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Back in East Africa
By Dekkers L. Davidson ’78

"We’re over Africa…you can see the coast of Tunisia.” Indeed, under the moonlit sky, I could see the silhouette of North Africa against the Mediterranean Sea some 30,000 feet below our Nairobi-bound plane.

The words of excitement and anticipation could have been mine; instead they were those of my son, Kyle ’06. He was heading to the spring 2004 Kenya Program (KSP); his experience in Africa was just beginning. That was where I had finished my St. Law-rence education as a senior—an extraordinary semester in a place I’d never forgotten.

That experience was coming back into sharp focus as we approached our landing, and there was one we hoped to re-create together—the climb to Kilimanjaro’s summit, which I had accomplished as a student on the program in 1978. We and the mountain would have a short visit together before the semester would begin and I would return home.

A Different Nairobi. While I expected things would be different, I wasn’t fully prepared to see how much Nairobi had changed. The city sprawled in all directions and skyscrapers loomed where parks and homes had stood 26 years before. Traffic overwhelmed the same road system that had existed in the 1970s; cars, buses and matutus (small trucks that pack a dozen or more into their small cabs) crawled through the city at all hours of the day.

At Gilman's Point in 1978, the St. Lawrence group includes, from left, Dekkers Davidson '78, their guide, Peter Crossan '78, Joan Flagg '79, Kathy Brown '79 and Kathy Flynn '79.

Evidence of a new and tragic development, AIDs, was everywhere—perhaps most poignantly in the buses marked by signs indicating they carried AIDs victims or orphans. It seemed profoundly unfair that a continent that has had so little had been further battered by such a horrible disease. And yet, people smiled, laughed and shouted amid the bustle—signs of life were everywhere despite the chaos, confusion and hardship.

The former KSP compound in Westlands, now guarded by a large concrete wall, had become a dilapidated apartment; the St. Lawrence campus had moved years ago to a quiet and beautiful site on Nairobi’s outskirts in the town of Karen, located in the Ngong foothills. But some things seemed unchanged: the favorite student hangout at the Norfolk Hotel near the University of Nairobi seemed as it was years ago, as did the city market where the merchants hustled us with the same “special for you” deals that had made us laugh as students.

My African Family. My family home stay had been a very special highlight of my experience; I’d lived just outside Nairobi with the Mwakazi family. We’d remained in regular contact by mail and e-mail; our reunion at their Langata home had been a long time in the making. Reuben, who was then a playful 5-year-old, was now a grown man with a career in the lumber business. Grace, who had graduated from St. Lawrence in 1990, was married with a son. And Mama Mwakazi was still the same happy and lovely person I had always remembered. But sadly, Johnson, my home stay father, was gone, having passed away suddenly in 1993—the same month in which I had lost my father.

Africa’s Enduring Treasure. In 1978, our trip to Ngorongoro Crater had been blocked at the border by tourist squabbles between Kenya and Tanzania. But this time, nothing, not even a tedious six-hour ride on a bumpy dirt road, would prevent us from visiting this wildlife sanctuary on the Serengeti Plain. Ngorongoro is a treasure chest of Africa’s most impressive wildlife: elephants, lions, rhinos, gazelles, wildebeest, cheetah, hippos, flamingos were everywhere inside this extraordinary 15-mile-wide crater. Nearby Lake Manyara showcased huge herds of giraffe and elephant; at one point, nearly 100 elephants lumbered by our vehicle, hardly giving us a nod. It was reassuring to see so much wildlife and to know the game had been protected – something that had been in doubt in the 1970s.

From the Equator to the North Pole. The highlight of our short

trip would be the long climb to Kilimanjaro’s summit, which stands at 19,350 feet above sea level, looming over the plains of East Africa. I’d made the trek with five classmates, reaching the summit on February 28, 1978—it had seemed so easy. As we’d done then, Kyle and I based our expedition at the Kibo Hotel and were provided two experienced mountain guides and a crew for the five-day, 70-mile trek.

The climb, sometimes called the “shortest walk from the Equator to the North Pole,” would take us through nearly every climactic zone on Earth. We’d start in mountain meadows, climb through rain forests, trek above the tree line across barren desert, and ascend on volcanic scree before reaching the summit. Our January climb would be in the “dry season,” and good weather was expected. Instead, rain, hail and snow fell on each day but the first (the exact opposite to the weather during our earlier climb). Nevertheless, we had done enough hiking and climbing to deal with the conditions and made camp each night without much difficulty. And we had enough good visibility between the storms to see the imposing summit above—so we could see what lay ahead.

Or so we thought. The final ascent of Kiliminjaro began around midnight with the goal of being on the summit by sunrise. But on this moonless night, the zero-degree temperature and thin air turned our strides into a slow shuffle. The cold had been expected, yet we were surprised to find our water bottles partially frozen, discouraging us from drinking as much as we needed. The guide’s hot chocolate held far more appeal, though it did not provide much hydration. Kyle, just recovering from a broken leg suffered in a rugby match a few months earlier, needed my encouragement to keep going; the cold bothered his legs and toes.

Our spirits soared with the arrival of the warm sunrise just as we reached Gilman’s Point—the rim of Kilimanjaro’s long-dormant volcano. With a clear blue sky, we could see Uhuru Peak a couple of miles away—it was, we thought, easily within reach. On my previous climb, we’d been shrouded in snow and I had followed my guide blindly and rapidly to the summit. From memory, I was certain it was just a 30- to 45-minute walk.

But the final climb, now under a hot sun, took a long and tedious two-plus hours. When we reached Uhuru Peak we were totally spent, and it was still only 9 a.m. But the snow that I remembered was gone. Deforestation at the foot of the mountain has been blamed as much as global warming. The top of Africa had clearly changed, and some predict that the snow-covered glaciers just below the summit may disappear entirely in another 25 years. (For more on this, see the story on page 44, on the research being conducted by Doug Hardy ’79.) We took a few pictures, used our satellite phone to call home to declare our success (something unimaginable in 1978!), and began our descent—just as a blinding snowstorm arrived. To make matters worse, I’d become light-headed and dizzy—I could not believe I was experiencing altitude sickness on our descent. I suddenly realized I’d not drunk enough water.

As quickly and carefully as possible, we worked our way down the mountain, mindful that most climbing injuries occur on the more dangerous descent. And now it was Kyle’s turn to help: he forced me to drink water and, along with the guides, helped me descend. We found refuge at 17,000 feet in the Hans Meyer Cave as the snow turned to hail and cold rain. By noon, 12 hours after our summit push began, we were back at our final base camp and had changed into dry clothing and finally warmed up.

The next day, under a deluge of rain, we finally made it back to the Kibo Hotel and celebrated with our guides and crew. We had followed the same itinerary as I had used in 1978, but the experience had been a very different one—the weather had humbled us and the changes to the summit had left a lasting impression. But, it had been a thrill to raise the

St. Lawrence flag atop Kilimanjaro and to have shared this experience with my son.

When we said our goodbyes, Josef, our assistant guide, told us that his earnings from our trek would allow him to pay for his child’s education for an entire year….reminding us that small things can make a big difference in East Africa. It was a lesson I remembered from years ago, and one that Kyle would see borne out many times in the months ahead.

For a second time for me, and for Kyle, a second-generation KSP participant, there had been an unforgettable experience in East Africa.

St. Lawrence Trustee Dekkers Davidson lives and operates a business in Concord , Mass.


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