Kilimanjaro – a constant companion

This was the phrase I recently read in Ian Gleeson’s The Unknown Force: Black, Indian and Coloured Soldiers through Two World Wars. The phrase is one I’ve found rather intriguing every time I’ve read it or something similar. Surprisingly, it features more regularly in memoirs of men who served in East Africa during World War 1 than I thought it would.

What is intriguing about this statement is that there is no guarantee that Mount Kilimanjaro will be visible all through the day or even for consecutive days. In fact the morning I was reading this sentence, I happened to be in the air from Nairobi and couldn’t see a thing outside the windows due to the cloud. But, I hear you say, at over 35,000 feet you’re not likely to see the top of the 19,000+ foot high mountain if there’s cloud cover. This might be the case, but on my last 3-week visit to the Kilimanjaro area earlier this year, I saw the mountain on only two days. For the remainder, she was covered in cloud.

Numerous soldiers talk of using the mountain as a guide to help them know where they were and in which direction they were travelling. This is another statement that constantly surprises me given the frequency with which Kilimanjaro is covered in cloud and particularly at the time the South African forces would have been there. They arrived shortly before the rainy season started in March. The battle for Salaita Hill was fought in early February 1915 following which the South African and other Allied forces started to move around the mountain to converge on Moshi. The Allied forces converged on Moshi in March and then moved onto Kahe, Korogwe and Handeni and Kondoa Irangi, most of which was during this ‘long rain’ season which lasted until May. How the men could therefore reliably use Kilimajaro as a guide for where they were, is a question which regularly challenges me.

Perhaps, though, it was the recollection of having seen the mountain which remained with the men and the glimpse they possibly caught at sunrise or sunset which reassured them of where they were. But how it helped guide them, remains a mystery to me – not least because I can’t tell you where I am around the mountain despite all my years of visiting her. Despite this, Kilimanjaro is a reassuring companion and a source of inspiration and awe.

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