Can climbing a mountain really change people’s lives? The answer is undoubtedly, “YES.”
And I have proof.
In 2005 I first traveled to the Rwenzori Mountains which border Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) – an area that has been plagued by border conflicts for decades. Because of the violence in the area the Rwenzori Mountains were closed for many years, but they opened up again in 2001 after Uganda and the DRC signed a peace treaty.
As an avid mountaineer, I initially planned to go there with a friend to climb the Rwenzoris as their glaciers are rumored to be the source of the Nile River, but once I began to research the area, I discovered some shocking facts that changed the mission of the adventure entirely.
The Bakonjo are the local tribe that inhabit this area, and within their culture, local women are actually considered property of men. They have few legal rights (if any), and their subordinate social status translates into a lack of access to education and healthcare, which means high death rates, low life expectancies (42 yrs) and a very rough existence.
Clearly this is unacceptable, and I realized that something must be done to help these women level the social and economic playing field. Of course the way to do that is to give them some economic power. Given the mountains were right there in their backyard, I knew that teaching them skills that would allow them to benefit from trekking and climbing-related tourism would enable them to earn a sustainable living wage which would lead to an improved quality of life for themselves and their families. We started small – and initially trained 7 local Bakonjo women to work as porters and trekking guides and got them jobs in Rwenzori National Park — which is HUGE because it was the first time these women had ever earned an income. If they can maintain an adequate, sustainable living wage – they’ll be able to make meaningful, long-term improvements to their quality of life. I have since started a 501(c)3 organization called the Climb high Foundation to help these women and have returned to the area several times to train more and more women to work in these jobs.
For me, it’s never about just climbing a mountain. It’s about having some impact along the way.
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