RETIRED Tanzania People's Defence Forces army officer, the late Alexander Nyirenda, erected both the Uhuru Torch and the Tanganyika flag on top of Mount Kilimanjaro on the eve of the country's Independence 51 years ago.
But the man who actually carried 'Mwenge' all the way to the top of Africa's highest peak happens to be another unsung hero, Mr Emmanuel-Petro Minja. Paschal Shelutete narrates.
"I sti ll have the marks where the heavy torch bruised my ribs as I struggled to climb with it over 5,000 metres onto the peak," said the now 81 years old Mr Minja.
In those days there were no proper roads leading up to the mountain, only some narrow, unkempt paths. It also rained heavily on the 9th of December, 1961 making the ground wet and slippery. The then President of Tanganyika, now Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere previously held meetings with all the guides at Kilimanjaro to single out the right candidate for the task. Other guides voted for one young man; 'Emmanuel Petro Minja.'
Born on the 28th July 1930, Minja only managed to school up to class six; "In those days children from poor families never made it to secondary level and in fact among the fruits of independence is that nowadays education can be attained by everybody whether rich or poor,' he said. Dropping out of school, Minja had to find a job and after months of loitering his uncle came to the rescue; "Mr John Lauwo, my mother's brother was an expert mountain guide.
Coincidentally, John (Yohani) Lauwo was also a legendary name in Mount Kilimanjaro's history. He made history when at the age of 16 guided Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller to the highest point of Africa on October, 1889. The two Germans were the first Europeans to climb Africa's highest peak.
Lauwo, a Marangu resident, was selected by the Mangi (Chagga chief) to be Hans Meyer's guide when the two foreigners landed in the Northern Tanzanian region of Kilimanjaro. Lauwo recruited his nephew Minja to be his assistant when the latter was looking for a job. "My uncle gave me a 5 kilogramme piece of luggage to take to the top of Kilimanjaro telling me if I made it to the top without problem, he would hire me as his assistant," he said.
Minja passed the test and since then he has served as porter on Kilimanjaro. "John operated from Kibo Hotel which used to be the official base but as more porters continue to be recruited and all opting to operate from Kibo I decided to change base and started working from Marangu Hotel," said Minja.
And in 1961 Tanganyika got its independence from the British. The new government under Mwalimu Nyerere intended to erect both the new nation's colors and the Uhuru torch on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro to mark the occasion. The president himself led the delegation to Moshi.
"I was chosen to carry the torch onto the Mountain Summit with clear instructions from Nyerere himself," said Minja. What very few people know is that, taking the torch to the top of Africa's highest peak was also meant to test Tanganyika's independence. According to Minja, President Nyerere had stated; "Carry this torch up there, if you slip and fall and the torch gets broken, then it will mean our independence is either immature or dubious!"
Minja then realized the great responsibility placed on his shoulders. "I spent the night praying to God that other than let the torch get broken then at least my legs should break in case of a fall," he recalls. The ascent was wet, muddy and slippery and the torch kept getting heavier and dicey in the falling rain and Minja recalls struggling holding it in place as he balanced his way to the summit.
And in the night of Saturday, December 9, 1961 the torch arrived safely on top of Kilimanjaro. "We had a walkie-talkie which started to count down minutes to midnight and a voice from the machine told us; "Celebrate now it is midnight and the country is free!" Cheers followed as Lieutenant Nyirenda hoisted both the torch and national flag on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro signalling a new dawn in a new country. Things have come to pass since that historical night.
Minja remembers that before independence Tanganyika was a country of vulgar, uncivilized people who were harsh to each other and horrible to strangers. "People used to fight and kill each other for trivial reasons, insults were the order of the day and arrogance filled the atmosphere," he said." Nowadays, people are civilized, they respect each other, no cases of violence and Tanzania is very peaceful."
Also unlike the past days of segregation that hindered him from pursuing further studies, nowadays even poor people can access not only secondary level but the highest institutions of learning. Things have also changed on the mountain itself, trekking routes have been well paved, the porters' quarters modernized with gas stoves, good beds and proper toilet facilities.
"In the past we used to sleep on the grass and cooked using firewood," said Minja. He lauded the Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) for improving services for both the climbers, guides and porters.