People Jeevaline says the idea of scaling the Uhuru peak on Mount Kilimanjaro was dear to her as it symbolised oppressed women's climb to freedom

Most trekkers scale mountains for the sheer thrill of it. They probably start small, trekking up the local hill before taking on the relatively easier summits of the Himalayas. Finally, if they are serious about it, they probably take on Mount Everest.

But Jeevaline Kumar's story is quite different. She joined a group of 47 from across the world to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and scale the Uhuru peak, Africa's highest peak, standing at 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) above sea level.

Jeevaline, who volunteers with the Operation Mercy India Foundation and works to eradicate slavery and human trafficking through various projects, was invited by the American wing of the foundation to participate in the trek.

“The climb was a symbolic representation of the struggles faced by the oppressed, enslaved, exploited and trafficked women and children face every day. The idea was dear to my heart. ‘Uhuru' in Swahili means freedom. It symbolises the women's climb to freedom,” explains Jeevaline.

“I had absolutely no experience in hiking or trekking, though I was an athlete in school. But I found the endeavour, which lasted four-and-a-half days, gruelling.”

What was most difficult for her was the low oxygen level. “It's difficult even to fold the sleeping bag and get dressed in the morning. I was struggling to breathe. By the time I reached the summit, I contracted high-altitude pulmonary edema, and I had to be carried down on a stretcher. Still I didn't quit until I reached the summit because I knew that my discomfort was nothing compared to what these oppressed women face every day,” she says.

The terrain was equally challenging, especially since she came unprepared for it, in tennis shoes. “As we went higher up, the terrain changed from rocks and gravel, to swamps and finally ice. By the third day, I found that I was the only one in tennis shoes and I was wondering how I'd be able to finish the trek. Luckily, an old lady who quit the climb gave me her shoes. I've never walked on snow, so I tried my utmost not to slip and roll down the mountain,” she smiles.

The porters and guides who accompanied them would keep yelling “Pole, Pole”, asking them to slow down in Swahili, since slow and steady is the key to climbing Kilimanjaro. “After the trek, we wanted to express our gratitude to the porters and guides who accompanied us, we were fighting slavery after all. So we conducted a washing-of-the-feet ceremony for them. It was a special experience.”

Jeevaline doesn't regret not being able to complete the descent because she felt like she was being carried off the field after winning the game.

HARSHINI VAKKALANKA

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