NAIROBI, Kenya – You are standing in the front row at graduation, ready to toss the gold, or navy or crimson cap off your head, smiling at those rows of people who, like you have
finished it all. You and your classmates are ready to open a new chapter: so many International School of Kenya Lions looking back.
Yes, many will depart. It is the nature of an international school, students coming and going.
But regardless of where you finish high school, where you moved or how many changes have taken place, there are moments that stand out.
One of the experiences our class will always look back on was our climb up Mt. Kenya.
Almost 90 ninth graders made the five-day trip.
Sitting agitated on a bus ready to climb the second highest mountain in Africa, our goal was to reach and stand upon the summit, or Lannana, as it is known in Swahili.
Lannana is the highest point a person can reach without a minimum of six years climbing expertise.
In the beginning, the trip was one quite steep path. This winding trail led to what we would call victory. Once we cleared the distance, and finally conquered it, that would be the end – goal achieved.
A mountain lake that hikers saw on the first day. (Alex Arrouchdi/YJI)
We were still a long way from Lannana. It would not be until those last days that the profoundness of it all would sink in.
The 15-year-olds began to understand what few adults do today; that despite the challenges, and your friends who get there faster, what really matters is that you keep going.
Just as in life, it doesn’t matter if you fall down seven times, as long as you stand up eight.
The first day was comprised of briefings, and after piling onto buses, the general tone of excitement began to slip away when confronted with a five-hour drive. We did not know what to expect. They only certainty was that in five days, we would be homeward bound.
After arriving we found our bags and ate what some people could call lunch followed by a quick group photo before embarking on our first trek.
Now, to put this walk in context, on the first day we complained about having one hour left to climb.
Hikers saw mountain monkeys on the first day. (Alex Arrouchdi/YJI)
Yet, by the fifth day, cheers and smiles erupted when we had just a single hour left.
So you can only imagine what it was like to have to make 90 adolescents – carrying 10-kilo (about 22 pounds) bags – move up hill.
It was painful. The only aspect that made the trek oddly bearable was the bizarre, slightly disturbing and random conversations!
As every day must have an end, every walk must come to a stop.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen teenagers as giddy as they were upon arrival at the base camp.
People were ridiculous. I think the phrase “I love you” has never been so overused.
That is, until we saw the cabins. These structures were not the typical orderly, steel-framed beds of the dormitory type. No, what we faced was hard wood floors since there were not enough grotty mattresses.
Rat-infested, two-degree bedrooms were the reward for hours and hours of hiking. Oh and I nearly forgot, without any power or lighting.
Now, I can’t pretend that I haven’t seen worse, but after falling asleep in cozy duvets and air-freshened homes of Nairobi, it was a definite shock to our systems.
That evening, as we settled in our groups, we got the first taste of the cold, and it wasn’t sweet. Evening had snuck upon us and the only warmth was in the small, fragmented sunlight that stood between the trees.
But the surroundings . . . If nature came in the form of reward, then this was it.
Pure nature was our breathtaking reward.
Our camp was located around one kilometer of the tree line. The temperature in the evening was no higher than 5 degrees Celsius, or about 41 Fahrenheit.
Yet, with the excitement, the relief and the need to be around one another that comes with a first night away, we barely noticed the cold.
The setting helped, too. We were entirely surrounded by ancient forest, tall, tired trees that stood in eternal silence.
Freshmen from the International School of Kenya on their second day of hiking Mount Kenya. ( Alex Arrouchdi/YJI)
Apart from the rare sound of an insect at work, or the beat of a bird’s wing against the wind, there was an air of peace about the place. It’s a wild presence we can feel when we are no longer in a place we belong, when we know that we are merely visitors – passersby who before long shall continue on our way.
This was a place that belonged to untouched wilderness; one of the few places humanity had never fully conquered. For all we knew, it was one of the wild places that a few of us didn’t even know existed.
On the third day of hiking, students reached the summit of Mount Kenya. (Alex Arrouchdi/YJI)
That night we went to sleep at a time only a few eight-year-olds would agree upon. At 7:30 p.m. lights out, we finally began to settle into our sleeping bags, the bare tips of our noses exposed to the cold.
I was up at dawn on the second day. Apart from the fact that we couldn’t feel our toes, we were well on our way by 8:30 a.m.
We walked in groups and it slowly became clear who wished to arrive faster than others. Halfway through the forest trek, the bustling and rustling of those who wish to lead eventually quieted as we passed the tree line.
The reality of our adventure became clearer, and it was only after the first few hours that we realized just how tough it would be that week.
Sabrina Lawson-McDowell is a Junior Reporter in Kenya for Youth Journalism International. Alex Arrouchdi is a Photographer in Kenya for Youth Journalism International.
International School of Kenya students meet their bus on the fifth day and board for home. (Alex Arrouchdi/YJI)
Incredible – I've never been to Kenya, thanks for making it feel like I was there.