Leia Johnson knows that getting to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro will not be a walk in the park.
Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro soars more than 16,000 feet from the plains of Tanzania, in East Africa, topping out at 19,341 feet. Known as a “walk-up mountain,” Kilimanjaro requires no technical skill to reach its summit, but it does demand fitness and the determination required to put one boot in front of the other, for five days or more, before topping out. Because of the altitude involved, only about two-thirds of the 25,000 people who attempt the mountain each year make it to the top.
If all goes as planned, Johnson plans to begin trekking up Kilimanjaro March 2 with a climbing team consisting of 14 other women and one man. They plan to reach the dormant volcano’s summit by March 8, which is also International Women’s Day.
Johnson, 35, an activist on behalf of women and the victims of war, is tackling Kilimanjaro to highlight the issues women face in Syria and Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan — some of the world’s most dangerous places because of the wars fought there.
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It is no coincidence that Johnson wants to publicize the plight of people who have lost their homes to war. Johnson’s husband, Air Force Maj. Scott Johnson, is a pilot stationed at Scott Air Force Base. Today he serves as aide-de-camp to Gen. Carlton Everhart II, the commander of Air Mobility Command, which is based at Scott.
And as a military spouse, “I can say war is very real to me,” Johnson said. “So part of it is that I understand the horrors of war.”
Johnson recalled the time she spent in 2003 in West Africa, working with the victims of Sierra Leone’s long, bloody civil war as it was winding down.
“War is a horrible thing,” she said. “But I believe wholeheartedly it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. I want to take it the extra step.”
War is a horrible thing. But I believe wholeheartedly it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. I want to take it the extra step.
Two other things are helping motivate Johnson’s trek up Kilimanjaro. First, there is Johnson’s work as founder of a not-for-profit group called Somebody’s Mama, which sponsors women’s empowerment projects around the world.
Second, and related to the first, is her group’s partnership with another charity called One Million Thumbprints, which is a grassroots campaign to help women in war zones get back on their feet and overcome the effects of war through storytelling, advocacy and fundraising.
One way that A Million Thumbprints achieves this goal is by providing agricultural tools and crop seeds to women victimized by war.
A woman helped by A Million Thumbprints “can basically rewrite her story,” Johnson said. “Instead of living out this existence caused by the violence, she can provide for her family. And it's peace-building in the meantime because when you’re not fighting for survival and fighting to find food, when you’re able to grow food, you can start trading with your neighbors, you’re building neighbors instead of enemies.”
25,000 people attempt to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro every year. About two-thirds make it to the top.
Johnson knows it would be foolish to under-estimate the difficulty of climbing Kilimanjaro. Because of the altitude involved, most climbing parties take five or more days to acclimate to the mountain’s thin air while moving slowly upward along the trail.
Even so, nearly three-fourths of those who do make it to the top experience some form of acute mountain sickness, with symptoms including headache, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and loss of appetite.
At least 25 people have died from January 1996 to October 2003 while climbing the mountain, with nearly all the deaths linked to high-altitude sickness.
Johnson, along with the rest of her party, plans to carry a small day pack with about 20 pounds of gear. Porters hired locally will carry heavier loads. Instead of hauling tents, they will stay in wooden huts along the trail.
Since October, Johnson has been going to the gym and carrying a backpack around town, as well as on Cub Scout hikes with her sons Will, 10, and Ben, 7.
“I’ve been climbing a lot of stairs” with a pack on, Johnson said. “Unfortunately, Illinois doesn’t have a lot of mountains.”
I’ve been climbing a lot of stairs. Unfortunately, Illinois doesn’t have a lot of mountains.
For Johnson, the plight of overseas war refugees is not political.
“It’s a human rights issue,” she said. “And so, you know, when I get to my grave — not to sound too dramatic — I want to feel I did something about it.”