“Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba”

Little by little, fills the pot

Jane Connolly ’10

Though I try desperately not to admit this, it was inevitable that I turned out a lot like my mother. We both have a fierce competitive edge along with a contagious laugh and a desire to work hard to have fun. This equated to my falling in love with the same university and the same study abroad program. 

My mother, Martha Behrens Connolly ’77, Marty Behrens to her SLU friends, studied in St. Lawrence’s Kenya Semester Program (KSP) in the fall of 1975. Back then, the landscape of East Africa and the two-year-old SLU KSP was drastically different: Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya’s (first) president, hitchhiking was allowable, classes took place in bars, and travel to Uganda was prohibited. The program also included a speedy four-day trek up and down Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest point. 

My mother, a keeper of keepsakes, still has the pack list for the Kilimanjaro trip, and showed me some of the “recommended” articles to wear on the mountain from 1975: cutoff jeans, heavy sweater, strong walking shoes, cotton turtleneck shirt, and cotton underwear. Needless to say, any 20-year-old wearing Keds and a cardigan was set up to fail: My mother did not make it to the top of Uhuru Peak. 

Forty-three years have passed and my mother’s life has been full of prodigious adventures and personal successes: she worked in New York City where she met and married my dad, has traveled all over the world, and raised four tenacious children. Her zest for life even led her to go skydiving for her 60th birthday. Describing this woman as “a force” is a vast understatement. 

On her list of achievements and lifetime experiences, one disappointment stuck out: she did not summit Kilimanjaro. Following my own study abroad trip with the SLU KSP program in the fall of 2008, I spent the last nine years pestering my mother to kick the fear out the door and give Kili another go. In June of 2017, she finally declared that it was time. 

On Jan. 15, 2018, my mother, my sister Elisabeth, and I, in the expert hands of our guides and porters from the Wilderness First Travel group, began to climb. The first five days were challenging and utterly extraordinary as we made our way to Barafu Camp at 15,100 feet. This was where we would face a nearly nine-hour ascent that began Saturday morning at half past midnight. No guidebook or blog or dosage of Diamox could possibly prepare us for the nauseating altitude that nearly ended our trip. Every 20 to 40 minutes, my mother and I got so irrepressibly sick that I began to look forward to it, as the purge provided me with enough adrenaline to make it another half an hour. By 4:50 a.m., we were walking an average of 10 feet before we would have to sit down to rest. It was bleak. My mother then asked us what time it was and when Elisabeth told her it was about 5 a.m., she smiled as she pointed out a small strip of red light along the horizon behind us and said, “The sun is rising. We’re going to make it.” 

Little by little, and three arduous hours later, we reached Stella Point at 18,885 feet, and my sister and I forged ahead with one of our guides, leaving our mother with the other guide and our two summit porters to go it at their own pace.

At 8:30 a.m., Elisabeth and I made it to summit at Uhuru Peak: 19,341 feet. It didn’t feel completely right to celebrate anything without our mother there so we sat down and waited. Just 20 minutes later, at a pace that can only be described as “pole pole” in Swahili, Marty Behrens rounded the corner. Everyone’s exhaustion melted into relief as we ran to her and shared a puffy-jacketed-43-year-revenge-climb embrace. When my mother put her hand on the Uhuru Peak sign, she looked back and attempted a frozen faced smile that we found particularly amusing above 19,000 feet. This regressed into a giggling gaggle of three exhausted and fulfilled women who had no concept of where they were or how they got there.  

I reflect often about this climb and how it represents what I’ve learned from my mother over the years: resilience, strength in the face of adversity, and how to truly be brave. But most importantly, be sure to laugh the whole way up.

I guess turning out like my mother isn’t such a bad thing after all. Any woman would be lucky to have a little bit of Marty Behrens spirit. That makes me the luckiest – asante sana Mama C!

Marty and Jane at the Summit
Marty Behrens pre-Kili climb 1975