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Kilimanjaro article written for Renaissance magazine

Kilimanjaro article written for Renaissance magazine at its request

Africa's children are burning. Exploding paraffin stoves. Hot water. Flaming shacks in squatter camps. Thousands are terribly injured every year. Left disfigured, disabled, rejected, alone. Children of Fire is the first charity in Africa to tackle this issue head on. The Johannesburg-based organisation started 11 years ago when its first trustee helped Dorah, a little girl who lost her face as an infant left alone in a burning hovel. From this altruistic act and the knowledge gained from seeing the child through more than 20 operations, the foundation was laid to help future burns survivors to get a better life.

While the charity's focus is on surgery to restore quality of life, it also works extensively on prevention and awareness. Until paraffin stoves become historical exhibits in museums and until squatter camps are a dim memory, injuries are not set to decrease dramatically. But making life more bearable for those who are hurt, is an achievable goal. Survivors do not want to be pitied. To be teased for missing a hand or for having a scarred face. They want to be able to walk freely in society. To empower the survivor and to educate the public, the Kilimanjaro Expedition was born.

This extinct volcano that towers above the plains of East Africa is a powerful symbol for the whole continent. It is beautiful and demanding. Children of Fire decided to train some of the teenagers that it had helped over the years, to optimum mental and physical fitness and see if they could conquer the highest heights of Africa. We soon realised how limited their view of the world was…. We arranged a preliminary trip to the Drakensberg Mountains. The kids stayed in a dormitory that is also used by the air force, at the stunning Dragon Peaks resort. They hiked for the first time ever. They learned about trees and birds and grasses. They abseiled over terrifying precipices and slid shrieking (some with jubilation) down a zip line. They quad biked and mountain boarded and rode horses. Everything was a "first" and they came through with flying colours. They even learned history, exploring the San museum and a real San-painted cave. And the icing on the cultural cake was lunch with Alfred Hlongwane, King of the Amangwane Nation, at his home. There a group of youngsters from Japan, Norway, Sweden, the UK, Germany and of course lots from South Africa, learnt of the lineage of a kingdom 200 years older than the Zulus.

But from this wealth of experience in South Africa, a far greater treasure awaited them when setting off to explore Tanzania in late June 2007. Before they went, the kids from Bloemfontein, the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, KZN and Gauteng, got to test their mettle on climbing walls, on biokinetic testing, to learn about East Africa leaders, to taste Tanzanian food at moyo restaurant and generally to start thinking out of the little box they did not even know that they were in.

They went hiking in the Magaliesburg. They had vaccinations for diseases that they never knew existed. They had their teeth checked by Professor Sid Setzer, the leading dentist of South Africa. They had a motivational talk by Deshun Deysel - the first black African woman to climb Everest… who had also climbed Kilimanjaro. And they spent time with two Kenyan teenage burns survivors who even taught them a handful of words in kiSwahili. That was a surprise for the Zulu kids who had never realised that there was an African language group bigger than theirs - indeed one that is spoken widely across at least three countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda. So in learning how powerful they could be individually, they also started to realise how small they were in the world context. And that was good. They left Johannesburg one confused, chaotic, anxious Saturday morning. They travelled via Nairobi, Kenya and then on to Moshi, Tanzania for their first ever night in a hotel. And even then, they had no idea how hard the days ahead would be.

They bickered a little in camp. Teased each other. Spent their first ever nights in tents. And were all so grateful to the Tanzanian sherpas who carried most of their possessions. The kids learned to pace themselves. They learned teamwork like never before. The younger or the skinnier ones had less stamina. The stockier ones plodded on. Up and up. On and on. None could ever have imagined climbing through the clouds until, like angels, they looked down upon them. They found that they were eating three times as much as they usually ate. But each day it was harder. The air was thinner. And finally at around 5000 metres, some realised that they could not get to the summit. But they had not failed. Three adults had already turned back a day or two before. The youngsters had beaten their own limits and climbed higher than any mountain that even exists in South Africa.

Some headed for a lower altitude camp. But 13 of them went on under the brilliant guidance of Adventure Alternative. The final ascent was the hardest. Setting off at icy midnight, a dark and starry night. It was more than bitterly cold. They felt hungry, short of breath, and cold through to the bone. The ice was treacherous and slippery. Some had sticks for support but most did not. For the teenager who lost his hands due to electrical burns, maybe it was the hardest of all. But each one, encouraged by the others, pushed on. Finally they reached Stellar Point and mistakenly thought the signs showed the top. A short burst of adrenalin and then a plunge of dismay that there were another, seemingly impossible, 200 metres to climb. One stayed at Stellar Point and 12 went on.

They were arguing inside their own heads. One breath, two steps. The sun was coming up. But it was so cold. Why were they doing this? What was the point of it all? How was there energy left for even one more step? Somehow, that energy came and they reached the summit, one by one. Some crying with joy. Some stunned, not really believing that they were there. Some simply too exhausted to realise quite what they had achieved. Never ever again was anyone going to pity these children. They had made it to the top of Africa. And who in their class, their school, their village, squatter camp or township, could ever say that? They left as mere teenagers but returned as fearless travellers. Africa has a new dimension for them now.
©Bronwen Jones, Children of Fire, July 2007

This material is Copyright © The Dorah Mokoena Charitable Trust and/or Children of Fire , 1998-2020.
Distribution or re-transmission of this material, excluding the Schools' Guide, is expressly forbidden without prior permission of the Trust.
For further information, email firechildren@icon.co.za