On Saturday Zenah and I started off around quarter till nine and wove through farms and across stony dried up riverbeds. We got off to a later start than planned, but only because my friend had to fetch water and milk her cows. Our destination was Uhambingeto Mountain to the east; we planned to summit it, but had a ten-kilometer hike just to reach the base. We conversed in a mix of English and Swahili, hand gestures and nods, and at one point she drew an arrow in the dirt to teach me the word for direction. We cut through the grounds of the primary school and a gaggle of colorful children swarmed and followed us for a short while before trailing behind, waving and bidding us a good journey.
The crunchy brown landscape opened up to one lush mango tree, seeming slightly out of place. The fruits were hard and green, but I hadn’t gotten my hopes up. We passed an ancient woman wielding a hoe in the middle of an otherwise deserted field, and she grinned zealously with three teeth when we greeted her. She seemed intrigued by our ambition to climb the mountain and animatedly directed us. Zenah's navigational skills were stellar, and her conviction remarkable. She was always a skip ahead of me, and would turn and ask with a sly smile, “Umechoka?”—are you tired? I answered “bado”—not yet—for the first handful of times, but after ten kilometers at our quick pace I began to reply “kidogo tu”—just a little.
At the mountain’s base, the tree cover thickened and the rocky path gave way to large scattered boulders. Zenah stopped to pick a branch of brown papery fruits shaped like hearts; she popped them and spat the seeds as we walked. The trees became sparser as we climbed. We scrambled up stone, finding jagged holds to hoist ourselves up. When we came to a jungle of brambles I realized we weren’t following an actual trail. Still, I put my trust wholeheartedly in my 15-year-old guide clad all in pink. It was slow going, and frustrating as my backpack got caught in the tangles, but the highest point was in sight: a bald slab streaked with lime, jutting towards the sky.
Candelabra shaped cacti cropped up all around us with our gain in elevation, and ants crawled over the turgid red flower clusters.
We looked out to the west, over the dusty swirls of golden brown, and the mango tree was a mere speck. Just as we reached our peak, Zenah pointed to another peak: more ominous and quite distant. She said there was a path down from there; so we went on forcing our way through the unforgiving vegetation, tripping over vines and scraping our limbs. Zenah led with confidence still, and it was only when she asked me which way I thought we should go that I felt uneasy. It was well past two and I was starting to get nervous about making our way down and back before dark. After expressing this, Zenah consulted the face of a digital watch that she kept in her back pocket and counted the hours with her fingers. Her face showed the slightest hint of surprise and she agreed we should begin our descent. We faced the same mass of brambles as we did on our ascent, and only once we cleared the challenge did we sit to eat. I felt relief having that behind us, and a clear view ahead. The hardboiled eggs I’d packed had squished in my pack, and we peeled the crackle-shelled lumps with dirty fingers and ate them with salt. I relished the rawness of our little meal and we washed it down with mango juice. The whole day was a cycle of relief followed by anxiousness and our clear path gave way to choices between less than ideal options. We slid down patches of leafy scree, catching ourselves on gnarled roots and flimsy trees, and scaled down rock with few holds. While resting for a moment, deciding on our next move, we heard barking and noticed a yellow baboon in a tree up the mountain. Another called from somewhere below then appeared, moving nimbly toward us. We watched with excitement then Zenah turned to me with a look of sudden realization and asked in a whisper: “Are they danger?” I said no although I knew they could be aggressive, and I couldn’t help but entertain the possibility of being attacked by territorial baboons. It went by us, and when we looked back we saw that it had joined its mate and a little one. One of the adults barked menacingly and the baby yapped. Zenah yapped in imitation and we laughed and laughed.
We finally made our way to flat ground and saw our footprints from morning. The ten-kilometer walk back was the cap on an already exhausting day, and we talked little. We passed the mango tree and a herd of grazing cattle, especially bucolic in the warm light of sunset. At this point, even Zenah admitted that she was tired. When we reached the paved road, I shocked the few passers-by with my hiking boots, dirty bleeding legs, and the burs in my hair. In the gloaming I saw my house on the horizon, and Zenah pointed out a single star. It was likely a planet, but, nevertheless, I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and she seemed to enjoy it.