Can a bicycle and climb transform a community? On 18 February 2011, the Kilimanjaro Initiative (KI), in joint collaboration with globalbike, kicked off a three-week campaign to bring to light the transformative power of bikes, and the important role that sports can play in promoting sustainable, healthy, and safe communities. NGLS interviews Tim Challen, founder of the Kilimanjaro Initiative (KI).
NGLS: What gave you the idea to start the Kilimanjaro Initiative?
In January 2004, I was asked to go to Nairobi to testify in court. Nine months earlier I had been shot during an armed robbery in the Kenyan capital and they had arrested some suspects. Contrary to what I had foreseen, the magistrates’ court was in the centre of Kibera slum and not in the city centre. This snapshot on the contrasts and divisions which exist in Nairobi gave me an initial insight into the social issues which may lead disenfranchised youth to pull the trigger of a gun. Later that day some Kenyan friends came to see me at my hotel and told me that I should come back and climb Mount Kilimanjaro - something I had planned to do before being shot. Kilimanjaro Initiative was born at the moment - if I was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I would use it as an opportunity to raise awareness on issues that affect young people in East Africa and beyond.
NGLS: What are the key issues that the Initiative addresses?
There are two ways to tackle crime: reprehensive measures through a judicial system; and crime prevention. The second way has to be the most effective. Firstly, from a victim’s perspective, it is obviously best that a crime doesn’t happen at all. Moreover, many judicial systems are not so effective in reprimanding criminals. If I take my own personal case, I can say that the Kenyan judicial system failed me because eight years down the line no one has been found guilty. From a criminal’s point of view, well surely there are more constructive things a person can do with their life. In most cases, criminals in Kenya end up dead. Human life is worth more than throwing it away through crime for a handful of Shillings. There are many issues that may lead at-risk youth into crime: poverty; lack of education; missing opportunities; lack of self-belief; ill-health; environmental degradation; poor service facilities; and unsafe public places. Crime is a cross-cutting problem that needs to be tackled through different themes. KI basically uses sport as a way to engage young women and men, reminds them that they have inner-strength to overcome adversity and provides opportunities that can help them become agents of constructive change in their communities.
NGLS: What do you consider some of the Kilimanjaro Initiative’s biggest successes? Do you feel KI has helped to bring about social change at community level? In what way(s)?
One of our main projects is the upgrading of a sports field in Kibera slum, which we are doing in different phases. Three years ago, it was a hotspot for criminal activity – now it is a safe heaven where hundreds of kids play and where the community holds social meetings. To do this, KI members of staff who live in the area approached some of the young men who were causing problems and offered them work during one of our upgrading phases. Since then they are no longer a gang but a brotherhood that uses vegetable farming and transports people from the depths of the slum to hospitals as income generation. This exemplifies what KI does best – changing mentalities!
NGLS: Do you partner with other organizations? If yes, what do such partnerships bring?
Partnerships are so important in development, as organizations can complement and support one another. KI is now part of Care International’s ITSPLEY program and works with York University in Canada on highlighting the affects of climate change in Kibera slum. We are also in the process of building a partnership with globalbike inc. in relation to the distribution of bicycles to youth groups in Kenya and Tanzania. We are always looking to be a part of, or create synergies with, other organizations.
NGLS: Every year, the Kilimanjaro Initiative organizes an ascent to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (5895m). Could you explain the idea behind the ascent?
The true meaning of KI is in the name. Mount Kilimanjaro provides the main inspiration to what we do, it acts as a very powerful metaphor in relation to the spirit we aim to convey. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is like a journey through life – you have to understand your environment, measure your step and realize that short cuts don’t necessarily help, work as a team, and persevere as an individual to reach your goal. So many climbers have come down from the mountain and told me it has changed their life, be it the youth we sponsor to do the climb or our friends, sponsors and donors. One American lady told me “I thought I was coming to make a change in a young African’s life, I didn’t realize it would make a change in mine.” Mount Kilimanjaro is a powerful mountain.
NGLS: This year, the theme of the climb, as well as of an additional bike ride, was “cycle and climb towards a sustainable economy.” How do you see the climb (and the bike ride) contribute towards a sustainable economy? What do you hope to achieve? What kind of activities do you envisage to undertake to further promote the climb’s theme?
Bike ride from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro and then climb – people thought I was crazy, and so did I at one point... Fortunately, US-based globalbike also saw the potential. We just got back and it was fantastic. We planted over 600 trees with more than 2,500 school children; donated more than 115 bikes to youth groups in Kenya and Tanzania; collected more than a ton of garbage along a main road in Arusha; and got to find out more about the people who live in the region. Essentially, we offset the overall event’s carbon footprint; we taught children about the need to preserve our environment; demonstrated how dirty some of our roads are; assisted youth groups with their income generating activities by providing them with bikes – these will help with garbage clear up activities and goods transport; and created a strong partnership with globalbike, local communities, Arusha Cycling Club, and UNEP. Considering we are quite a small organization, we believed we surpassed our initial objective. For the future, we will continue our various activities with the same spirit of constructive engagement with different communities. As for climb 2012, we plan to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on International Women’s Day and say “No to sexual violence against women!”