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Why I climbed Mt Kenya for Matiba

Carrying his mountaineering gear, 81-year-old Naigzy Gebremedhin, arrived at Naro Moru River Lodge in Nyeri ready to conquer Mt Kenya again. He did it when he was 56 because of his love for the sport.

Now, he is back to climb Africa’s second largest mountain, but for a different reason; to pray for his dear friend Kenneth Matiba. On August 15, this month, he completed his feat to climb the third largest peak and it took him two days.

Filled with zeal, Gebremedhin who was accompanied by two guides climbed to the third highest peak of Mt Kenya where he bowed down and prayed for Matiba. “I felt I should meditate and pray for my dear friend Matiba, a man who has done a lot for this wonderful nation and me.

He first took me there in 1990. I got a golden chance at Point Lenana to pray and remember him. I also did it so as to thank this nation for hosting my family for that long. I believe that God will answer my prayers,” says Gebremedhin.

Guides George Okoit, 30, and Anthony Nderitu, 33, accompanied him. They say Gebremedhin has an extra-ordinary energy compared to his peers. “An encounter with him has taught me that nothing is impossible in this life,” says Okoit.

The Ethiopian national beats all expectations about being an octogenarian. First, he is as fit as a fiddle. Second, he is an early riser. He says he has a tight regular exercise regimen and does 1,500 press-ups every morning.

When I ask him the secret of maintaining his fitness, he says: “We are awesome creatures and we should keep our bodies in the top shape that God wants us to be. We should not allow ourselves to be destroyed by laziness and ingestion of unnecessary things.

God has provided us with the ideal nourishment that we need. Stay fit, think positive and eat natural foods”. Gebremedhin considers himself ‘somewhat Kenyan’.

His love affair with Kenya started 25 years ago when he received an invitation from Kenya’s father of multiparty democracy to accompany him during the inauguration of Makindas Camp at Mt Kenya. He had a golden opportunity of rubbing shoulders with the then powerful politician as they jointly conquered the second highest mountain in Africa.

Two decades later, the Ethiopian opted to climb to point Lenana to honour and remember his ailing friend Matiba and pray for his healing. He ascended the mountain on August 15, this month and came down after two days.

Gebremedhin was born and brought up in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where he developed passion for mountaineering. In the late 1950s the then Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie sent Gebremedhin and another Swedish architect to Kenya to study housing. By then, he says, Kenya was still a colony and the Mau Mau freedom movement was at its peak.

“There was heavy military presence and I was surprised by how Africans were being mistreated. The experience was disappointing because my colleague and I were not allowed to stay in a hotel,” he says.

After the assignment, his colleague travelled to Mombasa for leisure, but he opted to travel to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to climb Mt Kilimanjao, Africa’s highest mountain.

He returned to Ethiopia where he became a lecturer at the Institute of Technology in the faculty of architecture. However, things turned sour for Gebremedhin when Emperor Selassie was deposed and Mengistu Haile Mariam came to power.

“It was not safe for all of us who had been educated by Emperor Selassie. My life was in danger,” he says. In 1974, Gebremedhin fled his motherland due to critical political pressure from Mengistu’s regime. “I had no choice. I left behind my wife and three children.

I came to Kenya and luckily landed a job at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). My family joined me in Nairobi later,” he says. He says Kenya has been a haven for him and his family for the last 41 years.

Between 1983 and 1993, Gebremedhin had climbed Mt Kenya seven times at point Lenana. “Despite having climbed the mountain several times, the most interesting one was when I did it with Matiba in 1990 under a special invitation.

I joined him together with 12 other people in hiking the mountain and I can attest to you that it was a wonderful experience,” he continues. He describes Matiba as an amazing leader who later encountered ‘terrible political oppression’.

When he visited his friend at Safari Club in Nairobi recently, Gebremedhin shed tears when he saw Matiba, who suffered a stroke. “I felt sad because the robust strong man that I climbed Mt Kenya with 25 years ago was being fed by his wife.

I always kept him in my mind and prayers,” says Gebremedhin. He is currently a retiree and became an American citizen in 2005. However, the outspoken man still keeps his house at Lavington in Nairobi where he visits regularly.

“Being a retiree is an amazingly interesting experience. I take my grandchildren to school and pick them later in the day,” he says. The senior citizen has been in the country since May this year and he has spent most of his leisure time at Naro Moru River Lodge , which was acquired by Matiba in 1970.

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