Jul 2008
Travel
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Some people strive to summit a big mountain. Others try to move them. For one group of Jewish travelers, a 10-day journey to East Africa achieved both.

This past February, I was privileged to accompany seven courageous trekkers, one from New York and six others from Israel, as their escort to the Roof of Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro. Alongside their discovery of personal endurance, they found an equally challenging opportunity: how to help a poor, yet amiable young man realize one of his dreams.

The trip was organized by Koshertreks, an adventure travel company based in Jerusalem. For the past five years, Koshertreks has been leading intrepid Jewish travelers to the Everest region in Nepal, the Dolomite range in Italy, the Kackar Mountains in Turkey and on self-guided tours of the Scottish Highlands. The treks vary in length and difficulty, but all offer plentiful kosher food, Shabbat observance, and warm, Jewish companionship.

“I wasn’t looking for a sedentary trip, and most kosher travel is like that,” said Linda Honigwachs, 46, a data analyst from Manhattan. “It is extremely difficult to find a trip where Shabbat isn’t a problem because you’re always moving,” she said.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania, just south of the border with Kenya and about 200 miles south of the equator. At 19,340 feet, it is Africa’s tallest peak and one of the seven summits, the so-called highest peaks on each continent. Made famous by a Hemingway short story, the white-topped Kilimanjaro towers above the East African plains that are known the world over for their diverse and colorful wildlife.

In the past decade, the mountain has been developed into a park that draws more than 20,000 climbers a year seeking a summit that can be reached without any technical climbing. The customized Koshertreks itinerary, which includes a rest and acclimation day on Shabbat, has produced a better than 90-percent success rate of landing participants on the summit, well above the average for the popular mountain.

Our group’s presence in the thin air of a dormant African volcano is part of a new era of adventure travel, one in which the obstacles confronting Jewish travelers have been brushed aside to reveal a wide, clear path to the remotest corners of the world.

“I don’t think being a Jew should stand between you and achieving a goal that doesn’t directly contradict Judaism,” said Dr. Yehezkel Caine, 59, director general of Jerusalem’s Herzog Hospital. “Judaism is a living religion that accompanies you as you fulfill your goals in daily life. With technology today, there are very few things that can’t work around Jewish issues. It just requires personal stamina and a will to do it sensibly.”

Dr. Caine was making his second attempt at Uhuru, as the summit is also known. On his first attempt in 2007, he turned back just seven hours below the top after experiencing a nosebleed which would not clot, forcing his evacuation in the middle of the night.

Unlike Caine, the other trekkers were all on the mountain for the first time. Rabbi Bob Carroll, 48, of Jerusalem, said he’s always looking for ways to spend more time in the wild. “Out there, you feel closer to Hashem because you are closer to the world Hashem made,” Carroll said. “Matan Torah could have happened anywhere, but it happened on a mountain top. When we’re in an environment like that, we’re able to see the world more clearly as Hashem created it.”

Shabbat fell on the fourth day of the trek. In preparation, trekkers fashioned an eruv from fishing line and walking sticks. A bag of flour was molded into small, challah-like rolls, which were fried in oil instead of baked. A bottle of grape juice and tea candles emerged from a suitcase and song, prayer and a hearty meal completed the observance of a traditional Shabbat, albeit in the confines of a tent at 14,000 feet.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to really be able to live the halacha,” Carroll said.

Every group which goes up Kilimanjaro is required to hire a local guide. Most groups also enlist porters to carry their food and gear and groups of 6-8 trekkers often travel with a team of two dozens porters, plus two cooks and two or three guides.

During the Friday evening meal, our group was joined in the dining tent by a number of our support staff, who, both curious and inspired by our songs and rituals, serenaded us with lively versions of their traditional songs.

Visitors to Tanzania cannot help but notice the country’s extreme poverty. Nor can they fail to be impressed by the kindness and fortitude of the porters, who, ill-equipped, carry heavy loads on their heads by day and pass freezing cold nights crowded into tents with their peers.

Porters earn about $5 dollars per day and may double that take with tips. The pay is comparatively good when measured against the country’s other, limited income opportunities. But the meager earnings provide little hope of escaping from poverty or substantially augmenting one’s quality of life.

Like others in the group, Chana Manne, a 52-year-old psychologist from Kiryat Shmona, felt uncomfortable with the relationship.

“Having all these people working for us…it’s a weird experience,” she said. “On the one hand, we are giving them money, providing a livelihood, but on the other hand, they are serving us, and I have mixed feelings about that, especially when you see what they are putting on their heads every morning.”

Cultural and language barriers – the local dialect is Swahili –make communication between trekkers and porters nearly impossible. Nevertheless, each morning, porter Matthew Jackson brought bowls of hot water to trekkers’ tents and in the course, befriended Robbie Berman of Jerusalem.

“I was greatly impressed by his sensitivity,” said Berman, 41, founder and director of HODS, the Halachic Organ Donor Society. “He told me during a conversation on Shabbat, ‘My dream is to become a guide.’ When I asked him what’s stopping him from attaining his dream, he answered, ‘$400 dollars.'”

He said it as if he were saying $4 million,” said Berman, who learned later that Jackson’s father had died when he was 9. Although he was forced to leave school to help out the family, he continued to study English.

Berman approached the other members of the trek, who each agreed to chip in $50 toward Jackson’s education. “I’d never been in the developing world. I never realized how giving charity can have such an incredible and direct impact,” Berman said. “I mean, how often do you really have a chance to help someone acquire work with dignity?”

Rabbi Carroll agreed. “Here was a wonderful young man whose whole future could be changed by an amount of money that was basically totally inconsequential to us. We were given an opportunity to fix the world and certainly bring credit to Jewish teaching that mandates that we do so,” he said.

After the trek, Berman agreed to meet with Jackson and his family and go directly to the school to pay his tuition. “He lives an hour walk from the nearest town. I saw one emaciated cow, one banana tree, a small field under cultivation and a hut made from mud and excrement. There was no electricity, no heat, no air conditioning, and no running water,” Berman said.

After seven arduous days on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the group returned to their hotel, exhilarated by their success – all but one climber made it to the top – and grateful for their opportunity to shift the fortunes of one of the locals.

“I don’t feel that I’m implementing Jewish values but rather human values of chesed,” Berman said.

Among the many translations of the name Kilimanjaro are “Mountain of Greatness” and “Shining Mountain.” My personal favorite is “The journey never ends,” a fitting definition for anyone who thinks getting to the top will offer a feeling of wholeness or lasting inner peace.

The beauty of this endless journey is discovering you can muster the inner strength to compel your body forward all the way to the top and in realizing that there is more to life than climbing mountains. Sometimes moving them for others is just as important.


Yehoshua Halevi is a writer and photojournalist who lives with his family in the Judean Mountains outside Jerusalem. He has successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro three times. To see more of his photography, visit www.goldenlightimages.com.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.