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My summer in Tanzania and Kenya: an interview with Laura-Autumn Cox

Laura-Autumn Cox on her travels
Laura-Autumn Cox on her travels
Laura-Autumn Cox on her travels.

When I meet the former News Editor of The Yorker, Laura-Autumn Cox, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in the university library, it does not take long for the talk to turn to the summer that has just passed. Cox, who has recently landed a job as a journalist at an online technology magazine, certainly has a lot going on in her life, and yet it is her experience of this three weeks which seems to have really captured her imagination.

The plan to climb Mt Kilimanjaro had been conceived almost by accident, explains Cox, who had gotten an email from her friend, asking her if she would be interested in attempting the gruelling physical feat, in order to raise money for the charity Dig Deep, which works with rural Kenyan communities to help them access safe water and sanitation facilities. Several participants dropped out, but Cox remained undeterred through the weeks of fundraising, finding insurance and getting multiple immunisations. Already “a pretty active person”, she was undaunted by the physical nature of the challenge, and was excited to gain a broader understanding of the world by travelling outside of Europe for the first time to celebrate finishing university.

A friend who had previously climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, with the feat taking five to six days, or “Kili”, as Cox now terms it with fond familiarity, had told her that it was “easy”. Cox pauses dramatically. “It is not easy. No, no, no,” she insists. “There were points where I thought I might die.” On the climb, Cox battled freezing cold night temperatures, sleep deprivation and a debilitating illness “that had exactly the same symptoms as food poisoning, but wasn’t food poisoning.” Four members of the eighteen-strong team didn’t make it to the summit, “which was obviously a shame, but it’s silly to carry on if you’re not fully fit to do it, because the higher up you go the harder it gets.” Cox recalls a time when she didn’t think she was able to continue: “I remember the head guide looking really intently right into my eyes, which was how he decided if you were alright to carry on, and I said something really stupid and cliché like, “I can do it,” and somehow after that I was okay.” Summit night, which involved an 11pm wake-up call, and walking for 13 hours, was the most challenging of all, but standing at the top, reflecting on how much money she had raised for Dig Deep, was worth every minute of it.

And Cox’s experience in Africa was far from over following her successful dissent. She went on to spend two days on safari at Tarangire National Park with the group. The visit was “everything it should have been”, said Cox: “there were elephants, lions and gazelle.” Her most memorable, and chilling, experience came when she had to leave the tent to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. “We’d been told that if we left the tent after 10pm it was at our own risk. I opened the flap and looked up and down, and then out of the corner of my eye caught sight of a lion standing frighteningly close to me. I rushed back inside the tent, and waited there trembling for two whole hours until I had the courage to have another go. By then, the lion had gone.”

Cox also spent time using her skills to make a positive difference, even as a tourist staying for only a few weeks. Journalism was at the forefront of her mind: she volunteered with the newsletter of the educational charity the Xavier Project, which sponsors refugee children to attend school. Furthermore, she was invited into a staff meeting to offer her ideas on the charity’s vision for the future going forward. There, another member of the team, Kieran, wanted to emphasise the importance of the students’ mental health. Primarily, he suggested a service, loosely modelled on Nightline, which would offer peer-based and non-judgemental support for students struggling with a range of emotional and personal problems. “It was absolutely all his idea,” said Cox, although she was keen to get behind the initiative too. Though it will take a while for the idea to be implemented, Cox has maintained regular contact with the professionals there and is confident that the necessary improvements will eventually be made.

Is there not an aspect of tourism and volunteering in developing countries, often termed “voluntourism”, that is problematic, in terms of the power dynamics, economic and racial, surrounding it, I challenge Cox. She admits that this is a problem, but says that she “didn’t get that vibe at all” from her experiences. The charity that she worked for was primarily run by Africans, and the guides who cared for them all the way up and back down Mt Kilimanjaro were employed by an agency, Trek to Kili, which prides themselves on ensuring that they are guaranteed fair pay and worker’s rights.

In her further travels, Cox also countered the stereotype of the privileged western tourist, who is reluctant to really engage with the local lifestyle. After a difficult crossing of the border back into Kenya from Tanzania, she stayed for a week in one of the poorest districts of Nairobi, called Kibera, home to Africa’s largest slum, where she was confronted with the starkness of the divide between the world’s most and least advantaged. She never felt in any danger there, she said, and was shocked by the warmth of strangers’ reactions to her, despite a lot of them speaking no English, and her negligible Swahili. “It started to become home, even though we were there for such a short amount of time, because the people were so friendly,” mused Cox.

Asked about what was the most memorable part of the trip for her, Cox decisively cites the food. “I’m a massive foodie,” she says. “And everything was so cheap there: it was only 20p for the average meal. We only had western food once, when we had burgers one night.” A particular favourite was a dish called ugali: a mixture of water and maize that is eaten with the hands. She also appreciated the predominance of popcorn vendors, selling bags for the equivalent of just 8p. Even on the mountain, the guides managed to make a birthday cake for a member of their team.

Another highlight of the trip involved an encounter with the Maasai people, a fascinating tribe that are spread across Kenya and Tanzania, and strive to maintain their traditional semi-nomadic culture. “It was unfortunately quite commercialised,” explains Cox. “We arrived in their village and they lined us all up and did a very unique welcoming dance.” The tribe drink a traditional beverage, which constitutes milk mixed together with raw cattle blood. Cox said she was not offered the drink, but admits that she probably would have refused if so.

Back in York now, and already overwhelmed by the demands of her graduate job, Cox looks back on her summer as an experience which will continue to inspire her to explore the world around her. Does she have any regrets, or is there anything she would do differently if given the chance, I conclude by asking. “No, nothing at all,” she replies confidently.