A way to scale the barrier of intolerance

C.P. Ho says the humbling experience of climbing mountains opens our eyes - and hearts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 3:19am

Mountains are great levellers. I don't know why so many of us feel the urge to climb them. It's hard work, and dangerous at times. But it seems to turn out better people, at least during the climb. Somehow, they become more sensible and sensitive to the feelings of others, as I found during a recent expedition to the top of Africa.

In fact, it is an experience I have had on different mountains in different continents. Once on the trail, climbers undergo a metamorphosis of the mind. The transformation is visible even as they come together from different parts of the world for a pre-climb briefing - in my case, at a hotel in Moshi, about 50km from the Kilimanjaro airport.

They know that, in the days to come, colour and creed do not matter. Nor does money or politics. Only strong legs and good lungs will get them to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895m, that stands near Tanzania's border with Kenya.

The show of comradeship has led me to think world leaders would stand a better chance of resolving international issues if they hiked up a mountain. The higher ground might clear the air and the misconceptions that seem to cloud summit meetings lower down.

Nobody seems to have left the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh feeling very happy following the recent East Asia Summit - least of all the Japanese and Filipinos. As nations, they felt US President Barack Obama was not helpful enough in voicing support for their territorial claims against China's.

Can mountain climbing help diplomacy? I hope that, as an individual, I was able to change the mindset of one white person from South Africa. He was in a party of six who passed me as I rested on Kilimanjaro.

I overheard him remarking to his friends: "The Chink is here already." I stopped him to say: "I heard you. That's a derogatory term." "Oh, I'm sorry," he said in obvious embarrassment. "What do I call you?" "Chinese," I replied. "Do you come from China?" "Yes," I said. "I come from Hong Kong and my parents came from Guangzhou which is across the border."

Still in an obvious state of embarrassment, my fellow climber turned to his friends and joked: "Never thought I would learn this on Kili."

And I never imagined my chief guide and his assistant - both Tanzanians - would be able to speak good English even though they spoke native Swahili to each other. One was a Muslim, the other a Christian and each appeared to share similar thoughts on the current ills of today's world. They said many issues came about because there was not enough tolerance for different viewpoints.

Perhaps from a high vantage point, all viewpoints seem more equal.

C.P. Ho is a newsman turned businessman