Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reached peaks for African leaders: The last word

Below are two accounts from the perspectives of a former Eastern Graduate Program student, Stephanie Nitschke (IDEV '12), and a currently enrolled student, Timothy Paulson (IDEV '13). Both were/are in the MA program for International Development (IDEV) and participated in the Kilimanjaro ‘Reaching Peaks for African Leaders’ Climb.

When Dr. Beth Birmingham and I arrived in Tanzania we could see Mt. Kilimanjaro surrounded by a flat landscape with clouds looming around the peak.  Suddenly the mountain was more daunting than ever before, and the magnitude of what we were about to do was setting in.  I turned to Beth and told her it’s not often we see a visual picture of the challenge in front of us. 

When I think about the most challenging experiences of my life, I never entered with a full picture of what I was taking on.  I seem to cope best when I just throw myself in and figure things out as I go.  Admittedly, my education with Eastern was no different.  When I began Eastern’s IDEV program I had no idea what an online class would be like, and even though it had been explained to me, I really didn’t understand the format of hybrid distance learning and residency classes.  At the beginning of my studies I was completely overwhelmed and ready to turn back, but there were people to assure me I could get through it.  After the initial gauntlet of first month of coursework, I was able to break everything down step by step.  Each step was taken with a prayer, a pep talk from me or a friend, and the virtual support of my classmates.  

The catch phrase on Mt. Kilimanjaro was “polepole” – Swahili for slowly, slowly. Our guide would make sure our pace was manageable, and as friends we would keep a close eye on each others' status. There was no shame in knowing your own limits and sharing that.  There was nothing to prove, as the mere attempt at such a challenge merited respect in its own right. No matter how the trek ended we all left with a higher level of admiration for one another.    For me, the key to getting through grad school and making it up that mountain was taking one step at a time.  Reaching out to other members of the community for assistance in my weakness made all the difference.  The whole picture would often get overwhelming, but when I kept a steady pace and stayed in the moment the task became manageable. 

The region leading up to Africa’s highest peak is awe-inspiring in its beauty and scope. I recently endeavored to climb this, the world’s tallest “free-standing” mountain; I was accompanied by a classmate, Stephanie Nitschke, and one of my professors, Dr. Beth Birmingham. The journey took 5 days and covered several miles of hiking. As we progressed through Kilimanjaro’s varied climates and ecosystems, the air became thinner and the challenges became heavier. Increasingly, I had to take one step at a time without allowing my mind to fully engage with the enormity of the task before me. During the last leg of the upward journey, the stretch between Kibo base camp and the summit, the mental battle came to a sharp focus. Every plodding step felt like a challenge, and despite our snail’s-pace, I was breathing as if I was running mile 10 of a marathon. As my heart beat wildly like a bird in a cage, I had to continually shift my hiking pole from hand to hand so that I could warm up my free fingers in my pocket; my gloves were totally inadequate for the cold and the tendons and muscles in my hands became less responsive as I fought off numbness.

Tim and I were in agreement that the most difficult part of hiking to the summit was the section from Kibo base camp to Gilman’s point.  It was a 5 and a half hour hike at a very high altitude which began at midnight.  We were just under 4 miles in the sky.  The trail was steep, and the ground was mostly sand.  As I hiked up I struggled to get air.  I became sleepy and struggled to keep awake propping each step with my trekking poles.  I would stop for breath, but couldn’t catch enough.  It took me awhile to register what was going on.  It wasn’t until I recognized the feeling of my lungs being on fire that I decided to take a puff of my inhaler.  It took the steady pace of our guide, the support of a friend, prayer, and a bit of swearing to keep going at that point.  The mental battle was equal parts to the physical challenge. 

Prior to our midnight stroll, I read Romans chapter 5.  The verse that got me to the top was “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.” I encourage you to read the whole chapter so I don’t offer a misunderstanding of the text.  The nugget of truth I held onto was it is only by the grace of God I stand anywhere, and no matter where I end up standing it is due to an act of God’s protection and provision.

Two hours and four puffs later, I was at Gilman’s Point.  Our guide was reluctant to encourage me to keep going, but with only 90 minutes left of hiking, I decided to keep going even if I had to go back down the mountain on a stretcher.

I remember praying intermittently as we climbed, trusting that Jesus was hiking alongside us. I even laughed to myself as I thought “We got ourselves into this Lord, but we need your help getting through it!” As Stephanie fought through asthma and lack of oxygen, I prayed for her and feared that she would have to turn back. Going on without my climbing companion was not an enjoyable prospect, as we had already been forced to see Dr. Birmingham turn back because of the conditions.

Finally, after what seemed like days of laboring in increasingly cold conditions, we made the top at Gilman’s Point in a last scramble over ice-encrusted rocks. As the glacier-cooled winds buffeted us, I turned and looked down on the constellation of moving lights representing other climbers far below us. Then I looked up to see the vibrant stars above, closer and brighter than I ever remember seeing them; as if I could simply reach up and grasp those cold, unwavering points of light. Then I began to laugh. The laughing brought tears of joy – joy that we had made this arduous climb and I stood there in triumph over the challenges faced below. From there (to my dismay) we had to walk another hour to the actual peak. This was truly the most difficult part for me, mentally. I had just ascended the mountain and seemingly finished, only to face another long walk through blisteringly cold winds. I simply put my head down and placed one foot in front of another, following Stephanie’s lead until we arrived at Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the continent.

As we walked back down the mountain in triumph, much refreshed and energized by our accomplishment, I thought about the personal implications of what I had just done. The verse that first came to mind is from Hebrews 12:11 and says “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” I had just undergone the most painful physical self-discipline exercise of my life, and it yielded a sense of accomplishment that I have not often felt in recent years. I also began to comprehend the metaphor represented by the climb. Every season that life brings has times where I must simply put one foot in front of the other and believe that the next step will not be my last. Rather, the next step is one closer the goal. Even as I am blindly following the guide in front of me, I know that I can trust that guide and must push through the mental (and spiritual) rollers that threaten to push me back or drown me. Every time I stumble or slide on a loose patch of gravel, even as I gasp for breath, there is one to grab me and put me back in step with Him. 

The challenge of Kili was one we chose to take on.  Unfortunately there are many challenges in life that we face without choosing to. The financial challenge of school is a large barrier to education for many African students. They don’t have the same available resources of loans and grants for a private graduate education.  My hope and prayer is that this experience will help in breaking down financial barriers for African students seeking to continue progressing as agents of change. I know there are leaders being raised up for a specific time and ministry.  We trust that financial partners will rise up to walk with these leaders.

When thinking about education and this endeavor to raise awareness for the assistance of African leaders, I know that there will be adversity and challenge. Achieving a good education is difficult, and I am still in the middle of a M.A. program that promises plenty of challenges in the year ahead. Aspiring African leaders face even more challenges: high tuition rates, little government or financial assistance, language and communication barriers, etc. I am glad that Eastern, with the leadership of Dr. Beth Birmingham, has begun to raise awareness of the fact that there are many African students eager to learn and, in turn, to use that education to become leaders in their communities. Just this year, our Eastern University cohort learned that two of our African brothers would not be able to complete the program this year because of financial difficulty. I pray for those brothers and others like them who have the gifts and desire, and only lack the means of accomplishing their dreams. With God’s help, they too can overcome mountains of adversity and take the lead in the transformation of their communities.

I'm going to seize this opportunity to steal the last word.  On behalf of Beth, Tim, and many more in the Eastern SLD community; it is our deep desire to support our African brothers and sisters in reaching not only the peak of completing their Masters, but also the peaks of building their communities, and ultimately the kingdom of God. It is only by God's grace we stand. May we be faithful with what we are given and give out.

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