Enjoy a peek into Africa in this story about climbing up a mountain to meet children in a remote elementary school.
I Think I Can, I Think I Can
(Excerpt from Kindergarten Lessons I Learned in Africa, 2013, Xulon Press)
“I can’t take another step.” I told myself sucking in another huge breath. I needed to stop and rest. My face was beet red. I was sweating like a marathon runner, and my shoes were caked with mud, making walking difficult. The temperature was high, and the air was heavy with moisture. As my heart pounded in my ears, I wondered if I might have a heart attack. This was getting serious. I wasn’t sure I would actually make it to the top of this mountain. Step, gasp, step, gasp.
Fighting for air, I continued to climb the muddy path, very much like climbing a very steep stairway, only without the stairs. Slipping on the slick mud, I lost my footing frequently. At one point I went down on one knee, getting stuck in the mud.
If there is something I am good at, it is falling gracefully. Ask my family. They will happily share their favorite story about when mom took a tumble and recovered as though nothing happened. I have an entire repertoire of graceful trips and falls in my history, starting with the trip (literally) down the aisle after my wedding ceremony.
However, this particular fall in the mud would be difficult to get out of on my own. The mud was like trying to stand on ice, making getting up from the ground difficult. Someone had to come and pull me up. How embarrassing.
“You can do this, sister; it is but a short mountain,” chided one of the young men traveling with us. “The children up top are waiting.” I loved this guy for his sense of humor, but I wasn’t laughing this time. I smiled sweetly, thanked him for pulling me from the mud and continued to march.
“Okay, sure, heap on the guilt.” I thought. That is always a good motivator. Up ahead of me were the young man and his brother, their sister-in-law Irene who was my good friend, another American woman who made the trip with us, and a gentleman helping to carry the items up the mountain. They represented all shapes, sizes and ages. I couldn’t keep up with a single one of them.
In my defense, I am an Arizona girl. The dry air and flat terrain in our neighborhoods provides little challenge. If I wanted to, I could walk forever under those conditions. Stick me half way up a mountain in humid, hot air, with slippery mud, and it is a different story.
Although a good excuse, it didn’t explain my bad attitude. Still struggling to breathe, I began to think of what I might do to avoid having to continue climbing. “How can I get out of this?” I pondered.
My alternative was to simply stop. I could let the Africans who brought me finish the trip up the mountain and give away the gifts we had brought for the children. That meant I would either have to sit down right here in the mud and wait or walk alone back down the slippery, muddy path to the car at the base of the mountain. It would be hours before they returned for me. I was not so brave as to attempt that today. I might still have a heart attack as I slid down the mountain. No one would find me for hours.
I imagined the headlines in our newspaper: “Out of shape local woman dies on muddy mountain in Uganda.” Of course, I knew that wasn’t realistic, nor did it change my present circumstances.
Pulling in what had to be my last breath on earth, I paused in my tracks. Looking up to the top of the mountain I could see a tiny white building barely visible at the very top, almost in the clouds. Wait! It was in the clouds. Where was this place? Mount Kilimanjaro? Mount Rainer? “What have I gotten myself into here?” I questioned as I took another step. Gasp. Step. Gasp. Step.
“When will this end?” I said out loud. “I don’t think I can go on.” Everyone was ahead of me laughing and enjoying the climb. I hung back, feeling sorry for myself. Then I realized I was walking alone because they were probably tired of listening to me. I was also getting sick of hearing myself complain.
My mind wandered to the Bible’s Old Testament passage in Numbers 9 containing God’s instructions to the Israelites to pack up and move to the next location in the wilderness when His cloud lifted off their camp. They might have been there one or two days, a month or a couple years. They may have just gotten their household tents in order, finally, after their last move, when the cloud lifted again. Packing everything up, they began to march to their new destination. That life couldn’t have been easy for them, but they did as the Lord commanded.
I had recently read that passage and marveled that there wasn’t mention of grumbling in that chapter. They simply obeyed and continued to pack up and move time after time. There was plenty of grumbling in later chapters about many things, but in Numbers 9, not a mention of a complaint. Putting myself in the shoes of a wife and mother charged with household organization facing a move at any day, I wondered if I would have been the sole complainer as I was now. Nowhere in that passage did it say, “And behold, they complained all the day long from sun up until nightfall.” It just wasn’t in Numbers 9.
“Did I ask you to move your entire household today?” I could almost hear God ask.
“No,” I answered. “You asked me to march up this mountain and hopefully brighten the lives of children isolated from the rest of the world. But it’s such a high mountain!”
“What right do you have to complain? Why don’t you just do what I am asking?” I could hear myself asking my own kids that same question. It wasn’t unreasonable.
This conversation was getting uncomfortable. The obvious answer was that I was simply being a brat. Of course, the climb was difficult. It was a mountain, after all. Sure, the heat and humidity were oppressive. It was Africa. What did I expect?
“Do you think I will transport you up to the top of the mountain with no effort on your part?” That thought was certainly appealing, and for a moment I wondered why that couldn’t happen. Coming to my senses, I decided I was done complaining for the day.
I raised my eyes up from the muddy path to the surrounding area. The group was well ahead of me. On both sides of me I saw lush, vibrant green jungle vegetation, buzzing with little winged creatures doing whatever winged creatures do. The scenery was quite beautiful. I kept climbing.
At one point, I realized I was surrounded by trees with green seeds hanging from the branches. They were coffee beans. I was walking in a coffee grove in the clouds. Overwhelmed with the immense beauty, I paused to thank God for this opportunity. Negotiating the last few hundred feet, I crested the top of the mountain and happily saw my team and dozens of children.
The entire mountain top wasn’t as large as half a football field. A small, old school building sat to my right at the edge of a cliff on the far end of the flat area. The rocky school yard was in front of me. On all sides, the land simply ended in a sheer drop down the mountainside. There was no gentle slope, except for the path we had just come up, and that was far from a gentle slope. There was no visible village from this location. I guessed that the children in the low lying areas made the trek to school up the mountain every day.
“And here is our friend.” I heard the translator say. “She came here from America to meet the student whose fees are being covered. She is here to greet you from America!” Suddenly, the discomfort of sweaty clothing, stringy wet hair, difficulty breathing, and muddy feet seemed to melt away. These children were precious. Unlike the children in the valley villages, they didn’t wear school uniforms but wore old clothing, sadly in need of repair. School uniforms were probably too costly.
Small faces surrounded me. Both fascinated and afraid of me, I gestured to them to come close. “It’s okay. Let’s shake hands.” I said to them. They crowded forward. I knew they wanted to touch my white skin. I held out my hand. Little ones touched my arm quickly with one fingertip then ran away laughing. The older ones actually shook my hand.
Someone began to sing, and the top of the mountain rang with laughter and song. We had brought a soccer ball for each of the schools we visited that year. One of the men pulled the ball out of a bag. The children laughed and clapped, jumping around from sheer joy. Their school had a ball! It was a real store-bought ball! It was very exciting.
They began a game of catch, rotating children into the circle because there were too many to play at once. Many times the ball headed for the cliff before being rescued by a quick child so it didn’t disappear down the mountain.
I asked one of the men if I could meet the little girl whom we sponsored from this school. One little girl from this village was able to attend school free because an American provided her with school fees of $175 per year. We had struggled up the mountain for this one little girl. Her head teacher found her in an empty classroom, hiding from us. She was sitting in a corner against the back wall when we went in. I looked at her and fell in love instantly.
This one little girl was the reason for the trip that took a whole day. This one little girl was the reason two Americans and four Africans climbed a mountain, past a coffee grove, high up into the clouds. This one little girl was worth more than a priceless treasure when it came to the Kingdom of Heaven. At that moment, I knew that this one little girl was worth anything we had to endure to let her know God loved her.
“Hi. I came to tell you that your sponsor loves you and is so happy to help you go to school.” I sat in a small desk near her and gave her a doll I had brought for her. She didn’t lift her head, but looked up with her big brown eyes. “God loves you too and sent us here to tell you that.” The translator told her what I said. She simply stared, trying to be brave.
“Could I shake your hand?” I asked, really wanting to hug her instead. Knowing she would never allow that, I reached out my hand. She touched it and quickly pulled her hand back. It appeared to me that she wanted to crawl out of her skin to get away from us, so we said goodbye and left the room. Turning to wave at her as we left, I mentioned to my friend Irene that it was all worth it to get to see her. Irene agreed.
Outside a storm was brewing over the mountains. The wind began to blow and rain began to fall. If this turned into a huge rainfall, we would have to postpone going back to the car and might not make it down the mountain before nightfall. We decided it was time to leave. Thankfully, we simply walked and slid down in a gentle rain which kept us cool but didn’t hamper our descent.
As we pulled away, I looked up toward the top of the mountain, marveling at its beauty and thanked God for the experience of meeting those children who seemed to live at the top of the world. I got a glimpse of how important that one little girl was to God. The truth is that each of us is equally important to Him.
That day I learned that no matter how difficult something seems, if I just take one step at a time, I can do far more than I think I can. I also learned that each person walking the earth is as precious to God as that one little girl, hiding in a classroom high on a mountain top.