Ain’t no mountain high enough for Masingita

Masingita Masunga sat down with New Frame to talk about summiting Africa’s tallest mountain, her activism and living with cerebral palsy.

Mount Kilimanjaro, which stands at a grand 5 895m above sea level, is an imposing challenge for even the most accomplished climbers. Located in the northern part of Tanzania within the Kilimanjaro National Park, acute mountain sickness, hypothermia, sun-related injuries and blisters are just some of the extreme hardships climbers face.

But when a 40-year-old woman with cerebral palsy pushed her body to the limit to summit Africa’s highest mountain, she just wanted to “take a picture and leave” because she was so exhausted.

Determination for a cause

Masingita Masunga climbed Kilimanjaro in June, and even though she had climbed mountains around South Africa as part of her training, she says nothing could have prepared her for Kilimanjaro’s intensity. “I nearly gave up, especially at the last 100m. When I got to the spot where you are left with 100m, I was really exhausted and my energy was depleted,” she explains.

She describes the scenery along the way as beautiful, albeit cold. Although most climbers opt for packing walking sticks and other climbing gear, Masunga says she didn’t need them for her trek along the Marangu route, which offers hut accommodation. Food was also provided, and a team was available to assist the hikers. It took her four days to climb up the mountain then two days to descend it.

Masunga says her mental fitness was what helped her push on and complete the journey. 

The 40-year-old climbed Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for #40440, a campaign she has co-created. “It is 40 initiatives for my 40th year. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Robert Sobukwe. So, the 40440 also celebrates his legacy because he fought for the African child.”

Realising potential

Growing up with cerebral palsy in Giyani, Limpopo, and not being diagnosed from an early age, Masunga attended a mainstream primary school, which resulted in her having to repeat many grades. “So I went from class to class and I would compete with the other kids. I lived being that kind of a child who had to adapt to this ordinary schooling. I didn’t know I had a disability. I knew there were things I couldn’t do, but I had no name for it,” she says.
“I wasn’t allowed to participate in some of the extramural activities because of my disability. Because of that, my parents decided that I should go to a special high school.” 

July 17: Masingita Masung, who was born with cerebral palsy has returned to South Africa after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Picture Madelene Cronjé

Masunga, who is now a media professional, went to Filadelfia Secondary School for the disabled in Soshanguve, outside Pretoria. She says it was through the school that she realised that she was disabled and was able to then truly begin to explore her potential.  “That’s when I realised that I had a disability because it was a school for children with disabilities. I only knew I had a disability at the age of 12.”
Being far away from her parents, Masunga learnt to do things on her own without the aid of her parents and two younger brothers. “It taught me to be more independent; to make my own decisions about my life.”
Because cerebral palsy affects body movement and muscle coordination, Masunga was given a typewriter in high school to use for her school work. Since then, she has always pushed boundaries and has never allowed her disability to impede her progress. “I made a decision that I wanted to drive. When I told one of the doctors, he was horrified. He said: ‘You can’t drive, you have a coordination disability.’ [I said] I don’t understand what you mean I can’t drive. So I started the process of trying to get a driver’s licence,” she says.
The process of acquiring the licence was not easy. At one point Masunga was told that she was sick, making it impractical for her to drive. “That’s one of the stereotypes about disability; that it is a sickness. I am one of the healthiest people you’ll ever meet,” she says with a smile. 
“I just pushed on, even when I was discouraged. It was difficult talking to people who were refusing to reason to even lend me their cars.” She eventually got her driver’s licence after four tests.

On the move

2018 is a big year for Masunga, who is currently co-producing an album for a 15-year-old disabled girl and organising a campaign called Walk in My Shoes. 

“We launched Walk in My Shoes in October last year. It is actually a social-cohesion campaign to realise that even though we might seem different, we understand where we are coming from, ‘walk in my shoes’. On the other hand, when you give me a pair of shoes, you may be in a different, difficult situation but here are my shoes to help get you to a better position,” she explains.
As part of the campaign, in December, Masunga and her colleagues will be leaving for a Cape-to-Cairo voyage to raise awareness. “We are driving. We say,’ African child, you can go anywhere.”

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