February 16, 2004 - Gannett New Jersey: Tanzania RPCV Reuben Johnson Jr. climbs Mount Kilimanjaro

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tanzania: Peace Corps Tanzania: The Peace Corps in Tanzania: February 16, 2004 - Gannett New Jersey: Tanzania RPCV Reuben Johnson Jr. climbs Mount Kilimanjaro

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Tanzania RPCV Reuben Johnson Jr. climbs Mount Kilimanjaro

Tanzania RPCV Reuben Johnson Jr. climbs Mount Kilimanjaro

Climbers make a journey of faith

Gannett New Jersey

Published in the Courier News on February 16, 2004

EDISON -- From the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the lights of the villages below seem as distant as a field of stars. But sometimes, the laughter of children would echo up the mountain's face, eerily close.

"It definitely makes you feel closer to God," said John Dunning, a Hillsborough resident who made the trek up Africa's highest mountain last summer with a former teacher and a group of childhood friends.

Dunning, director of Minority Student Affairs at Middlesex County College, joined retired teacher Reuben Johnson Jr., medical doctor Stephen Robinson and Seton Hall University law professor Bernard Freamon for the journey.

The dream began in 1973, when Johnson spied the Tanzanian mountain and knew he would one day climb it.

And for one climber, the trip entailed a solemn mission. Robinson had brought the ashes of his father and brother to the peak, to let them rest at the top of the world.

The trek to Africa ultimately began decades ago in Newark, where the men were born and raised. While attending Broadway Junior High School, they were all students of Johnson, then a young science teacher who first stepped into a classroom in 1959.

"I have four daughters. These guys are like my sons," Johnson said.

The first time they traveled together as a group was in Johnson's fifth-grade science class, when they went on a field trip to Stokes State Forest. Later, they explored their ties to the African continent.

"We're sort of Afrophiles," Johnson explained while meeting up with Dunning and Freamon at Middlesex County College earlier this month.

Now a resident of Orange, Johnson went to Africa as part of the Peace Corps in 1966, returning several times. Freamon, who taught at the University of Nairobi, joined him there, but ultimately returned to the United States, and now lives in New York. Robinson also came to Africa, and now lives in Dares-Salaam in Tanzania.

The group had never climbed a mountain before, and the trip took a year to plan, Johnson said. The climbers carried their own sleeping bags, cold-weather gear and food, and paid a "rescue fee" beforehand in case of mishaps.

The six-day walk took the hikers through varied terrain: a rainforest, plains, an alpine meadow and a desert of fine dirt. As they climbed, it seemed as if they made their way through all four seasons, from the summer heat below to the wintery cold near the top, Dunning said.

The hikers went at their own paces, accompanied by an attendant.

Climbers afflicted by altitude sickness are wheeled down the mountain in what appears to be a wheelbarrow with a bicycle wheel. The illness, which can be fatal, truncated the honeymoon of a Norwegian couple, even though the groom had climbed mountains before, Freamon recalled.

On the way up, Dunning earned the nickname "Polepole" -- Swahili for "take it slow." But picking the pace up only made him gasp for breath in the high altitude, he said.

Above the clouds, the night sky seemed close and vivid, Dunning said. The constellations Sagittarius and the Southern Cross were in the heavens, Johnson recalled.

"You could see airplanes below you," Freamon said.

While the rest of the party lingered at Kibo, at 4,700 feet, Robinson pushed up to the 5,895-foot peak of Uhuru. The trek began in the black of midnight, the way lighted only by miner's lamps on the hiker's heads as they strived to make the peak by sunrise.

Johnson tried to make the top, but the cold bit to the bone and his water bottle froze. He decided it would be wise to return.

"It was too surreal," he said.

Whereas most of the trek had been fairly leisurely and gentle, the final ascent was challenging, marked by inclines of 45 degrees to 60 degrees, Robinson said.

"The only way I could do it was put one foot in front of the other," he said.

From the peak of Uhuru, Robinson could see glacier-clad peaks and Mount Meru in the distance; looking down, he gazed into the volcano. It was a spectacular view, one he sought to share in some way with his lost loved ones.

"My brother and my father always wanted to get to Africa," he said.

Climbing Kilimanjaro was, in many senses, a peak experience, Dunning observed.

"I sort of feel that East Africa is the cradle of civilization. Kilimanjaro is sort of the navel of the earth," Johnson explained.

The journey up the mountain tested the resolve of the climbers, strengthened their bonds with one another and widened their horizons, showing them what they could accomplish, Dunning said. The six-day walk gave space for thought, and pondering the past and the future, he added.

As hard as the climb was, Dunning said he hopes to make the journey again someday, with his son.

"It's given me a deeper faith," Freamon said. "When I was near the top of that mountain, I thought an atheist would reconsider his position."

from the Courier News website www.c-n.com

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Story Source: Gannett New Jersey

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Tanzania; Climbing



By REUBEN JOHNSONJR ( on Thursday, December 04, 2008 - 2:42 pm: Edit Post


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