Paulo Lumala on Mountain Climbing

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Paulo Lumala (PL) on Mountain Climbing.

RK: Good evening to you Paulo, good to have you on #360Mentor.

PL: Thank you for having me, Robert.

RK: There is one question I ask everyone I host on the show, Paulo, were you born on the mountain top?

PL: Hahaha! Far from it. But if nsambya can be described as a mountain top, then I was.

RK: Now we know, the question I kept getting was who is this Paulo Waabwe? I corrected them. It’s Paulo Lumala, who is this guy whose life revolves around extreme adventure?

PL: I felt a bit of pride when I saw you write my name as Paulo. I love to have my name as much Africanaised as I can.

Paulo is a humble man contrary to what I have heard people say. I have heard people call me a superman and all those things. I am an IT engineer. I work with the government.

RK: Let me first stop you. When did you arrive at Nsambya and where did you go after? By the way I should say this, if you have heard of the mountain slayers of Uganda, Paulo Lumala is their president.

PL: I arrived in Nsambya sometime in 1984, I had no say in the matter.

RK: I wonder what would have been your position if you had been consulted!

PL: I would have chosen a much higher place to be born but of course some of these things we have no say. Even when I was born I had no say to the schools I went to. Because as early as P1, I was thrust into a boarding school somewhere in kabojja. But it’s something I am so thankful for because it has shaped the person I am today.

After seven years in the same school, I went to St Mary’s Kisubi, a wonderful school with wonderful people. Thereafter I went to Makerere University where I did a degree in IT. As luck would have it, I got a job with the Government of Uganda. and that’s where I have been ever since.

RK: Tell me something Paulo, at what point in your life do you begin to realise that you have this extreme obsession with adventure?

PL: There was a time when WBS was still running, they had a programme on tour and travel hosted by Karitas Karisimbi. There was this one time they went with a group of tourists to visit the Rwenzori and they went to the top. That was the first time I saw pictures of Ugandans on top of the mountain. It was also the first time I saw pictures of people up the mountain. It was one of those things you admire. That was my first exposure that I fell in love with. but soon I forget.

Much later in life when I had begun working, a colleague at work took their leave to go and climb Mountain Rwenzori. When he came back, the stories he shared got me hooked. That man is Dibo Brown. About a year later, I had my leave coming up  but I had nothing planned. So Dibo suggested that I go to the Rwenzori, and just like that, I called up a few friends and about 10 people had bought into the idea but  like most group travels, I ended up going alone. but at that time I was so determined. There was no turning back.

RK: There is an English word for those people. Cowards.

PL: I had promised myself to climb it come what may. And I am glad I took that leave. It exposed me to the things I didn’t know I loved. In that same year, we went to an eclipse hunting somewhere in Packwach.

RK: You’re one of those!

PL: Yes. I could not believe that I left Kampala to go and see the moon covering the sun. That is when it began to sink in. From then on, I began looking for more activities to take on. It came back as a mountain. I have had too many ever since.

RK: What is it that draws you to climb the mountains?

PL: At the risk of answering like Neil Armstrong when he had come back from the moon, the guy  had a way of answering questions. He told the journalists “you had to be there to believe  it”. But I will do my best. The thing about mountains is the exaggeration about everything. The size of the ridges up there. Everything is so expensive. When it comes to the silence, the quiet and the serenity, it is super beautiful. I guarantee you are not going to hear a boda hooting or the usual noise we are used to.

RK: Or someone preaching on a loudspeaker on a street.

PL: None of that. The songs are clear. Everything is so clear. It goes without saying that the weather can be such a pain. But everything is an extreme up there. It just transports you to this place where you feel at peace.

RK: Paulo, how much of that physical clarity contributes to your own mental clarity?

PL: There is a very interesting creation when you are on the mountain versus when you are back home. You get to see the stars shining so bright. It gets you clear out all the clatter from your head and you think about this one thing. When I return I am reminded that all these things in life are dust or clouds in the sky.  I get to do away with them and think of the stars, I find the tone star to think about. And I think it has paid off, I get people who ask me, “ Naye Paulo, tooyina bizibu?”… “ Do you even work? ” But that is what clarity gives you, you choose what you want to enjoy and how you want to enjoy it. And you get the most out of it.

RK: I want to see that I understand that philosophical lesson that you have just shared; the reward, the physical strength of climbing those rugged peaks, this reflects the emotion that prevails that you must go through as an individual, you must go through that pain in order to achieve clarity. So youre saying that each one of us has to go through something like this, something  physical, that there are  so many mountains in our mind that we have to deal with in our minds that we have to clear out, Is that what you mean?

PL: Yes. I mean I cannot lead myself to breaking a leg. Some things come with a form of  a beating but  you have to focus on the reward. I can tell you my very first experience on a mountain. It was Rwenzori. And I look back and realise it was something silly considering I had zero experience in climbing the mountains.

On day one I was trying to show off to these retired Japanese climbers in my group. I was trying to prove  a point. What I didn’t know is that they came from a background of climbing mountains. They had climbed Mt. Fugi. A few days before, they had just come down from climbing Mt Kilimanjaro.

Day 2, I carried the same attitude but at the end of day 2, I felt the pain, I had pain all over my  body. I still had 3 days ahead of me and I learnt to slow down if I had to get to the summit. I soldiered on anyway. I was no longer showing off. I had to fix my attention on reaching the summit and that is what kept me going. I was willing to take the pain for the reward which comes with standing on the mountain top.

When it worked out, I came back with a picture of myself atop  the mountain. To date, I still look at the photo with delight. It still stands out even when I have done other summits.

RK: Again, Paulo, I have to see that I understand the lesson that you are sharing; most times in our lives our priorities are shaped by our egos and not what is important to us. To you as a  young African guy, you were trying to prove a point to three ageing Japanese guys but then at some point we all realize that what really matters is not what matters. That you really need to refocus, is that what you are telling us?

PL: Yes. It’s funny. I keep seeing the same thing with the people who join us for the first time. Some of them do not realise that it is all about getting to the top.

RK: Let me ask you, is one of those people Mabba?

PL: That man is solid. I will be kind to him.

RK: You were still explaining to us…

PL: Yes, I see a lot of people do that. Someone once told me I used to think it was about finishing until I realised that you guys at the back are always having fun. You come back with the best experience, you have the best conversations. Sometimes you realise that there is no other way for someone to learn that less than to experience it themselves.

RK: Since we are talking about the purpose and the reason, there is the school of thought that adventure and the whole mountain activity that you guys do is really an alien thing for muzugu and you are muzungu wannabes and that ordinary villagers like me we can’t afford gear and all that, is that an unfair perception?

PL: No it is not unfair? It is wrong but not unfair and here is why? I was to talk to you and I didn’t know you and all I had read about you is your twitter battles and ….

RK: Is that all that you know about me, you man?  Hahahahaha

PL: I am just using it as an example hahaha

Imagine if that is the perception I had of you, and I have to meet you? In the same way, that is what many people have been exposed to. it is what they see and hear. It  is always the  white people on natgeo, in movies. The urban dictionary even has a term for it: white people. It is about back people doing white people things.

RK: There is another word for them; they are called oreos. You know the oreo biscuits?

PL:  That’s the thing, you cannot blame people for it. But here are the facts. Hiking involves two things, the gear and the resolve. Africans fall short on the resolve. Causuains are explorers by nature. For us we like to settle where things are okay for us. Once we find water, we  are good. For us we move out of necessity while for the muzungu, they go out to explore. So coming from that kind of background, it is natural to think of these things as, by the ways; bazungu things. But really it is not.

When people talk about the cost of gear, many of these things appear expensive. Everyone’s view of expensive things is different.  The same person who cannot imagine paying ugx 1.6 million to climb Rwenzori spends the same amount in a bar at night.

RK: They will go and spend the same amount of money on a Johnny Walker

PL: And they will go talking about it in their whatsapp groups, “twakikubye” or they will go breaking the bank to make contributions at weddings. They are the same people who will go out travelling. They will cash money on things they do not perceive as expensive.

The biggest thing you are ever going to spend on a mountain when you want it for yourself are the hiking boots. And wof which you will spend less than Ugx 200,000.

And there are many places one can go. It is about perception. It is about what people attach to monetary value. There are some people to whom this is genuinely expensive and others who can afford but have different priorities.

There are so many places one can go to.

RK: I want to ask you about the adventure and its benefits.

PL: The benefits are quite many. Most obviously, it’s good for  your body.  Both in exercising  your body and mind. The outdoors bing a certain clarity to your mind. You learn to listen. Because you have learnt that to push your body beyond the limits you thought you could go. And that’s when you start taking on a much bigger problem. There are benefits beyond self like service to the community. Most of these places we go to, we spend money that goes directly into the pockets of these people but you may not see it. Hiking contributes to the trickle down effect. Like roots, it spreads out in the ground. Spending money in the communities has been more valuable than you can imagine. You also contributed to the tourism industry.

Most importantly though, you get to earn. The communities you go to teach you  a lot.  You get to meet so many wonderful people. It is a better rewarding journey than when you spend that time at a bar.

RK: Paulo, could you please educate us, you have been to mountain tops, talk to us, what mountains do we have and what do you have to talk about them. 

PL: Obviously I have to start with the Rwenzoris, it has a big space in my heart. It is the mountain I have been to 3 times. Rwenzori is a rugged mountain because of the way it was formed. It is a block mountain, which is why you get the many shapes. It is different for a volcanic mountain. For a volcano, you have only one cone. Rwenzori has 16 peaks in total. What makes it special is what we call peak bugging, where you can go and climb one peak then go to another. It is not like kilimanjoaro where you have to climb only one peak. Because of this ruggedness, it presents an experience I cannot explain and then it  has snow on top.

Then we have the Birungas. Many people will refer to it as the Virungas but it is wrong. The virunga version is a white man’s version because they cannot wrap their tongue around the “bi”. Then we have Muhabura, Mgahinga and Sabinyo. Muhabura gives you a chance to do gorilla tracking without paying for the gorilla permit.

RK: Hahaha you guys cheat UWA

PL: You could say but it comes at  a price.  I will tell you a story of a friend, Ibrah. He went to climb Muhabura one day and on the way back, he came across a family of gorillas as they started to move towards him. But Ibrah is smart, he did not run, he instead decided to climb a tree. But the gorialls had time. They sat under the tree. His phone battery had run flat and his only option was to stay up there. After like 40 minutes, the gorillas moved on.

So I advise there is a right way to see the gorillas, pay UWA and enjoy the experience. In Sabinyo, you get to see buffaloes. Again we had an extreme experience while there, in 2018, there were a few people limping on and the ranger fired off a bullet to scare away a buffalo which was coming close. Many of us had to run up towards the ranger. Even those who were limping had to run.

The thing about Sabinyo is the opportunity to stand at the intersection where Rwanda DRC and Uganda meet. That is one of the best experiences ever.

The Birungas are special because they give you a glimpse of what the rwenzoris could be like.

Then we got to the east, the Elgon. Elgon used to stand higher than Kilimanjaro until it blew its stop. That’s why it has the biggest caldera in the world. After the bow, it lost its height.

There are also so many mountains that have not been explored  because most of our tourism tends to point to the west and south western part of the country. You can’t blame them because the west is so beautiful.

 But the mountains of Karamoja, Kadam outside Pian Upe forest reserve, outside Nakapiripirit.

RK: By the way Paulo you are going to hate  me, I did all these mountains on a chopper. I was flying to karamoja and the pilot took us through them.

PL: What you did was to see, you did not summit them. Be humble. Kadam is just beautiful. I don’t know why we don’t talk about it often. Then there is Mt Moroto, and Napak. Napak is a rather rough one.

Further into the Kidepo area, there is Murongore, the environment in which they are, in the middle of what feels like a nothingness, you are transported to the true feeling of Uganda.

Kenya has Mt Kenya, which is a beauty. Something close to the rwenzori.  It has a very good mountain culture. Between Mt Kenya and Uganda you have the Abadeya mountains where there was the MauMau rebellion. At those two mountains, we found plane wreckage.

In the south, in Tanzania, you have Meru and Kilimanjaro. The highest peak on Kilimanjaro is called Uhuru, named after independence.

I have not yet climbed Mt Meru yet.

There is one in DRC called Nyiragongo which keeps on erupting. We climbed it after 12 years but you can still see the result of the 2002 eruptions. It is highly monitored todate.

 RK: I need to ask you this question; what goes on in your mind as you climb these mountains? What is your mental process like?

PL: That is a place you don’t want to be. When people see the photos, they only see the results. The elation, the achievement and congratulations. But deep down what happens is  in different stages for different people. Before you hit the road to go kasese to climb is different from the evening before the rela climb. You realise it’s serious. Then that moment when the rubber hits the tarmac, when you realise you have seven days ahead of you, that is when it dawns on you. You begin the journey up and up, and up and up for the next 5 days. There comes a point when the  heart is beating too much, when all muscles are broken, when there is not so much motivation, when oxygen is less. Many people break down mentally. That is when someone realises that with a slight injury, they could go down. It has happened to me many times before when I have felt the pangs  all over my body. When I get to that point, I retreat, I start living in my head. I reminisce on all that I have endured to get there. I think of what I want to  achieve. It is that moment when all your fears come alive. Everything else stops. You Just want to summit. But you don’t know whether you will enjoy it or not.

Every time I have been on top of Rwenzori and Kilimanjaro I have shed tears of joy. I remember one time at Kilimanjaro it was Liz Mutesi who pointed  out to me that I was tearing.

RK: We need to find a way to support the guides, could you make a pitch for these guys.

PL: Wonderful! As we speak now, two groups of mt slayers just returned from the Rwenzoris. The first was a group of climbers who took on the mountain. The other group had gone to hand over the gear. Some time last year, the UNDP called out for ideas that would help local communities hta had suffered because of covid lockdown, so we slotted in our idea of helping the communities around the Rwenzori, the idea was hta if we did our part, many Ugandans would be encouraged to go and climb it. That project was executed two ways, first we got a  safety training company from the US based on Mt Kilimanjaro who trained them with better safety skills.

Then we used the other part of the gear to secure hiking gear. All the gear we had used previously were donations by previous climbers. We bought them a gear upgrade. They were quite a number.

Stretchers are so important. Whenever there was an evacuation, the guides would use human abundance. Very strong Bakonjoo boys would be called to carry down the person. It would take 12 hours to get the porters and 12 hours to get you down. The boys would carry you and then hand you over to the other friend till you reached the ground.

We donated about 12 radio calls to ease the communication. When you consider all this year given to these local communities, it is going to be easier.

So going forward, you will be guided by someone who has been trained better and equipped better. And also they maintain the gear. This is a small step but it is also a step.

RK: Let me ask Otoa to join in now, I am sure he is going to ask whether there is a place to roast meat at the mountain.

Otoa: Oh no! Robert not at all. For a guy who has never walked even 5 km, what does it take to take on a task this huge?

PL: I advise them to start small. Walk around the neighbourhood, take on longer distances.  Take a hill, then a bigger hill and then a few smaller mountains. Mt Elgon is a good one, then the Birungas. You can always get the gear from Owino, but you can also buy them off the internet. You need warm gloves, good boots, a warm jacket and a sleeping bag.

The rest is mostly mental. The most important thing is discipline. Always listen to your guide. If you are going to disregard their advice, believe me, you are going to suffer. The start is always basic. You can always reach out to Mountain Slayers to be of help.

Doreen Namutebi: Ugandas rarely appreciate the kind of things you do, how can you promote the culture for Ugandans to experience such things?

Paulo Kyaama: The name Mountain Slayers, honestly, could you rethink the name for one that will attract more people to come on board. I didn’t hear you talk of Tororo rock, yet it is one of the best. You guys are doing amazing things, keep going!

Evelyn Namara: Paulo, how do you deal with people who have attitude issues?

Paul Ampurire: There is a proposal to have cable cars around the Rwenzoris for those unable to take on the hike physically, what effect will this have on hiking the rwenzoris.

Nyanzi: Are there seasons that are favourable for  mountain climbing?

Brenda Bukenya: Can we have  a directory at least for the smallest mountains and hills that people can take on.

RK: Could you address the questions on the twitter feed. Thank you for making time. Thanks for teaching us.

PL: It’s pleasure Robert, thank you for the opportunity.

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