I see the world in snapshots. Frozen moments in time. Besides having a photographic memory, I am also a documentary photographer, or a “storyographer” as I am more apt to refer to myself. On the inaugural One Million Thumbprints Climb For Peace up Kilimanjaro a year ago, my role was “chief image capturer.” My teammates left their cameras at home and trusted my eyes and my gear. I tried to stay open and ready to capture the stories that would unfurl before us.
Looking back over the entire twelve day experience, from the Congo to Kilimanjaro (which feels like two separate but equally challenging and amazing journeys), a couple of “snapshots” emerge as the most transformative moments for me.
When I think of our time in the Congo, all I see is Esperance’s smile. It radiates throughout my memory, almost blinding me to everything else. There were so many experiences, feelings, and observations packed into our three days in the Congo, but meeting the Esperance- the Congolese powerhouse of a woman who initiated this whole movement with her story and her thumbprint- was and is by far the highlight of my time in the Congo.
I remember it vividly. We walked into a dark, village church and were greeted by a chorus of voices singing and dancing to welcome us. We all sat in our places. I roamed the span of the room capturing faces, angles, light. I kept scanning the crowd looking for her face. And then she smiled. With the help of an interpreter, Belinda, One Million Thumbprints' founder, was speaking to the group. She singled out Esperance, a tiny fierce woman in her fifties, who got up and walked to Belinda to give her a huge hug. Seeing this sweet reunion, tears blurred my vision. The woman who told her story and the woman who then carried it to the rest of the world. Partners. Sisters. Freedom fighters.
After this time, we sat with the women, listening to and receiving their stories. They were so full of pain. And violence. The violence was astounding. I captured the storytelling, emotive frame by emotive frame: pain, hardness, sadness, fear, anger. And then joy, smiles, gentle laughter. Yes, joy in the healing and community they had found in each other. Conflict and courage. Pain and joy. Healing and hope. This is what we witnessed that day. Esperance’s story was no less violent than the others, and I saw the pain in her eyes as she recounted the details. But then, she smiled. I will never forget this smile. Here she was, healed and healing, offering this same hope and healing to others. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).
Remembering Kilimanjaro is a gift…. and also a chore. So much to remember, to recall, to feel. How do you boil down a once-in-a-lifetime multi-day trek into one or two “snapshots?” But, again, when I close my eyes and remember, I see a couple of images that bring me back to that mountain. Both from our brutal, painful, unending, unforgettable summit day.
I wouldn’t ever recommend starting an eight and a half hour, two thousand foot climb at midnight. Especially after an entire day of “walking across Mars” (called “The Saddle” in Kilimanjaro terms. Have you seen the movie The Martian? If so, that is what “The Saddle” looks like… and feels like) to get to basecamp. Brutal really is the only way to describe that dark, middle-of-the-night assent. And unless I can physically show you, I don’t know that you will ever understand how painfully slow we went, how excruciatingly tired we were, and how endless the trail felt. "Pole, pole" we were told, “Slowly, slowly” in Swahili. And so it was one slow step in front of the other, straight up the mountain.
And then, right behind my back, almost without me noticing, it happened. Sunrise. At this point, I was listening to an audiobook on my phone, just trying to stay awake and keep moving. I remember the moment I stopped and noticed how I could see more around me (and down! Yikes! And up! Ugh…..) and then I stopped, braced myself on the trail, and turned around. This was the only moment on the assent that I pulled out my “big camera” (a Canon 5D Mark II) to take a shot. I felt very unbalanced, a bit dizzy, and quickly took a photograph of the stunning and invigorating sunrise, capturing some teammates walking up behind me. After stuffing the camera back into my camera pack, I stood still and just soaked in the light and energy. It wasn’t quite what I expected…there was no instant boost in adrenaline and energy. I was still beyond exhausted and now that I could see how far we still had to go, I thought “Hmmmmm, maybe climbing in the dark isn’t such a bad idea after all!”
But slowly, the light and warmth did its magic on my heart, soul, and even my muscles. A gathering wave of anticipation and excitement rushed through me, and before I knew it, we had reached the first summit, Gilman’s Point.
At this point, you think you are going to be spent. Completely done. Ready to descend. And for some that was the case. For me and a few of my teammates, the adrenaline of reaching the first summit far outweighed any physical tiredness or pain. I knew I wanted to continue on to the furthest and highest point, Uhuru Peak at 19,341ft. Even with the adrenaline, though, we were slow moving. "Pole pole"…even at the top. It took another two hours to walk around the rim to reach the final summit.
This is the second snapshot memory I have of this day... I was walking right on the heels of our guide, trying to keep his "pole pole" pace, but hoping that my breathing down his neck would will him, and us, to move faster. The sign was in sight. He paused to look back to see if we were all close and moving along. He met my eyes, smiled, and said, “Go ahead! You can go!” Folks, at 19,341ft. I dropped my pack, and I ran to the sign. I ran. And when I got there, I was alone and didn’t have anyone to take my photo at the the sign. So I did what any modern girl would do…. I took a selfie at Uhuru Peak. And it is one of my favorite moments of all time. I can’t really put into words how it feels to get to the end, to finish, to be able to say, “I did it!” I am still working it out for myself. A myriad of emotions flooded my system in the moment and continue to even a year later.
It wasn’t until the next morning, as we thanked our guides, that I found out what the word “Uhuru” meant: freedom. And the tears blurred my vision yet again. Freedom. Wasn’t that what this whole trek is about? We intentionally ascended on International Women’s Day, using the freedom our privilege, platform, and place this world gave us, to advocate for the freedom of all women, all girls. Freedom from violence and oppression, from war and famine. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
That Uhuru moment made such an impact on me that I tattooed it to my wrist. FREEDOM. It is always worth the work, the effort, the pain, the training, the striving, the sacrifices, the running…always.
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Chelsea Hudson is a wedding, portrait, and humanitarian photographer and passionate abolitionist. Chelsea's journey into activism began about five years ago as her eyes, mind, and heart were opened to the atrocity of human trafficking, occurring both domestically and abroad. As a suburban American mother, she struggled to find her place in this critical fight for justice. Inspired by Sir Edmund Burke's quote, "No man makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he can do only a little," she started the Do A Little Good to curate and share creative, simple ways the everyday mother, woman, or person can engage with larger issues of justice.
As a mother of three young girls, she has a passion to see women around the globe free to love, care for, and empower their daughters without fear of violence or exploitation. Chelsea resides in suburban Maryland along with her husband, John, and their daughters Adelaide, Sydney and Nadia.