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How a Mountain—and a Soccer Ball—Helped Me Deal With Grief

Our writer sought meditation on Africa’s tallest peak. What she found was something even more meaningful: fun.


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It’s a circus up here at Third Cave, our campsite for night three on Mt. Kilimanjaro’s Rongai route. This frenzy wasn’t what I’d imagined; my group had dreamed up this makeshift soccer tournament here at 12,400 feet, the beginning of Kilimanjaro’s alpine desert zone, to ease nerves and foster relaxation ahead of our summit push. But relaxing is hardly an option when there’s a title on the line.

Breathing hard, I sprint across our improvised field, carefully skirting the sticks marking the sidelines. Cheers, whistles, and the piercing “goaaaal” call from our porter and impromptu sportscaster Kelvin Chambulila distract me from Uhuru Peak’s broad summit pyramid, looming 7,000 feet above in my periphery. I know I should feel intimidated—by the mountain, and by the shocked climbers spectating from neighboring campsites. But I’m keeping my eye on the prize: a miniature red-and-white soccer ball. I may be the only woman on the pitch, but I have two seasons of high school junior varsity soccer up my sleeve—and slide tackling was my specialty.

Phweeeet. Our referee (and, off the pitch, porter) blows his backpack’s emergency whistle as Kilimanjaro guide Paulo Joshua Martin and I tumble to the ground, him defending the open goal, me dead-set on scoring our team’s first point.

“Oh, come on!” I protest, to no avail.

“Foul!” The ref says with a grin as I wipe a sweaty sprinkle of dust from my brow. “Shemeji, it’s your penalty kick.”

Photo: Chris Bennett

Shemeji, Swahili for sister-in-law, is my mountain nickname. My husband Frank and his brother Nate are similarly referred to as kaka, Swahili for brother, by the rest of our party.

If this trek had panned out as I’d originally envisioned, I would be doing some serious soul-searching right now, processing a metaphorical mountain of grief while summiting a literal one. But compared to our high-altitude soccer game, that now sounds incredibly dreary.

I landed in Tanzania with more emotional baggage than could fit in my 70-liter duffel. For at least a decade, I’d dreamed about this climb to the roof of Africa. My dad, a 1978 Kilimanjaro climber himself, cultivated my Kili interest early in my childhood. He shared slides from his own climb, then advised us on our route, gear, and training.  He was supposed to meet us at the Rongai Gate trailhead after our climb, but just months before the trip, he passed away unexpectedly.

I was shocked, then broken. Instead of a fun bucket-list adventure, I started searching for something deeper in our climb. I began to see Kilimanjaro as my heartbreak healer, pinning my hopes for recovery on the kind of introspective climb mythologized in my shelves of dog-eared adventure books. I even bought my own inspiration-themed notebooks to log my inner-journey. But this path to metamorphosis faced one tiny and incessant road bump: a miniature Manchester United soccer ball.

We acquired the ball en route to the Rongai welcome gate when Paulo, our guide, dropped us at the local gas station for some last-minute snacks and fuel. I picked up  a fresh new pen, complete with a mountain emblem—I figured I had a lot of journaling in my future. Nate grabbed some Pringles and the ball. He, Frank, and the porters were already trying their hands at juggling by the time I walked out.

“Come on, Steph!” Frank said jovially. Before I had time to overanalyze or decline, the ball tumbled toward my feet.

Just this once, I promised myself, pocketing that new pen before joining in the juggling mayhem. “Just this once” became my refrain for the trip, with the thud, thud, thud of the ball as my soundtrack, as my journal languished deep in my pack in favor of another game of soccer.

Photo: Chris Bennett

“Shemejiiiii!” Paulo bellows outside my tent. The inaugural Kilimanjaro soccer tournament, brainchild of Paulo, Frank, and Nate, is underway. I peek out my tent window, glance at my neglected notebook, then gaze back at that tempting pitch again.

Screw it, I think, tossing my notebook back into oblivion. I lace my boots, hit the field, and finally release my must-experience-metamorphosis expectations.

Now, as I stand here ready to take my first penalty kick against Frank’s goalie, I know I made the right choice. Following months of depression after losing my dad, I need pure fun, to be present, rather than spending even more time ruminating. Belly-laughing over slide tackles and silly sideline cheers is proving a wondrous medicine for grief. I’ll likely only summit Mt. Kilimanjaro once in my life, but like everyone, I’ll experience more loss and grief. Who knew it was that little ball, not that big peak, that would be the key to my healing?

Sure, I’ll always remember our successful summit, those momentous steps toward Uhuru Peak as the rising sun warmed Kilimanjaro’s snow-dusted slopes. But Temba was right. It’s these small moments, like scoring a left-footed penalty-kick goal against your husband’s team, that really matter. Even better when they’re met with a porter/sportscaster’s far-echoing: “Goaaaaal!”

Photo: Chris Moore