Climbing Kilimanjaro #2: Why We Did It

5 days. 21 miles. 19,341 feet. 38,680 steps. 

That’s a lot of uphill walking! 

As you might expect, a fair amount of words accompanied those steps. Fourteen passionate women facing a common challenge for a shared cause do not lack subjects for conversation. And trust me, the Kilimanjaro climbers of One Million Thumbprints are nothing if not passionate! 

Still, you can only talk so much. As one of the more introverted climbers, I had perhaps a lower threshold for conversation than some. But even the most talkative among us slid into long stretches of quiet reflection—moments when the rhythmic repetition of slow steps freed our minds to meander.

Often our minds moved to the four days we spent in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) prior to coming to Tanzania. Extreme poverty, tribal and racial violence, corruption, greed, and a history of targeted gender-based violence has made the DRC one of the deadliest places on earth to be a woman.

In Congo’s ongoing civil war, vicious rape—body and soul ripping rape—has been used as a weapon of war with a frequency and brutality unprecedented and horrifying.

It was my third trip to the DRC, so I was not as shocked by what we saw and heard as were others. But even I was undone by the grim reminders of horror as we sat in a church building in the village of Rutshuru and listened to the women speak.

Each in turn told her story of watching her husband hacked to death with a machete, or seeing her children attacked, or being raped and cut and left for dead. 

In the moment of hearing them, you take in these stories as best you can. Your heart breaks and your tears fall. 

Or maybe not. Maybe you’re too numb to break or to cry. 

Maybe you know you can’t afford to let your defenses down—that if you let the quiet words, the expressive faces, the graceful hand gestures, the shine of the brilliant fabrics enter your soul, you won’t be able to hold yourself together. You won’t be able to move. 

And you have to keep moving. Back to the car. Back to the hotel. Back to airport.  Back to who you were before you sat in that room with those women. 

But then: Kilimanjaro. You’re on the mountain. Stepping. Slowly. A lull in conversation. A huge, empty sky. A pervasive quiet. And you’re back in the Congo in that room with those women. 

You feel. The tears fall. And you remember why you decided to climb this mountain. 

It’s for them: Furaha, Rose, Francoise, Angelina, Pascasia, Jacqueline, Agnes, Anastasia, Patrice, Maria, and so many others. You climb so you can shout their stories from the top of world. And the steeper the climb gets and the weaker you feel, the more you grasp the horror and power of their stories. 

For me the stories started back in 2009. It was the first day of my first visit to Congo and I met a woman named Charlene. Her husband had been murdered by rebels. She and her eight children had run for their lives and ended up like thousands of other displaced Congolese: in a makeshift camp in a temporary tarp-covered shelter on a lava rock hillside.

In those tiny, one-room “dwellings” entire families slept side by side on the rocky ground. Each family was given a month’s supply of food that actually lasted for little more than a day. To supplement their food supply, women in the camp walked each day to the forest to gather wood they could sell. 

For many of these women the search for wood became a sort of death march. Soldiers haunted the forest, waiting to attack and rape. 

Charlene spoke with righteous anger on behalf of the other women. She explained that the rebels wanted to impregnate the women to make their lives even harder. She also said that victims of rape are often stigmatized with shame in the Congo, so many married women refuse to tell their husbands they’ve been raped, fearing rejection and abandonment. 

Here’s an excerpt from a blog I wrote the day after meeting Charlene: 

We were all reeling from Charlene’s story. After praying with her we walked slowly toward our car, but just before we reached it, Charlene hurried to catch up with us. 

Snuggled in her arms was a beautiful, tiny, two-week-old baby boy—her baby boy. 

She had been speaking not only of other women’s pain, but her pain as well. She, too, had been raped and impregnated. In showing me her baby she told me the story she couldn’t put into words. 

I was stunned with the overwhelming tragedy of her life in this place where day follows day and the only thing that changes is that each day gets harder.

I was also stunned, however, with the holiness of the moment when our eyes met above the head of her tiny boy, and our embrace wrapped him in a full circle of mother love. It is a powerful moment when women meet soul to soul.

Charlene broke my heart and bound me to Congo. 

In the years since our initial meeting I’ve followed her story. I’ve read reports and looked at photos and prayed for her. Through small fundraising efforts I supported World Relief programs that helped her secure permanent shelter and start a small business and even get training as a counselor. 

And in Congo last month I got to see Charlene again. The new Charlene. The Charlene who has been healed and empowered—and now helps heal and empower other women. 

As we listened to stories in the church in Rutshuru, we heard again and again, “And then I talked to Mama Charlene, and she gave me hope.” 

When Charlene says to the women—“I understand. I was just like you. But I was stronger than I thought. And so are you.”—they believe her. And when she shows them her old photo in the torn red dress, they can see with their own eyes who she was and who she has become. 

When I met Charlene in 2009 I had no idea that hidden behind the broken shell of her life was a leader, a healer, a hope-bringer.

I only knew that God had placed her in my heart and that I would never forget her. 

For me, climbing Kilimanjaro was a celebration of Charlene—of her strength, her passion and her ministry. And it was a prayer for the millions of Charlenes in war zones throughout the world who have yet to find the hope and healing they so desperately need. 

The Kilimanjaro climbers raised $250,000 for women like Charlene in the war zones of Congo, South Sudan, Syria and Iraq.

If you would like to contribute to our ongoing work, you can donate here. 

Photos by Chelsea Hudson and Christine Anderson.