As many of our readers are aware, I returned recently from East Africa, where I spent many weeks as a volunteer working with teenagers in a prison there. Many people on hearing this, say "Oh, how awful!" I LOVED my young prisoners, many who had lived much of their lives as "street kids" -- no family and stealing food merely to survive!
As an educated American, with little exposure to REAL poverty, I assumed I'd spend my summer teaching Math and English in a classroom in this facility. Reality quickly hit me -- we seldom had ANY electricity, often went 2 or 3 days at a time with no water, any form of food was very scarce and the boys were lucky if they owned a shirt and a pair of pants of some sort! Our "classroom," such as it was, sometimes had 3 or 4 rickety wooden benches (of course no desks or chairs) and could only be used on bright sunny days since we had no electricity. With my landscape/gardening background, my "lesson plans" were dumped in favor of learning to harvest maize (corn) by hand as well as digging new gardens and planting a variety of vegetables. It's nice to be able to speak a little English, but simply not as important as learning to grow and harvest food when you are starving!
As a nature photographer, I had been in this area before, and decided that I wanted to spend my 65th birthday on Mt. Kilimanjaro (a life-long dream). I also wanted to spend the summer giving back to a country that has taught me so much and to the people who have helped me learn to deeply care for others. Shortly after I returned to America, I received a call from a person I've known for a while. Of course, she asked the obvious question: "Did you climb your mountain?"
I replied, "No. It was against medical advice due to the incredible altitude."
She said, "Oh. So you failed with your dream!"
For a brief time, I sat on the "pity pot" and thought about how I'd failed, but I quickly realized that NO, I DIDN'T FAIL. I climbed "mountains" that I'd never known or dreamt about!
Yes, my challenges with osteoarthritis made this area extra tough for me. My balance is not good, and I've had 5 surgeries so far with a variety of joint replacements. My walking on a hard level FLAT surface is not always very good. Living close to a village where ALL roads and "paths" are heavily rutted, dirt (or mud at times), and very rocky made my life hard. Many people living in the same compound, frequently walked to the village to eat out, shop, or just wander. This wasn't practical for me. I soon discovered this after attempting to walk to the village one day -- a 10-minute walk for many, but for me it was 45 minutes of staring at the ground to avoid "rolling" on big rocks, falling into bottomless crevices (or so they seemed) and trying not to become a slalom skier in the mud. I arrived in "town" exhausted and close to tears! Of course, by then my friends were almost ready to return to our home-base, something I REALLY couldn't face!
After being somewhat of a prisoner at our compound since I only left in our van to go to work, I finally discovered that the ONLY way to "escape" my home-base was to hire a taxi. We're NOT talking luxury here, but at least they could traverse those lovely roads and give me a bone-shaking, teeth-rattling ride to the internet café in town (Oh, WHEN they had electricity!) Yes, it kind of was expensive (at least a cost I hadn't figured into my budget) - but it was FREEDOM - my version of a safe way to see "the world."
Yes, I DID climb my mountains. I "went to bat" for a shy teen who was to be released to his home 3 hours away after only 6 months of drug-free time. With my insistence (pleading and begging) the courts allowed the father to pay for computer school for him, so he still lives at the prison for 6 more months, but is allowed to leave for computer school each morning. As his self-confidence improves, and he gains more drug-free time! One of my boys was horribly thin (surprise, surprise), and had a lousy self-concept when I started working with him. It's thrilling to look at my pictures from this summer to see how he gained some weight, but more importantly, his self-concept is bounding. He has 2 jobs in the prison: he supervises boys learning to clean the "yard" and he also helps in the kitchen. He's a new guy with a new attitude!
There's also one young boy (most weren't sure of their ages) who was literally thrown in a ball of a sheet by armed guards at the first of my summer with them (he didn't own clothes!) As Ibrahim learned to open up, he discovered that there really are safe adults who care. He even put his head on my lap one day and slept for 2 hours. I'm sure it was a first for him! Because he has no family, he was eventually placed in a wonderful orphanage where he has clothes, good food, school every day, and most importantly, a safe place where people really care!
As a mom, a grandma, and a retired teacher, I knew I was where I wanted to be. I knew I was where I needed to be. In a very unique way I was given the opportunity to climb mountains that I hadn't even known about.
"While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about." Angela Schwindt
YES, I WILL KEEP CLIMBING NEW MOUNTAINS---moja moja (1 by 1)!
Published On: October 15, 2008