When rally driver Gugu Zulu died while summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in 2016, it sent shock waves to many in the country.
Here was a man who was a fitness enthusiast, healthy and had prepared months for this climb, having complications which led to his death. There was a feeling of disbelief for many, but also a realisation that trying to summit the highest mountain in the continent is no small feat.
And yet, there were some who used the pain of his passing and made it a positive experience. Like Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi.
It was during Zulu’s memorial service in 2016, that she decided she wanted to summit Kilimanjaro.
“I remember being in the newsroom and watching Letshego Zulu speak at Gugu's memorial and saying that she's going back to Kilimanjaro the following year. That was the day I decided I wanted to summit the mountain,” Viwe tells me a few days before she left for Tanzania. She was still trying to find a pair of thermal tights to take with her after ordering the wrong size.
“It’s a lot, B,” she says, smiling. But her eyes reveal that she’s a bit nervous.
Full disclosure. Viwe is a colleague, one that I am close to. She is a senior health and wellness journalist, and since I also write about food, we tend to speak twice a day or more, so we don’t duplicate our content.
But interviewing her, she’s not the Viwe I know. She’s a brave woman who is making a dream of hers come true, while also doing her bit to give back to the community, with Trek4Mandela.
Going back to when she decided that she will summit, she says she blurted out that she wanted to do it, at the newsroom.
“I said it out loud and everyone turned, looked at me and said: ‘Are you crazy?’ I had just got engaged and everyone was shocked because they expected me to be preparing for the wedding and here I was talking about climbing Kili. It was a crazy thought but I really wanted to do it.”
But it would take her sometime before her dream came true and now five years later, she is doing it. But it didn’t come easy. There were many obstacles – mental, physical, and even personal relationships.
The Trek4Mandela is an annual expedition to summit Africa’s highest peak on Mandela Day, to honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy. Taking place every year since 2011(excluding 2020), on Mandela Day the Imbumba Foundation has been taking a team to trek Kilimanjaro. The summit has a huge objective in mind – to raise funds for the Caring4Girls programme that empowers young girls and affords them access to healthy sanitary products under the Caring4girls initiative by Imbumba foundation.
The Imbumba Foundation has been able to provide over 1 million girls with sanitary protection since 2012, bridging the gap of the “period poverty”.
They are expected to reach the peak of Kilimanjaro today.
With many wanting to be part of Trek4Mandela, it took Viwe more than a year before she got some headway. “I did a search and I couldn't figure out how to get into the programme and so then I stopped and focused on everything else. Until I got an invite from a friend to join.”
It was then that the self-doubt hit. What on earth was she thinking, she asked herself when she realised that it was going to happen.
“My thoughts then were: ‘OMG am I really doing this? Will I make it to the top? Am I going to die? What if I die? What if I don't make it to the top?’ I had so many thoughts in my head. But I got over it when I committed myself to the programme, started training, and got exposed to the people who were also doing it. The nervousness and the anxiety dropped.”
Climbing Kilimanjaro had always been a bucket list item for her. “All along it was a bucket list, about testing myself, physically and mentally. But when I got involved with Ibumba and I figured it out, I learnt about what the organisation does, I realised that it was bigger than me.”
You know when they say you sometimes shouldn’t tell people your plans? That you should surprise them when you are doing or have done something? I get the sense that Viwe wishes she could have done that. Before she could even dream of summitting Kilimanjaro, she had to climb another mountain – people’s opinions on whether she should do it or not.
“This climb has become more than just raising funds for the young women in need. It is now not about other people and the girls and doing our best to advance them. This was now a personal battle for me. I encountered hurdles where people were antagonistic about me wanting to summit. I was told that I was not doing it. That I shouldn't do it. That I wasn't allowed to do it. That hit me hard, so hard I had to go to therapy.
“And after that, it became something about pushing myself up and not fitting into a certain stereotype of what constitutes a black married woman. I was told I shouldn't be climbing Kilimanjaro and that I shouldn't be adventurous.
“But I refused to be put into a box where I should be working a 9-5 and then coming back home and doing my 'wifely duties' , including having children, instead of pursuing adventurous activities. All that stress gave me more reason to make this happen.”
On arrival in Tanzania, Viwe shared images on Instagram about her and fellow climbers, excitement evident on their faces. But I know she’s also nervous about her body failing her.
“I think the biggest fear has been acclimatisation. I have no control over it. I can't prepare my body for it. I can't eat or train well for it. It will only happen when I get to the mountain. I won't know until I get there how my body will respond. So I could be mentally and physically prepared, but my body could just refuse to let me do it.
“I even tell people I am scared of the word 'descend'. They will let you know that if your body is not co-operating, they will ask you to descend. I get anxious when I hear the word. My biggest fear would be my body not adjusting to the conditions. There would be nothing left for me to do.”
Would she be disappointed if she can't reach the peak?
“Definitely not. I made a note in my journal when I was in the Drakensberg, where I told myself that I have done well. I trained during a pandemic and I have done things for girls who needed help during the peak of the pandemic. I have climbed mountains and that for me is good enough.
“I believe that this journey was a spiritual one. There were countless moments on mountains where it was a life-changing experience. Where I came back to myself and found my purpose. And that’s enough for me.”