Elevated faith . . . and doubt

We rested at the top of the Barranco Wall, one of the trickier scrambles on the mountain. The vista stretching out before us was spectacular. The rugged understory of Kilimanjaro tumbled 13,000 feet into clouds beneath our feet. This kind of environment has a way of reducing conversation to essentials.

The understory of Kilimanjaro tumbled into clouds beneath our feet.

The understory of Kilimanjaro tumbled into clouds beneath our feet.

Godfrey breathed (to no one in particular), "God gave us a beautiful world." 

Since I was seated closest to him, I felt compelled to respond. I turned and nodded in agreement. He sat unmoved, peering forward behind dark glasses.

I wondered how many times Godfrey had sat in this same spot, maybe even on the same rock. He was a trailhead dealer, an assistant mountain guide, a Kili veteran. His job consisted of steering irresponsible clients like me in responsible ways and fielding endless questions and complaints with a smile. I knew from my own experience how grinding that can be. Unless one pushes against the cynicism, a beautiful vista can become just one more pit stop on the way to a paycheck. I found Godfrey's spontaneity refreshing.

Robert, the lead guide, chirped "G to G?" This was shorthand for "Good to go." The group complied by pulling on our packs. Godfrey led in the trail segment that followed. I fell into the line behind him.

When the path allowed, I pulled up next to him and continued the conversation started at the top of the Barranco Wall.

"I agree with what you said earlier, Godfrey . . .  God has given us a beautiful world. This is a beautiful place."

A pause followed. 

Detail from James Tissot, "Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray" (1886−94). Brooklyn Museum. See image here. 

Detail from James Tissot, "Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray" (1886−94). Brooklyn Museum. See image here

"You know," Godfrey answered, still in reflective mode, "Some people say that Jesus climbed to the top of this mountain."

"Really?" I queried. I was curious where this would go.

"Yes. With his twelve . . . " He searched for the next word.

"Apostles?" I filled in.

"Yes. Apostles. They came here to pray."

There was another pause. I knew to be careful with the words that followed.

"You know this is a long way from Jerusalem."

Godfrey shrugged. The distance between Israel-Palestine and East Africa was evidently not a relevant part of the argument. I considered raising the issue that it had taken me many hours to fly by jet from Tel Aviv to Tanzania. I dropped it and asked another question instead.

"How do you know He came here?"

Godfrey looked at me now. "Because the gospels say he prayed on a high mountain. This is a high mountain. That's what the pastors said. I took a group of them to the top so they could pray like Jesus."

I knew better than to nitpick. I fell back into line and thought about matters of elevated faith and doubt. I liked Godfrey.

Kili mountain guides Godfrey (right) and Robert (left).

Kili mountain guides Godfrey (right) and Robert (left).

Later in the day, I spoke with Robert. "Have you ever heard that Jesus climbed Kilimanjaro to pray?"

"No." He said. 

"Where I could find more about that story?"

"I don't know."

But he did know the story of how the mountain got its name.

He told me about the early days when explorers tried to scale the peak. They were either turned around or killed by the mountain.

The explanation offered for this was couched in the fact that these pioneers were "not clean." If they had been "clean," they would have made it. But because they were not clean they died. That is why the mountain was called Kilema Kyaro in the Chaga language. Kilema Kyaro means the "mountain of God." In time, because people had a hard time pronouncing Kilema Kyaro the name morphed into Kilimanjaro.

I found all this to be fascinating. "What do you think of this explanation, Robert?" I asked.

He grinned. "I don't believe it. They were just not properly equipped."

“The summit of Kilima-njaro, a snow-clad mountain in central Africa. From a sketch by the Rev. Charles New, of the Livingstone Relief Expedition." Published in The Illustrated London News, June 8, 1872, more than a decade in advance of the first successful ascent in 1889. Image taken from here.

“The summit of Kilima-njaro, a snow-clad mountain in central Africa. From a sketch by the Rev. Charles New, of the Livingstone Relief Expedition." Published in The Illustrated London News, June 8, 1872, more than a decade in advance of the first successful ascent in 1889. Image taken from here.