Naigzy Gebremedhin (Ph.D.) is known in Eritrea as a former Director of the FAO, a former Dean of the Building College in Addis Ababa, the author of the first environmental protection plan for Eritrea, and the architect and the Director of the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Program (CARP) in Asmara.
CARP was the precursor to the current Eritrea World Heritage Committee, which succeeded in registering Asmara as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These are credentials that anyone would be justified to boast about for a lifetime. But Naigzy has always had more to offer, although, in his humble nature, one has to nudge and push him to talk about them. In my association with him at CARP, I used to notice how he would clench his fists whenever he tensed up for some reason. I asked him why. “I was a boxer at Wingate School,” he told me, “It’s probably a habit from those days.” He went on to show me a few punching tricks.
In the early 2000’s, when he was around seventy years old, I remember him telling me that he had just come back from a visit to the monastery at Debre Bizen. “By helicopter?” I asked him. “On foot,” he replied, “I am climbing back again within the week. Do you want to come along?” I declined. He called me the day after his second visit to Bizen and we celebrated the feat with a couple of beers at Sunshine Hotel.
My real surprise came in 2009 or 2010 when I received a message that he had distributed to friends informing us that he had celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday on top of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
More surprising to me was that it was not his first climb up that formidable elevation. He had done it at 25 when Kenya was still a British colony in 1959; and again at 50, every quarter century.
On his plans for a third attempt, an amused admirer had told him that conquering Kilimanjaro twice in a lifetime was heroic, going for a third was madness. He was “mad” enough to try it and succeed. “I suspect that you may do it once more for your 80th,” I wrote to him, little doubting that, by that age, anything of that sort would be beyond his abilities. I was in for another surprise.
A few weeks ago, on August 6, I met him in Nairobi looking not a day older than when I had seen him last, some thirteen years before. He handed me an envelope with a folded paper inside, which I pocketed for later reading. He too did not volunteer to tell me what its contents were. We spent almost three hours together talking, reminiscing, driving around and shopping.
The following day, while waiting for my flight back home at Nairobi Airport, I remembered the envelope and opened its content. It was a clipping from the Kenyan newspaper, The Nation, announcing that, at 84, Naigzy Gebremedhin was climbing Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa.
He was honoring the memory of his friend, the prominent Kenyan politician and fellow mountain climber, Kenneth Matiba, who passed away last year.
At 82, Naigzy had set the age record two years ago, when he prayed at Lenana Peak for the health of his ailing friend. This time, he was going back to honour his memory by praying at the same spot. Matiba had done it 18 times over the years; Naigzy was going for his 13th.
I literally gasped with amazement and apprehension. While admiring his tenacity and grit, I could not help wondering if he was not testing his stamina a bit too much. But then, I thought, he would not take the risk if he did not believe in himself. I had met him on Monday, he was to make the trek the following Friday… and he had not uttered a word about it throughout our meeting. I felt confident that his humbleness and faith would see him through his latest exploit.
Still, it was no simple matter, considering his age. Lenana Peak stands at 4,985 meters above sea level. Eritrea’s highest mountain, EmbaSoira, is almost 2,000 meters lower at 3,018 meters. Naigzy and his fellow climbers had to trek for 27 hours through what The Nation called, “treacherous terrain and biting cold” with pauses for rest, to reach Lenana Peak from the base. Once there, he led the prayers for his deceased friend.
“It was tough,” he told The Nation at the peak, “Tougher than the last time obviously because I am older. I am happy that I completed this mission honouring my friend and a patriot in this country.”
When asked to express his feelings about breaking his previous record of being the oldest man to climb Mount Kenya, he answered with characteristic humility, “To be honest, records do not really matter to me. But if I did break the record, then I will gladly accept it.”
To crown his achievement and to honour his homeland, he planted the Eritrean flag on top of the Lenana Peak of Mount Kenya.
Our indomitable compatriot has set a standard for all of us, young and old, to emulate and surpass, if we can. I know Naigzy well enough to believe that he would love to see someone older than himself break the new record that he has set. But one never knows with people like Naigzy. That possibility may provoke him to go for it once again at 90, or even Kilimanjaro, at 100!
As we thank him for his inspiration, the Eritrean flag keeps fluttering on Mount Kenya.