My two Tanzanian “sons” and our life altering visit to Uganda

In December 2017, I had the good fortune to visit Tanzania. While there, I attended the graduation of my younger Tanzanian son, Deogratias (Deo) Mtui, from medical school. I also visited my older Tanzanian son, Frank Mella, and saw the property he is developing as an ultramodern campground.

I met Deo in May 2011, when I attempted to climb Kilimanjaro for the fourth time. Deo was working as a porter on the mountain. He was responsible for carrying my gear. Shortly after we started the climb, I noticed that Deo seemed to be having trouble with his feet and back. I asked him repeatedly what was wrong. He kept responding “nothing”. On the third day of the climb, I began experiencing altitude sickness and decided to abort the climb. Deo and my guide came down the mountain with me.

Once we were off the mountain, Deo admitted that his feet and back were hurting him terribly. He said that he could not tell anyone because, if he did, he would not be hired as a porter. Deo said that he had been working as a porter for 6 years and that the work was essential to him. He was saving money to go to medical school.

The two of us met for lunch each of the next four days and became better acquainted. Deo was very serious about completing a six year program of college and medical school. I told him that if he promised me he would stay off the mountain, I would see that his tuition through medical school was covered. As a result of this agreement, six and a half years later, Deo graduated from medical school on December 8, 2017 (Photo 1) third in his class among 135 students. I could not have been more proud of him.

Photo 1. Deogratias’ graduation. Deo is shown with Frank and the author.

Frank was a porter on Kilimanjaro in 1993 when my daughter, Sandy, and I met him on our first climb of the mountain. I have been to Tanzania seven times and have visited with Frank on each trip. Our friendship became much closer in October 2007, when Frank served as my guide during a climb of Kilimanjaro that I had arranged to celebrate my 70th birthday. My son-in-law, Jeff Clubb, joined me on this climb. At the time of the 2007 climb, Frank had started developing his own adventure company, Kilele Savane, LTD, and was taking clients to the summits of Kilimanjaro, Mawenzi and Meru, as well as on safari.

The most difficult part of the climb is between Kibo, at 15,420 feet, and Gilman’s point, at 18,700 feet, a distance of 5.7 miles. Jeff made this climb in just under six hours, while it took me 12 hours to arrive at Gilman’s point. I had four stents as a result of blocked arteries and had a blood disorder called myelodysplasia. However, my cardiologist and internist cleared me for the climb since I was in such good shape overall.

On the climb, I would take several steps, rest, take another several steps and again rest. The higher one climbs and the later it becomes, the harder the wind blows and the colder it gets. Each time I rested, Frank would come and wrap a portion of his warm, heavy coat around me, and hold me next to him until I was ready to start climbing again. After reaching Gilman’s point., it took another one and half hours to arrive at the camp inside the crater where we spent the night.

At 8:00 AM the next morning, Jeff, Frank and I began the climb from the floor of the crater to the rim of the mountain and then onto the summit. Jeff reached the summit long before I did but kindly waited so that we could step on the summit together. We stepped on the summit simultaneously at 11:07 AM on October 13, 2007.

Frank and I bonded very tightly on this trip. I would not have made it without him and owe my life to him for guiding me safely up the mountain. Frank and I began addressing each other as father and son due to the strong friendship we had formed.

About two years ago, Frank started developing six acres of property in Southern Tanzania near a wild life reserve called Selous. He kept me informed at each stage of developing the property and wanted me to be the first visitor to see it. We were there December 10–12, 2017.

Frank had already installed 10 large tents with full bathroom facilities where families could stay. He had built a large two story building with a kitchen for preparing and serving meals. He plans on building a lodge with about 40 rooms for guests with an accompanying swimming pool and several other amenities. Frank is indeed a visionary when it comes to his businesses. He will undoubtedly become one of the major adventure companies in Tanzania within the next several years.

Following Deo’s graduation and the visit to Frank’s property, the three of us departed Tanzania for Uganda on December 13, 2017. This was a humanitarian trip to visit the starving families living in the northeastern part of the country. Frank had arranged for us to travel in Uganda with Doreen Khasalamwa, a representative from the Gorilla and East Africa Safari company. Doreen and her driver, Damba, met us at Entebbe International Airport. We drove northeast from the airport for 260 km and spent the first night in Mbale Town, which is more than half way to Moroto in the Karamonja Region. This region is where the majority of those suffering from starvation reside in Uganda.

The next morning, Damba took the four of us to visit companies that produce stable foods which we could purchase and transport to the malnourished families near Moroto. We met a lady in Mbale Town named Grace, who we called Mama. Mama is one of the principal volunteers who help the starving people. She assisted us in buying food and hiring a driver to take food to the malnourished families residing about 5–6 miles in the hills above Moroto. We purchased 3,300 pounds of cornmeal used to make ugali, which is one of the main dishes in East Africa. We also bought 1,200 pounds of beans and 550 pounds of salt. The total cost was only $750.

We left Mbale Town about noon and arrived in Moroto, which is about 200 km north of Mbale, at 3:00 PM. After dinner, we met with Mama, who had traveled to Moroto with the driver transporting the food, to discuss the arrangements for meeting the malnourished families the next morning. Mama would go ahead of us with the driver, and they would deliver the food to the compound maintained by volunteers. Mama, along with other volunteers, would then visit several of the surrounding villages and invite the malnourished families to come to the compound for food.

The next morning about 9:00 AM, Frank, Deo and I met the volunteers and many malnourished children who came to welcome us. The parents and elders had entered a large shelter on the compound where many of the families often gathered. We entered the shelter and began circulating around the crowd trying to meet everyone. The handshakes with the elders involved a ritual of holding both hands, raising the right hand, which held their left hand, over our other hands and then back and forth several times. The person with whom I was shaking hands would often say something to me and I, in turn, thanked them. Mama occasionally translated what they had said, which was mostly a thank you for bringing food. After Mama introduced Frank, Deo and me, we said a few words which Mama translated to the people. They clapped and cheered.

After an hour and a half in the shelter, we went outside to start passing out the food. Frank, Deo and several of the volunteers dragged a number of the 220 pound bags of cornmeal and beans and the 110 pound bags of salt from the storage shed to a place where the food could be conveniently distributed. The malnourished family members lined up holding sacks, plastic and/or metal containers for us to pour food into. The women sometimes held out their skirts for the food. All the cornmeal and beans that fell on the ground were picked up by the children and parents so that nothing was lost.

It had been a profoundly touching, but terribly sad morning meeting these very dear people and holding so many of the children.

In the afternoon, we visited severely destitute families who lived in a nearby village and were too malnourished to come to the compound for food. Several people were under blankets and were only days from dying (Photos 2 and 4) and a younger woman too weak to eat solid food (Photo 3). Deo or a volunteer and I knelt down beside several of them, lifted their blankets and held their hands to hopefully console them.

Photo 2. Elderly woman near death from starvation.
Photo 3. A volunteer and the author attending to a younger woman too weak from malnutrition to eat.
Photo 4. Elderly woman near death from starvation.

After examining these critically ill individuals, Deo said that they were most likely dying only from starvation. Of the five individuals we met who were under blankets, three were elderly women, one was a lady in her late 30s or early 40s and one was a young man in his late teens.

It was heart-wrenching to see these individuals since their condition could have been reversed so easily by intravenous feeding until they could be given food by mouth. The feeling of helplessness was devastating.

When food is so scarce, we were told that the elders get the least amount of food and parents the most. This is the case to avoid the children from becoming orphans. Things did not always work out in this manner since we met several orphans in the morning who were as young as 10 and fending for themselves.

We met as many of the other 50–60 of these villagers as we could. We shook hands and I picked up many of the infants and held them for a few minutes. One of the elderly gentleman, as we were shaking hands, spit on one of my hands (Photo 5), then the other. Mama, who was accompanying me, said that he had paid me the highest compliment possible. He had not wished me a long life, he had GIVEN me a long life. We were later advised that this gentleman was a “culturally important person in the village” and was the only elder statesman who could give such a gift.

Photo 5. The elder gentleman spitting on the author’s hands. He is not wishing the author a long life, but is giving him a long life (see text).

Deo had carefully watched when I was meeting the families and examined each child that I held and also several of the people with whom I shook hands. Deo later told me that he was examining them for hepatitis or other possible contractible illnesses to be sure I was not being exposed. He said that, as far as he could tell, I had not been exposed and added that I would not become ill as God was taking care of me.

After the cornmeal, beans and salt had been passed out, it was with heavy hearts that we told these dear people goodbye, since we knew several of them would not live more than a week.

Frank and Deo were very supportive on the entire trip and I could not have undertaken this tour without them. The three of us love each other deeply and respect each other as father and sons. This humanitarian trip could also not have occurred without Doreen and Mama. Doreen organized the trip and Mama, who gave so much of her time to helping these impoverished families, were responsible for us meeting them

Encountering these starving families in northeastern Uganda was a life altering experience for the three of us. We shall never forget what appeared as fear of imminent death in the eyes of many of the residents (Photo 6). Holding the hands of a person, who was only days from dying of hunger that could be remedied so readily, even at this late stage in their lives, resulted in a bottomless abyss of powerlessness in each of us. These gentle, warm people will be in our thoughts forever.

Photo 6. Residents of the village who have been given food. Note the similar expressions.

Additional Photos:

Photo 7. Another elderly woman near death.
Photo 8. The author consoling the elderly woman shown in Photo 4. The person under the blanket to the author’s right is also shown in Photo 2. And the person whose head is shown to the author’s far right, is a young man in his late teens or early 20s and is too malnourished to eat. Deo and I also spoke to him. The legs of the person to the author’s far left is the elderly lady shown in Photo 7.