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I found myself on the trails.

Saray Khumalo, Executive Director of Summits with a Purpose and the first black African woman to summit Mount Everest, spoke to Carrie Milton about the role adventure has played in her life and how she wants to pass that on to the next generation.

CM: Where did you grow up?

SK: I was born in Lusaka, Zambia. My mom was a single mom and sent me and my older sister to live with our grandparents, who raised me until I was 13. I called them ‘mamma’ and ‘pappa’ because I thought they were my parents, and everyone in the house called them that. Then, at 13, the revelation hit: The aunty that brings me toys is actually my mother.

So, I moved back to Lusaka. At the time, I could only speak French and Swahili, but I joined a school where I had to compete academically with an English world. The rest of my teen years were spent in Lusaka, before I moved to Zimbabwe at 17, where I completed my degree.

CM: Did you grow up wanting to be a mountaineer?

SK: No, absolutely not: I grew up wanting to be a doctor.

I had a bike when I was eight – probably the only kid in the place with a bike – and all my friends were boys. We played with wire cars, we played in the street; I was a tomboy. I had an uncle who was my favourite person – I think he groomed me to be like the boys. It was a safe environment and I had a good childhood with my grandparents.

At their home in Kipushi, there was a hill. I used to think it was a mountain, but knowing what I know today, it was just a molehill. I used to climb on top of it and look to the horizon, wondering what was out there…

I was always adventurous. We had a church club called the Pathfinder Club, which is similar to the Scouts. There were classes: You started from Busy Bee and worked your way up to Master Guide. They taught us to make knots, to navigate. We went hiking and camping, but it was different back then. We didn’t have tents; we made temporary huts out of straight branches and grass – one for the boys and one for the girls.

We went on one camp of two weeks per year and I hated it, but I’d get home and want to go back. I guess that’s where my love for the outdoors began.

CM: I’m guessing the boys were probably keener on adventures than the girls were.

SK: Yes, they were, but I was a little … out there … if I look back.

My grandfather was a pastor and I remember one man who came to see him: He came from another town and was looking for his brother who worked at an abattoir. ‘What’s an abattoir?’ I asked. ‘Oh, that’s where they slaughter cattle.’ I was interested and I wanted to go there. ‘For what?!’ asked my grandfather. I snuck out and I went to find the place.

I was nine. I don’t think the boys around me did that.

CM: Who was your most significant mentor – your uncle?

SK: My grandmother and grandfather, my mother and my uncle.

My mother is a very strong woman. She’s still alive and doesn’t take anyone’s nonsense.

My Uncle Festo was the one who encouraged me to never let anyone bully me. I remember one incident where this boy slapped me and I ran home and hid under the bed. When my uncle asked what was going on and I told him, he said, ‘Never allow anyone to bully you,’ and showed me some karate moves (which were probably lots of nonsense), saying that if I ever ran home from a bully again, he’d deal with me himself.

The next time I saw the boy who’d slapped me, I stood my ground, thinking, I’m more afraid of my uncle than I am of you. He was surprised – bullies are cowards.

My grandmother and grandfather had such a social conscience. Whenever we harvested more than we needed from our garden, my grandmother distributed it to orphans, needy people in the church, women whose husbands had left them, etc. And my grandfather used to say, ‘If you don’t live a life of service, it’s a life wasted.’

CM: What has fuelled you on this journey?

SK: In 2009 when I lost my older sister, I went back to that, asking myself, Am I living a life of service? And, looking at my mom’s spirit, Am I reaching for the sky?

The answer was no. I looked for the Saray I grew up as and didn’t see her. I was a lady boss at work, a daughter-in-law and a mom at home, but who was Saray, really? She was a tomboy. She was the one who went out not knowing where she was going, but knowing she’d figure it out. She was the one who fell, bandaged herself up and went out again. And that Saray was just … gone.

In her place was this person I didn’t recognise – this person who for a long while thought she was successful, but really wasn’t. I’d come to South Africa with nothing, ready to take on the world, but there I was at 40 and all I knew was going from home to my car to the office for meetings. I was just … lost, you know.

I didn’t know what was missing, so I went back to church and to things I did as a child – hikes, camping. I’m a Pathfinder Club Master Guide, so I started leading kids, taking them on hikes, taking them camping.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro and using it to raise money for Kids Haven allowed me to do what I loved and to realise my childhood dream of travelling – visiting that horizon I’d seen from my molehill.

But I did all the wrong things when I tackled Kili: I didn’t want to pee, so I didn’t want to drink water. I ran up instead of going ‘pole, pole’. I suffered altitude sickness on the day of the summit push and only made it up (and down) with the help of one of the guides.

At the summit, I cried. It made me realise what I was missing, what I loved – the outdoors. I found myself on that trail and I felt free. I didn’t have to pretend to be anything. It was simple: simple people, a simple life and a wonderful world. It’s part of that horizon I grew up dreaming about.

I came back not knowing what I wanted to do with that, until we were giving away a library and a child in Kids Haven said, ‘You really come from the township.’

That triggered my own childhood memories: looking at Wonder Woman and Superman and thinking, They are superheroes, but they don’t look like me, don’t talk like me. So, I can never be a superhero. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I changed that. I, too, can be a superhero. But that child at Kids Haven still carried a sense of self-disbelief.

So, a combination of my liking the outdoors and my grandparents’ social consciousness led to my establishing Summits with a Purpose. I could do it for me and take a selfie, but what’s the point of that? I’d rather do what I love and leave my world just a little bit better. And education is something I’m passionate about – it’s the difference between me and that child with the sense of self-disbelief.

If I can take one child from a township or village anywhere in Africa, black or white, and help them believe in their limitless potential, then I’ve done my job. That’s what Summits with a Purpose is all about.

Summits with a Purpose is currently focused on identifying and training diverse guides from local communities in South Africa. SA AIA members can help by:

  • Identifying suitable candidates;

  • Being willing to share their skills with these candidates;

  • Raising funds;

  • Educating the public regarding how to identify a qualified guide;

  • Encouraging others to leave environments clean, recognising how a pristine environment is our livelihood.

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