Elvis in Africa


Chewa ElvisOne day not long ago, I first encountered what I thought was a bust of Elvis Presley. His image was unsettling, as if his face had been surgically removed a la the movie “Face/Off.” I soon realized that it was a handmade ceremonial mask of “The King” made in the Chewa tradition. I thought it odd that the Chewa people of central and southern Africa would fashion a mask honoring a 1950s American music icon. What I initially found creepy – to be honest – has now become an intriguing fixture in my life. “Elvis” now pops up in mysterious places at odd times as if possessed by a ghost or repositioned by a trickster. One never knows when Elvis will be sitting in front of a podium ready to deliver a speech or at the water fountain waiting for a drink.

No one knows when the mask was made or who made it. It was most likely made by a Chewa artist. Their masks have been an important part of performances of the secretive Nyau society. Information on Nyau dancing indicates that: “Masquerade is a complex art form involving many parts: costumes and masks, music, choreography, lyrics, and the ambient situation (location, weather, time of day, etc.) Masquerade has apparently existed in Africa for millennia, and it is still actively practiced today. Dances and masks have different meanings for different audiences: some are secret, and some public, with layers of meaning for different audiences.’ The Chewa Elvis masquerade of Zambia and Malawi developed after the American singer became well known in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. All Elvis masks include certain elements: a thick, pompadour wig, long lamb-chop sideburns, bright, pale skin, a narrow upturned nose, and thick, slightly parted lips. The dancers, always young males, perform a provocative, gyrating choreography mimicking Elvis Presley’s famous hip movements. The masquerade is an example of how African traditional art forms have evolved over time, with interesting changes in the last century, particularly with the advent of international communications.”

Nyau traditions of the Chewa people may be shrouded in mystery, but one thing is certain: Elvis is alive and well in Africa.

Special thanks to Janet Peterson for contributing information used in this posting.

Kilimanjaro (Epilogue)


I awoke early on my final day in Arusha. We needed to depart early for the airport to catch a morning flight to Lusaka, Zambia via Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. I felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep in a real bed albeit still very sore. We met in the lobby and rejoined our companion Betty for the first time in days. I gave her a big hug. Although she did not make it to the top on our trip, I admire her for trying to climb Kilimanjaro twice, the first time in 2005 when she was forced to cut her climb short when she was hit by altitude sickness. It takes guts to pick up the pieces and try again.

Betty recounted the events that had transpired during her evacuation from Kibo Hut three days prior. The guides had placed her in a wheeled stretcher akin to a wheel barrow and hauled her down the mountain to Mandara Huts on the Marangu Route. A kindly physician on her way up the mountain spotted Betty and assisted her with some on-the-spot medical attention. A rescue team sent by Kilimanjaro National Park management rendezvoused with Betty at Mandara Huts and escorted her down the mountain with guides in tow. They loaded her into one of August’s vans and took her to a local hospital for treatment. Much to her consternation, employees who helped evacuate and treat Betty demanded compensation, even though the $742 Kilimanjaro park entrance fee includes insurance coverage for medical evacuations. She had no recourse but to pay for assistance at every turn, even the hospital bill. The Tanzanian authorities may never reimburse for her troubles.

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Betty’s sad story did not dampen our enthusiasm (including Betty’s) to head home. We got into August’s van as the porters stored our gear in the back and set off for Kilimanjaro International Airport. None of us spoke much on final leg of our trip; I stared out the window and watched Tanzania pass me by for perhaps the last time. I found some names of local businesses rather amusing, none more so than the “Obama Bar.” Colorful shops with sheet metal roofs painted in a livery of beige or blue with bright lettering and trim stood out among strands of palms. The subtropical climate near Arusha gave way to the semiarid steppes around the airport closer to Kilimanjaro’s shadow. I watched as we passed locals going about their business as they headed to work on bicycles, carried children on their backs or goods on their heads, or sat next to the highway selling fruits and vegetables. I saw an image of Africa reminiscent of what I often see in Zambia.

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The flight home was rather uneventful other than sitting next to an oversized, perspiring, asocial man on the flight to Zanzibar who nearly crowded me out of my seat. As we waited on the tarmac at Zanzibar airport, I started to have flashbacks of a trip I took with my family there in 2010. We arrived in Dar Es Salaam less than half an hour later and navigated the byzantine international airport without too much hassle. The airline was inexplicably confused about seating assignments and checked-in bags, and it took some cajoling on our part to set them straight. We made it home safely to Lusaka 2.5 hours later without incident, back in the arms of our families who had waited anxiously for our arrival.

And thus my Kilimanjaro adventure ended. If you made the climb yourself, I commend you for your effort and hope that this story rekindled memories of your own trip. Only those who have “done” Kilimanjaro truly understand the full magnitude of climbing the rooftop of Africa.

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Perhaps you are considering Kilimanjaro. If so, I urge you to plan ahead. The climb is not technically difficult and does not require special climbing gear such as oxygen, and you don’t have to be a professional mountaineer to reach the summit. That said, it’s not for everyone. I am glad I did it but would never do it again, although the idea of another adventure in the Himilayas has begun to percolate. You do not have to be in the best physical shape to reach the summit, although it definitely helps. A well-developed respiratory system may be the best indicator of whether you will reach the top. Some of the fittest people in the world like former tennis star Martina Navratilova have succumbed to altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro. I almost did too. If you are a smoker or have asthma, this climb may adversely affect you. It also helps to have a strong lower body as you will exert tremendous pressure on your legs, knees, or feet. If you have knee or hip problems, you may want to reconsider tackling Kilimanjaro.

It’s also critical that you climb with a group of people you enjoy. You will spend a week together in a harsh environment that inevitably brings out the worst in people. If you find someone annoying at sea level, they will surely drive you to distraction in thin air. The support team you hire is also critical to your success. Hire a professional guide; don’t cut costs by going with an amateur. Many companies eager for your business, and you should balance quality with cost. Steer clear of hiring a company simply because they are the cheapest and at the same time avoid choosing one that charges you thousands of dollars more than you need to spend. Your support team cannot guarantee that you will have a rewarding experience or reach the summit, but they can make or break your climb.

Talk to someone you know who’s already climbed Kilimanjaro for tips on the do’s and don’ts to help you prepare for your own climb. Although every climber’s experience is different, there are some basic rules and insights to consider before you climb. Many web sites offer good advice on preparing for the trip. Although they are not always right, they can give you advice on how to prepare. Don’t end up discovering at 16,000 feet that you forgot to bring a critical piece of equipment.

Finally, it’s good to have an inspiration to guide you up and down the mountain. Maybe it’s your faith, family, or friends. Maybe it’s a goal you’ve set for yourself. Or perhaps it’s Steve Jobs and the marvelous gadgets his company has created for the mobile lifestyle. Whatever sustains you whenever you’re in a very uncomfortable situation or driven to the point of despair will suffice.

If after reading this story you have questions about climbing Kilimanjaro, you may contact me at mgedwards@worldadventurers.com for more information.

Kilimanjaro, Day Eight (evening)


Evening, January 2, 2011

My companions stayed with me to the very end. After my tantrum subsided, I set off glumly down the trail at a slow creep, resolved to handle whatever obstacle nature cruelly laid in my path. We crossed over a mountain steam and wandered downhill for another quarter hour until the trees parted and thrust us into civilization. My heart cried out in relief when I spotted a cluster of buildings. I did it! I made it to our final destination, Marangu Gate. The view was so surreal that I could hardly believe my eyes. We had come full circle back to where our journey had begun.

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Hobbled as I was, I was in no mood to loiter at the park entrance but had no other choice than to wait for our guide August to inform park management of our departure. As he filled out paperwork, I waddled into an Apex building housing a small gift shop. Stocking up on snacks I had been deprived of on the mountain, I bought some gifts for my family back home. I picked up a blue T-shirt with a map of Kilimanjaro for my son and for my wife, who had climbed the mountain last year with another group, a floppy hat with Kilimanjaro’s famous relief emblazoned on the front. I had wanted to buy her some tanzanite, a precious gem only found in Tanzania, when I return to Arusha, but our shopping time was cut short by our late arrival at Marangu Gate. Although we should have arrived by 3 p.m., the group crawled into the park headquarters after 5:30 p.m. I was the primary reason for our tardiness.

I had 50 more meters to walk from the gift shop to the van, which turned out to be one of the toughest stretches of all after my muscles froze up as I waited for August to finish our paperwork. I leaned on my trusty hiking poles and moved one more time. The path continued downward. I reached the top of a short flight of steps down to the parking lot where vans were waiting for us to catch a ride back to Arusha. My companions found it so amusing watching me lower myself down the stairs with my poles that they snapped a photo of me that I will never forget. If I am ever incapacitated, this photo will inspire me to persevere to the end.

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I made it down the stairs and joined the others. Celebratory beers cracked open like muted fireworks. The porters began to pile our gear into the vans. I passed on the beer but gathered the group for a photo. We did not have much time to dawdle with a two-hour van ride ahead and the sky beginning to darken. August’s hired hands pressured me to donate my gear to them, a practice that many hikers do after finishing their climbs. I politely declined and wished I could have explained in Swahili that I needed the gear again to hike the Himilayas. While it is a courtesy to donate gear to your support team, it’s a personal decision whether to give away gear to those who will undoubtedly wear it out or to keep it if you’re planning to use it again.

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We got into the van for a two-hour ride back to Arusha. The end-of-day commute seemed anticlimactic after the saga we had just endured. My wife called my almost-dead Blackberry at the right time and discovered to her joy that I not only survived the mountain but had reached the summit. The cell phone signal was not very strong but lasted long enough to share the news with her. Tom got hold of his family and shared his news with them too. We learned that our fellow climber who had been evacuated from the mountain at Kibo Hut, Betty, had been released from the hospital and was now resting at our hotel. The doctor had cleared her to rejoin us for the flight home. Kay, Tom, and I made the most of our time en route to Arusha chatting it up about what was happening back at home. August made some stops along the way to drop off an assortment of items he had rented for the trip, including a propane bottle that he returned to a gas station in Moshi. As we waited, I slithered out of the car and blew my leftover Tanzanian schilling on some goodies for the groups. Ice cream and beer never tasted so good together.

We arrived at the newly-opened, 5-star Mount Meru Hotel in Arusha after 7 p.m. The scene was comical as three weary travelers trundled out of a beat-up van in front of a classy hotel. I tried to avoid touching anything with my filthy hands and boots. We checked in, arranged to meet for dinner at 8:30 p.m., and headed to our rooms. Although my room was impeccably clean, I was about to mess it up despite my best efforts not to soil anything! I scattered my bags on all available surfaces and disgorged piles of dirty clothing and gear. I had left a small bag of clean clothing with the hotel before I set off for the mountain and reclaimed it at check-in; it was great to have clean clothes waiting for me when I arrived. I soaked in the shower for more than 20 minutes, enjoying the hot water and washing away the grit that caked my body. Shaving and other tasks brought me in from the wilderness and closer to civilization. I felt clean and refreshed but could not wash away the aches and bruises. My leg muscles felt tight again, and limped slowly with a dull pain in my joints. I set about straightening up my gear for the trip home while I watched a television program featuring a South African explorer on travel in Angola and Botswana. Exploring the wilds of southern Africa no longer seemed so daunting.

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I called Betty to see how she was doing and invited her to join us for dinner, but she declined and told me that she needed to rest. I wished her well and let her know we would all rendezvous in the hotel lobby tomorrow morning for the trip home. I joined Kay and Tom for dinner at the hotel restaurant, which offered a delicious mixture of African cuisine that I ate ravenously, piling my plate full of meats and vegetables that I hadn’t eaten for over a week and avoiding foods that reminded me of mountain cuisine. Moonlight cast a beautiful pall over the hotel garden illuminated by the twinkling light of lampposts posted along garden paths crisscrossing the grounds. The ordeal we had been through began to fade from our memories as we soaked up the casual ambiance. We shared a celebratory toast and chilled out at a table on the outdoor patio, enjoying each other’s company and laughing that this time we didn’t have to eat dinner in a tent. A full week together overcoming the challenge had not dampened our budding friendship. The evening was a mellow end to an adventure wrought with emotion.