Friday, March 28, 2008

Bintumani ho!

I just climbed the highest mountain in West Africa.

At 1,995 meters (6,542 feet), Mount Bintumani in northern Sierra Leone lacks the body-taxing altitude and snow-covered peaks of its larger sisters. (Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, stands at 5,895 meters above sea level, while Everest is 8,850 meters high.) It is instead a gentle giant, with sloping grass-covered skirts rising to an improbable rocky plateau, which perches like a slumbering stone bulldog upon an oversized knoll.

Climbing Bintumani is even less daunting than it might be because 1) if you go by the shorter eastern route you have just one day’s hike to the summit, followed by another day down; and 2) for $5 per day plus food you can hire a porter to carry the bulk of your things. I felt a bit foolish sweating my way up the mountain in my high-tech hiking shoes with only a daypack on my back, while Musa followed in flip-flops and a rucksack packed with 6 liters of water (for me, plus the 4 liters in my own pack); oatmeal and sugar for 17 breakfasts; a pot packed with cooking and eating implements; extra socks and warm clothes (also for me); and various other “essentials.” But I probably wouldn’t have made it otherwise – or at least it would have hurt a lot more.

Here is one of our porters, Saiyo, ready to leave his home village with someone’s pack on his back, and then further up the mountain with a bunch of plantains on his head.

The plantains – harvested partway up the mountain – were the only food, besides a few cups of uncooked rice, that the porters brought along. Despite our request that each of them bring a pot of rice and sauce for their dinner, they came empty-handed. They also brought nothing to sleep on or under, nor warm clothes for the damp and cool mountain evening. We’d been warned and had budgeted food and some water for the 9 guides and porters as well as the 8 of us, but did not have extra tents or sweaters. (In fact we were somewhat under-prepared ourselves: my friend Aongus slept in a makeshift shelter under the “porch” of one tent, while a couple snuggled in a mosquito-dome made for one. And all of us were cold at night.)

It made for some gentle joking as we made 17 peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, stirred a pot of oatmeal for the porters’ dinner, or handed over our extra tarp (meant to cover our bags in case of rain) for the guys to sleep under. And joking turned to frustration as we shouted and struggled to keep pace with our guide, who had a tendency to hurry off with the porters, seemingly unconcerned that we trailed behind without a clue to the path.

But the guys were good-spirited and we eventually grew on one another. I even got to play doctor, which probably redeemed me in their eyes for not having a spare tent to share. As we settled into our mountain camp, in the shadow of the summit, we discovered that our guide Pa Mara (see photo below) had a festering axe wound on his thigh. Two days old, the wound – though seemingly minor from the outside – was probably deep and definitely infected, swelling his knee and thigh and giving him a mild fever. We unpacked our UK government-issued first aid kit – actually more of a mobile hospital – and I began washing Pa Mara’s leg with bottled water and dressing it with layers of sterile gauze (thinking all the time, “If my Mom could see me now.”) Another dressing in the morning and a few paracetemol (Tylenol) and he was in much brighter spirits.

Helped by moments like this, we all made friends in the end – not only through our mutual gratitude (how can you not like someone who totes your heavy pack up a mountain or ministers to your festering wounds?) but also through the exhilaration of our shared experience. Most of the porters had themselves never scaled the mountain, and a few shared our nervousness as we neared the top. Our banana-toting porter Saiyo became particularly anxious as we scrambled through a thick morning mist up the steep upper reaches of the mountain, just short of the rocky plateau, until my friend Drucil started teasing him that if Drucil, a “Freetown boy” could make it, so could the country-born Saiyo.

As we emerged on the top, a vast rocky expanse, the porters and guides stepped immediately aside to pray, before joining in our more secular revelry. When I later asked if the mountain was a sacred space, they said simply that Allah could hear them better when they were up so high.

Most of the porters also refused our offer of celebratory champagne, which we raised in our own tribute to the gods of the mountain. (We even poured a bit in libation, in case the mountain god were more a reveler than a teetotaler.) But they did enjoy posing for light-hearted photos, as well as exploring the summit and its breathtaking views.

After a long trek back down the mountain, and a bumpy, dusty, 11-hour drive back to Freetown, I’m struck by how happy we look in all the photos from the trip. Scratched legs and sore knees and sweat-soaked packs and all, I think Bintumani refreshed and rejuvenated us.

Perhaps Allah or the mountain god were indeed listening from the top.

A sad postscript

In a sad postscript to the trip, we returned to the porters’ home village of Sangbania to find that Saiyo’s son was vomiting blood and had been moved that day to a larger neighboring village to seek medical attention. Saiyo grabbed a ride on the roof rack of our Land Rover, and we drove through the quickly-failing light until we reached the village. While we pitched tents and strung hammocks on the newly-built school outside of town, Saiyo went to see after his son, and returned later with news.

The boy, 18 years old, had fallen from a palm tree some months earlier. At the time he’d been very hurt and vomiting blood, but later grew stronger and seemed to have recovered. Then suddenly the vomiting returned, and after vomiting blood for the better part of a day and night, the boy was now too weak to walk or even sit upright for more than a short time.

The village lacked a government clinic and the family – subsistence farmers when not earning a bit of money trekking tourists up the mountain – lacked the money to bring him to a hospital or clinic. Instead they paid a nurse to give him an injection (quite possibly of sugar-water or some other useless substance) and a “native doctor” to find an herbal remedy.

We knew the boy was in serious trouble if he had internal injuries – as it seemed to our inexpert selves – but that his best bet was with a clinic or hospital with trained personnel. So we woke early the next morning to visit the family and offer to bring the boy most of the way to the nearest government hospital (in Kono’s district headquarter town) and to give them money toward treatment and transport.

In the end they refused the ride to the hospital, preferring to go to another clinic where they had some family nearby, but gratefully accepted our contribution (about $70) to the transport and treatment. They promised emphatically not to spend the money on native doctors or anything else except the boy’s treatment.

We’ll probably never know what happened to Saiyo’s son, because we have no way to contact the family. But I hope they indeed brought him to the clinic, and if necessary to a hospital, and that the nurses and doctors somehow found a way to give him the help he needed with the limited supplies on hand. In an act of forced optimism, I envision not the likely tragic outcome but the grin on the teenager’s face as he learned how much money we’d offered his family, and as the terror in his eyes was displaced – momentarily, at least – by hope.


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