COOPER DISCOVERER - "Do you mind if I bring my kids?" part 1 of 2

(ring, ring) “Hello?… Where?… Great, that sounds awesome. How many days is it?… Ok, count me in; just one more question: do you mind if I bring my kids?… Excellent. By the way I have six kids, age two to fourteen.”


Six Kids and Five Weeks in Africa


My whole life I have been fascinated with harsh mountains, vast deserts and grand adventures. As a boy growing up in Utah I spent hours poring over maps of twisting canyons and solitary wilderness peaks. I dreamed of climbing the seven summits and the one that captured my imagination was Kilimanjaro. The contrast of climate and culture drew me from a young age. This spring my wife and I discovered an opportunity to tie humanitarian service into our adventurous dreams. We decided to take our older three children and climb Kilimanjaro and then spend the rest of the month with all our children volunteering at a dental clinic in Kenya.Before we knew it we were packing our duffles and boarding a plane to Nairobi. Fifty five hours of travel led us through San Francisco, Zurich, and Nairobi, ending with an six hour bus ride to Arusha, Tanzania. The next eight days were a delight as we trekked through five unique climate zones and enjoyed the culture and hospitality of our Tanzanian guides. Our preparations served us well and the children pushed strongly up the mountain, smiling through two days of steady rain and wind.
The guides loved trekking with the kids, watching them play at rest stops and chase lizards in camp. The minimum age to attempt to summit Kilimanjaro is ten years old, and children are very rare on the mountain. Our route took us across the northern slopes of the mountain, and while Kili has a reputation of being crowded, our family was alone on the trail most of our trek. After five days of slow ascent for acclimatization we began to push harder. On day six we ascended to School Hut camp at 15,472’ elevation and prepared for our push to the summit.
After dinner the sunshine set and the moderate wind created frigid conditions outside. When we got up at 10pm it didn’t feel nearly as cold and we discovered we were a bit over dressed. We had “breakfast” under a perfectly clear sky, the air was 22ºF and the wind calm to light. We hit the trail for the summit at 11:45pm. We were given strict instructions for the ascent: "Stay on the trail, we'll take breaks as needed. Absolutely no photos until sunrise. We'll stop briefly during sunrise for photos, then press onward. Hopefully we'll be on the rim of the crater or perhaps even at the peak for sunrise."
We climbed up lava flow, loose rock, and gravel in the dark for six hours. The only metronome to mark time was the steady crunch of our boots on the rocks and the slow, clock-like rotation of the Big Dipper as it scooped toward the horizon. The only indicator of upward progress was the starlight silhouette of neighboring Mawenzi Peak slowly shrinking behind us. The mountain loomed above us all night as an unvarying black mass outlined by the intense stars. For hours our world consisted of the tiny circle of light our headlamps cast at our feet, illuminating just the next two steps ahead. It brought to mind the words of the hymn “Lead Kindly Light.” As the night drug on the guides began to sing, taking turns leading songs in Swahili, sometimes somber and sometimes vibrant and lively. Most of them hiked with their headlamp turned off, and their voices echoed through the darkness across the barren mountainside.
The skyline never seemed to change until we were just 200 yards below the rim. We crested the rim at Gillman's Point (18,652 ft) with an incredible sunrise behind us. By now 10-year-old Sara was exhausted and moving slowly but determined to make it.
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From Gilman's Point we could see the highest point of the African continent 2 km away and 600 ft above us on the other side of the crater rim. We took off our mitts to touch the snow alongside the trail then continued onward, slowly working our way up the crater rim. When the sun crested the horizon at 6:30am we paused for photos, then the guides required us to put on our sunglasses because of the intense rays. 12-year-old Patrea led the charge and arrived first at the 19,341 ft summit.
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After some triumphant family photos on the summit, one of our guides took Sara's hand, said “This is how we go down,” then nearly sprinted down the mountain. Her spirits and energy rose as they quickly descended and she led us most of the way down. After an exhausting and knee-pounding descent we reached our lunch site where we received a hero's welcome from the porters as they lifted the children up on their shoulders and carried them into camp. We ate and hit the trail again before stiffening up, then about one kilometer before reaching camp Patrea fell and broke her arm, which I splinted with a sock, sticks, and an ace wrap. [When we got to the dental clinic two days later my son Hunter made her a cast out of bamboo.]
In total we spent eight days on the trail, climbing almost 14,000 vertical feet, trekking over 50 miles and crossing through five distinct climate zones. The Kilimanjaro phase of our trip ended with a sweaty bus ride back to Nairobi, which took almost nine hours because of intense security at the Kenyan border.

= continued in part 2 =


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COOPER DISCOVERER - "Do you mind if I bring my kids?" part 2 of 2

Back in Nairobi we had a joyful rendezvous when my 78 year-old mother and my two, five and eight year-old boys arrived at the airport, then we began the next phase of our adventure. We hired two drivers to take us to Narok where we were to meet with the clinic Land Cruiser. The three-hour trip quickly got off-course when we were caught in a traffic jam in the Great Rift Valley. Four trucks had collided and burst into flames, shutting down the two-lane road and forcing traffic onto crude side roads that tested the drivers skill and left acacia thorn scratches in the cars polished finish. Then as we were climbing back out of the Rift Valley the vehicle began to sputter and hesitate. An entrepreneurial young man on a motorcycle guided the faltering car toward a tiny metal shed on the side of the road that served as his “shop.” As I watched the men argue about the problem and begin pulling off belts and hoses, I was certain we were going to end up walking the rest of the way. The only tool I ever saw him use was a screw driver, but forty minutes later the car started properly and we were back on our way, with the cars thermostat sitting on the floorboards.

In Narok we stocked up on provisions for our three-week stay at the clinic, then loaded all our gear into the safari-modified 2016 70-series Toyota Landcruiser. I used paracord to secure our bags on the roof, but the driver was not impressed. He said “you don't know African roads, we need African rope to tie things on.” He then drove into the market where his friends used frayed hemp rope to tie down the duffles. The rope broke as they were tightening the knots but they didn't seem to care and I chuckled inwardly, trusting that my own cord and knots would keep our gear safe. After an oil change and adding “presha” to the tires, we started toward the clinic. The drive began on a nice gravel road, but with every passing kilometer the road worsened progressively.
By the time we approached the clinic three hours later it wasn't even a road, just a trail through the bush used more by game and livestock than vehicles. As we neared the clinic we found ourselves in the center of a herd of elephants and zebras, super-charging our expectations for the remainder of our adventure. The next three weeks were a mix of intense service, education, relaxation and game drives. We had the opportunity to visit local schools and provide desperately needed dental service.
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One day we visited the school in the village near the clinic. You can actually walk to the village faster than you can drive (15 minute walk) because the “road” that goes to the village is so rough. Most of these roads are created simply by driving over the same path frequently enough to beat it into a double-track path. As the track erodes or becomes impassable, detours around the obstacle are created, resulting in a snake like path through the bush and across the rivers. Those on foot can cross the river between the clinic and the village 15 feet above the riverbed on a suspension bridge that our driver tells us is “above-water most of the rainy season.” Today the river is just a trickle despite the brief rains of the past few days, and our Land Cruisers bumpers scrape the ground as we crawl down one bank and out the other.

The school sits on about 20 acres inside a failing barbed wire fence, with a smattering of about 10 buildings that serve as offices, classrooms and dormitories. We are greeted warmly by Amos, the Vice-Principle. He is tall, thin and speaks fair english. He introduces us to Ambrose, a Level 8 teacher, who will be our host and guide. Ambrose wears a yellow dress shirt with brass cuff links and a huge smile, and he speaks excellent english. As we walk across the school grounds, which resemble an American cow pasture littered with buildings and thorny acacia trees, he tells us about their public school system. In Kenya, all children are required to attend primary school, which is equivalent to Kindergarten through 8th Grade in the USA. Most children start school around age four, but there is a large mix ofages in each grade because the children progress differently each year. There are 600 students attending the school, 250 of whom are boarding students from distant communities. Ambrose tells us that boarding students must be “old enough to take care of themselves completely, or about her age” he says, gesturing to 10-year-old Sara. They don't really track age here like we do in the US. I have had patients whom I can estimate their age closely based on their baby teeth, but they don't know or care how old they are. They do not celebrate birthdays, probably because they don't know when they were born.
Ambrose leads us into the girls dorm, which houses about 24 bunk beds three feet wide and three feet apart, each dressed neatly with traditional red or red and blue blankets. The girls sleep two to a bed, four to a bunk. Boarding students stay at the school three months on, one month off, three terms per year. Next we are shown the younger boys dorm, which is smaller, older, and far more messy (I guess boys are the same all over the world). There I notice that some of the beds have a 2” foam mattress over the 1/2” strap-metal framework, while others simply have a blanket as padding, sagging through the 4” square holes. I suppose if my children don't really mind sleeping on the hardwood floor, these kids probably don't mind sleeping on the metal frame. But they still don't like to make their beds!

From the dorms we next visit the kitchen, which is a building about fifteen feet square with an opening in the wall to serve the food. There is a fire burning in an open fireplace on one wall, but there is presently nothing cooking there. The central feature of the kitchen is a cylindrical, wood-fired cooking pot. I estimate it holds about fifteen gallons, at present it is mostly full of a mixture of corn and beans. It's impressive to feed so many children from a single pot. From what I gathered, they cook ugali (cornmeal porridge or dough) for breakfast and dinner and corn with beans for lunch every single day.
Our next stop is the Level 8 classroom, where young teenagers sit two to a desk. They wear red and white patterned patterned uniforms, mid-calf length dresses for the girls and short-sleeved dress-shirts with grey shorts for the boys. Most students also wear a red sweater embroidered with the logo of the school, despite the heat of the day. The classroom is about 20' x 30', the walls bare except for four large windows propped open for ventilation. A corrugated steel roof sits atop exposed wood trusses, and the smooth concrete walls are painted yellow except for a black rectangular area on the front and back walls to serve as chalkboards. There are 60 students in the classroom.

Ambrose greets the students in english and invites us to introduce ourselves. They listen intently as my children speak in turn, and they burst into laughs and giggles when five-year-old Hyrum introduces himself. We tell them a little about where we are from and what school is like there. Communication is pretty easy because they speak a lot of english. The students want to know what American kids learn in school, so Sara writes one of her math problems on the board: 6 x 7 / 2 + 9 = ___. Ambrose invites one of the students to solve the equation, which he does promptly. Unfortunately, he transposed the 7 and 2 and got the wrong answer. Ambrose is an excellent instructor and gently points out the error, taking advantage of the teaching opportunity. A second boy works up the courage to come up front and executes a correct solution then receives a cheer from his classmates.

Our visit is cut short because it's time for recess. We've brought three indestructible One World Futbols and some jumprope's to donate, so we grab those and head over to the playing field, dodging cow dung and thorny acacia bushes along the way. Our family leads the way, followed by a flood of red uniforms. We reach the field and I throw the balls into the air. It's almost like a dam burst and a torrent of children race onto the field with shouts of delight. They haven't had a ball here for a long time because the thorns puncture them instantly. For the next 20 minutes it's pandemonium as the 600 children simultaneously kick three balls and jump three ropes. My older kids run and play, while the younger two are thronged by age-mates who want to touch their hair and their ears. I'm hot and sweaty from playing when a bell rings and instantly the flood of red begins to drain off the field back toward the classrooms. I start to give high-fives to the children near me, and soon a long line of children forms. Everyone wants to touch my hand on their way back to class.
We wander back to the administration building, where Amos asks us to sign the official guest book, documenting our visit. He invites us to return any time and thanks us for the wonderful gifts. We climb back into the muddy Land Cruiser with a new appreciation for our blessings and a recognition that God's children are the same everywhere on earth.
Before leaving Kenya we visited another four schools, they varied in size but all had basically the same conditions. In total they serve over 3000 students, and between all those kids they had only one soccer ball and it was mostly flat. The Maasai people are simple and beautiful. While it was a joy to serve them, we learned far more from them than we could ever do for them.
I used to feel that I had to choose between going on grand adventures or being a good father to my children. But perhaps I was wrong. Maybe going on grand adventures is being the best father I can be, as long as I take my children with me. It requires a lot more preparation and some changes to itineraries, but kids have a lot more grit than we realize. And the memories made together are the only thing we can take beyond this lifetime.
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