Blind, lame and deaf trio climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

Monday January 3 2011

Robert Nkwangu (on the left) at the Uhuru peak

Robert Nkwangu (on the left) at the Uhuru peak 5895m. 

By John K. Abimanyi

For 27-year-old Florence Ndagire, and her friends Robert Nkwangu and Patrick Kasirye, climbing the highest mountain on the African continent was more than just fun. It was for a social cause, writes John K. Abimanyi.

Florence Ndagire has climbed more than two thirds of Africa’s tallest mountain but she did not see any of it. All she has are imagined impressions, created by her arduous experience up the climb and stories that she hears people weave. She has no visual clue whatsoever of the sheer magnitude of the inconceivable feat she achieved. Florence Ndagire is blind but beat all the odds to climb up to an unprecedented 3,950m of Mountain Kilimanjaro, which rises to 5,895m above sea level.

And to her story add that of Robert Nkwangu, a deaf man, and Patrick Kasirye, a lame man, who managed to reach the summit. The three were a team of Ugandans living with disabilities that set out to climb the mountain last month. I found Ndagire and Nkwangu at the Uganda Society for Disabled Children (USDC) offices in Kitante, Kampala, and here are their tales.

Florence Ndagire
Ndagire fumbled for a seat in the boardroom at USDC where she works as a Lobbying and advocacy officer. She wore her omni-directional smile, as if she was sure you were watching her. And when she smiled, she reminded you of Maimouna, the blind woman whose beauty got all men silently yearning for her in Ousmane Sembene’s book, God’s Bits of Wood.

After steadying herself in her chair, she directed her face straight on, revealing neatly done rows of fixed braids. There was something eager to talk, about her; something that was keen to tell her story. And when asked how she would describe mountain Kilimanjaro, she said, “Up there is beautiful, with many branches and trees. If you go there, you can appreciate nature.”

Her journey lasted only two days, coming to an end when she reached Shirra plateau, where, in fear of further steep climbs at Barancco wall, she was advised to stop. With visible excitement, she narrated her ordeal up Mount Kilimanjaro. “The journey to Machame gate was difficult,” she says. “I had two men holding my hands on both sides, telling me where to step and when to climb. If you did not follow, you would fall,” she adds.

“We started at 9a.m. and ended at 4p.m. At about midday, we would rest and have lunch. We walked for long hours. And at times you would get discouraged and the guides would tell you that ‘The tent is there’ or that ‘we have just 40 minutes to reach’ and yet you would continue walking only to realise you are not reaching,” she says. “We got very tired. I was feeling pain in my legs but the guides told us that pain was weakness leaving the body. We were reminded to focus on why we are going up there. So I did not mind about the pain because I wanted to get to the top and fundraise for the disabled children,” she adds.

As they trekked their way, a set of guides helped carry tents and tables that the group used. The night out of the open was virgin experience for Florence. “I had never slept in a sleeping bag before. It was very cold and the ground was very hard. I think I slept for about 30 minutes,” she says.

“On the second day, we were told that it was very steep but that failure was not an option. We experienced a lot of altitude sickness. I had peelings on my nose, dry lips and no saliva in my mouth. There was good food but I had lost my appetite. And up there, there is little oxygen, so breathing also became a problem,” she says.
“Before we reached Barancco wall, I was told that I was going to stop there. I thought that I could manage but the doctor explained to me that now that I had a four-months old baby, I should not risk my health but make it back to take care of my child,” Ms Ndagire adds.

Although she strives to sound positive, Florence can’t hide the disappointment at not being able to reach the top. “I told myself, ‘look, the others are going up.’ But then I told myself, I have reached my summit. I had made a point that people with disabilities have abilities and potential,” she says.

And so Ms Ndagire’s climb up the highest peak in Africa came to an abrupt end at 3,950m, at the end of the second day. Ms Susan Kisitu, the leader of the Ugandan team and executive director at USDC, said, “I cried when the doctor told us she was not going to continue but because her health was at stake, we had to do what the doctor said.”

Ndagire’s disappointment is only slight and she does not allow any of it to show. “I showed what disabled people are capable of doing,” she says again. Born 27 years ago, Ms Ndagire’s parents found out that she was blind, 10 days after she was born. Her cornea had not fully developed, the doctor told her parents then. But from the go, her parents were determined to give her an education. She did not go to any special schools for disabled children but blended in with pupils in regular schools. She says, “When you are a child, you learn very quickly and adapt easily.” She says she knew the ways to the dining hall, and to class.

Florence went to Spire Road and Bishop Wills Primary schools in Jinja. She did her O’Levels at St Francis Secondary School in Soroti before going to Iganga Girls School for A’ Levels. She did a Bachelor of Arts in Laws degree at Makerere University on government sponsorship, she says, graduating in 2008.

Since then, she has worked at USDC and is a board member at the National Union of Women with Disabilities. She advises other disabled people, “Not to sympathise with themselves because sympathy does not work,” adding, “Disabled people are just like other people with a simple impairment but the rest of the body is functional.”

Robert Nkwangu
Just like ccarries a smile with him. His smile is even more constant, the first thing that comes to his face when you face each other. But unlike Florence, he made it to Uhuru peak, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. He says the reason for his ascent up the mountain was to create awareness that disabled people, once included, can be a change to society. Through an interpreter, he narrated his ordeal. “On the first day, we walked for nine hours. It was fairly flat. We experienced vegetation change, from forest to moor land. It was very sunny during the day but very cold at night,” he says.

“On the second day, we walked for 10 hours. We walked deep, down and up again in an undulating form. It was very sunny. I drank four litres of water per day. We reached a flat rock, at a place called Shirra plateau and we slept there for the night,” he adds.

“On the third day, it was time for adapting to the environment. The weather was changing quickly. It was windy, cloudy, and then you would see snow, sand and then clouds again, then suddenly snow and rain again. It was a day for adjusting. We walked for nine hours, and slept next to Barancco wall. The weather at night was fair, not so cold,” he says.

“On the fourth day, we climbed the wall. We climbed it like lizards. It was a straight wall and guides held our hands and pulled us up. We went through some flat areas and then others were steep. We walked for 11 hours until Barafu camp where we slept for three hours. It was very cold,” Robert says.

“The fifth day was summit day. We dressed in very heavy clothes and started climbing at about 10p.m. It was very challenging. We walked in a zigzag, up-down for between seven to eight hours. It was a very long steep journey until we got to a place called Gilman’s point. Many people felt very successful and happy at that time. The place had so much ice, and the weather was very hostile. I can only compare the soil to lava; when you poured water into the soil, it disappeared very fast,” Robert adds.

“But then we were told that we had not reached the top yet. We had one more hour. We walked through glaciers until Uhuru point. At 9a.m., I had reached my mission. We hugged each other. I felt very happy although I was very weak. But when you are happy, you can achieve strength. I felt like I was on top of the world. Reaching the roof of Africa; that’s the achievement I got,” he says. “At the top, I saw Moshi town, Tanzania and Mount Meru but we were advised to come down quickly,” he adds.

Nkwangu was not born deaf. “I became deaf when I was in P.3,” he says. His parents were however very supportive and they encouraged him to continue with his studies like nothing had happened. He went to the St Peters schools in Nsambya for both Primary and secondary education before graduating with a Social Science degree from Makerere University. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Sector Planning and management at Makerere. Robert hopes to work with disabled communities after school, he says; creating awareness about the potential of women, children and the disabled.

According to Ndagire and Nkwangu, their trek up the Kilimanjaro is symbolic of an even bigger struggle that disabled people go through daily. For every hardship faced up the trek, Robert says, be it peeling and swollen lips, altitude sickness, nausea or the steep climb, it symbolised the challenges of stigma, denial and abuse that people living with disabilities endure, just to achieve their dreams. They equated a climber failing to reach the summit, thanks to a hardship or two, to society’s barring disabled people to archive their full potential.

But when someone reaches the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, they added, it’s like a disabled person who has beaten all the odds that nature has thrown at them, to become a change for their entire society. Many able bodied and financially able people have never climbed a mountain. But Ndagire and Nkwangu, who are blind and lame respectively, have shown that you don’t need to be the most likely contender to create a path where there is none.

Additional reporting by Mark Msoke, Daily Citizen.