‘You know, I was the national boxing champion,’ he said.
‘Were you?’ I said.
‘‘You must have been quite good.’
‘I was national champion for four years. I was very good for those years but then I experienced a bad period and then I retired,’ he said.
‘He’ was the Kenyan guide that had come with us on the bus from Nairobi. He was a small man and aging but lean and solid from the years of boxing and then the years of mountain guiding. He wore a blue baseball cap and a heavy blue coat. He wore the coat and I wore a t-shirt and he looked comfortable while I was sweating heavily under the strong sun and the weight of my pack. Africans have a very different perception of weather, I thought, remembering how a couple months back I would come out of the house shirtless in the early morning to find my South Sudanese security guards shivering under heavy blankets.
‘I was a bantamweight,’ he said. ‘I was very fast and I had good lungs. I was very good with the jab and then the left hook. When I lost the quickness I was no good anymore and I had to quit.’
‘You must be very fast and you must have very good lungs and you must be able to hit back for every hit you take.’
I nodded again, enjoying the walking and the working of the muscles and the weight of the pack.
‘When I lost my quickness I still had the lungs and I could hit back but I was not good like before.’
We walked side by side on a wide, gently rising trail through thick forest that blocked out the direct sunlight from above. It was midday and we were just more than an hour into the 10 kilometer trek of the first day. This day would take us from Machame Gate to Machame Camp where we would spend the first night at 3,000 meters. From there it would be five more days up and then another day down but that was all too far ahead to think about.
Now, an hour into the first day’s trek, my muscles were warm and I could feel the benefit from the previous weeks of early morning jogging. I felt strong - my breathing was good and my legs were confident under me - but also I could feel the first day awkwardness as the tendons accustomed themselves to the weight of the hiking boots and the shoulders to the weight of the pack and the whole mechanism searched to find its rhythm.
Finding the rhythm always decided if it would be a good accent or a struggle. For a high altitude trek like this one, I was certain that it would be the difference between success and failure. The rhythm was there in the muscle memory, learned hard from all the previous hikes you had done and just set aside in the time since the last one. Like every time before, all you had to do to get it back was go through the motions during the first day until the muscles were tired enough to be broken of their natural stubbornness.
Then when you found the rhythm, the movement of your legs and your arms and the respiration in your chest would synchronize. You would inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, deeply and slowly, and you would get all the air you needed and maybe more at least until you entered the real altitude. If you were real good and were really keen to be synchronized you would take water from a Camel Pack and you would time it so that the gulps came between the breaths in order to disturb the synchronized breathing as little as possible.
Also when you were synchronized you would not want to talk. You would feel so good, feeling your body in harmony and your senses sharp and your mind clear, so that the talking would only disturb this. But at least now while the muscles were being broken to find their rhythm, I did not mind the talking because it was a good distraction.
‘Soon after I was no longer good I retired and became a guide. That was when I was lost because I didn’t have the boxing anymore. But then I found my faith and everything was different after that.’
‘You found your faith?’ I said.
‘Yes. You see I was born a Christian but I was without faith. It was an experience that gave me faith after I started guiding.’
‘Of course you are a Christian so you will understand about finding faith.’
‘I am not a Christian. About faith I have tried and I have not succeeded,’ I said.
‘Truly you are not Christian?’ he said. ‘What are you then?’
‘I am without religion.’
‘But you believe in God,’ he said, ‘even if you are without religion.’
This he could not understand.
‘It is important that you believe,’ he said. ‘I had my experience and it changed me so I know how important this is.’
‘Maybe I will have an experience and then I too will know,’ I said.
He liked this and he became happy.
‘I think you will. I think you will find God on this mountain.’
‘You think so?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said decidedly. ‘God is on this mountain.’
This mountain was Kilimanjaro - the highest on the continent with a peak reaching 5,895 meters above sea level. It was not supposed to be a difficult technical climb but rather a long, brutal slog up into thin air. If you were accustomed to the altitude, then you would still find it challenging enough to keep your interest. I was coming from the dry, flat land of Malakal, South Sudan at 415 meters, so I was plenty concerned.
God is on this mountain? I thought, well it sounds pretty enough and I guess he wouldn’t be bothered by the altitude at least. Anyway, even if he was here, finding God seemed like a pretty lofty goal. My goals are much more modest, I thought. I was here for the fresh mountain air to clear the Malakal dust from my lungs and for a good challenge to clear my cluttered mind of all the mundane thoughts for a while. If he was here and if he could be found, I was not particularly interested in looking. Anyway, it seemed like a lot of effort to find God and I was already climbing a mountain on my holiday. But I try to keep an open mind and I have always considered that to indulge another in something they really care about is the highest form of charity. Damn it, it’s my holiday and I don’t want to be charitable, I thought. Do it anyway.
‘If he is here as you say then maybe I will find him,’ I said.
‘He is here and I am sure you will find him,’ he said. ‘Now let me tell you of my experience - the one that gave me my faith.’
‘OK,’ I said.
The air was just a little bit cooler than when we started and my muscles were feeling better and more pliant with each step. This meant that the breaking was not far off, so I was glad that this story was coming now because later I would be feeling too good and I would not want to hear it and I figured it would be a shame not to learn how God was found on this mountain.
‘So I was guiding a group of men - they were Germans and they told me they were Satan worshippers.’
He paused, maybe for effect or maybe because he expected me to utter an exclamation of horror or disbelief. I walked on and listened and he continued.
‘I didn’t know what this was then but they explained it to me and I knew it was very bad.
Then in the night at the campsite they played a terrible music and they chanted some things about me. Whatever they said it cursed me and I became possessed.’
‘You became possessed by Satan?’ I said.
‘Yes. It was terrible. For a week I had these terrible images that went through my mind and I felt a great urge to do evil things like kill. It took all my control not to but still I went around like a mad person for that whole week up to the top and back down again. When the tour ended and I returned the Germans to Nairobi, I went to a Catholic church.’
‘I understand the Catholics are the best with exorcisms,’ I said.
‘Well the priest didn’t do anything like that. He prayed with me and then he told me to return here to the mountain and ascend it again. He told me to eat only ugali and to drink only as much as I needed. This way I would stave the daemon and it would be expelled. He said when it was expelled, the Holy Spirit would enter and I would be saved.’
‘And the daemon was expelled this way?’
‘And the Holy Spirit entered?’
‘Yes. And it took away all the madness and the terrible thoughts of death and killing,’ he said.
‘So that is how you found your faith?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It was a terrible trial but in the end I found my faith so it was worth it.’
Soon after we caught up with the two Danish women who were the two other tourists in the group. As they entered the conversation, I was able to exit it. The Kenyan guide began to talk to them about finding God on the mountain and I did not need to hear the story again so I increased my pace until I was beyond earshot. Now I was feeling the rhythm in my step and my breathing had become deep and slow and even. I put in my headphones and I listened to a book that imagined the way things were for the cave people thousands of years ago. I listened intensely and I felt the churning of earth and rocks under my boots and I observed the trail and the trees and the sky above them. I noticed my head cleared and my thoughts became more lucid and less scattered.
I did not know what a faith-finding experience would be like. I only knew that sometimes you could experience a perfect moment or, if you were very lucky, a series of perfect moments. I believed I had experienced a few in my life so I knew how rare they are and also how to spot them when they came. I did not hope for one of these moments during this trek mostly because they occurred when they wanted to and certainly not when you were hoping or expecting them to come. When they did come, if they came, it would be because whatever you were doing you were doing it completely and there was no part of you that was not involved in doing it. Then you would not care if the moment came because you would only care to keep doing the thing completely.
So let’s don’t think about it, I thought, the thinking only ever gets in the way. Thinking is the hardest thing to stop and the best way to ruin whatever you’re trying to do, I decided. It seemed as true as anything else I had come up with and it seemed like very good advice. So I replaced my earphones and returned to the story and tried only to focus on the movement of my body and the terrain that I was ascending.